Part 2 of the case for the historicity of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Part 2 of Professor McGrath’s discussion on historicity of Jesus is in podcast form. Disappointing in that it is mostly a mocking of mythicism by setting up a series of seriously oversimplified claims and outright straw-men.  I was hoping for a more serious collation of arguments for historicity of Jesus. The strongest they came to that was by saying that “critical scholars” have done “tons of research” and have “concluded some things are more probable than others” on the basis of “the evidence”. Not much detail there. (As some of us are well aware, that research has by and large been into what the Jesus who is assumed to have existed may have said and did — not whether he existed or not.)

Points from part 2 of the Historicity of Jesus podcast follow. [I] = interviewer expresses the idea; [M] = McGrath’s thoughts. Mostly paraphrased, not always word for word.

[I] The crucifixion is a good indicator that the early Christians did not make up Jesus because the crucifixion was actually contrary to the message they were trying to spread about him! (I think the point here is that the Christians wanted to teach Jesus was the Davidic King Messiah and Crucifixion was an embarrassment to that claim so they were compelled to mention it because it was unavoidable because everyone knew about it being historically true.)

[M] Responding to “mythicist claim” that mythicist Jesus is not on the agenda because biblical scholarship is funded by churches, says no, not true, and cites his own university, Butler, as a secular university. McGrath teaches at a secular university so the implication is that there is no religious bias from his quarter. Moreover, what “historians” say about the HJ [=historical Jesus] is not liked by most religious (liberal and conservative Christian) people. Did not claim to be God; he was a rabbi, faith healer, followers thought he was messiah and he expected kingdom to come in his time but he was wrong — so Christians don’t like this Jesus.

Mocking denigration of mythicists skipped here.

[M] Jesus was believed to fit typologies in Jewish scriptures so these were used to depict Jesus — but not so with pagan dying and rising gods like Osiris.

[M] Docetists were not mythicists because they admitted there was a Jesus in history.

[M] Gospel of Matthew uses the Moses typology with the birth of Jesus and his final commission to disciples from the mountain. These sorts of infancy stories (supernatural) were common in ancient biographies. So these are not an indication that Jesus was myth.

[M] But Brodie is implausible when he tries to argue every story in gospels is created this way.

[M] Wants those who believe Jesus is based on Egyptian mythology to “fact-check” the claims for themselves.

[M] Historical kings in ancient times were often described with mythical language. So if Jesus is described in mythical language and with mythical comparisons — they could be applying these images to a historical person. So parallels don’t demonstrate ahistoricity.

[M] Compare Hubbard of Scientology. In years from now some followers may say to their audience that they may have heard some embarrassing things about H but here’s why you should not think negatively about him because of that. Embarrassing stories don’t make him a myth.

[I] Doesn’t the pagan origin of Easter and Christmas prove there was no HJ?
[M] No.

[M] On the Ascension of Isaiah — even if this text speaks of a celestial crucifixion (as argued by Carrier), according to docetic beliefs, this would also have reflected an earthly crucifixion. Heavenly was a reflection of the earthly.

[M] “If you think you can make an accurate judgment about history, without knowing the time period, without knowing the sources, without knowing the relevant languages, without really having this kind of expertise, then I think you are fooling yourself.” — Comparing the skills with evolutionary science.


This podcast is getting tiring. The title led me to think it was going to be about the historical Jesus but instead it’s really a litany of straw men claims [has McGrath really read Doherty and Carrier?] and jokes about supposed mythicist arguments. Anyway, to continue. . . .


[M] Scholars have pored over the evidence with tons of research and concluded through all their hard and long labour that some things are more likely to be probable than not about the HJ.

[M] I have the right to think most scientists are wrong about physics but I hope I’d have the humility to admit I’m probably wrong because most physicists contradict me.

[M] I’m glad mythicists have published in peer review because I want to engage in serious versions of mythicism and not the internet version.

The rest of podcast is bogging down into spirituality, history, Jesus being alive today, personal experiences with Jesus today, meaning of faith, God, etc etc etc. Yawn!


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28 thoughts on “Part 2 of the case for the historicity of Jesus”

  1. Professor McGrath: “Did not claim to be God; he was a rabbi, faith healer, followers thought he was messiah and he expected kingdom to come in his time but he was wrong — so Christians don’t like this Jesus”

    Makes me curious. What kind of Christian is McGrath? The Shelby Spong/Thomas Brodie kind? Or is he the kind that believes that Jesus is actually the third person in the holy trinity, the word that became flesh? Has the Professor ever clarified?

    Makes me curious…

      1. If McGrath is a true believer and does not think logically or engage in honest discussions..and attacks mythicists to keep his flock believing… what differentiates him from other hopeless apologists such that this blog takes notice of him.

      2. I do recall him arguing that there was “something inexplicable” that was experienced by the followers of Jesus. Of course this is just dog-whistle talk for the resurrection (wink wink).

        1. I wonder if it was any mire inexplicable than the followers of Dionysis? And, how does that relate to followers today, who obviously haven’t witnessed any ressurection? Doesn’t that rather tell us that witnessing a ressurection isn’t necessary?

        1. I am well aware McGrath says the resurrection etc is outside the scope of historical studies. What I find problematic is that not only McG but so many biblical scholars do say this, but at the same time they resort to “something now lost to us”, some “experience we cannot fully understand now” etc to explain what happened to the disciples to convince them that Jesus was still alive or had returned to life. They couch it all in naturalistic terms but it remains something of a mystery or a subjective experience that we can only identify with a question mark, or with some speculations from psychology.

          In other words, they simply embrace the gospel narrative and replace miracles with some alternative naturalistic explanation — even in the case of the resurrection for which they have no adequate explanation other than “something the disciples experienced”.

            1. The empty tomb and resurrection are part of the same narrative sequence, so you can’t use narrative facts about the empty tomb as evidence for the historicity of the resurrection. There is no need to posit naturalistic explanations like a “stolen body” to explain the “fact” of the empty tomb. You wouldn’t argue that the yellow brick road must have existed, because how else would they have gotten to the city of OZ? All we can argue is that the empty tomb is a narrative device to connect the crucifixion with the resurrection. This has nothing to do with whether there actually was an empty tomb or not, which is not a question we can answer. The empty tomb is just part of the story.

  2. In regards to what the “Docetists” claimed – who’s to say that Justin Martyr and his ilk were not just intentionally missing their points just as Dr. McGrath does when critiquing mythycists? Mischaracterizing your opponents position to your own followers is an ancient rhetorical-political device still much practiced today. I dont believe we have any Docetist on record saying “Hey he was really there but he was really a Phantom”.

    1. You are quite correct. Of course we have no such record and McG surely knows he is bluffing against the ignorance of his audience when he implies otherwise. But once we concede the possibility that one early view was of a spirit appearing as a man in historical time then we immediately enter the world of myth, fabrication. It is far more likely that the different views of Jesus’ nature arose out of a beginning with him presented as only appearing in likeness of a human than it is to explain conflicting views of the nature of a real historical person.

  3. Did McGrath attempt to explain why Christians thought a crucified person was a) embarrassingly not the kind of Messiah they had been waiting for and b) the Messiah they had been waiting for?

    1. I have a feeling it will be because of the resurrection.

      Another failed messiah claimant? Uh-oh! Twist! Jesus rose from the dead – so in your face disbelievers in Jesus!

  4. As Neil said, clearly, it’s an entirely different question from “What seem to be the most basic things we can say about Robin Hood?” than is the question “What evidence do we have that Robin Hood existed?” On this point, we could find multiply attested to embarrassing things about King Arthur, like his wife Guinevere cheated on him, but this doesn’t mean that any of these things can be attributed to the historical King Arthur.

  5. [M] Docetists were not mythicists because they admitted there was a Jesus in history.

    The heresy of docetism appeared so early that the NT itself contains material most scholars view as deliberate rebuttals against it, which seems odd given these two assumed facts:

    1. Presumably, some family, friends, and eyewitnesses were still alive. Moreover, some secondhand witnesses must still have been around. What happened to the people “must have” who remembered Jesus’ family?
    2. Some physical evidence from Jesus’ life “must have” survived into the period of the early church fathers. The family of Jesus was supposed to have come from Nazareth. What happened to their physical remains? What happened to the house where Jesus grew up? What about Jesus’ house in Capernaum?

    How could Docetism have gained such an early toehold when so many witnesses and friends of witnesses were still around to set them straight? Some docetists went so far as to say Jesus didn’t leave any footprints when he walked in the sand. Oh, really?

    Yet despite the assumed facts above, no ancient author ever argued against Docetism using them as evidence. I could be wrong, but I’ve never seen an example. For instance, while Ehrman and McGrath use the “brother of the Lord” verse in Galatians as solid proof against mythicism, no anti-docetic writer never used it. You say no legendary person could have a real brother? Well, no phantom could have a real brother, either.

    Anti-docetic writers could have brushed the heresy aside with disdain and told us about the people who knew and remembered him. They could have said they knew where the family tombs were located. But they didn’t. Paul mentions Jesus’ brothers wandering around with sister-wives. Were there no witness to come forward and say, “I shook Joses hand!” or “I’ve seen James’ tomb!”?

    You could argue that early writers had to fight heretical dogma with orthodox dogma. And so they countered with religious logic, rather than physical evidence and the accounts of witnesses. But why not use both? Why not explain why Jesus had to be a real flesh-and-blood man using scripture, logic, and testimony? For example: “(1) Jesus had to die according to the scriptures. (2) He felt real pain and died a real death; otherwise he would not have defeated death and sin for us. (3) We have the testimony of Joseph of Arimathea who saw his blood and felt his flesh and bones.”

    Docetism raises a whole lot of troubling questions for historicists.

    1. I may not understand what Docetism is it turns out.

      I thought it was _just_ the idea that Jesus was actually some kind of spirit being. I didn’t realize it was supposed to entail that he didn’t _apparently_ (i.e. not really but going through the motions) get born, grow up, eat food, etc even as a spirit being. Was I mistaken? Where can I find out more about that, if so?

  6. [M] I’m glad mythicists have published in peer review because I want to engage in serious versions of mythicism and not the internet version.

    The irony is painful. I can think of no person more ill-equipped to carry out this task.

  7. [M] But Brodie is implausible when he tries to argue every story in gospels is created this way.

    This argument closely mirrors the creation argument of microevolution vs. macroevolution.

    Creationist: “Sure, genetic mutations occur and even accumulate over time, but this ‘microevolution’ cannot create a new species. It just seems implausible.”

    Historicist: “Sure, inventions appear in our texts. Some of the stories came from midrashic interpretations of scripture. But midrash cannot create an entire gospel. It just seems implausible.”

  8. Jesus never existed, eh? Then tell me who taught the Lord’s Prayer? Who told the parable of the prodigal son (which merely means that after sex you have to eat the flesh of cattle to replace the cholesterol lost in the sexual orgasm? Who said he could destroy the temple (his body) and rebuild it in 3 days? Who, larned rectum?

  9. “Even if this text speaks of a celestial crucifixion (as argued by Carrier), according to docetic beliefs, this would also have reflected an earthly crucifixion. Heavenly was a reflection of the earthly.”

    He’s got one thing right: ancient people did believe that what was in the heavens corresponded to a counterpart on the earth. There’s a temple on earth, there’s a temple in heaven. According to the Jewish theologian Philo, God created one Adam on Earth and another Adam in heaven. If you read Hebrews, it talks about Jesus’ blood sacrifice being offered in heaven. Given James’ interpretation, he might expect that Jesus’ heavenly sacrifice would correspond to Jesus’ bloodshed on earth or his establishment of the eucharist or something. Instead, Hebrews says that the earthly mirror of Jesus’ sacrifice is the animal sacrifices commanded by the Old Testament, almost like the author didn’t think Jesus was ever on earth at all, a point which may be corroborated by Hebrews 8:4 (depending on how you interpret the passage).

  10. Philip Jenkins is now offering his take on mythicism. Might be worth a new post, though the points he makes have been addressed a thousand times.


    “Briefly, if you are discussing Jesus of Nazareth, you can make any argument you choose to offer. If you wish, you can deny or challenge pretty much any aspect of the story told in the gospels, and present Jesus or his contemporaries in the most sinister or demeaning light possible. We can then argue about the evidence offered for any particular point. What you can’t do, though, without venturing into the far swamps of extreme crankery, is to argue that Jesus never existed. The “Christ-Myth Hypothesis” is not scholarship, and is not taken seriously in respectable academic debate. The grounds advanced for the “hypothesis” are worthless. The authors proposing such opinions might be competent, decent, honest individuals, but the views they present are demonstrably wrong.”

    1. Philip Jenkins is now offering his take on mythicism. Might be worth a new post, though the points he makes have been addressed a thousand times.

      I agree fully. What ”is actually scandalous” is how Jenkins ignores deliberately any alternative explanation of the evidence on which he builds his ‘case’.

    2. Yes, I saw Philip’s post. He is clearly writing with some impatience and frustration, — not a good basis. I have met Philip in person and he’s a nice bloke, but as we can see in this post he is trapped in the circular and cloudy assumptions of the conventional wisdom and has very little apparent interest in learning precisely what the problem with the historicity question actually is, and why his responses are pablum non sequiturs. I will respond.

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