One of the purposes of Vridar is to share what its authors have found of interest in biblical scholarship that unfortunately tends not to be easily accessible to the wider lay public. (Of course, our interests extend into political, science and other topics, too. For further background see the authors’ profiles and the explanations linked at the what is vridar page.)
Some people describe Vridar as “a mythicist blog” despite the fact that one of its authors, Tim, is an agnostic on the question and yours truly regularly points out that the evidence available to historians combined with valid historical methodology (as practised in history departments that have nothing to do with biblical studies) may not even allow us to address the question. The best the historian can do is seek to account for the evidence we do have for earliest Christianity.
There are some exceptional works, however, that do follow sound methods and draw upon an in-depth knowledge of the sources and the wider scholarship to argue strong cases that Christian origins are best explained with a Jesus figure who had little grounding in history, and this blog has been a vehicle to share some of those arguments, usually by means of guest-posts. If a hypothesized historical Jesus turns out to be the most economical explanation for that evidence, then that’s fine. We are atheists but neither of us has any hostility to religion per se (we respect the beliefs and journeys of others) and I don’t see what difference it makes to any atheist whether Jesus existed or not.
Unfortunately, in some of our discussions of biblical scholarship both Tim and I have found what we believe are serious flaws in logic of argument and even a misuse or misleading “quote-mining” of sources. In response, a number of biblical scholars have expressed a less than professional response towards this blog’s authors and what they wrote. Some years back, in heated discussions, I myself occasionally responded in kind but I apologized and those days are now all long-gone history. Fortunately, a number of respected scholars have contacted us to express appreciation for what we are trying to do here at Vridar and that has been very encouraging.
(For what it’s worth, this blog has also often been the target of very hostile attacks from some of the supporters of less-than-scholarly arguments for a “mythical Jesus”.)
So with that little bit of background behind us, I now have the opportunity to address Larry Hurtado’s blog post, Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars.
Fallacy of the prevalent proof
The overwhelming body of scholars, in New Testament, Christian Origins, Ancient History, Ancient Judaism, Roman-era Religion, Archaeology/History of Roman Judea, and a good many related fields as well, hold that there was a first-century Jewish man known as Jesus of Nazareth, that he engaged in an itinerant preaching/prophetic activity in Galilee, that he drew to himself a band of close followers, and that he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.
That is a sweeping statement and I believe it to be misleading for the following reasons.
I doubt that the “overwhelming body of scholars” in any of the fields listed, apart from New Testament and Christian Origins, has ever addressed the question of the historicity of Jesus. Certainly, I can accept that probably most people in the West, not only scholars, who have discussed ancient times have at some time heard or made mention of Jesus as a “historical marker”. The life of Jesus is public knowledge, after all. And public knowledge is culturally (not “academically”) transmitted. I suspect that “the overwhelming body of scholars” in all fields who have ever mentioned Jesus in some context have never investigated the academic or scholarly arguments for his existence. That doesn’t make them unscholarly. It simply puts them within their cultural context. I also suspect that for “the overwhelming” majority of those scholars, the question of the historicity of Jesus made no meaningful difference to the point they were expressing.
Hurtado in his opening statement is appealing to what historian David Hackett Fisher labelled the fallacy of the prevalent proof.
These same scholars typically recognize also that very quickly after Jesus’ execution there arose among Jesus’ followers the strong conviction that God (the Jewish deity) had raised Jesus from death (based on claims that some of them had seen the risen Jesus). These followers also claimed that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory as the validated Messiah, the unique “Son of God,” and “Lord” to whom all creation was now to give obeisance.[i] Whatever they make of these claims, scholars tend to grant that they were made, and were the basis for pretty much all else that followed in the origins of what became Christianity.
Here we have a continuation of the above fallacy. Yes, what Hurtado describes is what most people (not only scholars) in the Christian West have probably heard at some time and taken for granted as the “Christian story”. Again, what Hurtado is referring to here is a process of cultural transmission. Very few of “these same scholars” have ever studied the question of historicity. We all repeat cultural “memes” the same way we quote lines of Shakespeare.
After 250 years of critical investigation
The “mythical Jesus” view doesn’t have any traction among the overwhelming number of scholars working in these fields, whether they be declared Christians, Jewish, atheists, or undeclared as to their personal stance. Advocates of the “mythical Jesus” may dismiss this statement, but it ought to count for something if, after some 250 years of critical investigation of the historical figure of Jesus and of Christian Origins, and the due consideration of “mythical Jesus” claims over the last century or more, this spectrum of scholars have judged them unpersuasive (to put it mildly).
This statement is a common but misleading characterization of the history of the debate. I think it is fair to say that in fact scholars have not at all spent the past 250 years investigating the question of the historical existence of Jesus. Their studies have, on the contrary, assumed the existence of Jesus and sought to resolve questions about that historical figure’s nature, career, teachings, thoughts, impact, etc. Forty years ago the academic Dennis Nineham even described the importance of the historical foundations of the story of Jesus to meet the needs of theological and biblical scholars. (See earlier posts on his book, The Use and Abuse of History.)
The number of biblical scholars who have published works dedicated to a refutation of the “Christ Myth” theory are very few and, though often cited, appear to have been little read. According to Larry Hurtado’s own discussions, it appears that he has only read one such work, one dated 1938, that I think few others have ever heard of. See “It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist. (He may have read other such criticisms, and more recent and thorough ones, of which I am unaware.)
The fact is that the few scholars who have historically “come out” to argue that Jesus did not have a historical existence, beginning with Bruno Bauer, have been ostracized and soon ignored by the fields of theology and biblical studies.
In normal academic debate an author is given a right to a reply to criticisms of his work. I have yet to see a mainstream biblical scholar actually address (as distinct from ridicule or insult) any of the responses of Christ myth supporters to those works that are supposed to have debunked mythicism, such as those of Shirley Jackson Case, Maurice Goguel and now Bart Ehrman. One gets the impression that many scholars are content to accept that scholars like Ehrman have “taken care” of the arguments and the matter can be safely left at that. In fact, most replies to the works of Case, Ehrman and others are demonstrations that they have failed to address the core arguments despite their claims to the contrary.
Sometimes an offensive manner is used as an excuse to avoid engaging in serious debate or responses to criticisms, which is a shame because I have seen rudeness and other lapses in professionalism on both sides. Mainstream scholars would, I think, be more persuasive among their target audience if they took the initiative in seizing the high ground of a civil tone and academic rigour in all related discussions. Unfortunately, several academics are even on record as saying that they fear to show normal standards of respect and courtesy with mythicist arguments for fear that they would be interpreted as giving the view a “respectability it does not deserve.” That sounds to me like a reliance upon attempted persuasion by means of condescension, abuse and bullying.
The reasons are . . .
The reasons are that advocates of the “mythical Jesus” have failed to demonstrate expertise in the relevant data, and sufficient acquaintance with the methods involved in the analysis of the relevant data, and have failed to show that the dominant scholarly view (that Jesus of Nazareth was a real first-century figure) is incompatible with the data or less secure than the “mythical Jesus” claim. This is true, even of Richard Carrier’s recent mammoth (700+ pages) book, advertised as the first “refereed” book advocating this view.[ii] Advertisements for his book refer to the “assumption” that Jesus lived, but among scholars it’s not an assumption—it’s the fairly settled judgement of scholars based on 250 years of hard work on that and related questions.
“Failed to demonstrate expertise in the relevant data”? I don’t think so. Some mythicists have been trained biblical scholars (a handful even continue to claim they are Christians) and Earl Doherty was acknowledged for his competence in the original language of the letters of Paul and the canonical gospels. I would be interested if Hurtado could specify exactly how any other failure to demonstrate appropriate expertise has invalidated their specific arguments.
“Failed to demonstrate . . . sufficient acquaintance with the methods involved”? Such a claim, I suggest, indicates Hurtado’s lack of knowledge of the arguments and writings of those arguing a mythicist case. The conventional methods are indeed addressed and analysed. Often they are followed and applied in certain arguments.
“Failed to show that the dominant scholarly view . . . is incompatible with the data . . .”? Again, Hurtado appears to be unfamiliar with their works in order to make such an assertion. Very often the mythicists merely point to the publications of mainstream scholars to demonstrate the weaknesses of the dominant view.
You don’t have to read . . .
You don’t have to read the 700+ pages of Carrier’s book, however, to see if it’s persuasive. To cite an ancient saying, you don’t have to drink the whole of the ocean to judge that it’s salty. Let’s take Carrier’s own summary of his key claims as illustrative of the recent “mythical Jesus” view. I cite from one of his blog-postings in which he states concisely his claims:
We see here a classic instance of the problem addressed by Niels Peter Lemche in another context that I linked and discussed more fully in The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship. To quote a key sentence from that post, in the words of Lemche:
Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche; read books about them!
To return to something expressed earlier, one can confidently say that
The overwhelming body of scholars, in Old Testament, Israel’s Origins, Ancient History, Ancient Judaism, Canaanite-era Religion, Archaeology/History of Persian Jehud, and a good many related fields as well, hold that there was an exodus and conquest of Canaan and a united kingdom of Israel under David….
Only a growing number of scholars have engaged with the data and the methods of their peers and are coming to question all of that. (Yes, I’m aware of the Tel Dan stele with its inscription that references a “house of David” and of a range of contemporary scholarly views about it.)
“that Christianity may have been started by a revealed [i.e., “mythical”] Jesus rather than a historical Jesus is corroborated by at least three things:
- the sequence of evidence shows precisely that development (from celestial, revealed Jesus in the Epistles, to a historical ministry in the Gospels decades later),
- all similar savior cults from the period have the same backstory (a cosmic savior, later historicized),
- and the original Christian Jesus (in the Epistles of Paul) sounds exactly like the Jewish archangel Jesus, who certainly did not exist. So when it comes to a historical Jesus, maybe we no longer need that hypothesis.”[iii]
Carrier’s three claims actually illustrate his lack of expertise in the relevant field, and show why his “mythical Jesus” doesn’t get much traction among scholars. Let’s start with the third claim. There is no evidence whatsoever of a “Jewish archangel Jesus” in any of the second-temple Jewish evidence. . . . So, the supposed “background” figure for Carrier’s “mythical” Jesus is a chimaera, an illusion in Carrier’s mind based on a lack of first-hand familiarity with the ancient Jewish evidence.[vi]
I have reformatted the above text from Hurtado’s post and added the numbers 1 to 3 for ease of reference.
Strike one . . .
Hurtado was responding to Carrier’s online essay but for the record I add here Carrier’s explanation of applying “archangel” to Jesus in his argument on pages 200-205 of his book. At the outset Carrier sets out how he will use certain terms:
I must first define some terms I will frequently use. . . . These definitions are not intended to be normative. So there is no sense in arguing whether my definitions are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. They merely specify what I mean when I use those terms, regardless of what anyone else might mean, or what any dictionaries say, or any other conventions. As long as you treat my definitions as nothing more than explanations of what I mean, confusion will be forestalled. I shall use god to mean any celestial being with supernatural power, and God to mean a supreme creator deity. Though by this definition angels and demons are indeed gods, I’ll sometimes (but not always) use angel or archangel to refer to ‘gods’ that are believed to be acting as messengers or servants of God . . . (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 60 — my bolding)
Hurtado is quoting from the concluding paragraph of an essay by Carrier and has apparently failed to read the argument that led to that conclusion. Carrier had presented an argument to justify the following claim that is made about half way through the essay:
This “Jesus” would most likely have been the same archangel identified by Philo of Alexandria as already extant in Jewish theology.
The argument is more fully developed on pages 200 to 205 in his book, On the Historicity of Jesus, as Carrier noted in the essay.
Yet Hurtado isolates a summary point in the concluding paragraph to suggest to unwary readers that Carrier somehow is just making stuff up without any knowledge of the relevant data.
Strike two . . .
You don’t have to read the 700+ pages of Carrier’s book. You don’t even have to read the online essay from which Hurtado is quote-mining.
Now let’s consider his second claim, that “all similar savior cults from the period” feature “a cosmic savior, later historicized.” All? That’s quite a claim! So, for example, Isis? She began as a local Egyptian deity and her cult grew in popularity and distribution across the Roman world in the first century or so AD, but she never came to be treated as a historical woman. How about her Egyptian consort Osiris? Again, a deity who remained . . . a deity, and didn’t get “historicized” as a man of a given date. Mithras? Ditto. Cybele? Ditto. Artemis? Ditto. We could go on, but it would get tedious to do so. Carrier’s cavalier claim is so blatantly fallacious as to astonish anyone acquainted with ancient Roman-era religion.[vii] There is in fact no instance known to me (or to other experts in Roman-era religion) in “all the savior cults of the period” of a deity that across time got transformed into a mortal figure of a specific time and place, such as is alleged happened in the case of Jesus.[viii]
Hurtado here simply redefines what is meant by “historical”. Of course most ancient followers of Isis and other deities believed that most of them were “real”, had historical existences on earth in a former age. Yes, they were thought to have lived in a remote time and not in such and such a year of a recent Roman emperor. But the precise “when” of a figure is a different question from that of their historicity.
Strike three . . .
OK, so two strikes already, and one claim yet to consider: a supposed shift from Jesus as “a celestial being” (with no earthly/human existence) in Paul’s letters to “a historical ministry in the Gospels decades later.” The claim reflects a curiously distorted (and simplistic) reading of both bodies of texts. Let’s first look at the NT Gospels.
It’s commonly accepted that the Gospel of John is the latest of them (with differences of scholarly opinion on the literary relationship of GJohn to the others), and that perhaps as much as a decade or more separates the earliest (usually thought to be GMark) from GJohn. So, on Carrier’s claim, we might expect a progressively greater “historicization” of Jesus, and less emphasis on him as “a celestial being,” in GJohn. Which is precisely not the case—actually, the opposite. . . .
In contrast, GMark simply narrates an account of Jesus’ itinerant ministry of teaching, performing exorcisms and healings, conflicts with critics, and then a lengthy account of his fateful final trip to Jerusalem. . . . Most indicative that the Jesus of GMark is a genuine mortal is the account of his crucifixion, his death, and burial of his “corpse” (Mark’s clinically precise term, 15:45). Whatever his higher significance or transcendent identity, in GMark Jesus is at least quite evidently a real mortal man.[ix] . . . .
As far as the other “Synoptic” Gospels are concerned (GMatthew and GLuke), it’s commonly accepted that they took GMark as inspiration, pattern and key source, each of them, however, producing a distinctive “rendition” (to use a musical term) of the basic narrative. . . .
But the overall point here is that across the years in which the Gospels were composed, there isn’t a trajectory from a “celestial being” with no earthly existence to a “historicized” man. If anything, the emphasis goes in the opposite direction.[x] Certainly, it appears to most scholars that the Gospels reflect the growth of legendary material about Jesus, the birth narratives being a prime example. But legendary embellishment is what happens to high-impact historical figures, and doesn’t signal that the figures are “mythical”.
Hurtado’s response to Carrier’s first point is more problematic than the two others. Hurtado has simply failed in this case to even read Carrier’s point carefully and has consequently written a lengthy non-sequitur.
Recall, Carrier wrote in his essay:
- the sequence of evidence shows precisely that development (from celestial, revealed Jesus in the Epistles, to a historical ministry in the Gospels decades later)
Hurtado has missed Carrier’s point entirely and not once mentioned the fact that Carrier is drawing the contrast between the Jesus in the epistles as distinct from the one in the gospels.
These are the sorts of misreadings that are common among scholars who respond in ad hoc ways to elements of certain mythicist arguments. They cannot hope to be persuasive among any except the converted while they continue to make such careless mistakes.
(Even more ironically, perhaps, Hurtado himself in his scholarly work has argued that the earliest Christian view of Jesus was as a highly exalted heavenly figure, although of course he also insists that he appeared as a mortal prior to his crucifixion.)
The circularity of “proving” the narrative derives from historical events
And some 250 years of critical study of the Gospels has continued to show that they draw upon various earlier sources, both written and oral that had been circulating for decades, including collections of sayings and disputations of Jesus, likely also a body of miracle stories, and narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion. Indeed, the Gospels (especially their variations in their respective accounts) reflect multiple and varied stories and traditions about Jesus that were taught and transmitted across the decades between Jesus’ execution and the composition of these texts. Which means that treating Jesus as the Messiah and exalted Lord whose teachings and earthly actions were significant did not begin with the Gospel writers, but has its roots deeply back into the earlier decades. The earmarks of the traditions on which the Gospel writers drew are there and have been readily perceived by scholars for a long time, whatever differences there are among scholars about precisely the form and extent of these traditions. Treating Jesus as a historical figure didn’t commence late or with the authors of the Gospels.
In the above paragrap, Hurtado is describing a circular methodology or argument. The reason oral traditions are assumed to lie behind the gospels is because the gospel narrative is believed to have been derived from historical events and there had to be some way for details of that event to be passed on until they were written about in the gospels. Yes, scholars have studied the works of oral historians and their researches into oral story telling in the Balkans and Africa. Yet such research can do nothing more than try to refine the understanding of the process of oral tradition that is being assumed to have existed behind the gospels. Furthermore, more recent scholarship has opened to question the so-called signs of oral sources in the gospels: see, for example, discussions of the work of Henaut and others.
While criticisms can and are mounted against certain arguments about oral traditions, we need to keep in mind that we have clear concrete evidence that the evangelists did develop and adapt narratives and sayings from the Jewish Scriptures in the composition of their narratives.
But, in a sense, the “mythical Jesus” focus on the Gospels is a bit of a red-herring. For the far earlier references to an earthly/mortal Jesus are in the earliest Christian texts extant: the several letters that are commonly undisputed as composed by the Apostle Paul.[xiii] These take us back much earlier, typically dated sometime between the late 40s and the early 60s of the first century. So Carrier’s final claim to consider is whether Paul’s letters reflect a view of Jesus as simply an angelic, “celestial” being with no real historical existence.
Tedious to prolong the matter
Unfortunately, Hurtado assumes his interpretation and meanings extrapolated from certain biblical texts is sufficient to rest his case and to believe that he has no need even to read arguments that some people believe challenge the conventional wisdom. It is beyond the scope of this reply to address those arguments now, though records of their discussions are widely available here and elsewhere, including in books that people are advised not to read.
But for Paul and those previous Jesus-followers whom he had initially opposed prior to the “revelation” that turned him in a new direction, Jesus was initially a Jewish male contemporary.
We see assumptions and convention overriding the actual evidence. Paul nowhere suggests that Jesus as a man was a contemporary of his.
So, there are two major corrections to make to the claim espoused by Carrier.
First, Paul never refers to Jesus as an angel or archangel.[xvii] . . . Moreover, although Paul shares the early Christian notion that the historical figure, Jesus had a heavenly back-story or divine “pre-existence” (e.g., Philippians 2:6-8), this in no way worked against Paul’s view of Jesus as also a real, historical human being.
And, secondly, there is abundant confirmation that for Paul Jesus real historical existence was even crucial. Perhaps the most obvious text to cite is 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, . . . . Now, whatever one makes of the references to Jesus’ resurrection and post-resurrection appearances, it’s clear that a death and burial requires a mortal person. It would be simply special pleading to try to convert the reference to Jesus’ death and burial into some sort of event in the heavens or such.
The facts that Hurtado cites here (not the interpretation he draws from them) are not in dispute. Again, until scholars go beyond repeating the facts that they believe demonstrate their case and inform themselves of the reasons Christ myth theorists question those interpretations, they will only be addressing their converted.
Indeed, Paul repeatedly refers, not simply to Jesus’ death, but specifically to his crucifixion, which in Paul’s time was a particular form of execution conducted by Roman authorities against particular types of individuals . . . .
Or consider Paul’s explicit reference to Jesus as “born of a woman, born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). Paul here clearly declares Jesus to have been born, as mortals are, from a mother, and, further, born of a Jewish mother . . . .
Paul refers to Jesus’ physical brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5) and to Jesus’ brother James in particular (Galatians 1:19). Contrary to mythicist advocates, the expression “brothers of the Lord” is never used for Jesus-followers in general . . . .
Paul knows of a body of teachings ascribed to Jesus, and uses them on several occasions, as in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 . . . .
It would be tedious to prolong the matter.
Yes, it is tedious to prolong the matter if one of the parties has not read and has no interest in reading the reasons some people question the arguments (such as those above) that are so often repeated. There is no engagement with the arguments. We are told we don’t need to read the arguments, and that they are all written by ignorant and unqualified people. A tiny few scholars who have claimed to have addressed the arguments have not, to my knowledge, let themselves be drawn into a defence of their criticisms of their arguments. As mentioned above, less than professional attitudes enter and preempt discussion and defence.
I suspect Larry Hurtado has put his finger on the exact reason there is no genuine debate on the question of historicity. One side does indeed find the very question “tedious” and their failure to demonstrate any serious knowledge of or professional response to the arguments they find “tedious” indicates that the reason is more than simply academic.
We have examined each of Carrier’s three claims and found each of them readily falsified. It’s “three strikes you’re out” time. Game over.
Game over. No need for discussion. One side has claimed victory simply by writing something that actually fails to address any of the “three claims” as we saw above. And that’s how it goes. Often the next step is to claim that they have “dealt with” the myth arguments but that “mythicists” are not satisfied and want to continue the debate. Fact is, the arguments have not been dealt with. They have been avoided, sidestepped, ridiculed, even (perhaps without realizing it) misrepresented.
There are much better reasons offered by people for finding Christian faith (or any kind of belief in God) too much of a stretch. The attempts to deny Jesus’ historical existence are, for anyone acquainted with the relevant evidence, blatantly silly. So, let those who want to argue for or against Christian faith do so on more serious grounds, and let those of us who do historical investigation of Jesus and Christian Origins practice our craft without having to deal with the strategems-masquerading-as-history represented by the mythical Jesus advocates.
There we have it. False imputation of motive: mythicists are driven by a desire to attack Christianity. No need to read their arguments: “anyone acquainted with the relevant evidence”. Ridicule and insult: “blatantly silly”, “masquerading-as-history”.
Such a response does nothing to serve the public interest.
Since writing the above Larry Hurtado has responded with another post. For the link and my reply see
Larry Hurtado again; a new response (sigh)
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53 thoughts on “Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars””
“And some 250 years of un-critical study of the Gospels has simply perpetuated the wishful thinking of earlier generations — that they draw upon various earlier sources, both written and oral that had been circulating for decades, because if you conclude otherwise you’ll lose your tenure.”
Fixed that for ya, Larry.
Probably 50% of more of the so-called “historians” working in this field have to sign faith statements upon which their employment hinges, which is the opposite of scholarship. Real historians wouldn’t touch this field. It’s such a rare occurrence that when one did (Michael Grant), his book was promoted as *”looking at these Gospels with an historian’s eye,”* i.e., differently from the eyes of faith which guide Hurtado and his fellow seminarians and evangelizers.
Do you know of a good short summary of what Paul said about the human Jesus? Either Paul knew remarkably little about Jesus life, or he saw little reason to refer to what he knew in his letters. Although Paul preaches the gospel of love thy neighbor, there is little of the emphasis on social justice and denunciation of great wealth of the Jesus of the gospels.
One discussion of what Paul said about the “human Jesus” is online at Earl Doherty’s Jesus Puzzle site. (It’s a long time since I read that page and I cannot say I would necessarily agree with everything in it, but I believe it is a creditable argument.)
A problem with setting out a brief dot-point list of “things Paul said about the earthly Jesus” is that such a list hides the problem that some of the points are in passages of questionable authenticity and others take on quite different meanings when taken from both their Pauline context and wider cultural-philosophical context.
Addressing dot-points becomes little more than argument by proof-texting and removed from deeper discussions that draw upon the religious-philosophical thought of the day.
I just did a quick skim of 1 Corinthians, and the only reference to a living Jesus is the description of the lords supper in chap 11. Many references to his death and then discussion of resurrection in chap 15. But in all of his lectures on how the Christians should behave, he does not once find a useful quote or example of Jesus’ behavior. Plenty of quotes from OT, but none from Jesus. Plenty of talk about his own missionary work and struggles, but not a single anecdote of Jesus’ mission, the crowds he drew, the miracles he performed. Relying on the testimony of Paul, seems to be a particularly weak aspect of Hurtado’s argument. It seems to me that Paul knew virtually nothing of the Jesus portrayed in the gospels. Am I wrong?
And the last supper scene in 1 Corinthians is almost certainly interpolated. Which brings up the other problem with using Paul for historicity. You don’t know what the texts originally said. We know they’ve been tampered with and collated. And we’re arguing about 3 or 4 passages really of questionable authenticity and meaning. It’s a very thin reed.
1 Cor 11: 23, on a face value reading, would seem to indicate that Paul learned of the Lord’s Supper instructions directly from the Lord — that is, by revelation.
It seems that Paul conceived the “Christian religion by revelation. And his model for Jesus seems to have been the suffering servant of Isaiah 52, 53. He must have been a remarkable fellow. The gospels were added later, ostensibly to flesh out the man side of this God-man, but also, in the wake of the destruction of the second temple, to reemphasize the suffering yet ultimate triumph of the suffering servant of second Isaiah. Is this a stretch or am I just repeating what others have concluded?
It certainly seems plausible. Greta Christina has said that the Gospels are “fan fiction” based on the epistles. And I think that’s about right.
A related viewpoint is Roger Parvus’s — see Simonian origin.
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 – Jewish opponents killed Jesus.
Galatians 1:19 – Paul meets James, “a brother of the Lord”.
Galatians 4:4-5 – Jesus is “born of a woman”.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 – The “Last Supper”.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8 – Jesus dying and being buried; people see Jesus.
Romans 1:1-4 – Jesus is the “seed of David”.
see Youtube channel “Fishers of Evidence”:
1. Did Jesus Exist? Silence of Paul 1
2. Did Jesus Exist? Historicist counters to the Silence of Paul
If this is it, it’s a pretty puny list. Jesus was born, crucified, and resurrected. What did he teach, where did he evangelize, why did the Jews and romans kill him. Paul doesn’t seem to have a clue. Nor does he care. Jesus was crucified for our sins, was resurrected and translated to heaven. That’s the whole story of Jesus for Paul. He doesn’t exhort his followers to follow Jesus’ example in how they live their lives (except love thy neighbor). Paul tells people how to behave, focusing on sexual behavior, )which Jesus of the gospels had little to say about), but seldom if ever cites Jesus as the model for that behavior. All that is necessary or relevant about Jesus’ life, to Paul, is that he was crucified and ressurected. For all his commitment to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul is completely indifferent to his life as a human.
When Paul advises his followers that it would be best to be celibate like himself, one would think he would add: and like Jesus was. But no, Jesus is never used as a model for human behavior. Or am I wrong?
I agree with Neil that one should not jump to conclusions based on superficial quote mining, but some things are so obvious from even a naive reading of the NT, that deep scholarship is not required. One of these is that Paul new little or nothing of the living Jesus of the gospels.
And it doesn’t take deep expertise in the non-biblical sources of the period to recognize that there are no contemporary, first-person testimonies to Jesus’ life outside the scriptures. And unless the scholars are wrong about the dating of the gospels, there are no contemporary first hand accounts of Jesus in the Bible either.
re: “I doubt that the “overwhelming body of scholars” in any of the fields listed, apart from New Testament and Christian Origins, has ever addressed the question of the historicity of Jesus. ”
I just looked up “historical Jesus” on wiki, and it says “Virtually all scholars who write on the subject agree that Jesus existed,…”
Looks like (maybe?) there’s a real difference of opinions here. I notice that the wiki entry has a number of footnotes, which I suppose show support for the statement made (as footnotes are supposed to do)
I presume that the “overwhelming body of scholars” are all published, credentialed writers, and the reason I make that presumption is that one such scholar is not likely to consider another person a scholar unless they are at least author of peer-reviewed writings. (And, I’ll say up front – my presumption may be incorrect).
But if my presumption is correct, then perhaps the reference is (as wiki notes) to *published* scholars who have written on the topic?
We are not interested in arguments from authority here, nor in taking for granted claims by anyone, even if with dozens of footnotes supposedly supporting what they say. We are only interested in the arguments and their merits. Both Tim and I have found many times over that it is never wise to simply trust footnotes, that they always must be checked. All claims, all assertions, all citations — they all must be checked.
Very few scholars have ever written arguments for the historicity of Jesus, despite many claims to the contrary. You simply cannot find very many at all, maybe no more than the number of digits on one hand that has through misadventure lost a digit or two. They all assume his existence. It is a cultural heritage. It is the fallacy of the prevalent proof the historian Fischer spoke about.
HOHO I wanted to mention the last 2 or 3 emails of L Hurtado which have taken in various items mentioned here of late eg tim oneill etc […….this being the premier mythicist / critical site] FOR old Larry displayS all the arrogance [and yet insecurity with regard to history] so often bemoaned here. Great post.
I saw LH’s panegyric on Tim O’Neill’s site. It’s like a mutual back-scratching club. Tim is demonstrably polemical and often misuses sources and misapplies quotations or citations, but the message is just what many mainstream biblical scholars want to hear so his work is most welcome.
I recently finished reading “On the Historicity of Jesus” by Richard Carrier. This book constitutes “traction with scholars,” inasmuch as Carrier has a PhD from Columbia in ancient history, which ought to qualify him as a scholar. I also agree with Neil that the above “slam dunk” refutation of Carrier is a failure to seriously address opposition arguments. I don’t know whether to laugh or be appalled at the refutations proposed above. They are either insignificant (the archangel Jesus argument) or blatantly ill-informed and misrepresentational (the argument of progression of the cosmic Christ idea from Mark to John, while ignoring the progression from epistles to gospels, which is the one Carrier emphasizes). New Testament scholars and people in departments of theology are precisely the wrong people to be examining the question of the historicity of Jesus, for reasons that have been pointed out by the previous comments of others above. I’ve read several such books now, and only in Carrier and Doherty do you get anything like an objective examination of historical materials (or lack thereof) and reasonable inferences to be drawn from them. From the people in religious departments, you get rationalizations. As Neil points out, this is what you get when you have a strong cultural bias. It has only been a few hundred years since the Enlightenment. It may take a few hundred more before human beings can become more objective about this issue, assuming that they will last that long.
“New Testament scholars and people in departments of theology are precisely the wrong people to be examining the question of the historicity of Jesus…”
Exactly. New Testament scholars are literary scholars, not historians. They don’t know it, but their field is closer to Chaucer and Shakespeare studies than it is to ancient history.
It can be explained as merely cultural bias. These same people would not hesitate a second to write off Krishna as a myth.
I don’t question that these scholars engage in forms of historical analysis. The problem is that departments of religion and theology exist to support the clerical professions. We can’t expect them to conclude that the foundation of their culturally and economically sanctioned enterprise is reducible to a figment of the imagination.
Hurtado was responding to Carrier’s online essay but for the record I want to add here Carrier’s explanation of applying “archangel” to Jesus in his argument on pages 200-205 of his book. At the outset Carrier sets out how he will use certain terms:
I think you should put this quote from Carrier’s book in the main body of your post, so that there’s no ignoring it by detractors.
Hurtado has read Neil’s post and gave this reply:
“I’m afraid that dear old Neil Godfrey’s posting is a failure, involving distortion of what I wrote and ignorance on other matters. E.g., the ‘scholars’ that I refer to in the opening sentence are specifically identified as to the several relevant fields, not ‘scholars’ in general. As for the ‘archangel Jesus’, Carrier specifically claims one such, so my refutation is spot on. There is no archangel Jesus and Jesus isn’t labelled an archangel in early Christian texts. As for the pagan gods, none of them transforms from god to historical person, which is what Carrier claims for ‘all savior cults’ of the Roman period. Godfrey simply misrepresents me and Carrier here. Carrier is not trained in the necessary evidence or field–another fact. Godfrey is a bit too cutsy-coy, pretending to be indifferent to the whole issue, while working like mad to defend the mythicist stance. He should ‘come out’ and be honest at being an apologist for his cause.”
See the comment section of Hurtado’s post here: https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/why-the-mythical-jesus-claim-has-no-traction-with-scholars/#comments
So Hurtado declines to engage with my criticism of his post and so avoids the need to defend his assertions. It even sounds as if he has poorly skimmed my own post above. (Contrary to his accusation above, I did indeed address the scholars “in the related fields” as per H’s original statement!) Not to mention the personal condescending insult.
Yes, “dear old Neil Godfrey” actually criticizes the conventional wisdom and though a mere layman exposes the flaws in the writings of scholars, and those are his crimes.
(At least Hurtado acknowledges my efforts to be objective in the way I argue my case, but he even manages to twist that into grounds for an accusation of dishonest motive and pretence!)
All of which means, of course, that there is still “no need” to read Carrier, and “no need”, either, to read Godfrey.
I get the impression that there is a secret rule among quite a few biblical scholars that they must always be rude and insulting when speaking of “dear old Neil Godfrey” lest anyone appear to think he might be taken seriously. As Lemche wrote, that’s how the game is played in that guild.
I am resisting visiting Hurtado’s blog (I have no wish to be tempted to get involved in posting on another forum or blog right now) so do let me know if there is anything else of interest that he may have said. So far it appears that he has erroneously claimed that I suggested he was referring to all scholars and not only to those in relevant fields (despite my very clear response referencing scholars explicitly in the fields he stated). Anyone interested can read what I have written, but I’d appreciate being informed if LH does make any other remarks about my post or comments. (I have long bent over backwards to get along with Larry — I am willing to make public our private correspondence if LH approves — but in vain. C’est la vie.)
Richard Carrier entered in the academy, and, while he was teaching, the chief theologians and the apologists masked as scholars and academics came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Richard Carrier replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 The peer review of the my recent mammoth (700+ pages) book —where did it come from? Was it from academy, or from the Internet?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From academy,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe it?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From the Internet’ —we are afraid of the people in the Internet, for they all hold that Richard Carrier was a serious and competent scholar.”
27 So they answered Richard Carrier, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
(From the Gospel of Richard Carrier 21:23-27)
In the comments is this gem.
I’m told that CArrier was allowed to select those who reviewed the work. So he would naturally have chosen people already supportive of his view. Who they were? Only the publisher and CArrier know.
Given that such a rumour is credible enough in Larry Hurtado’s view for him to repeat it publicly, it appears that Hurtado concedes that some other scholars are also open to Carrier’s arguments about Jesus.
It is not at all uncommon, among juried publications, for authors to be allowed to select their readers. It would be natural to select someone who might be considered sympathetic, but it is also natural (and I believe common) to select someone considered credible or “weighty” in one’s field. This comment is simply dismissive, like the condescending tone of “dear old Neil,” etc. It is the sign of a threatened ego.
“This comment” meaning Hurtado’s.
Great post. I shall stop now on from calling Vridar a “mythicist blog” also. Point[s] taken.
I’ve asked (in a comment on his blog, awaiting moderation) Prof. Hurtado about Carrier’s discussion of Philo’s reference to an archangel Jesus. I’m curious what he has to say about it.
Meanwhile, a question for you: You stated, “Paul nowhere suggests that Jesus as a man was a contemporary of his.”
Prof. Hurtado mentioned (as do others) that Paul knew Jesus’s siblings (or at least his brother James). Wouldn’t this imply that Paul had suggested that Jesus as a man was a contemporary of his? I realize that you probably dispute that Paul really said he met a sibling of Jesus. However, if we grant for the sake of argument that he really did say that, doesn’t it follow that Paul suggested that Jesus was his contemporary?
Hi Julian. My name is Neil. I find the American manner of formal address somewhat grating. 🙂
Your reference to Galatians 1:19 is reasonable interpretation of the passage, and it is how most people who discuss the verse interpret it. It is an interpretation, nonetheless, because it does not explicitly refer to Jesus at all, let alone a historical Jesus figure.
For reasons I think it is very unlikely that the passage in Galatians 1:19 supports the argument for the historicity of the Jesus figure, see:
Putting James the Brother of the Lord to a Bayesian Test (Even if you don’t like to read about Bayes’ theorem at least look at the arguments listed there.)
The Function of “Brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19 (Tim’s post)
Howell-Smith: Jesus Not a Myth — These posts address a work arguing against the Christ Myth theory and for the historicity of Jesus. So it is interesting that the author is honest enough to find reasons to question the authenticity of the Galatians 1:19 passage.
Yes I expected that you reject the view that Paul claimed to have met James the brother of Jesus. I think you would agree that your view is controversial. Given that, maybe you should make a more circumspect statement, instead of “Paul nowhere suggests that Jesus as a man was a contemporary of his.”
Maybe something like, “Other than possibly Galatians (which I don’t accept as authentic), Paul nowhere….”
I didn’t look at the Bayes arguments (I already know it would be over my head). But I did look at the Howell-Smith reference.
“There is a critical case of some slight cogency against the authenticity of Gal. i, 18, 19, which was absent from Marcion’s Apostolicon; the word “again” in Gal. ii, 1, which presupposes the earlier passage, seems to have been interpolated as it is absent from Irenaeus’s full and accurate citation of this section of the Epistle to the Galatians in his treatise against Heretics. . . . .
What would be the motive for such an interpolation?
If, as has been surmised, Gal. i, 18, 19 is an interpolation, the principal object of which is to stress the pre-eminence of Peter . . . . .
Howell Smith does not think the passage is interpolated but his manner of argument is refreshingly honest here.”
That doesn’t sound like a rejection of Galatians 1:19.
I have extracted the key arguments from the Bayesian post and set them out Bayesian-free in a new post. Do look at them.
As for the Howell-Smith reference, you will notice that I said he raises reasons to question the authenticity of the verse. That’s not the same as arguing for a “rejection” of it. (And I don’t “reject” it either.) So your response is misguided.
Yes, I agree that had I called to mind the arguments over Galatians 1:19 I would have been more circumspect in what I originally wrote in the post. But I do want you to understand that I have never “rejected the view that Paul claimed to have met James the brother of Jesus”. I am not so dogmatic as that and do not believe the evidence allows us to be so dogmatic.
At the same time, I have set out very good reasons for not being dogmatic about Galatians 1:19 being a “slam dunk” for the historicity of Jesus. I am not the dogmatic one here. I am bringing in all we know about the evidence and not just reading a verse as if it must necessarily be authoritative as if it were God-inspired or something.
Those who are dogmatic about that verse are in fact breaking just about every rule that is taught in elementary textual analysis and books discussing the nature of historical evidence. Larry Hurtado in particular approaches certain texts very naively despite all the problems he is no doubt aware of when it comes to other questions that he discusses. Method is thrown out the window and attitude rules when it comes to the way many people approach the question of the historicity of Jesus.
Look at the list of arguments I’ve taken from the Bayes post. That’s where you see that anyone who tries to rest any case on Galatians 1:19 is arguing like a literalist apologist.
Paul knows of a body of teachings ascribed to Jesus, and uses them on several occasions, as in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11
Every time I see this argument, it’s “several occasions” and yet this passage in Paul is always the only evidence adduced. Anybody else notice this? Anyone got a counter-example that they know of, where Paul’s knowledge of a teaching tradition is supported by any single other verse than 1 Cor 7:10-11? Because that right there is curious, is what it is, that they should allude to others but never produce them. You’d almost think it was a dishonest argument.
And here’s the thing about 1 Cor 7:10-11: Paul is almost certainly quoting Malachi 2:16. It’s not just that he could equally well have been quoting Malachi –that alone would be enough to call into question the one-legged stool that the Emperor is always at pains to emphasize has “several” legs. It’s that the logic of Malachi much more directly serves Paul’s own argument as he extends it from what “not I, but the Lord” says, to the next few passages in the name of “I, not the Lord”. For the reason given in the previous verse (Mal 2:15) is “Godly offspring”. And what is Paul’s extended reasoning in 1 Cor 7 12-16? I quote v14 in full (ESV):
“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”
So, we have a clear thread, conceptually, from Malachi 2 to Paul’s argument. And the shift from “not I, but the Lord” (that is, direct paraphrase of Malachi) to “I, not the Lord” (rhetorical extension) is because in verses 12-16 he is speaking about Christian believers and unbelievers and does so by maintaining the emphasis on the fruits of marriage, that is, “holy children”.
Compare to Mark 10 and Matthew 19, where, yes, Jesus condemns divorce, but on entirely other, scriptural, grounds: “what God has joined together, let no one separate” by reference to Genesis 1. Nary a word about Godly offspring, though, admittedly, such concerns are always going to lie behind concerns about divorce and adultery, they are about paternity and inheritance, but here not explicitly as it very much is in Malachi.
I hate the Pauline proof texts. It’s a fundamentally unserious way to argue about Paul’s witness as regards the nature of the Christ.
The Christ myth theory has been assisted by plenty of scholarly research. It was the official doctrine in the Soviet Union from Lenin’s day and across the communist world. By degrees after the war, the discovery of the DSS, the death of Stalin, etc, the scholars gave it up.
? The Christ myth theory predates Lenin and the USSR.
“Gave it up”? What scholars, who exactly, “gave up” anything?
Of course it predates Lenin. (How could you think someone could be so stupid?) The scholarly discussion in the Soviet Union – and later the rest of the communist bloc – took its departure from Lenin’s praise of Drews https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/12.htm
A few true believers – mostly academic atheism ideologists – continued to maintain the view into the 70’s, but actual historians by degrees gave it up. Typical examples would be Mikhail Kublanov and Alexander Kazhdan, but it’s really a whole generation. Kazhdan began as an enthusiastic proponent, but wrote some works on the DSS in the 50s as they became available; they revealed a different picture of the 2nd T period and caused him to drop the theory as hopeless. He later became an extremely eminent Byzantinist, especially once he emigrated to America.
It is a failed research program – like vitalism or the phlogiston theory – that once had immense state funding and real intellectual powers behind it.
“It is a failed research program”? No-one I know (except you) is talking about Soviet education as if that is the benchmark by which we should assess the works of Couchoud, Brody, Wells, Doherty, …… I have this idea that we owe it to ourselves to read the works and arguments we want to express serious views about, and that it is our responsibility to engage with the arguments, not with names linked to the Soviet education system.
We don’t dismiss the idea of Jesus or God etc because of the failures of the Catholic or other churches and because many scholars in those institutions have faulted their education there and become atheists. The ideas stand or fall on their own merits.
Is your argument a form of the genetic fallacy?
I am emphatically not talking about ‘Soviet education’ – an expression you use twice – but about historical scholarship in the Soviet world. A generation or two of scholars like Kazhdan – a scholar of immense force – were brought up on mythicism and defended it. But the change in the state of information after the war made this increasingly impossible and so the program collapsed, just like the phlogiston theory.
I don’t see the relevance to any of the arguments of Doherty, Price, Brodie, Carrier, etc.
Can you explain exactly why their arguments are invalid because of what happened to “historical scholarship in the Soviet world” and after the collapse of the communist state there?
Have you actually studied any of the works of Brodie, Doherty, Wells, Carrier, Price? Or do you rely upon your understanding of the Russian experience to decide the question for you?
Can you point me to the actual coursework, curriculum, publications (preferably in English translation) of the relevant Soviet educational and academic views?
More to the point on this blog, you will have to clarify for me the relevance of the Soviet/post-Soviet experience with my own arguments about valid and invalid historical methods.
Reread the section above called “After 250 years of critical investigation”. It is completely wrong.
Oh Mark S. You take the trouble to read the post. There has been NO “critical investigation” for 250 years or any number of years and Hurtado’s rhetoric is utterly baseless hogwash.
There has been 250 years of avoidance, insult, demotions, excommunications, expulsions, demonization, ridicule, but if you can point to me any evidence that there has been serious engagement or investigations into the arguments for 250 years then do so.
Most of the works claiming to “investigate” the claims are in fact not investigations at all by apologist dismissals that simply ignore the arguments and substitute ridicule and scorn for serious argument.
I suggest that you yourself have never investigated the arguments any more than Hurtado has done.
(If you seriously think that the Soviets and post-Soviets took care of it all then I would like to investigate the evidence for that claim: studies of the persons involved, their writings, the socio-economic-political environments they were engaged with, etc, but particularly information about the key actors. In other words, to do serious historical research and not just use a sweeping claim as a rhetorical club.)
Just Drews? How about the Dutch Radicals? and other ‘Radicals’? eg. There were English ‘Radicals’, so no doubt similar ‘radicals’ in other parts of Europe and further east ….
Drews is the person Lenin mentioned – he could read German. Of course scholars were acquainted with other Western mythicist works. The corpus of mythicist research is mostly in the Russian language and those of other Communist countries. One place where memory of it survives is in speeches of Berlioz in Bulgakov’s ‘Master and Margarita.’