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.
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
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