Getting Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Historical Evidence Backwards

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

fundamentalist atheists who embrace mythicism . . . cannot tolerate the kind of uncertainty that historical inquiry . . . must treat as par for the course.

Those words were posted by a respected New Testament scholar and professor who should remain nameless to avoid personal embarrassment.

There certainly is room for ambiguity and varying interpretations of much of the evidence we have for Christian origins.

Hence Raphael Lataster writes:

it is ambiguous as to whether an earthly or celestial Jesus is being referred to [in the NT epistles] (Jesus Did Not Exist, loc 229, Kindle Edition)

Further on the evidence in Paul’s epistles, with alternative readings possible and with interpolations apparent,

it should leave us with agnosticism. We simply don’t know that Jesus existed. . . . If the evidence is not good enough to conclude, either way, then so be it. We ought to be agnostic. (loc 5591)

And then on Richard Carrier’s conclusion in On the Historicity of Jesus,

[The scholar] must demonstrate why their hypothesis is probably true. And Carrier is the only one to have done so. (loc 7610)

Carrier concludes his book in part with

I intend this book not to end but to begin a debate about this, regarding both its methods and its conclusions. (p. 617)

Yet the New Testament Professor in question would insist that ambiguous and less than certain evidence should lead one to conclude that without any doubt at all Jesus did exist and to continue to question this conclusion is the sign of a crank.

What the Professor means by an ability to accept the ambiguity and uncertainty involved in historical inquiry is that when it comes to Jesus then the historian must acquire the ability to draw dogmatic conclusions from debatable evidence.

I think our Professor has misconstrued the truism about historical inquiry dealing with probabilities and uncertainties.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

45 thoughts on “Getting Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Historical Evidence Backwards”

      1. We’ve had a lot of the “fundamental atheist” label thrown at us over at CE you and I just recently. What is it with these liberal and progressive Christian types? And I’m banned from commenting at the blog of the respected New Testament scholar and professor who should remain nameless to avoid personal embarrassment. Which is a wee bit of a bugger at times like these..

        1. I think McGrath has serious doubts and insecurities about his faith, which is why he gets so upset when someone puts forth an interpretation which he thinks is idiosyncratic with respect to his manifold.

        2. Dr. McGrath has wrote a blog post about me because of a comment I made on an earlier post which he thought was idiotic.

          (a) Here is the original post as well as my comments: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2016/03/bring-me-that-ass.html

          (b) Here is the post Dr. McGrath wrote about me and which I offered a comment on: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2016/03/palm-sunday-and-history.html

          I thought I was being reasonable. Does anyone have any thoughts?

          1. Price makes the helpful comment that “it is evident that the scene of Jesus entering the holy city on donkeyback is a fleshing out of Zechariah 9:9. The actions and words of the crowd come right from Psalm 118:26-27, “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the LORD! … Bind the festal procession with branches…” “Hosanna in the highest” comes from the Hebrew or Aramaic of “Save now!” in Psalm 118:25 and from Psalm 148 LXX: “Praise him in the highest!” (Helms, p. 104). Of course the Psalm offers its blessings on any pilgrim into the holy city. (Robert M. Price, “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash,” in ‘The Encyclopedia of Midrash, ed. Jacob Neusner and Alan Avery Peck).”

            1. Thomas Brodie says that People like McGrath need to be a whole lot less ignorant about inter-testamental issues like this. That is Brodies specialty. It seems to me to be a particular blind spot of McGraths. He has his story, and he’s sticking to it, even if scholars in other parts of essentially the same field try to point out clearly where he’s just plain wrong.

          2. Bart Ehrman also makes some interesting comments about the triumphal entry in a recent blog post. Ehrman writes:

            “The Roman authorities were particularly keen to prevent any disturbances during the days leading up to Passover, arguably the most incendiary time of the entire calendar year. In the Gospel accounts, the Jewish crowds cry out that Jesus is the one who is about to bring the kingdom of David to his people. How can a Davidic kingdom be set up in Jerusalem? Only if the current rulers are thrown out. Who would be the leader of that Davidic kingdom? Obviously a Davidic king. The crowds in these Gospel accounts are acclaiming Jesus to be the coming messiah who will overthrow the Roman forces who are occupying the city and the land.

            Roman soldiers would have been stationed around the city. How can we believe that with this wild celebration of their future conqueror would not make them sit up, take notice, and act accordingly? If the throngs were really proclaiming Jesus as the coming messiah in his glorious and heralded entry into the city, how is it that he was not arrested on the spot and taken out of the way, precisely to prevent some kind of riot or mob uprising? I find it completely implausible. I think this must be a distorted memory.

            Why would later Christian story-tellers remember an event like this, in a way that probably didn’t actually happen? The reason is not hard to find. We need to recall that in the decades after Jesus’ death, before the Gospels were written, Christians were often in an antagonistic relationship with non-Christian Jews, often blaming the Jews for being a fickle people who rejected their own God and who never understood his plan to save the world. The story of Jesus’ triumphal entry embodies that view. Here the Jewish crowds are portrayed as ecstatic that their future king, the messiah, has arrived, and they proclaim him blessed on his coming into the holy city. They expect that he will now establish God’s kingdom on earth, with his throne in Jerusalem.

            But it is precisely these same people who, several days later, reject Jesus, calling for his crucifixion. Why did the Jewish people turn on Jesus? For these storytellers it is because the Jewish people have always turned on God and his prophets. They are an unfaithful people, ultimately opposed to God rather than on his side. And they are a fickle people, hot at one time and cold at another, acclaiming God’s messiah at one moment and then calling for his blood the next. Jesus wasn’t the king that Jews were expecting. When he came into Jerusalem, he did not start a rebellion to have himself installed as king. He preached against a sinful people, telling them to repent, and against their leaders, arousing their anger. And so – not understanding God’s plan of salvation – the Jews of Jerusalem (according to this way of remembering the events) flat out rejected Jesus for not being the messiah they wanted, and they demanded his crucifixion. For Christian storytellers, that is how Jews have always treated God and his prophets. This memory of Jesus, then, is as much about the conflicts that later Christians were having with their Jewish opponents who rejected Jesus as it is about what actually happened in Jesus’ life itself.”

            1. Our anonymous professor speaks of using tools of historical investigation by which he apparently means believing it to be historical if you can come up with any sort of ad hoc rationalisation. Ehrman is repeating what he set out in his new book on Jesus Before the Gospels and at least tests McG’s speculation against known background historical knowledge.

              McG also speaks of logic yet his own logic is said by other scholars addressing the same sort of arguments as unnecessarily convoluted. If the simplest explanation can be found in A then there is no need to assume B. The genre and larger literary context of the pericope offers us the simplest suggestion that the author fleshed out a story to represent Jesus as the Passover and Atonement sacrifice and Messiah etc. The literary allusion fits the same pattern as found in the Passion narrative.

              It is “illogical” to jump back and forth saying this pericope is where Jesus is imitating scriptures and that pericope is where the author is making up a story out of the scriptures.

              McG posts to trade journals and blogs to make his illogical and sarcastic attacks on anything that comes close to mythicism (even though the same arguments are used by anti-mythicists like Paula Fredriksen and Dale Allison argue also for authorial creativity for the sake of Occam’s razor) but has never published his criticisms in a peer reviewed journal while mythicists like Price, Carrier and Lataster have posted their arguments under peer-review — as Raphael Lataster ironically notes in his on recent book. How times are changing.

          3. John,

            Even before I went back and read your original comment, I thought it sounded it quite sensible in McGrath’s characterization of it. I immediately started formulating a response along the lines of “Even though Jesus could have ridden on a donkey, the Zechariah passage is such obvious motivation for invention that a historian could never deem the former any more likely than the latter.” Unfortunately, I was traveling and didn’t have a chance to write anything.

            What really discouraged me from commenting though was McGrath’s statement that “Jesus seems to have believed himself [the Messiah].” Does he really believe that he can divine what was going on in Jesus’ head given the nature of the sources? Even if he could, it would have to be on the basis of things Jesus did as he left no writings. That leads to a bit of a circularity problem using the things he believed to establish the things he did. Just the idea of getting into all that was too exhausting to contemplate, especially given how many accusations of “obstinate agnosticism” I knew I would face.

            1. Does anyone seriously expect McGrath ever to admit to any of his glaringly embarrassing errors of logic, ignorance of basic facts and dishonest claims to have read and reviewed certain books? The real scandal is that his colleagues not only let him get away with it, but seem to fail to recognize just how dismally incompetent he is as a scholar and teacher and even look to him to present papers and write informative articles about things he has proven he wilfully knows next to nothing about. McGrath is symptomatic of the appallingly unprofessional and sham-scholarly condition of biblical studies generally. There are a few lights worth attending to who overlap the internet world but they are very few.

              1. I’ve found that reformed fundamentalists like McGrath tend to retain a lot of their conservative hermeneutical biases even though on some issues they have become more liberal.

              2. I think I see the same in Samantha Field’s blogging about her journey out of fundamentalism — seeing others clinging to fundamentalist concepts but failing to recognize them in herself.

              3. McGrath also dips into the apologists’ playbook with a “what-the-skeptics-have-overlooked” argument, which is not surprisingly inaccurate and irrelevant. That Jesus might have ridden the donkey with Zechariah in mind isn’t an additional unconsidered possibility that alters the analysis. There is still no reason to think it any less likely that someone invented the story. Equally irrelevant is the fact that the Zechariah passage may not actually have been a prophecy. Clearly someone decided that it should be read that way, whether it was Jesus himself or the person who invented the story.

            2. I’m not sure why he went to the extent of calling a dissenting opinion “ridiculous.” I wonder if he would treat the opinion of one of his students with the same gloves?

              1. It’s all about protecting their enclave from the meddlesome outsiders. I have been typed as the equivalent of a Holocaust Denier and a scoffing cynic out to mock and destroy Christianity by Larry Hurtado for having the gall to suggest he inform his readers of the range of scholarly opinions on topics instead of presenting his own views as if they are “The Truth”.

                It’s the Larry Hurtado’s (and James McGraths) that give us good reasons to despise Christianity

          4. Your claim is too strong. You said that the presence of a prophecy is, alone, all by itself, sufficient to show that “there is no” evidence that the donkey incident happened.

            McGrath answered poorly. He pointed out that the existence of a prophecy doesn’t show that the thing didn’t happen. But you didn’t say it didn’t happen. You said there is no evidence.

            A better response from McGrath would have been to point out that the existence of a prophecy doesn’t preclude the existence of evidence that the incident happened.

            For your part, I think what you really meant and should have said was that because the prophect exists, the evidential value of the Jesus-donkey text itself is considerably lessened, since it now has an equally plausible explanation as fiction based on prophecy which no one doubts has happened in many other places in the gospels.

            1. That was not my point at all. This is the comment I made in the comment section of McGrath’s blog post that he wrote about me:

              You’re oversimplifying the problem. For example, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine says Matthew’s Jesus infancy story recapitulates the story of Moses. Does this mean (1) the author of Matthew started with facts about Jesus and then added material to make it resemble the account of Moses, or (2) The author of Matthew started with the account in the Old Testament about Moses and then rewrote it using Jesus as the central character?” Dr. Marc Brettler says this question about Matthew is a hard and sophisticated question. The two possibilities represent two poles of possibility, with lots of room in between, so we don’t have enough information to answer that specific question. The use of Old Testament imitation when constructing the New Testament poses a problem when we are trying to get information about the historical Jesus: (a) Maybe the story of Jesus riding the donkey was simply invented. (b) Maybe most of what happened in the victorious entry pericope does represent historical reality, EXCEPT that Jesus riding the donkey never actually happened. (c) Maybe most of what happened in the pericope did actually happen, INCLUDING Jesus riding the donkey. The problem is there are no criterial available to decide between the three (a, b, or c). There are epistemological limitations when hermeneutics encounters a possible imitation narrative.

              1. That’s fine if it wasn’t your point–I was just responding to what you had typed (i.e. what McGrath was responding to).

                I’m glad you had the opportunity to clarify your position!

              2. BTW don’t you just love how McGrath somehow looks at things like what you just said and claims mythicists* _aren’t_ comfortable with uncertainty? He’s the one who looks at this mass of uncertain and ambiguous information and insists on falling hard on one side or the other.

                *Don’t know if you’re a mythicist but from McGrath’s P.o.V. you’ve got to be in the camp given what you’re saying here. 😉

              3. @ Kris Rhodes: That wasn’t my position in the original post either. I wrote “The pericope clearly fulfills prophesy, so there is no reason to think there is any history there.” My point was that there was “no reason” to assume there was any history there- leaving unanswerable the question of whether it was myth or fact or something in between. Sorry if my phrasing came off as ambiguous.

              4. So my point is that just as it is an unjustifiable leap of logic to argue in this way: (a) We have reason to doubt that a pericope, or part of a pericope, is historical; therefore, we have reason to think it is mythical. So to is it an unjustifiable leap of logic to argue: (b) We have reason to doubt a particular pericope, or part of a pericope, is mythical, therefore we have reason to believe it is historical. In both cases (a and b), our reasoning commits a paralogism when jumping from the negative claim to the positive one.

              5. What was disconcerting to read in the blog post by McGrath addressing his issue with your comments is his misrepresenting your original assertion.

                McGrath opens his article so…

                “I had a commenter on the blog make the ridiculous claim that, since there is reference in the Jewish Scriptures to the riding of a donkey, we can therefore have no basis on which to conclude that such a thing actually happened in the life of Jesus.”

                Now I’m struggling to see where you made such a claim.

                This is par for the course with McGrath. He loves to misrepresent his opposition to the point of making stuff up. This typifies the straw man fallacy as I can’t put it down to the reading comprehension liability of someone with such paper behind his name.

                But watch out, he dislikes being shown in an erroneous light and the bannhammer could be looming large on your horizon.

            2. Hi John,

              To clarify before posting the following: I’m on your side! (With friends like these…. as they say 😉 )

              But the thing is, this:

              //The pericope clearly fulfills prophesy, so there is no reason to think there is any history there//

              is indeed exactly what you wrote, and is accurately paraphrased by what I wrote in my response:

              //the presence of a prophecy is, alone, all by itself, sufficient to show that “there is no” evidence that the donkey incident happened.//

              You later clarified, and all is good. But it will be best not to insist that what it turns out you _meant_ is the same as what you originally _wrote_. It’s not.

              1. I’m agnostic about Jesus’ historicity, so what I wrote should have conveyed that. Sorry if I expressed myself in an ambiguous way, lol

              2. @ Kris Rhodes: I’m agnostic about the historicity of Jesus, but I do tend to lean toward the idea that he was an actual historical figure.

                Matthew 11:19 says ″The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

                The fact that Jesus’ critics said they saw Jesus going around getting drunk, being a glutton, and consorting with cheats and sinners, while it doesn’t prove Jesus was doing these things, it does imply Jesus’ opponents thought that Jesus was not a heavenly mythical deity, but rather a person walking around on earth and doing stuff.

              3. The words you quote are those not of the critics but of the author who attributes them to Jesus who attributes them to his critics. The author himself was personally elaborating Mark’s text that did not say “behold”.

                The word for “behold” simply means “look” — they are pointing to Jesus and saying, Look, here is a drunkard. They do not imply they saw him “going around getting drunk”. http://biblehub.com/greek/idou_3708.htm

              4. @ Neil: Matthew claims that Jesus’ critics thought he was a person going around the earth and doing stuff, not existing up in some celestial realm.

            1. I agree.

              Also, Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was essential you wanted to be the next messiah.

              Zachariah 9:9 says ” Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy king cometh unto thee; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass. ”

              The next king of the Jews had to ride in on his ass.

              The only problem was that this was widely known by non messianic types and as such it was announcing Jesus’ intention to become the new King. Since this is an act of sedition it should surprise no one that Jesus was arrested and crucified toute suite in accordance with the Roman law.

              The interesting thing to me is that this story must have originated from a messianic Jewish source. Which means the person who originally told the story must have believed Jesus not to be divine. Later, Gentile followers of Jesus, believing him to be divine and not understanding the significance of donkey powered entrance to Jerusalem, passed on the story and included it in Matthew.

              Yes. The original story could have been made up, but I think the simpler explanation is that it was an event witnessed by one of his original Jewish followers and became part of the oral traditions that later became included in the gospels.

    1. Someone whom Christian fundamentalists regard as holding theologically unjustifiable beliefs about scientifically verifiable premises. You know – anti-theists, as identified with atheists in general.

  1. A scholar with tenured protection
    Offered this rude interjection:
    “I had to invent
    Your fundamentalist bent
    To effect my Freudian projection.”

  2. It reminds me of the old Christian apologetic of the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant.

    Everyone is blind, talking about the different parts of the elephant, which is why we all get different answers… UNLESS you’re a Christian. Therefore you have the correct description of the elephant.

    Same deal here: There’s a whole bunch of uncertainty regarding Christian origins UNLESS you have the correct conclusions.

  3. “This is precisely the kind of instance that shows a major problem with such reasoning. Are you honestly going to suggest that someone who claimed to be the long-awaited Davidic anointed one would not look at what was expected of that figure and actually do some of those things?!”

    This is an example of McGrath’s muddled thinking. He can’t seem to grasp the point that there is NO place where any such person claimed to be the long awaited anointed one. This was the claim of the gospel writers, something quite different entirely. Now, if I’m a writer attempting to place a myth into history, a prophetic story from the OT is something that would come in useful. Forgetting the mantra banged on by historicists that the Jews were not waiting on a messiah, meek and mild, but expecting a conquering messiah, the mythical Jesus character of gospel tradition was not this conqueror, so opting for such an entrance is patently nonsense for the itinerant and little heard of teacher/Rabbi of minimal historicity. McGrath wants to eat his cake and have it.

    Furthermore, there is precedence for authors of made up triumphal entrances by mythical gods that never happened. The triumphal entrance’s, three of them apparently, to Rome by Romulus. And Romulus is not the only god, or mythical demi-god, to make a dramatic entrance according to later imaginative authors.

    “The origins and development of this honour were obscure: Roman historians placed the first triumph in the mythical past: some thought it dated from Rome’s foundation; others thought it more ancient than that. Roman etymologists thought the soldiers’ chant of triumpe a borrowing, via Etruscan of the Greek thriambus (θρίαμβος), cried out by satyrs and other attendants in Dionysian and Bacchic processions. Plutarch, and some Roman sources, traced the first Roman triumph and the “kingly” garb of the triumphator to Rome’s first king, Romulus, whose defeat of King Acron of the Caeninenses was thought coeval with Rome’s foundation in 753 BCE. Ovid projected a fabulous and poetic triumphal precedent in the return of the god Bacchus/Dionysus from his conquest of India, drawn in a golden chariot by tigers and surrounded by maenads, satyrs and assorted drunkards. Arrian attributed similar Dionysian and “Roman” elements to a victory procession of Alexander the Great. Like much in Roman culture, elements of the triumph were based on Etruscan and Greek precursors; in particular, the purple, embroidered toga picta worn by the triumphal general was thought to derive from the royal toga of Rome’s Etruscan kings.”


    Not to mention well understood works of fiction that employ actual real rituals, parades and other goings on from history, that the author has co-opted and used for full effect.

    That it was written the gospels so it must be an historical event and just the sort of thing expected is a lot of tosh. McGrath’s incredulity as a scholar of history on this is somewhat bewildering.

  4. Richard Carrier will soon be giving a talk on “Why The First Christians Invented The Story of Jesus:” http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/9929#comment-1059071

    Here are my thoughts about what I think happened so long ago:

    I think the original Christians came up with the idea of a magic working, resurrecting Jesus because they thought it would help sell Jesus’ ethical teaching, much in the same way the story of Moses getting the commandments on the mountain from God lent the Jews an authority to their laws. A better world was probably a cause they would die for (like Socrates), and the New Testament probably appealed on an exoteric level to the masses, and an esoteric level to the learned class. As Seneca famously said, “Religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.”

    Recall, lying is permitted in the bible if it is done in the name of God’s cause:

    1. God rewarded the Egyptian midwives for lying to the Pharaoh:
    And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives. Exodus 1:18-20

    2. Rahab was “justified” when she lied about Joshua’s spies:

    And the woman [Rahab] took the two men and hid them and said thus: There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were; and it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark that the men went out; whither the men went I wot not; pursue after them quickly, for ye shall overtake them. But she had brought them up to the roof of the house and hid them with the stalks of flax. Joshua 2:4-6

    Was not Rahab, the harlot, justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?. James 2:25 (recall that Rahab was in Jesus’ genealogy)

    3. David lied to Ahimelech when he said he was on the king’s business. (He was King Saul’s enemy at the time.) We know that God approved of this lie, since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything David did, with the single exception of the matter of Uriah:

    David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business…. 1 Samuel 21:2

    4. Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die:

    Benhadad the king of Syria was sick … And the king said unto Hazael … go, meet the man of God, and enquire of the LORD by him, saying, Shall I recover of this disease? Elisha said unto him, go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath showed me that he shall surely die. 2 Kings 8:8-10

    5. In the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, the angel Raphael lied to Tobias, saying “I am Azarias:”

    Tobias said to him: I pray thee, tell me, of what family, or what tribe art thou? And Raphael the angel answered … I am Azarias. Tobit 5:16-18

    6. Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but later went “in secret:”

    [Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. John 7:8-10

    7. Even God lies now and then by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets:

    And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. 1 Kings 22:21-22
    My original interest in investigating Euripides’ “Bacchae” was as the source Plato used for coming up with the idea of ‘The Noble Lie’ in “The Republic” and “Laws.” In “The Bacchae” on this topic, Euripides writes “Even though this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you say, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him the son of Semele, for this would make it seem that she was the mother of a god, and it would confer honour on all our race.” Euripides’ “The Bacchae.”

    Later on, I read Seneca’s claim that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

    When I put these two things together (Euripides and Seneca), I began to wonder if the original Christians invented the Jesus story to sell to the masses to make the world a more ethical place. Was this a cause they would have died for?

    Learning more about the exegetical techniques the writers of The New Testament used to create their writing, I learned that much of the writing was constructed out of allusions to the Septuagint and to classical Greek writing. I thought that “The New Testament” had an “exoteric” side (lots of exciting miracles) that would make it an easy sell to the masses, and an “esoteric” side which would make it an easy sell to “learned” Jews and Greeks (Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew scriptures and Greek religion).

    In any case, concerning these interests, I began to see that Euripides’ “Bacchae” was used in an exegetical (Robert M. Price would label this process Haggadic Midrash) way to create some of The New Testament:”

    In the play ‘The Bacchae’ parallels can be drawn as to general overarching themes, as well as to specific details of the New Testament Narratives. In Freke and Gandy’s book “The Jesus Mysterieshttp://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Mysteries-Was-Original-Pagan/dp/0609807986/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1443055975&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Jesus+Mysteries ,” several striking parallels are drawn out between The New Testament and the ‘Bacchae,’ the latter being a much earlier work. Consider these quotes from “The Jesus Mysteries” by Freke and Gandy”

    “(1) According to the gospels, Jesus is an innocent and just man who, at the instigation of the Jewish high priests, is hauled before the Roman Governor Pilate and condemned to die on spurious charges. Exactly the same mythological motif is found five centuries earlier in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, about Dionysus. Like Jesus in Jerusalem, Dionysus is a quiet stranger with long hair and a beard who brings a new religion. In the gospels, the Jewish high priests don’t believe in Jesus and allege that ‘His teachings are causing disaffections amongst the people.’ They plot to bring about his death. In The Bacchae, King Pentheus is a tyrannical ruler who does not believe in Dionysus. He berates him for bringing ‘this new disease to the land’ and sends out his men to capture the innocent godman … Like the Jewish high priests who are appalled at Jesus’ blasphemous claim to be the Son of God, King Pentheus rants in anger at stories of Dionysus’ divine parentage … Like Jesus, Dionysus passively allows himself to be caught and imprisoned … The guard relates the wondrous things he had witnessed Dionysus perform and warns King Pentheus: ‘Master, this man has come here with a load of miracles.’ The king, however, proceeds to interrogate Dionysus who, like Jesus before Pilate, will not bow to his authority. When Pilate reminds Jesus that he has the power to crucify him, Jesus replies, ‘You would have no authority at all over me, had it not been granted you from above.’ Likewise Dionysus answers the threats of Pentheus with: ‘Nothing can touch me that is not ordained.’ Like Jesus, who said of his persecutors, ‘They know not what they are doing,’ Dionysus tells Pentheus, ‘You know not what you are doing, nor what you are saying, nor who you are.’ … As Jesus is led away to crucifixion, he warns the crowd not to weep for him, but for themselves and their children, who will suffer for the crime of his execution (cf. Luke 23 v 28-30) … As he is led away, Dionysus, likewise, threatens divine vengeance.”

    “(2) Before his death, Jesus celebrates a symbolic ‘Last supper’ of bread and wine. [the author here doesn’t note that this is also a symbolic celebration. In the Gospel of Judas this is made more explicit when Jesus wanted to shrug off this painful mortal coil, just as Socrates did when he offered the rooster to Asclepius] In The Bacchae, Euripides calls bread and wine the ‘two powers which are supreme in human affairs,’ the one substantial and preserving the body, the other liquid and intoxicating the mind. The ancients credited the Mystery godman with bringing to humanity the arts of cultivating grain and the vine to produce bread and wine.”

    “(3) As [Joseph Campbell] writes, ‘To drink wine in the rites of Dionysus is to commune with the god and take his power and physical presence into one’s body.’ In the Christian rites of the Eucharist Jesus is said to symbolically become the wine drunk by the participant in the ritual. Likewise, Euripides tells us that Dionysus becomes the wine and is himself ‘poured out’ as an offering. In some vase representations, bread and wine are shown before the idol of Dionysus. Just as in the Eucharist a Christian is given ‘redemption’ in the symbolic form of a wafer biscuit, in the Mysteries of Dionysus the initiate was presented with makaria (‘blessedness’) in the form of a cake.

    “(4) In Euripides’ The Bacchae, King Pentheus tries to insult Dionysus by describing him as ‘the god who frees his worshipers from every law [cf. St. Paul],’ but Dionysus replies, ‘Your insult to Dionysus is a compliment.’”

    “(5) A Letter To Philip explains that although from the time of the incarnation Jesus suffered, yet he suffered as one who was ‘a stanger to this suffering.’ This teaches that the incarnate Higher Self (represented by Jesus) seems to suffer when the eidolon suffers, but in reality is always the untouched witness. In The Acts of John Jesus explains ‘You heard that I suffered, but I suffered not. An unsuffering one was I, yet suffered. One pierced was I, yet I was not abused. One hanged was I, yet not hanged. Blood flowed from me, yet did not flow.’ … Five hundred years previously Euripides portrayed King Pentheus as binding Dionysus, while actually he was not. As Dionysus says: … ‘He thought he was binding me; But he neither held nor touched me, save in his deluded mind.”

    We also find striking parallels to ‘The Bacchae’ indicated in Robert Price’s

    encyclopedia article New Testament Narrative As Old Testament Midrash (2004 – the article is online here: http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/art_midrash1.htm ):

    In terms of Dionysus in general, we read from Price

    “Gospel of John, Water into Wine (2:1-11)

    Though the central feature of this miracle story, the transformation of one liquid into another, no doubt comes from the lore of Dionysus, the basic outline of the story owes much to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24 LXX. The widow of Zarephath, whose son has just died, upbraids the prophet: “What have I to do with you, O man of God?” (Ti emoi kai soi, 17:18). John has transferred this brusque address to the mouth of Jesus, rebuking his mother (2:4, Ti emoi kai soi, gunai). Jesus and Elijah both tell people in need of provisions to take empty pitchers (udria in 1 Kings 17:12, udriai in John 2:6-7), from which sustenance miraculously emerges. And just as this feat causes the woman to declare her faith in Elijah (“I know that you are a man of God,” v. 24), so does Jesus’ wine miracle cause his disciples to put their faith in him (v. 11).”

    In terms of The Bacchae, Price writes

    “Acts of the Apostles

    Pentecost (2:1-4ff)

    The whole scene comes, obviously, from the descent of the Mosaic spirit upon the seventy elders in Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25, with an assist from Euripides’ The Bacchae, where we read “Flames flickered in their curls and did not burn them” (757-758), just as tongues of fire blazed harmlessly above the heads of the apostles (Acts 2:3). Ecstatic speech caused some bystanders to question the sobriety of the disciples, but Peter defends them (“These are not drunk as you suppose” Acts 2:15a), as does Pentheus’ messenger: “Not, as you think, drunk with wine” (686-687).”

    “Paul’s Conversion (9:1-21)

    As the great Tübingen critics already saw, the story of Paul’s visionary encounter with the risen Jesus not only has no real basis in the Pauline epistles but has been derived by Luke more or less directly from 2 Maccabees 3’s story of Heliodorus. In it one Benjaminite named Simon (3:4) tells Apollonius of Tarsus, governor of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia (3:5), that the Jerusalem Temple houses unimaginable wealth that the Seleucid king might want to appropriate for himself. Once the king learns of this, he sends his agent Heliodorus to confiscate the loot. The prospect of such a violation of the Temple causes universal wailing and praying among the Jews. But Heliodorus is miraculously turned back when a shining warrior angel appears on horseback. The stallion’s hooves knock Heliodorus to the ground, where two more angels lash him with whips (25-26). He is blinded and is unable to help himself, carried to safety on a stretcher. Pious Jews pray for his recovery, lest the people be held responsible for his condition. The angels reappear to Heliodorus, in answer to these prayers, and they announce God’s grace to him: Heliodorus will live and must henceforth proclaim the majesty of the true God. Heliodorus offers sacrifice to his Saviour (3:35) and departs again for Syria, where he reports all this to the king. In Acts the plunder of the Temple has become the persecution of the church by Saul (also called Paulus, an abbreviated form of Apollonius), a Benjaminite from Tarsus. Heliodorus’ appointed journey to Jerusalem from Syria has become Saul’s journey from Jerusalem to Syria. Saul is stopped in his tracks by a heavenly visitant, goes blind and must be taken into the city, where the prayers of his former enemies avail to raise him up. Just as Heliodorus offers sacrifice, Saul undergoes baptism. Then he is told henceforth to proclaim the risen Christ, which he does … Luke has again added details from Euripides. In The Bacchae, in a sequence Luke has elsewhere rewritten into the story of Paul in Philippi, Dionysus has appeared in Thebes as an apparently mortal missionary for his own sect. He runs afoul of his cousin, King Pentheus who wants the licentious cult (as he views it) to be driven out of the country. He arrests and threatens Dionysus, only to find him freed from prison by an earthquake. Dionysus determines revenge against the proud and foolish king by magically compelling Pentheus to undergo conversion to faith in him (“Though hostile formerly, he now declares a truce and goes with us. You see what you could not when you were blind,” 922-924) and sending Pentheus, in woman’s guise, to spy upon the Maenads, his female revelers. He does so, is discovered, and is torn limb from limb by the women, led by his own mother. As the hapless Pentheus leaves, unwittingly, to meet his doom, Dionysus comments, “Punish this man. But first distract his wits; bewilder him with madness… After those threats with which he was so fierce, I want him made the laughingstock of Thebes” (850-851, 854-855). “He shall come to know Dionysus, son of Zeus, consummate god, most terrible, and yet most gentle, to mankind” (859-861). Pentheus must be made an example, as must poor Saul, despite himself. His conversion is a punishment, meting out to the persecutor his own medicine. Do we not detect a hint of ironic malice in Christ’s words to Ananias about Saul? “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).”

    I originally presented the thesis that Christianity was a “Bacchae/Plato based Noble Lie” in an essay that I sent to Freke and Gandy called the “Pious Fraud.” Gandy, who was responsible for the research on “The Bacchae” in “The Jesus Mysteries” liked the essay very much, as did Dr. Barrie Wilson (Professor of theology, New York), and Dr. Tom Harpur (author of “The Pagan Christ.” I originally published the essay on the website “Case Against Faith,” and later expanded the essay into an allegorical narrative published on “Case Against Faith called “The Eternal Return:” if you want to read my narrative “The Eternal Return” it is here: http://www.caseagainstfaith.com/the-eternal-return.html

    Some apologists like R. Joseph Hoffmann have struck back hard and fast against reductionists like Price, MacDonald, Brodie, Helms, Miller, Freke/Gandy, etc who argue “The New Testament” is modelled on “The Septuagint” and “Greek Classics.” One of the most popular apologetical books currently in circulation is Paul Rhodes Eddy and Greg Boyd, ‘The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Legend-Historical-Reliability-Tradition/dp/0801031141/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1443056902&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Jesus+Legend ,’ primarily arguing that there would not have been a paganizing influence on the Jews of Jesus’ time. In his review of this book, entitled the Jesus Mirage http://www.centerforinquiry.net/jesusproject/articles/the_jesus_mirage , Price makes the very poignant counterpoint that

    “Another egregious case of Janus apologetics, facing both ways at once, is Boyd’s and Eddy’s argument that the resurrection of Jesus cannot have been borrowed from polytheistic mythemes. Their first step is to circumscribe a magic zone from about 165 BCE to 70 CE when there was no Jewish inclination, but rather the reverse, to accept Hellenistic influence. They figure that the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid Hellenizers put an end once and for all to the temptation to Hellenize. Hellenization began to rear its ugly head again only after the Roman victory over Jews. This strikes me as a gratuitous assumption. Indeed, the fact that there is during their magic period much evidence of Jewish anti-Hellenistic Zealotry surely means the “danger” of influence continued. You don’t strengthen the fortifications when there is no enemy at the door. And no evidence of Hellenization? What about the astrology of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Ah, er, it’s not what it looks like! The presence of horoscopes at Qumran doesn’t mean the sectarians actually used or believed in them, say the apologists. Perish the thought! It was probably because they needed them to write scholarly refutations of them! And second- to third-century synagogues with mosaics of Hercules, Dionysus and the Zodiac? Purely decorative, that’s all. Come on! Obviously, you don’t decorate your house of worship with images of gods you find abhorrent! And this was just at the time Yavneh Judaism was getting stronger and stronger! Judaism just was not a solid monolith even at this time, much less in Jesus’ time .. … Our authors find it necessary to misrepresent Margaret Barker, too. She argues very powerfully (in The Older Testament and The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God) that popular Judaism had not embraced the monotheism of the Exilic prophets yet, even in spite of priestly indoctrination and interdiction. She ventures that Jesus as the resurrected Son of God was a direct survival of Israelite polytheism. Boyd and Eddy cannot seem to get through their learned heads that Barker is not talking about a Jewish embrace of pagan mythemes. Her point is that mythemes the rabbis later reinterpreted (explained away) as pagan were always indigenously Israelite, shared with Canaanite neighbors, not borrowed from them. Thus there is no need to posit some repulsive borrowing from hated paganism to account for easy Jewish familiarity with dying and rising gods. Ezekiel knew the daughters of Jerusalem were engaged in ritual mourning of the slain god Tammuz even in the days of the Exile. Baal and Osiris were well known in Israel, too.”

    I feel the evidence suggests, then, that the reductionists do have a prima facie case that a paganizing / Jewish midrashic (if you want to call the process that) influence was present in creating “The New Testament.” This possibility then allows for the stronger assertion a la Price, Freke/Gandy, Robert Alter, John Bowman, Thomas L. Brodie, John Dominic Crossan, J. Duncan M. Derrett, Earl Doherty, C.F. Evans, Randel Helms, Frank Kermode, Dennis R. MacDonald, Dale Miller and Patricia Miller. Liliann Portefaix, Wolfgang Roth, William R. Stegner, Rikki E. Watts, and many others that there is ample evidence that ‘haggadic midrash’ was rampant in the writing of the New Testament.
    Could it be that The New Testament writers were pretending Jesus was fulfilling all kinds of Old Testament scripture and Greek scripture in order to sell “Him” and win converts? They were certainly in the business of winning converts and selling their message:

    (A) 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)

    (B) The Great Commission

    16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

    (C) Sending out Emissaries

    Just as Moses had chosen twelve spies to reconnoiter the land which stretched “before your face,” sending them through the cities of the land of Canaan, so does Jesus send a second group, after the twelve, a group of seventy, whose number symbolizes the nations of the earth who are to be “conquered,” so to speak, with the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. He sends them out “before his face” to every city he plans to visit (in Canaan, too, obviously).

    To match the image of the spies returning with samples of the fruit of the land (Deuteronomy 1:25), Luke has placed here the Q saying (Luke 10:2//Matthew 9:37-38), “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; therefore beg the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers into his harvest.”

    And Jesus’ emissaries return with a glowing report, just as Moses’ did.
    (Deuteronomy 1; Luke 10:1-3, 17-30)
    And it was well known among the wise and the rulers in the ancient world how much of a good thing it could be to institute the worship of a God for political reasons: see http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/12/07/1350043/-Ancient-Egypt-Inventing-a-God . There’s nothing inherently improbable in the idea that Christianity started out as a cult worshiping a celestial being, or the more unorthodox position that the “Jesus stories” were simply “made up” to support “political” or “social ethic” ideals. Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek), for example, was cleverly instituted as a Graeco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.

    The permission of lying under special circumstances would not separate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures from other ancient spiritualities. It would actually put them all very much in line. The justification of lying hypothesis is very interesting. It resonates with much in spirituality … even shamanism …where the neophyte is taken in with ‘magic’ to attract their attention and then is taken to the Truth… and the understanding that what they initially through was magic was simply deception … and the recognition of how early they were deceived.

    Justified lying occurs a lot in ancient spirituality. Confucius, in the ‘Analects,’ indicates “The Governor of She said to Confucius, ‘In our village we have an example of a straight person. When the father stole a sheep, the son gave evidence against him.’ Confucius answered, ‘In our village those who are straight are quite different. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. In such behaviour is straightness to be found as a matter of course.’ (13.18)” The Holy Lie also has a history of societal structuring intentions. For example, The pious fraud or noble lie is present in Plato’s Republic in Book 2, Sections 414-7, where Plato says a functional stratified society could be realized if they could convince the people of the lie that everyone from different levels of society were created by God to exist in a certain level of society.

    This is also true of the Code of Manu. Roger Berkowitz says of the Manu based society, that its division of society into four castes, each with its own particular obligations and rights, is a desired end because it reflects the natural order of society. He says ‘“The order of castes, the highest, the most dominant Gesetz, is only the sanction of a natural-order, natural legal- positing of the first rank, over which no willfulness, no ‘modern idea’ has power. It is nature, not Manu or the Brahmin legislators, that divides the predominantly intellectual from those who are predominantly physically or temperamentally strong, and both of these from the mediocre, who are extraordinary in neither intellect nor strength. The Indian caste system is an artifice, a Holy Lie—but it is a lie that serves natural end.’

    Similarly, we see the permission of lying in Islam. In the Pro-Muslim book ‘The Spirit of Islam,’ Afif A. Tabbarah writes, concerning the mandates of Muhammed,

    ‘Lying is not always bad, to be sure; there are times when telling a lie is more profitable and better for the general welfare, and for the settlement of conciliation among people, than telling the truth. To this effect, the Prophet says: ‘He is not a false person who (through lies) settles conciliation among people, supports good or says what is good.’

    Suppose a group of people a long time ago believed adamantly in a world-view that was impossible because their world was under Roman Rule and subject to a Jewish system that they no longer believed in. Suppose that they would have done anything, even give their lives, to bring about what they considered to be a proper way of life, but did it in such a way that they knew one day, when the world had changed and become a learned, civilized place of their design, their spiritual offspring would be able to see through what they had done and be able to continue on their way of life without needing to believe in the superstition surrounding it.

    1. For “Pentecost (2:1-4ff)”, have you considered Josephus’ discussion of the tower of Babel and his quote of the Sibylline Oracles?

      The Sibyl also makes mention of this tower, and of the confusion of the language, when she says thus: “When all men were of one language, some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven, but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon.” [Antiquities of the Jews 1.4.3]

      1. Not Josephus himself, but the story of the division of languages at Babel has suggested itself to me as being of relevance. Pentecost seems to be undoing the mess at the start of “this world” perhaps inspired by Zephaniah’s prophecy of the pure language. Thanks for the Josephus/Sibylline quote — worth looking into some more.

    2. I think there is reason to believe Paul was lying – since he protested so much that he wasn’t lying. We read:

      “…19But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20(Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.) 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.… (Gal 1:19-21)”


      “Romans 9:1
      I speak the truth in Christ–I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit–”

      “2 Corinthians 1:23
      I call God as my witness–and I stake my life on it–that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.”

      “2 Corinthians 11:31
      The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.”

      As Shakespeare said: Methinks Paul Doth Protest Too Much!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading