PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

PZ Myers of Pharyngula has posted an interview with a historian in order to discuss The ontology of historical figures — with a particular view to the question of this historicity of Jesus.

I intend to post a critical commentary on the remarks by the historian, Eddie Marcus (I think that was the name but correct me if I misheard). Marcus may be a specialist in Australian history (again, correct me if I misheard — I will need to listen a second time as I do my review posts) and was clearly out of his depth when it came to knowledge of the breadth and depth of scholarship relating to Christian origins. Most frustrating for me was his failure to clearly conceptualize the questions, regularly slipping in and out of references to “evidence” and the assumption that the narrative characters had a historical origin == question begging in other words.

One detail I will mention here before I start …..

PZ Myers asks the very valid question: how do historians deal with now-lost oral traditions? And right there, at the very start, we are faced with the depth in which our cultural assumptions and the question itself are so difficult to view at arms length. The very idea that there were oral traditions containing variants of the gospel narratives preceding our canonical gospels is itself based on an assumption that the narratives in those gospels is “true” to some extent. The idea is that from Jesus or some sort of “easter event” stories arose that were later put down in gospels. A significant section of biblical scholarship is constantly showing the evidence that much of what we read in the gospels is not from oral tradition at all but from literary borrowings and artisanship. I have posted on some of the New Testament publications addressing the unsupported assumptions of oral tradition on this blog several times and will create easy to find archival lists of those posts as I discuss Eddie Marcus’s discussion.

Meanwhile, I left the following on PZ’s blog:

The historian being interviewed clearly has only a shallow or popular notion of New Testament scholars’ arguments about earliest Christianity and the nature of the evidence — he even admits he prefers to read the trade books by Bart Ehrman than check out the “serious research” being done. His statements about the NT evidence were grounded in assumptions and hypotheses that are simply not facts at all (as any serious look into NT studies will soon show) and his understanding of the very question appeared clouded in circular reasoning. I was reminded of many of Tim O’Neill’s straw man arguments and misrepresentations.

For what it’s worth I will be posting a series on my own blog dissecting key statements by the historian in the interview. I have often posted on this very topic, addressing the methods used by ancient historians to establish historicity, and will critique this fellow’s statements against the actual works of ancient historians themselves, and against what NT scholars themselves actually say about their evidence.

PZ — you have had discussions with Tim O’Neill. I have several times now offered to debate Tim O’Neill in any online forum on one condition: that he refrain from personal insult and innuendo in his discussions. He has declined till now. If you were to be a mediator of such a debate I would welcome the opportunity.

See also youtube:


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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism”

  1. I think it’s a huge mistake for Myers to go to people like this to tell them what ‘Jesus mythicism’ is all about. It’s like going to a creationist to explain evolution.

    1. More accurately, perhaps, like going to a non-biologist to get an explanation of evolution. Regardless of whether scholars of the Bible are acting exactly like other historians, they know much about the development and history of biblical traditions and texts that other, more mainstream, scholars, including historians, do not.

      1. I certainly could have worked on a better analogy, but here I was focused on Marcus’s obvious hostility to and ignorance of mythicist arguments.

        As the discussion comes to a close I realize Myers asks some penetrating questions and is a great deal more careful and tentative in his conclusions.

  2. Just got to the part, about 15 minutes in, where this guy dismisses mythicism as absurd because it would require a conspiracy of hoaxers to go about bullying people into believing in a person who doesn’t really exist. How does he think religions get people to believe in gods and angels? By this sort of logic, there must have been an historical Yahweh, an historical Gabriel, an historical Lucifer, and so on.

    I doubt anyone in the 1st century thought to ‘fact check’ the claims made by missionaries who came knocking on the door, any more than people in the 21st century do. They either buy into it, or they don’t. If they don’t, the missionary just shakes the dust off their sandals and moves on. It’s a numbers game. No conspiracy theory required, any more than for any other religion.

    1. I didn’t get that far. And some of the stuff I’m hearing about this guy’s (the historian’s) statements makes me glad I decided to bail after realizing early on that Myers made a big mistake in picking this guy.

  3. PZ is good on biology. Outside that; just another bloke at the bar. About 75% of anything outside biology I ever followed up from Pharyngula turned out to be inaccurate; if not flat out wrong.

    1. Hi Steve. I often read Pharyngula and find it entertaining. I have not noticed a general level of inaccuracy, though I am not invested enough to have fact-checked it. It would be helpful if you could give an example (or two) of areas where it turned out to be misleading in some way.

  4. YMMV. I’m not invested enough myself to be bothered any more. There are sources I trust; and sources I don’t. Pharyngula is one I don’t. Beyond saying that, I can’t be arsed.

    1. So you are not going to justify your assertion with evidence that everything outside biology PZ can’t be trusted on 75% on anything else he says can’t be trusted? How can you be trusted to be reporting here accurately? Basically just a big ad hom then?

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