Not long ago PZ Myers responded positively to certain arguments in the post by Tim O’Neill, Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus”. PZ was not to know of the presumably inadvertent misrepresentations Tim O’Neill made of David Fitgerald’s arguments in that post. In a followup post by PZ, Tim reminded readers that he had, he believed, demonstrated the incompetence of David’s arguments.
It’s not enough to demonstrate a silence in some sources – you have to show that any of these sources SHOULD have mentioned Jesus. This is where Fitzgerald and his ilk fail every time. I discuss this at length here:
Now I am sure Tim is convinced of his sincerity and genuinely believes that his criticism of David’s arguments are entirely just and reasonable. I also think that the emotive language Tim so often uses betrays an emotional investment in his viewpoints that blinds him from his bias and accordingly from noticing details in David’s book that contradict his (Tim’s) perceptions (better, pre-perceptions).
A few examples follow. (Not many. To do an exhaustive review — as I did for Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus in a leading journal dedicated to the study of the historical Jesus — would not be healthy for my emotional well-being, but at the same time I am quite willing to take the time to respond to any particular claims made by Tim that readers might think do carry genuine critical weight. The reason I post at all this response at all is because, well, I don’t like to see misrepresentations stand without challenge.)
I first address Tim’s criticism of David’s argument concerning Seneca’s silence concerning Jesus. It will be useful, first, though, to read the passage by David that Tim criticizes. Here is David’s section on Seneca:
Seneca the Younger (c. 3 B.C.E. – 65) Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, writer, statesman, and de facto ruler of the Empire for many years, had three compelling reasons to mention Jesus at least at some point in his many writings.
- First, though regarded as the greatest Roman writer on ethics, he has nothing to say about arguably the biggest ethical shakeup of his time.
- Second, in his book on nature Quaestiones Naturales, he records eclipses and other unusual natural phenomena, but makes no mention of the miraculous Star of Bethlehem, the multiple earthquakes in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death, or the worldwide (or at the very least region-wide) darkness at Christ’s crucifixion that he himself should have witnessed.
- Third, in another book On Superstition, Seneca lambasts every known religion, including Judaism.1 But strangely, he makes no mention whatsoever of Christianity, which was supposedly spreading like wildfire across the empire. This uncomfortable fact later made Augustine squirm in his theological treatise City of God (book 6, chapter 11) as he tried mightily to explain away Seneca’s glaring omission.
In the 4th century, Christian scribes were so desperate to co-opt Seneca they even forged a series of correspondence between Seneca and his “dearest” friend, the Apostle Paul!
(Nailed! p. 34 – my formatting)
David Fitzgerald is addressing throughout his book the views of Christian believers, those who believe the gospel narratives about Jesus. For example:
In the case of Jesus, his believers are left with two unhappy choices:
- either the Gospels were grossly exaggerating Jesus’ life and accomplishments, and Jesus was just another illiterate, wandering preacher with a tiny following, completely unnoticed by society at large –
- or he was an outright mythical character.
(Nailed! p. 43 — again, my formatting)
At no point in any of David’s discussions of the various silences can I see him saying that any particular silence somehow “means Jesus did not exist”. Notice his conclusion above. David concludes that the cumulation of certain silences in certain contexts leads to a number of “unhappy choices” for believers in the gospels: one of these is that Jesus was indeed what many historical Jesus scholars claim, that he was “just another wandering preacher with a tiny following, completely unnoticed by society at large.” We will see the significance of this point by David when we come to Tim’s criticism.
David made the focus of his argument clear from pages 14 and 15 of the opening chapter of his book:
The supposed historical underpinning of Jesus, which apologists insist differentiates their Christ from the myriad other savior gods and divine sons of the ancient pagan world, simply does not hold up to investigation.
On the contrary, the closer we examine the official story, or rather stories, of Christianity (or Christianities!), the quicker it becomes apparent that the figure of the historical Jesus has traveled with a bodyguard of widely accepted, seldom examined untruths for over two millennia.
The purpose of this all-too-brief examination is to shed light on ten of these beloved Christian myths, ten beautiful lies about Jesus:
1. The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous!
2. Jesus was wildly famous – but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him…
3. Ancient historian Josephus wrote about Jesus
4. Eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels
5. The Gospels give a consistent picture of Jesus
6. History confirms the Gospels
7. Archeology confirms the Gospels
8. Paul and the Epistles corroborate the Gospels
9. Christianity began with Jesus and his apostles
10. Christianity was a totally new and different miraculous overnight success that changed the world!
(my bolded emphasis)
Notice. David has chosen to address the myth that Jesus was wildly famous! David is arguing that the miraculous stories surrounding Jesus that so many Christians believe in have no basis in the historical record, despite what too many apologists (he mentions Josh McDowell and Douglas Geivett) assert.
Tim appears to have overlooked this point, purpose, target of David’s discussion about the silence of Seneca. I have bolded the sections that directly conflict with David’s actual argument as set out above.
Seneca? – Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – AD 65) was a prominent Stoic philosopher who wrote philosophy and tragic plays, and so is a rather better potential prospect as someone who “should” have mentioned Jesus. But Fitzgerald’s arguments to that effect are extremely weak. Firstly, he says Seneca was famous for his writings on ethics yet “he has nothing to say about arguably the biggest ethical shakeup of his time” (Fitzgerald, Nailed, p. 34). Fitzgerald does not bother to explain what “ethical shakeup” he is referring to, but we would have to assume it somehow refers to the existence of Jesus. Exactly why Seneca, writing in far off Rome, would see the existence and brief career of a Jewish preacher as some kind of massive “ethical shakeup” is left unexplained.
Similarly weak is his argument that because Seneca’s cosmological treatise Questiones Naturales makes no mention of the alleged natural phenomena claimed to mark key points in Jesus’ career according to the later gospel accounts (the so-called Star of Bethlehem, the earthquake reported in gMatt’s resurrection narrative and the darkness that was supposed to have marked his death on the cross), somehow this means Jesus did not exist. This may be a reasonable argument that these reported phenomena did not occur, but that does not, therefore, necessarily mean Jesus did not exist. Here, as in many other places, Fitzgerald confuses “the existence of a historical Jesus” with “the existence of the Jesus of conservative orthodox Christian belief”.
But Fitzgerald’s strangest argument is the one about which he is most bombastic:
“[I]n another book, On Superstition, Seneca lambasts every known religion, including Judaism. But, strangely, he makes no mention whatsoever about Christianity, which was supposedly spreading like wildfire across the empire.” (p. 34)
Here Fitzgerald gives breezy assurances about the content of another work which no longer exists. On Superstition survives in just a few sentences quoted by Augustine in his City of God, written four centuries later. So how on earth can Fitzgerald claim that it covers “every known religion” but leaves out Christianity? Given the fact we do not have the work in question, we have no idea what religions it did or did not cover. That aside, Seneca famously took his own life on order of Nero in 65 AD, and this was at a time when Christianity was not “spreading like wildfire”, but was actually a tiny and insignificant sect, especially in Rome and the western half of the Roman Empire (see “Review: Bart D. Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity” for a longer discussion on how small and unimportant Christianity was in this early period). Finally, even if Seneca did have any awareness at all of Christianity in the 60s AD, which is unlikely, he would have no reason to consider it to be anything other than what it was at that stage: a small sect of Judaism. All this makes his lack of mention of it entirely explicable. Fitzgerald notes that Augustine made excuses for Seneca’s lack of notice of Christianity, and on this at least he is correct. It is also unremarkable that a fifth century Christian would overestimate how prominent, noticeable and significant Christianity was in the mid first century and so try to explain the omission. Augustine has an excuse for not understanding Seneca’s cultural and historical context. Fitzgerald, however, does not.
Before leaving Seneca I should point to another point made by David that raises interesting questions about the survival and non-survival of his particular works.
Seneca In his book On Superstition, Seneca the Younger took aim at every known religious sect of his time, pagan and Jewish. But he made no mention of Christians, an uncomfortable fact that Augustine tried to explain away quite unconvincingly in his book City of God.6 Remarkably, Augustine’s quotation is all that survives from this particular book. It is very curious that it wasn’t saved, since nearly everything else Seneca wrote was preserved. Christians should have loved a text that attacked Jews and pagans, especially by such an eminent pagan philosopher as Seneca. It is also the only Senecan text we would expect to mention Christianity, so the disappearance of this particular book out of well over a hundred surviving writings of Seneca seems suspiciously like the work of snubbed Christian monks.
(Nailed! p. 44)
Tim does not address the above point.
Just one more: Gallio, Seneca’s older brother. David writes:
Gallio (died 65 C.E.) Seneca’s silence is compounded by the fact that his older brother was Junius Annaeus Gallio, who actually appears in the Bible. According to the author of the book of Acts (18:12-17), Gallio was the magistrate who heard Paul’s case and threw it out of court. If this is true, it’s curious that Gallio never seems to have told his brother about this amazing Jesus character that everyone was so excited about, since Seneca was very interested in just this sort of thing. But Seneca shows no sign of ever having heard of Christians or Jesus at all. It’s also strange that even in Acts, Gallio has never heard of Jesus. This makes no sense at all if Jesus was a famous miracle worker recently executed who had returned from the dead and remained in Jerusalem for forty days, as Acts also says.
(Nailed! pp. 34f)
Gallio? – Fitzgerald’s argument here is even more confused. He claims that Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus somehow “should” have mentioned Jesus.
So I re-read what David wrote and unless I am blind I simply cannot see where David makes that claim.
But, although Gallio was Seneca’s brother and studied rhetoric under his adoptive father and namesake, we have no works of his at all. So what is Fitzgerald talking about here?
Rather, what is Tim talking about here? David breathes not a hint of a word that Gallio supposedly wrote anything or that we should have expected to find some mention of Jesus in anything written by him. Curious.
In a rather tangled line of argument, he notes that Gallio appears in Acts 18:12-17 as the Roman judge of Paul, who he acquits. Fitzgerald finds it significant that Gallio did not mention “this amazing Jesus character” to his brother and concludes this means Jesus did not exist. He does not bother to consider alternatives, such as (i) Jesus existed but was not so “amazing” as Fitzgerald keeps assuming he has to have been if he existed, (ii) Jesus existed but a learned Roman official did not regard people like him as very interesting or important, (iii) Jesus existed and Gallio did mention him to his brother but Seneca did not regard people like him as very interesting or important or even (iv) the whole Gallio-Paul trial scene is a piece of fiction reported or even created by the writer of Acts to emphasise Paul’s credibility. Fitzgerald skips over all these quite plausible alternatives and leaps gymnastically straight to the conclusion Jesus did not exist.
I suggest that the two instances I have singled out for posting here typify the larger misleading nature of Tim’s post. I’ve cited enough to demonstrate that Tim has all too casually skimmed David’s book, imputed into it claims that David writes with “bombast” and “breezy assurance” (I have quoted the supposedly “bombastic” and “breezy” words in full), failed to notice the whole point and target of David’s argument, and falsely assumed David does not consider alternatives that he clearly does.
Better reviews are those that demonstrate that their authors have assimilated the arguments of the work, noted the details of the argument, its target audience, overall aims and intent, and read the entire book with at least some minimum of attentive care.
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