For anyone who was too lazy or too busy or too technically challenged to listen to the discussion between David Fitzgerald and Daniel Gullotta on the historicity of Jesus here are my notes.
Of course things said on the fly are not always what we would exactly say in more considered writing so I welcome any corrections from both speakers. And we can always think of what we “should have said” in hindsight. (In a couple of places I have changed the original where an obvious slip of the tongue was made and in others added an amendment in square brackets without colour coding]. Daniel G has <a href=”https://web.archive.org/web/20150828004357/http://danielngullotta.com/2015/08/24/a-discussion-on-the-historicity-of-jesus-with-david-fitzgerald/”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>posted some corrections or clarifications on his blog.)
DF = David Fitzgerald [in bluish text]
DG = Daniel Gullotta [in reddish text]
HJ = Historical Jesus
JM = Jesus Myth or Jesus Myth theory
NT = New Testament
TF = Testimonium Flavianum
1:24 = approx time on audio file in minutes and seconds
Bold — the questions asked by the interviewer.
This is not really a transcription. Most of it is my own paraphrasing and precis. Only sections in quotation marks are actual “transcription”.
What led to your interest in the historicity of Jesus?
2:30 DF: Never considered possibility of no historical Jesus until took an interest to know what he really said and did. Then red flags arose and discovered other people were also having same questions. Two years later realized he did not exist at all. Then wrote Nailed.
3:30 DG: Doing Undergrad degree in Theology specializing in Biblical Studies. Began with interest in how Jesus fitted in with his time historically, became bored with that so turned to Paul. In his undergraduate years the Zeitgeist documentary was making the rounds. That was his first intro. Then “3 Christmases ago” his younger brother re-introduced him to the to HJ notion — “If he existed!”
In same year Bart Ehrman released Did Jesus Exist? and Carrier was about to come out with his book, released a few months later.
With scholar Roland Boer at University of Newcastle (Australia) DG was more interested in studying the question of the reception of the JM.
6:30 Who has burden of proof?
DG — Burden of proof is on the one making the claim. Having said that, Paul’s letters, the Gospels, the writings of the later church and the sheer explanatory power are very weighty, so to argue against HJ is to go into an entirely different paradigm and for that one needs good evidence and the JM theory doesn’t have it.
DF – Agrees regarding burden of proof. It’s not really about HJ but about how Christianity started. It’s to make the best sense of the evidence we have.
9:00 Without HJ how could Christianity begin?
DF: Either he did these amazing miracles and taught these amazing things and no-one outside his cult noticed for better part of a century or more; or he didn’t do/teach those things and then the moment he’s dead we have all these feuding little house-cults scattered not just in Jerusalem and Judea but all over the Roman Empire. – Syria, Greece, Egypt, Rome. — and none of these seem to be able to agree on who Jesus was, who he was with, what he taught, what he was, — that for me was one of the first red flags.
10:00 Another red flag is that we have all these other messiah figures in NT and Paul’s letters, preaching other gospels and Jesuses — and it seems the further back we go into Christian origins the more variety we find — Bart Ehrman does a good job of showing some of the varieties of which we have evidence from 3rd and 4th centuries but further we go back we also see that same trend– and we have less biographical information on Jesus. The info we get on Jesus in that very first generation of Christianity is very different from the info we get on Jesus after the gospels are written.
10:50 DG: I think it’s important to establish what HJ scholars do …and something I find quite frustrating when talking to lay people or mythicists in this discussion is that they seem to equate the HJ with the Christ of faith — a lot of people conflate the two. But having said that it’s also important to realize the HJ is itself a reconstruction. Michel Foucault (“Archaeology of Knowledge”) uses the metaphor of digging through layers of interpretation. You will find dinosaur bones when doing archaeology but not a dinosaur. They are still interpretations. All history is interpreted. I just want to make that clear.
13:00 DF agrees. We cannot conflate HJ with the Christ of Faith. In fact will be referencing secular historians because “it can be argued that secular historians are the only ones doing the real work and everybody else is too busy circling the wagons and defending dogma — in my humble opinion. Your mileage may vary.”
13:30 DG: I’ll comment there. “When I look at my bookshelf I see a lot of names and I honestly don’t know what a lot of these scholars believe theologically, or theosophically [presumably meant “philosophically”]. What I care about is good history. And some of them [I don’t know] what they believe. I’m also friends with them on social media, so I get a sense of what these scholars do on a Sunday or don’t do rather. But I think if we’re fair to scholarship that does come from Christian faith it’s important to understand that there are Christians that are on the more liberal branch. I think it’s important not to conflate all scholarship from people who happen to be Christians with evangelical conservative and even fundamentalist scholarship. I think it is important to make that comment. Because there are plenty of scholars who do go to church on Sunday whose work I absolutely adore.“
14:40 DF: “Not to argue with that at all. That was a bit of a provocative statement I’ll grant you that. If you look at my bookshelf you can see there’s Bruce Metzger, there’s any number of Christians, any number of atheists, … agnostics there. But what my point was, I actually want to talk about the secular historians because a lot of atheists give you push back on that: “Oh no, that’s just the fundamentalist Jesus; oh no, that’s just the Christian Jesus, and what I want to point out is that I also have a problem the varieties of reconstructed Jesuses that we get from secular historians. None of them are improbable, none of them are unbelievable, they all have good analogies for what they are, and they all sound perfectly possible until you read the next one. And as Robert Price says, there’s so many of them out there.” — he could not have been all of them at once, so it becomes a matter of “Who’s the real Jesus?”
And again a point that Robert Price makes — to all intents and purposes there isn’t a HJ any more because all our sources about Jesus are not connected to anyone who actually lived from 1st century.
So many ‘facts’ scholars have come up with about Jesus are just a function of the context he was in and not relating to an actual person.
16:25 DG: There have been a lot of important directions in the quest for the HJ. — In the last 2 decades — especially the last decade. “Less and less scholars talking about the real Jesus’ because all we can get back to is the remembered Jesus or the interpreted Jesus. We can’t get to the videotape — only get to the memory (not to say Jesus didn’t exist) or earliest tradition or as far as the tradition will take us back.
The other important thing is the relationship between the HJ and early Christianity is starting to be understood in new ways as well.
And DF says that every HJ is plausible until the next book — but DG says “I find that hard to believe” “because in scholarship typically that’s not the case because predominantly you will get America, United Kingdom, France and Germany that the reconstruction of Jesus that has stood out across the last two decades is Jesus understood as an apocalyptic figure.”
That is the direction where “scholarship overwhelmingly” in the last years has headed. Other reconstructions — magician, proto-communist, are very popular, very marginal, you don’t see them at SBL, or in university published presses. The question is “What sort of apocalyptic figure”.
And “the more we research the context he was in the more we can attempt to reconstruct Jesus. And that’s not trying to find facts about Jesus. That’s trying to reconstruct him to the best of our scholarly ability.”
DF: I’m not saying all secular Jesuses are created equal and I agree that the apocalyptic Jesus is one of the better ones. But here’s my problem with it and with every other secular reconstruction of Jesus regardless of whether it is backed up by a growing consensus or not, is “What’s our source for that?” Every Jesus is against that same roadblock — how trustworthy are our sources for ANY reconstruction of Jesus…. Because Paul’s Jesus does not sound like an apocalyptic prophet. And you could say the first generation had more than one Jesus to kick around.
That gets us into sources
20:40 Was Jesus Noticed by any of his contemporaries?
DG: “It’s difficult to explain that because technically no, but then nobody in the ancient world was. If you’re asking was somebody while Jesus was alive writing down things as they [were happening], then no. But having said that, when you look at somebody like Josephus for example, Josephus was writing about the Jewish war in the year 90 but they took place in the mid 60s and then in the year 70. So even though [Josephus] is a contemporary witness to those events it’s not like he was writing them down as they happened. So i just wanted to clarify that.”
“But that’s not really surprising that we don’t have that many sources for Jesus. I think it’s really important to note how many people in the first century could read let alone write. “
And materials needed to write were expensive. These skills and materials were reserved typically for upper crust of society.
So when we go to rural Palestine, a backwater in the Roman Empire in the far east [presumably meant Near East] — and mostly agricultural peasants in satellite villages across the countryside except for cities like Sepphoris, and Jerusalem and Caesarea Maritima — it’s not a big stretch not to expect sources.
And what we know of revolutionary times and economic hardship as was Palestine at that time — literary skills go down even further. So this is why I stress that we need to look at the culture in which Jesus’ contemporaries could have noticed him. — If that’s likely they would have reported it and when we look at Jesus as a failed apocalyptic/messianic figure, I’m not surprised.
But when we look at letters of Paul, and earliest gospels — this is a community with high eschatological expectations. Jesus is expected any day now — Paul prays for this all throughout his letters — like 1 Cor 16:22, — so I doubt these people were very concerned about writing details about the HJ.
And when the gospels are written I think it’s doubly important to stress they are not written as historical documents but are written by Christians for Christians with Christian theology in mind. — Not for us — “It’s our task to try and reconstruct what they meant, what was the purpose of their writing them, how much of this is accurate, what traditions go back to other sources.”
24:30 DF — Agrees with DG there… But we must note that there were authors with an interest in Judea at the time and we have other messiahs who were noticed and were not nearly so interesting as Jesus. And regarding Paul — he talks a lot about Jesus coming, but never says anything about Jesus coming back.
26:00 DG — It is extremely subjective to say Jesus was more noteworthy than other messianic figures . Let me give you an example: the impression we get from Paul was that early Christians were not a violent revolutionary movement. These other messiahs in Josephus all lead open revolts and are far more fascinating .. Simon set fire to palace etc….
When Paul goes to Jerusalem (after Arabia) there are only 2 Christians there — James and Peter — so it’s not a very sizeable movement. The same at Antioch. And house churches would not be more than 30 people at any locality. So why would we expect Jesus to be noticed. He’s not even a blip on the radar.
29:00 DF The problem with that — when you look at the distribution and spread of early Christianity, yes the house cults were of small size but they are all over the place. And if he’s not interesting to these guys then how did he start a religion that spread throughout so much of the Roman world. – Tiny tho it was. It took 300 years to get to size of minor Roman cults but it was everywhere.
29:30 DG — I think the issue there is that you’re conflating the HJ with the founder of a new religion. “As far as most scholars can tell Jesus did not envision starting a new religion. Something about the experience after his crucifixion– his resurrection — whatever that experience was, clearly it transformed several facets of their belief and their relationship with Judaism, many of their practices, their world-view. So whatever that experience was, while it was related to Jesus I don’t think we should correlate that with Jesus as if he is some sort of founder of this religion.”
30:20 DF: And yet we have all these Christian movements even before the time he was meant to have died. Or at least we have the echoes of the evidence of that. . .
DG: Can you elaborate on that?
DF: Example: Apollos of Alexandria seems to be a completely different sort of Christian than Paul. Paul complains of other Jesuses and gospels so different he curses them. They are agents of Satan. He also talks about different Lord’s suppers that are out there. — with pagan Lord’s suppers warning members not to mix this up with ours. It’s talkng about the mystery faiths.
31:00 DG — That’s not correlating it with the Christians.
DF – How do we know that?
[Some confusion here. See Daniel Gullotta’s comment on his blog about this.]
DG — I’m trying to reconstruct it.
It’s significant that many of Paul’s disputes are not about Jesus. The problem is rival praxis, not rival theology.
e.g. 1 Cor 7 — there are no questions regarding Christ. They are not interested in learning about Jesus. They are using the common vernacular to understand their common experience of Jesus. They’d agree Jesus is Son of God but disagree on how to become a Christian. I think….
Is it the case that Josephus and Tacitus should have known Jesus but never talk about him?
DG: But I want to clarify some things. Technically they are not contemporary like Christian sources.
Tacitus makes a passing reference to Jesus. This doesn’t prove their wasn’t a historical Jesus. He’s well removed from the time of Jesus. And he’s not writing about Jesus — he writes to prove how insane Nero was. It’s also unlikely Tacitus did any research on the Christians. — I’m open to arguments the passage has been being forged.
But even so (if not forged) we see details of Jesus. He tells us what early Christians are saying about themselves — and that can help us understand the HJ.
37:00 DF: Assumes Tacitus is genuine and agrees with Ehrman — even if everything in Tacitus is true, he is not telling us anything about HJ — only what Christians at that time agreed on.
38:30 — On Josephus
39:00 DF: TF seems like an advertisement for Jesus in one of his books. It’s not controversial in historical circles that its’ a forgery, so the argument is to how much of it is forged. For 300 years no-one knew about it. –
There’s another passage in Josephus, the James passage. This makes no sense if about Christ but makes perfect sense if about Damneus
Without these two passages we have no 1st century sources about Jesus.
41:00 DG –-On the fence about it, could go either way. TF blames Pilate and not the Jews for the death of Jesus. That’s interesting because early in Christian tradition was to shift blame on to the Jews — and Josephus likes to put Romans in the good light. — So that’s a reason for authenticity of the TF.
Another reason: Origen says Josephus does not believe Jesus is messiah. Does this refer to this passage without the messiah comment? Or does it mean there’s nothing there.
This a a really complicated debate requiring textual criticism and manuscript history. A good start is Van Voorst’s book.
Similarly with Tacitius — even if the passage is authentic it is not slam dunk evidence for HJ. But still it gives a clearer picture of existence of Jesus.
44:30 -DF Origen owned the library that was inherited by Eusebius — Origen said we don’t have any information about Jesus apart from the gospels. That’s a hint that Josephus is total forgery.
I’m not a graduate student like DG — I’m just a guy — most of this comes from other scholars and historians. — I’m not taking credit for any of these points.
47:00 questions from audience…..
- How do we know gospels were not written in Hebrew first then translated into Greek?
DG: — The lingua franca was Greek; we see that in libraries — all in Greek; earliest manuscripts were in Greek. There are some early Christian traditions that Matthew was in Hebrew first but that’s not the reality. No, they just were in Greek.
DF: — We know it for a fact because Jesus has puns and literary references that only work in Greek.
2. Any possibility there was a twin brother who was crucified instead of Jesus?
DF: There is a fascinating tradition about Jesus with a twin — Thomas Didymus [= twin twin] — No reality to it.
DG: How often do we suffer from mistaken identity after someone has died? Ancient people weren’t dumb. People did not come back from dead. They knew the difference between divine births and human births. It just frustrates me, this superiority complex people bring to the past.
3. What factors may have helped earliest Christians gain popularity?
DF– There was Messianic fever in 1st century; that’s a big reason for acceptance of Christianity. But once the empire’s social structures fell apart it emerged from a small cult in Roman society — Mithraism had limited appeal, only for army and men; Christianity included women and slaves, so Christianity becomes more popular when Rome losing all the wars.
DG: Disagree with DF comparing early Christianity with early mystery cults. But very subjective about how Christianity began small. It wasn’t an explosive religion. But the role of women was very strong in early Christianity — women controlled the household– especially the table where people came to eat and drink — in Christianity people were sharing a common meal and women run that meal.
54:45 — Mark seemed a mystery cult-gospel.
DF: I think Christianity was a mystery cult.
DG: I’m not saying they are chalk and cheese. There are similarities: common meals, initiation, divine figure they fixate on — but no evidence for mystery cults in Palestine especially where early Christians operated. There were civic cults in Caesarea Maratina and part of Jerusalem. But a major difference was that mystery cults consisted of people of same backgrounds but Christianity attracted all levels of society, and Christianity has no problem revealing its mystery to anyone who comes across it.
Paul says cross was an offence. There was no going through the initiations levels up to higher rank. So Christianity was not like Mysteries … and Paul says all will be one in Christ.
DF: I take all your points. I don’t see any of them are enough to exclude Christianity being a Jewish mystery cult.
DG: Agree to disagree.
DF: We can agree to disagree. We can talk and not be enemies. Fake history and ignorance are the enemy.
4. Did Gnostics only believe in a non human Jesus?
DG: Scholars have tried to avoid lumping gnostic beliefs together. But they don’t like human fleshy Jesus. Some have a human taken over by Christ; others Christ only appears to be human; in others Jesus changes his identity at will. Why do they feel this way about the body? They believed it was a prison to the pure soul. The goal was to cast off the flesh.
60:45 DF Reiterates DG’s points. The term gnostic becoming useless — not a useful term.
Bart Ehrman notes how quickly the Jesus of faith spiraled into all these views. To Kurt Noll- Jesus is not important enough to debate. He had no impact on what came later which is the real question.
5. Why did Jesus not come from Bethlehem?
DF: Chris Hitchens makes the same argument – there is no prophesy to say messiah comes from Bethlehem. Matthew had Jesus born in Bethlehem for same reasons Mark had him come from Nazareth — both had symbolic reasons.
DG: I disagree — Mark doesn’t use scriptures very much and when he does its very important. He has no theological significance for Nazareth. But later evangelists have to remove Nazareth from being his birth place. Jesus was from Nazareth — that’s historically accurate.
64:30 6. WHere does this topic go from here? What is future of mythicist/historicist debate?
DF: Mythicism will always be a fringe position as long as there is Biblical Studies. I’m fascinated by Christian origins. — Mythicism is the one solution that makes sense to me.
Future is in the next generation of biblical scholars– hope for more atheists and agnostic scholars who will be looking into their current methodology and their sources more critically.
DG: “As a young budding scholar who is interested in the HJ”, this is an exciting time, a new phase — especially with work of Le Donne, Crossley and Keith and others who stood up and took a look at methodology and use it. Instead of throwing it out they are seeing what works. Social memory theory is new and I’m excited to see where that will take us. And new studies in Aramaic sources, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls and what they tell us about Judaism; and more is being learned about Josephus and the fall of Jerusalem; and the archaeology of Galilee — all hoping to enrich what could be 4th quest for the HJ.
Mythicism will always be on fringes because it lacks (I’m sorry but with respect) explanatory power. This podcast is a good example of why some people are so concerned. It is so entrenched in the atheist movement. One can’t differ the philosophy of one from the scholarship of another.
It is only being entertained by atheists, podcasts, talk shows. Atheism has done itself a disservice by being so fascinated by this idea. Although it is an interesting topic.
So if some in the next generation do flirt with it they need to stop self-publishing and stop podcasting like this and go to conferences and get in peer review journals and write respectable books and engage with peers well before the lay people get involved.
I have thought of writing about mythicism some time (but not yet).
71:30 — DF: Plenty atheist have no time for mythicism
Not all atheists are mythicists but all mythicists are atheists.
What troubles me is someone like Carrier writing one book and then going to all these conferences and then going to the lay people — there’s a problem there.
DF: — Most don’t care; though some are entrenched — so it does skew to atheism.
DG: I enjoyed this chat — thank you for chatting.
DF: Compliments DG on his scholarship and his hard work in the field.
74:20 DG: To be at Yale next 2 years and hopefully can get a job in this field. Recently talking to Avalos who said biblical studies might just end through financial cutbacks anyway.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!