“The Jesus Story Cannot Possibly Have Been Fabricated”

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier presents a “mock analogy” to illustrate the absurdity of so much of the reasoning that lies at the heart of the bulk of serious historical Jesus scholarship today. In fact the analogy is similar to ones Tim and I have independently made here. (One scholar who took himself far too seriously was so offended that he even accused me of extreme disrespect for drawing the analogy. I was reminded of the embarrassed crowds shushing and scolding the boy who dared yell out “The king is not wearing any clothes!”)

Here is Carrier’s version (with my formatting and bolding):

Imagine in your golden years you are accused of murdering a child many decades ago and put on trial for it. The prosecution claims you murdered a little girl in the middle of a public wedding in front of thousands of guests. But as evidence all they present is a religious tract written by ‘John’ which lays out a narrative in which the wedding guests watch you kill her.

Who is this John?

The prosecution confesses they don’t know.

When did he write this narrative? 

Again, unknown. Probably thirty or forty years after the crime, maybe even sixty.

Who told John this story?

Again, no one knows. He doesn’t say.

So why should this even be admissible as evidence?

Because the narrative is filled with accurate historical details and reads like an eyewitness account.

Is it an eyewitness account?

Well, no, John is repeating a story told to him.

Told to him by an eyewitness?

Well . . . we really have no way of knowing how many people the story passed through before it came to John and he wrote it down. Although he does claim an eye witness told him some of the details.

Who is that witness?

He doesn’t say.

I see. So how can we even believe the story is in any way true if it comes from unknown sources through an unknown number of intermediaries?

Because there is no way the eyewitnesses to the crime, all those people at the wedding, would have allowed John to lie or make anything up, even after thirty to sixty years, so there is no way the account can be fabricated.

(On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 251)

It does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation

Below is a comparable absurdity set out by Tim back in 2011. For me his punch line is “Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation.”

The reason I sometimes I find myself saying I am not a mythicist is probably because of the message here. I see nothing in any of the evidence that gives me any reason to think there is a case to reject. It’s a non-question. My interest is in understanding more extensively the evidence we do have and the very worthwhile scholarly research into that evidence at hand. That leads me to focus on the literary and theological character and contexts of the texts themselves rather than on attempting to discern events or persons that might or might not lie behind the narratives. If the narratives can be explained cogently at a literary level and within the context of ideas extant at the time we see our first evidence of the narrative, then what need is there to add further hypotheses to find alternative speculative explanations for the sake of arriving at more traditional and culturally sanctioned beliefs?

I would have thought this to be a most respectable position to take. It allows atheists and agnostics in the guild to focus on serious aspects of valid historical inquiry without any need to be pressured by their more religiously biased colleagues. It should also be respected by the religiously minded scholar who is dedicated to acknowledging and guarding against his or her own faith bias.

Tim’s analogy:

I’d like to examine this paragraph from the McG’s Matrix:

But third and most disturbing – and reminiscent, I might add, of the similar problem with various forms of creationism – is that all the “criticism” offered is akin to what we get from those who complain that the judicial system is fundamentally flawed, because it at times allows the innocent to go to prison or a criminal to go free, but without offering any suggestion on how the system we have can be improved upon, and what better criteria of evidence would allow juries to convict fewer innocent parties and acquit fewer guilty ones.

Here we have real insight into the mindset of apologists and many mainstream scholars who cling to the canon and are convinced it contains truth — either total truth for the apologists or “some” truth for the scholars. The problem lies not so much with the methodology as with the evidence itself.

Suppose McG. visits the police station to report a murder. As evidence he produces a few letters with cryptic references and four anonymous diaries that appear to have been written decades after the fact. Everyone mentioned in the letters and diaries is dead, so there’s no one to question. In fact, there are no public records of anyone involved. There’s no corpse. Most of the landmarks described in the diaries have been razed.

If the detective on the case threw his hands up in resignation, I would be the last person to complain that a guilty person was walking the streets. In fact, I’d rather live in a society that sometimes accidentally lets killers loose than one that frequently executes innocent people in the name of justice.

“I need witnesses. I need evidence. A body would really help your case, too,” says the detective.

“But I do have evidence!” McG. spreads the pages over the detectives desk and points. “These are my witnesses.”

But it doesn’t work like that, does it? Just because we don’t have living witnesses or signed affidavits doesn’t mean we can promote an anonymous diary to the status of witness. Even to entertain the idea of multiple attestation is rather charitable, given the fact that the provenance of the source documents is in question and the fact that the “witnesses” can’t seem to get their stories straight.

Now to take this tortured analogy to its obvious conclusion, suppose the detective says as he tries to usher the good doctor out of his office, in the gentlest way possible, “I’m sorry — there’s nothing I can do. Try not to get too worked up over it. You know, it’s possible that the people in those old anonymous diaries never existed in the first place. Heck, they might just be forgeries.”

McG. stops in his tracks and swears that he’s sorted through the “evidence” and through the use of very clever criteriology has come up with a list of sayings and deeds that are probably true. “Unless you can come up with better methodology, how dare you criticize my belief that somebody really lived and really was murdered?”

But it isn’t the job of the detective to prove that the murder didn’t happen. It isn’t the job of the criminal justice system (at least in my country) to prove innocence. Defendants plead guilty or not guilty, because it’s the prosecution’s job to prove guilt — to prove something happened.

The Historical Jesus Hypothesis makes positive claims that require evidence and logic to support them. If the evidence at hand does not support the hypothesis, it is not my fault. It is not my job to invent new criteria. That doesn’t make me a Creationist. It doesn’t put me on the same level as a Holocaust-denier. (Oh, how easy it is for them to resort to slander.) It does not mean that I’m trying to get back at Christianity.

Finally, lest anyone disunderstand my parable, let me state clearly that I do not expect HJ proponents to establish their case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation to establish probable cause. I reject the HJ hypothesis for the same reasons.

Biblical historians make detectives look silly

Then there was my post from a year earlier that so offended Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher: Biblical historians make detectives look silly

Biblical historians who “research” the historical Jesus and the foundations of Christianity in the Gospels have sometimes compared their “historical research” work with that of detectives or criminal investigators. Crime investigators are often targets of spoof, but this is going too far.

All detectives start with some known facts that are indisputable. A cadaver with a knife in its back, a diary of a missing heiress, invoices and tax records. They then seek to uncover more evidence from these established facts. Interviews are recorded and attempts are made to independently corroborate them, etc.

But if detectives work like historical Jesus scholars they would not work like this at all. They would read a few popular anonymous publications about a long-ago murder at a nearby uninhabited hill that locals believed to be haunted. They would dismiss most of the anecdotes about hauntings, but they would study the publications to try to determine who the murder victim was and what was the motive for his murder.

And this is how it would all pan out:

Identifying the victim

One detective who had a soft spot for offering charity to the down and out concluded that the murdered victim was a tramp, another who had run for local elections concluded that the victim was respectable member of the local town council.

Discovering the habits of the victim

Some would decide that he spoke in riddles and was regarded as an eccentric, others that he was a highly respected local advocate. Many would say he went to the hill often, every weekend. Others would say he only went there once, and that was when he met his fate.

Establishing motive for the murder

As for the motive for his murder, and the identity of the culprit, this also led to a wide smorgasbord of opinion. Arguments that he was the victim of mistaken identity, or the victim of a jealous lover, were both on the table, and members of the public took sides as to which one they preferred.

Finding the culprit

Most seem to accept the face-value claim in the anonymous publications that the unfortunate victim was done in by a corrupt police officer. Some added that the local priest was also somehow implicated, and a few even laid blame on a lynch mob.

Putting it all together

All of these views — all “researched” from the contents of the anonymous publications against what the detectives knew of the local township — were taken on board and debated by different townspeople.

A few sceptics even doubted there ever was a murder at all. They believed other more coherent and evidential reasons could account for the anonymous narratives.

At the end of the day

One day, some of the detectives said they could never really find out who the murdered victim really was.

Others were less pessimistic and said that they probably had discovered the real victim, and even motive for his murder. It was just that they had no way of deciding which of their many “researched” findings was the correct one.

I like a good joke against the police as much as anyone. But this is just being ridiculous.

When I saw the offence my little joke had caused I attempted a follow-up to mollify some of the hurt:

Detectives make biblical historians look like Sherlock Holmes

I later attempted a more serious explanation of the issues in Is history a trial?

It never occurred to me that anyone who read such analogies could fail to grasp the absurdity of the point and the comparison with the way some biblical scholars — and all apologists — really do work. Carrier is more astute than I ever was and found it necessary to add the following:

If that isn’t obviously an absurd argument to you, then you didn’t understand what has just been said and you need to read that paragraph again  until you do. Because seen in this more neutral context, that last argument is monumentally absurd. As any judge or lawyer in this country will tell you, the evidential value of ‘John’s’ account is exactly nil, and the value of the ‘eyewitness check’ defense of his account’s reliability is less than nil. So why would we suddenly do a complete reversal on this point as soon as it’s a story about Jesus? There is really no sane answer to that question.

I think it was because I could not really believe that anyone could fail to see the absurdity of such a method that I attempted to drive home the point at that time by shouting a little louder with a title like Kafka’s biblical historians outdo Alice in Wonderland’s trial.

A “Reader” commended Historical Method and the Question of Christian Origins for its positive expression of what I consider a more appropriate approach to historical inquiry. Maybe I should take his/her advice and place a link that in the sidebar. I’d like further to prepare an annotated list of all Vridar posts on historical methods sooner rather than later. But it won’t be before this Christmas.



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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on ““The Jesus Story Cannot Possibly Have Been Fabricated””

  1. I wonder how many non-Mormon Biblical scholarly comparisons there are regarding similarities between the origins of Mormonism and Christianity. Joseph Smith could truly make up some fantastic stories. And these stories, far more fantastic than anything told by the author of GJohn about Jesus, were actually believed by many God-fearing American Christians. This speaks volumes regarding peoples’ credulity.
    Tim Widowfield mentioned a “surprising number of Mormon-related hits” when searching for “appearance of reality” a while ago:

  2. It would be interesting to apply the same methods that historicists do to the Book of Mormon. Would the criteria of embarrassment reveal actual historic events.

  3. Let’s be fair: many (most? all?) Minimalists aren’t as rigorous in their analysis as Carrier demands. Even Thomas L. Thompson believes he can tease something out of unauthenticated, spoliated multiple-hearsay “evidence” than any judge would prohibit counsel from using at trial. Even non-biblical historians don’t apply courtroom rigor to the “evidence” they use.

  4. I have posted about “lazy historians” several times before using as my starting position Liverani’s application of that term to the first generation of historians of the Hittites. I have also discussed the two different approaches to evidence of massacres of Australian aboriginals. But as far as I have been able to ascertain no “non-biblical historian” relies upon unprovenanced documents of debatable genre the way HJ historians do with the gospels. As far as I am aware HJ and Christian origins scholars are unique with respect to how they use their source material.

    Historical enquiry is not really a court-room trial but I originally used that analogy because several biblical historians do indeed draw that analogy with their own work. They do indeed try to inform readers that what they do as historians is comparable to court trials or detective work. The point was to show how UNlike judges or detectives they really were.

    1. I work in a courtroom every day. The methodology used by biblical historians is nothing close to what is used and acceptable in a courtroom, but like Neil, I have been told numerous times that the methods used by biblical historians are the same, which is almost completely false in every aspect. The “Jesus Crucifixion Trial” wouldn’t even make it past the DA’s front doors.

      This, of course, is excluding the association of miracles that are a huge part of the story/historical claim and that they are religiously motivated stories/claims, which is why there are tens of thousands of copies as opposed to copies of secular documents/biographies that would not need to be mass distributed. ALL we have are speculations, assumptions, and hearsay and none of those are allowed in a courtroom.

      What else do we have? Our OLDEST copies of these manuscripts PHYSICALLY date to around 200 CE (other than a tiny sliver dated to 125 CEish) as do our OLDEST copies of people mentioning them. I don’t think these analogies are that far off at all. I actually think they are being generous.

      I can hear the pitch now:

      “your honor, I don’t have an actual witness to anything, but I do have documents from 100-200 years later saying they saw and heard things. And biblical historians believe they were PROBABLY written 30-40 years after the claimed events based largely on IMAGINARY/POSSIBLE oral tradition and IMAGINARY/UNDOCUMENTED/UNKNOWN texts.

      Judges response: huh?

      We’re not sure who wrote them, but they claim that a man performed numerous miracles in front of thousands of individuals, was killed by the Roman government, and was known by and influenced by kings and politicians.

      Judges response: Do you have a sworn signed statement by the king or politicians he dealt with or a secular legal document about the trial?

      Well, No but we don,t have many of these types of documents because they were lost.

      Judge: how about records of numerous dead people resurrecting and walking into the city or his resurrection, the earthquake that supposedly occurred at that time, …

      Well, we don’t think those parts are historical, just that he was crucified because the religious followers have brought forth copies of historian works implying that some of it is supported.

      Judge: Are there corroborrating witnesses that these historians wrote these things at that time?

      Well, no. Nobody mentions them until Christians presented us with them 200-300 years later.

      Judge:What grounds do we have for selectively pulling out parts of these unknown authors testimony?

      Well, because those parts (most of it) reads like a fairy tale similar to many stories and novels from that time.

      Judge: Do we have any evidence of the existence of the supposed witnesses in the stories such as Paul, Matthew, Luke, John, Mark, Timothy, … outside of religious writings in the first century?

      Well, No. But we do have evidence of King Herod, Agrippa, and Pilate, but none of them mention any of them, even though the stories claim these individuals were highly effected by them…

      ugh, painful.

  5. Although I agree with the arguments, the presence of the tantric-mystic Q1 and certain non-passion parts in Mark which confirm this a-typical ‘sitz im leben’ can hardly be explained without a historical basis to the Jesus person.

    The many writers and redactors who created christianity obviously did not have the knowledge nor the wish to make up a tantric-mystic Jesus since such a Jesus contradicts the image of their mythological Jesus.
    They tried their best to nickel-and-dime twist the texts in Q1 towards their own religious outlook and took the sting out of the tantric-mystic Jesus in the non-passion portion of Mark when they created Luke and Matthew.

    But this tantric-mystic Jesus can still be retrieved from the texts if you have an eye for it.
    Had it been absent, I would have had to agree that christianity was made up from scratch without even a historical Jesus.

  6. Neil,

    You spend way too much time on McGrath. Were it not for you I’d have never known he existed, and I would care about him exactly as much as I do now. There are a few thousand like him, just he succeeded in getting under your skin, such that you waste time with him. Well maybe not waste time, so much as refine your debate skills.

    The one paragraph I do like, and would not mind stealing, was the one where you explain why you are not a Mythicist. The sentiment is nearly identical to mine. I find no compelling evidence any of the NT was published before Antoninus (I do concede a portion of Revelation to be first century, but nothing else, and it was written over a few times to be what we have now). Hence I regard the Bar Kokhba revolt as the line before which we have no information – and what little there is either suspected or known forgeries and interpolations.

    The sad part is the 2nd century was a rich era of evidence and information about the rise of Christianity and its communities and their rivalries. There is a hardly a verse in the NT that cannot be explained in that context. That is what is interesting, and that is what is worth studying and learning from.

    1. I’m surprised that anyone would interpret this post as a personal response to McGrath if that’s what you are doing. But as for McGrath generally, it should be noted that he runs a very popular and publicly influential blog and is acknowledged by both lay readers and scholarly peers alike as an authoritative voice against mythicism. He was invited to speak against mythicism at a recent scholarly conference not very long ago and was invited or at least accepted for publication on the influential Bible and Interpretation website with his reviews of Carrier’s book. He also epitomizes the worst aspects of biblical scholarship that are found more generally in its literature — simple errors of fact, quote-mining, narrow-vision and ignorance of related areas that should significantly affect the outcome of one’s arguments, logically fallacious arguments, misreading of opposing views, unquestioned assumptions. All of these faults have been addressed in so much scholarly work along with many good outputs — see my recent posts on Hurtado and Fletcher-Louis for respective examples.

      McGrath has a large following whom I find to be remarkably resistant to critically analysing much of what he says about mythicism.

      So I don’t think it is out of place for someone to post responses to his arguments if they are found to be without foundation for any of the above reasons — and especially if they are also encouraging others to respond ignorantly with ridicule and insult towards those who think differently.

      As for “under my skin”, I suspect it’s the other way around though I cannot read McGrath’s mind given my many efforts over the years to establish a civil and respectful conversation between us, to attempt fresh starts, to restore professional dialogue and cordial relations as we used to have when we first met. I would love that.

      It is easy to let nonsense be and think it will just go away but that is not the way the world works in real life. I laughed at Casey’s nonsense about me that he published in his final book but have since seen his work cited in a scholarly publication as a valuable authoritative and serious research into mythicism and even on the persons of mythicists themselves!

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