PZ Myers has responded to some points by Tim O’Neill about the question of the historicity of Jesus and historical methods — Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment — and I cannot help but adding my own sideline remarks here. Perhaps it’s because I have only just a few hours ago completed a fascinating book by a French scholar that I did not know when I started reading would come to the conclusion that Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus. But most interestingly his argument for Christian origins was commended as worthy of study by none other than Jacob Neusner. (I will be posting about his work soon.) I have not read Tim O’Neil’s post, only PZ’s, so it’s only a few points raised by the latter that I cover here.
PZ quotes and discusses the following passage from Tim’s post:
The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.
This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.
On the first paragraph, I am not sure that it is correct to charge that “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” Several mythicists authors I have cited certainly came to that conclusion through an analysis of the evidence but I don’t know which mythicist authors Tim has in mind whom he believes “base their supposition” on the existence of a form of early Christianity that lacked an idea of a historical Jesus.
The second paragraph, however, is indeed problematic and points to some confusion about the nature of many mythicist arguments and methods.
No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works.
Even most of the letters of Paul posit a Jesus and crucifixion as theological (not historical) constructs. Paul never attempts to “prove historically” that Jesus existed or was crucified. There is a passage (said to be partly inauthentic by some researchers) where he attempts to prove the resurrection by naming persons the readers are supposed to recognize as eyewitnesses. But only apologists would take his testimony as serious historical evidence for the resurrection. Others have argued that there is some kernel of truth behind Paul’s claims about the witnesses to the resurrection in that disciples had visions or became inwardly convicted, etc. But you see the problem for the historian here — we are moving away from the evidence and changing it to say something it doesn’t actually say so that it fits our preconceived model of Christian origins.
So we are reminded of a point that several ancient historians have made when addressing sound methods and that I narrowed down to just one quotation in a post a few months ago. Philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker was addressing the question of whether or not something (in this case a miracle) in the gospels really happened. He explains:
But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.
Tucker, p. 99
And that hits the nail squarely on the head.
Tim O’Neill appears to be repeating the argument for the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars that is based on a naive reading of the sources: that we should assume they are just as they appear — “biographies”, however exaggerated, of a historical figure. But Tucker is saying that this approach begs the questions. The historian’s first task is to understand why the gospel narratives were written. It is a mistake to simply assume that though they are about a mythical or theological figure and persons who behave most unlike real persons we know from history (even Pilate is depicted as very unlike his portrayal elsewhere) they must nonetheless have originated in history and transmitted through oral retellings until set down by the evangelists. To make that assumption is to sweep aside much scholarship that has indeed suggested other sources for many of the narratives in those gospels, and to sweep aside critical scholarship that has indeed questioned the biographical nature of the gospels. (And there remains the question of how ancient biographies worked anyway since not all of them, despite appearances, are really about historical figures.)
One prominent Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, Philip R. Davies, who was a pioneer of what became known derogatorily as “minimalism” in Old Testament studies — a movement that has continued to gain momentum since the 1990s and many of whose views are now mainstream — wrote the following in one of his last publications:
I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .
I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.
The ‘minimalist’ approach he was referring to is nothing other than the way ancient historians (at least the scholarly reputable ones such as Moses I. Finley) work with evidence in fields other than biblical studies. I outlined his starting assumptions and questions on a webpage, In Search of Ancient Israel. I copied the main points of his discussion about faulty assumptions we bring to our reading of the biblical narratives in a blog post, too. Essentially, Davies and those who approached the history of “biblical Israel” in the same way argued that the biblical narratives must not be assumed to be based on historical events, but that such an assumption needs to be tested against other independent data. Archaeological data is not going to help us settle the question of the historicity of Jesus but one can compare other independent texts. Such a comparison will not exclude a comparison with other Greco-Roman literature in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the nature and potential purposes of the gospels. Some biblical scholars have ventured into such comparisons but some have also done so tendentiously. That’s another question that biblical scholars themselves are debating and that needs another post for a thorough treatment.
Here’s how another scholar put it:
Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.
(Magne, p. 23)
That’s just another way of saying what Aviezer Tucker said:
But this [did this story happen?] is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”
And when a scholar sees that the evidence points to the gospels not being more widely known until well into the second century, and that by that time they had been heavily redacted, and that their narratives are clearly influenced by comparable stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and that at key points in their narratives they even appear to be deliberately targeting pre-existing beliefs that their narrative is not grounded in historical memory at all, then that scholar has a challenge ahead.
One more point. I have been attempting to get some handle on the nature of religion itself according to current anthropological and related studies. It has been a fascinating study. One point that has stood out for me is that models of how new religions start or how sects break off from mainstream religions to promote their own rituals and identities is just how infrequently such developments can be attributed simply to the appearance of a charismatic stand-alone figure who becomes the object of worship and co-creator of the universe, and how unreliable mythical explanations for the origins of their rituals and practices ever are.
As PZ Myers rightly points out, it means nothing to an atheist whether or not Jesus existed historically. (Unless the atheist is one of those idiots who likes to just pose nonsense criticisms for the sake of mocking alone.) But grappling with the evidence itself and attempting to assess it with clear-eyed and sound methods is a fascinating exploration.
Davies, Philip R. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible and Interpretation. August 2012. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml.
Davies, Philip R. 1992. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.
Finley, M. I. 1999. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project.
Kosso, Peter. 2001. Knowing the Past: Philosophical Issues of History and Archaeology. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.
Magne, Jean. 1993. From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Pr.
Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press.
See also posts archived under Ancient Historians, Ancient History and Greco-Roman Biography
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40 thoughts on “PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods”
Occam’s Razor – parsimony – says the sources that Tim O’Neill appeals to are just theological narratives that are not based on known valid or factual sources.
A few years ago I started looking into the question about whether there was an historical Jesus behind the blatantly mythical Jesus we find in the earliest literature. Over the months and years of considering the arguments and evidence on all sides, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s very likely Jesus only existed as a literary figure.
Part of what pushed me to that conclusion was the way partisans of the ‘orthodox’ view that Jesus did exist, either as a god or a man, relied so heavily on the presumption that he existed. That just strikes me as a reversal of the burden of proof. Another thing which bothered me was all-encompassing hostility toward the ‘myth’ hypothesis and vicious invective hurled at anyone who even expressed ‘agnosticism’ about whether there was such a man or not.
Those were the same two reasons that influenced me. The two seem to be related. When pushed over the question begging “they” all too often simply responded with hostility.
Neusner published RM Price’s midrash article, so he seems to like that sort of thing.
Can you point me to Neusner’s publication, please?
Price, Robert M. (2005). “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash”. In Neusner, Jacob; Avery-Peck, Alan J. The Encyclopedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism. 1. Leiden: Brill. pp. 534–573. ISBN 9789004141667.
• Is it the following?
Price, Robert M. (2005). “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash”. In Neusner, Jacob; Avery-Peck, Alan J. The Encyclopedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism. 1. Leiden: Brill. pp. 534–573. ISBN 9789004141667.
• Reprinted (2011) in The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. American Atheist Press. ISBN 978-1-5788-4017-5.
• Online @ http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/art_midrash1.htm
Thank you to both of you.
Per channel “Fishers of Evidence”. YouTube.
Cf. “Fishers of Evidence Gets Confused about Math”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 18 March 2017.
• The Fishers of Evidence series of videos is a much better on the Jesus myth v historicity debate then Tim O’Neill’s treatment of the issue. But currently there does not appear to be a video on the Jesus agnosticism viewpoint.
The most relevant video is:
• “Jesus Historicity v Mythicism: Mythicist view of the Gospels“. YouTube. 11 March 2016.
Both of the following positions have been described as a variant of Mythicism:
1. Historicity Agnostic: The historical evidence is too patchy, too minimal and too ideologically tainted to be able to reach any conclusions about the Jesus figure of the Gospels. Thus asserting anything further than his existence is going beyond what the evidence allows. The most we can say is — “we do not know”.
2. Ahistoricity Agnostic: We should not assume things to exist unless we have sufficient evidence to reach that conclusion. Thus in the absence of sufficient evidence, we should assume there was no historical Jesus.
This whole series of posts is just too frustrating to participate in, because its an argument between people that don’t know what they are talking about and stuff that’s just plain false keeps getting spouted and goes unaddressed because the other people doesn’t know enough to engage in the debate. It’s two intelligent but ignorant people spouting nonsense. And for what it’s worth, I mailed a copy of my book to PZ at his university address, about two weeks ago. Either he never got it or has no interest in it.
Appeal to ‘Occam’s Razor’ (parsimony) is a bait and switch tactic which is really an appeal to tradition (of belief in a Jesus-man who was deified), which, in turn, also puts shade on the alternative proposition that Jesus is a literary construct.
Also , regarding the whole “occam’s razor”, I address this more directly in the closing of the second edition to my book. Once the 2nd edition is close to getting published I’ll just post the new material on-line for all those that bought the first edition.
Anyway, the basic point is that in all of the pre-Gospel material, namely the epistles of Paul, James and to the Hebrews, there is no description of teachings or deeds of Jesus. There is nothing that describes why a person would be worshiped. The Jesus described in all of those early works is clearly a god, he is “the Lord Jesus Christ”, who can destroy the world, create a new world in heaven, overcome death, bring divine justice to the world, absolve people of all their sins, etc.
Clearly these are the reasons that the pre-Gospel Jesus was worshiped, and all of those things are attributes of a god (or demigod or archangel or what have you), not a person. There is no discussion of the worship of a pre-Gospel for Jesus for any reasons other than godly divine powers.
If the “real Jesus” is “just a person”, then why would this real Jesus have been worshiped? Paul says he worships Jesus because he overcame death and is capable of absolving believers of their sins and giving them immortality in a perfect world. What possibly could a real person have done to inspire the belief he could do those things?
James says to believe in Jesus because he will bring divine justice to the world.
Hebrews talks about absolution of sins for the world. None of these reasons why Jesus was being worshiped talk anything about teachings or deeds of a person, they all talk about divine powers.
The Jesus of the Gospels, again, was worshiped due to belief in his divine powers. There are no real teachings or meaning even in the Gospel of Mark, as Dykstra also notes. GMark mostly presents mysteries that are never revealed, and what anyone may try to take away as “teachings” from Mark are really from Paul.
Absolutely. Committed Christians who worship Jesus even today get benefits from it. Talking about it and studying the Bible doesn’t do it – it’s devotional practices including prayer that does it. This is not something that any atheist wants to hear, and it’s not something that the organizational church wants to hear either.
It is interesting to read Larry Hurtado’s case for a “very early” divine Christology. The evidence of course really is on his side. Unfortunately I cannot help but notice that Larry seems to find topics and arguments that cohere so very well with his own personal Christian beliefs. Challenge his arguments or assumptions and his response is as likely to be indignant hostility or condescension as it is reasoned debate.
Yeah, in terms of Occam’s razor, you have to either believe that somehow a group of people were led to believe that a normal person was able to “overcome death” and had obtained massive godly powers, or that a group of people were worshiping the idea of a divine being who was later cast in a story as a real person. Oh, and also the people who worshiped the normal person who they were convinced was a god didn’t write down anything about what this normal person said or did.
Clearly Occam’s razor is in favor of the second position.
I don’t know if I’m being naive, but I also find myself thinking that the mere existence of the various gnostic-like beliefs that emerged in relation to Christianity screams against a historical Jesus as the starting point. How plausible is it that such beliefs about Jesus arose from sects dedicated to a historical figure?
On the other hand it seems very plausible that a historized figure who was depicted as divine (yes, Gospel of Mark, too) should at some point come from “the riotous diversity” of beliefs.
And it is simply not certain that even Justin Martyr around the mid second century knew of the canonical gospels in their present form. He is forever attempting to prove and portray his Jesus from the OT.
Regarding JM, keep in mind that just because someone may not have had texts in hand doesn’t mean they didn’t exist yet.
This is something that gets me about the way people deal with these texts, often acting as if others should be aware of all the points in a text as soon as it came into existence. It could well be that JM never actually got his hands on a written copy of a Gospel, but that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t have been influenced by their narrative.
It’s certainly possible for it to have taken years (even 20 or 30 years) for a Gospel text to have made its way around to various communities, but for impressions from it to have preceded the text by way of mouth.
I wonder if Mark was in the hands of some group like the followers of Basilides and hence Justin’s failure to accept its narrative. Justin appears not to know of Paul very likely for a similar reason, and if, as you argue, Mark’s Jesus was based on Paul, well….
(But does not the narrative we have in our version of Mark seem more complex, more advanced, than anything known by Justin? I am not denying that the gospel was written in response largely to the events of the year 70. That makes perfect sense on so many levels. I still have questions, that’s all. Our canonical versions of Luke-Acts almost surely date from the later part of the second century.)
Mark calls what he is writing the “Gospel of Jesus Christ,” which flies in the face of RG Price’s hypothesis.
Because gospel means good news. RG Price says Mark is being sarcastic by using the word “gospel.” Please!
This is why mythicism is not to be taken seriously. To mythicists, nothing is what it seems. Paul says Jesus is of the seed of David, so Carrier invents the scenario of God stealing David’s sperm and keeping it in a cosmic sperm bank (even though the text outlines none of this). Paul says he met Jesus’ brother, but mythicists say no – it’s not what it seems.
Do you let a disagreement on one point lead you to reject everything an author has to say? I get something out of nearly everyone I read even though I find myself in disagreement with much or some of what they say. If the author has an argument do you address the argument or just the conclusion as nonsense?
Do you lump all mythicists together? If you reject the whole thesis because of Gqlatians 1:19 then it looks like you are not interested in the arguments but only in an uncritical naive reading of the texts as we have them and shun any suggestion that there could be any valid argument to undermine such a reading. That’s not how genuine historical inquiry works. Have you addressed my own argument about Galatians 1:19?
If we are going to read the texts uncritically then there is simply no debate or discussion to have.
I think R.G.Price has the right to suppose it is a sarcastic use of εὐαγγέλιον. Up to that point in time the term was habitually used in the Graeco-Roman world in connection with the coming of a (new) ruler who brings order, peace and prosperity, so effectively a Caesar. If you have a problem with that historical fact then yóu are defending the concept that nothing is what it seems, as you propose then that the story in reality depicts a bringing of order, peace and prosperity. Please! It is just nowhere in the story and the sorry fate of the main character and the enigmatic ending that supposes him stealthily retreating to where he came from, having accomplished nothing, do not exactly signal a victorious and glorious ruler and bringer of peace. Unless you are a Christian apologist of course because with God all is possible and you have to be foolish to become wise.
On this point I am with R.G Price wholeheartedly and I don’t know for sure but I don’t think he sees his thesis as being in the Mythicism class.
The Good News of Jesus Christ according to Mark promised fasting, struggles against persecution and temptations, giving up all one’s possessions and leaving family and friends, and facing prison, torture, death. According to Matthew it promised not peace but the sword.
The evangelists used the political term “gospel” (used of a new heavenly reign of emperors) in an ironic twist, sarcastic if you will against the political use of the word, to mean a good event that would only emerge the other side of persecution and death.
“Nothing is what it seems”? Nothing? Or do we mean that Romans 1:3 and Galatians 1:19 are everything we need to scoff at mythicism?
Matthew as competent and inventive plagiarist saw the problem in the sarcastic rendering of the term in Mark and was the first to bend it into the Christian apologetic sophistry that was needed to turn a humbling defeat into a glorious victory. The main problematical consequence is that all subsequent readers read Mark through the rendering of Matthew. I take the early tradition of Matthew’s primacy very serious and consider the possibility likely it was the first widely circulating gospel for a long time until original copies of Mark resurfaced and were mistakenly seen as an inferior derivative of Matthew with strange wording that had to be explained away, we are lucky it survived as it has, the original meaning is preserved and understandable if you block out Matthew, Luke and John completely. I see comedy, R.G.Price sees political allegory of some sort, probably both are present and some day we will see the whole picture clearly.
@Martin Klatt Exactly right.
The passage being referred to in the opening is about God punishing Israel. In the whole story Jesus is angry, rejects everyone around him, tell all his followers they are fools, he’s betrayed, there are no real positive lessons, and in the end he’s killed, with a Roman centurion being the one to recognize him as the son of God, while none of his followers did, all of whom abandoned him in his time of need. That the “good news” was sarcasm is pretty obvious.
This isn’t just my conclusion, many biblical scholars conclude that GMark is an ironic tragic comedy. There was no genre called “a Gospel” when this story was written. As Martin said, it was really the later stories, copied from Mark, that came to define the genre, into which Mark got lumped. GMark was always interpreted through the lens of the other stories, which completely transformed the meaning of the original narrative.
RG Price said:
Nope. As Helms points out,
The “gospel” is meant to be a celebration of Jesus. There is nothing sarcastic about it. Your entire idiosyncratic interpretation is completely wrongheaded.
Evidences have different weight when assessing. For instance, the result of a final exam carries much more weight in assessing a student’s final mark than does a short quiz.
Regarding the existence Jesus, it carries virtually no weight that a particular pericope alludes to an OT or Greek source because historicists don’t dispute there is legendary material. On the other hand, Paul saying Jesus was made of the sperm of David carries a lot of weight, and fits in with the idea of God forming people in the womb:
And you yourself know how much weight the James, the brother of the lord passage in Paul carries, which is why you keep producing blog post after blog post to try to discredit the straightforward reading of it.
I think you have seriously misunderstood and inadvertently mischaracterised the mythicist arguments you mention. No one argues that a bunch of literary allusions and influences in the gospels proves that they are mythical stories. No-one that I know of. And I don’t think you can point to anyone who argues such nonsense, either.
Instead of just pointing to the number of blog posts where I have addressed Galatians 1:19 and claim that their number indicates how false they are – would you say that historicist rebuttals that are even more numerous are false because they are so many? — why not actually address the argument in just one of them? That would be a more credible response, I’m sure you realise.
John, I may be misreading you but you seem to sound a bit heated or indignant over mythicist arguments. If so, I don’t understand why. The question of historicity or myth doesn’t mean a thing to me personally. I can accept people having different viewpoints. What bugs me is when one side starts attacking the motives, character and intelligence of the other. And I mean that whether it comes from the mythicist or historicist side of the debate.
John MacDonald refers to
The ‘weight’ that passage carries is negated by the weight of other information, such as no other references at all in the NT books to James being the [blood] brother of Jesus. There are various contradictions about James, such as Matthew 27:56 where James and his brother John are the sons of Salome, a female follower of Jesus.
I think John is overlooking the fact that even Carrier assigns Galatians 1:19 a probability that strongly points against mythicism.
By taking a naive reading of a single text while setting aside the mountains of evidence against that naive interpretation is simply setting aside completely all critical reasoning. Not even biblical scholars go that far — except when it comes to digging in on a few verses when confronting mythicists!
The idea that ‘the various gnostic-like beliefs…emerged in relation to Christianity’ is likely to be a misrepresentation in many if not most cases of the various gnostic-like beliefs.
It’s like the heretic/heresy accusations: a later trope used to deny the milieu out of which Christianity arose.
Various scholars of the gnostics and gnostic-like groups and their texts have said that.
The church and state web-article that Neil links to in his “Enticed by a great quote & surprised by a unexpected ‘mythicist’” Vridar article (2018-10-01) includes reference to
There is an English-language audio-book titled The Jesus Mystery: Astonishing Clues to the True Identities of Jesus and Paul, and I think there is also a print version by the same title (perhaps published by Robert Hale).
It seems to make some different propositions to her latest book (‘A shift in Time’) such as, as Robert M Price outlines in a review, that ‘Paul was Jesus was the Egyptian was Ben Stada’.
R.M. Price noted –
I really like it when PZ Myers talks about biology and evolution. And nothing else.
Regarding the sperm of David and understanding Carrier’s cosmic sperm bank theory, I think it helps to look at where Paul received this information. Likely it came from 2 Samuel 7.12-14:
“When your days are done, and you sleep with your fathers, I will raise up your sperm after you, which shall come from your belly, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build for me a house in my name, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.”
So Paul would have believed this to be true information revealed through scripture, but would also have understood that the referenced eternal throne had clearly not been established on Earth (which would have been obvious to Jews/Christians living in the first century). So where was it?
The answer is where Jesus resides post resurrection, something any Christian today should be able to tell you: in the heavens, at the right hand of the father, upon his cosmic throne. So if the second part was (and is currently) determined by Christians as referring to a heavenly, cosmic throne, then it actually follows that the first part is also referring to heavenly, cosmic events.
Tim O’Neil is live on Non-Sequitur right now discussing Jesus Mythicism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUDP0Wc31o8
Thanks. I caught up with it. Will post a response in a day or two.