## Bayes’ theorem explained by Lily Serna

#### by Neil Godfrey

Last night I chanced to turn on the TV half way through a program trying to show viewers how interesting maths was. Yeh, okay. But I watched a little as they demonstrated how they do searches at sea for missing persons. Then it suddenly got interesting. Bayes’ theorem was introduced as their way of handling new information that came to them as they conducted their search. And the presenter, a maths wiz (I have seen her magical maths brain at work on another show), Lily Serner, explained it all without the maths. Move the red button forward to the 44:54 mark:

Or a more truncated version is also on youtube

Another simple introduction on The Conversation:

Bayes’ Theorem: the maths tool we probably use every day, but what is it?

## Abe Lincoln Sightings in the South and a Trickster Jesus

#### by Tim Widowfield

Until recently, I had never heard of the stories former slaves told regarding appearances of Abraham Lincoln in the antebellum South. But it turns out many freed slaves told stories they apparently believed to be true in which the president (or president to-be) showed up in person to find out what was really happening on Southern plantations.

In most cases, white Southerners who came in contact with Lincoln did not know who he was. And in this way, he appears to be playing the role of trickster. Sometimes he’d even sleep in the master’s house.
I think Abe Lincoln was next to [the Lord]. He done all he could for [the] slaves; he set ’em free. People in the South knowed they’d lose their slaves when he was elected president. ‘Fore the election he traveled all over the South and he come to our house and slept in the old Mistress’ bed. Didn’t nobody know who he was. (Bob Maynard, Weleetka, OK)
While sojourning there, the disguised future president observed the ill treatment of the slaves. He noted their meagre pay: “four pounds of meat and a peck of meal for a week’s rations.
He also saw ’em whipped and sold. When he got back up north he writ old Master a letter and told him he was going to have to free his slaves, that everybody was going to have to, that the North was going to see to it. He also told him that he had visited at his house and if he doubted it to go in the room he slept in and look on the bedstead at the head and he’d see where he writ his name. Sho’ nuff, there was his name: A. Lincoln. (Maynard)
Other times, Lincoln appeared in disguise.
Lincoln came [through] Gallitan, Tennessee, and stopped at Hotel Tavern with his wife. They was dressed [just like] tramps and nobody knowed it was him and his wife till he got to the White House and writ back and told ’em to look ‘twixt the leaves in the table where he had set and they sho’ nuff found out it was him. (Alice Douglas, Oklahoma City, OK)
Reading these tales, perhaps you reacted as I did, thinking of the appearance of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus:
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:28-32, NRSV)
Of the two followers on the road, why is it, we wonder, do we learn only one of their names (Cleopas)? Why is the other anonymous? I think the narrative invites us as readers or listeners to put ourselves in the place of the actors. We are telling our disguised traveling companion what happened to Jesus. We ask the stranger to eat with us. Finally, Jesus reveals himself to us. More than just a story about recognition, in the Road to Emmaus, the evangelist relates a story about our participation in the presence of Christ. The appearances of Lincoln in the South are similar kinds of stories. William R. Black, in a highly perceptive article in The Atlantic, writes: Continue reading “Abe Lincoln Sightings in the South and a Trickster Jesus”

## The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death

#### by Neil Godfrey

While speaking about the origin of the Lord’s Supper discussions prompted me to revisit the question of the integrity of our canonical texts and whether we can be confident they preserve what was originally written by Paul and the author of the Gospel of Mark.

Well, I’ve tracked down several studies on just that question and though I will have to wait a few weeks before a number of them arrive I can post the arguments of one critical scholar, Alfred Loisy. Loisy set out his reasons for believing that the passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he claims to have received the instructions about the Lord’s Supper from the Lord himself is a later addition, and similarly for the passage in the Gospel of Mark narrating Jesus instituting a mystical rite the eve before his death. On the contrary, Loisy argues, before the ritual of the death of Jesus the Christian communities knew only of a celebratory fellowship meal that anticipated the imminent arrival of the Kingdom where they would all be feasting with Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:

20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper.

21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.

22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? what shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.

23 For I have received from [ἀπὸ] the Lord [τοῦ Κυρίου] that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:

24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.

25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

Many of us who have read the above passage may at some time, especially when we first encountered it, have had some “back of our mind” sense that there was something slightly odd with it. But of course repetition when and where all around us evidently accept it as unproblematic dulled our curiosity. But Loisy revives and sharpens our early questions:

Direct revelation or from apostolic tradition?

35 There has been much dissertation about the meaning of the preposition από (before τον κυρίου in verse 23), which need not exclude intermediaries between Jesus and the author of the story. But on the hypothesis of intermediaries, as the matter concerns an act of the Christ and not a plain teaching, we should expect περί rather than από. The author places the case of the Supper among the other παραδόσεις which the Corinthians have received from him. Are all these to be transformed into Gospel traditions passed on by the Galilean apostles? Moreover, whether it be tradition or private vision, the story as here given is not in the primitive Gospel.

(Loisy, p. 399 – my heading)

Some strange features confront us in this passage.

• It is strange that Paul, if he had really told all this to the Corinthians before, should here be obliged to recall it;
• strange that he should present it as a revelation received by him from the Lord;35
• strange that a doctrine implying the theory of redemption by the blood of the Christ, and linked artificially to the benediction of bread and wine customary at Jewish meals, should see the light in the first generation, when Christians lived in expectation of an immediate parousia.

On the other hand it is significant that regard is here paid to that expectation. Evidently the vision of the institution of the Supper which Paul professes to have had is conceived in the framework of a story relating the last meal of Jesus with his disciples in which preoccupation with the Great Event was the dominant feature.

. . . .

In the economy of the Supper as a mystic rite this reference to the parousia, made at a time when it was no longer thought of as imminent, is out of place. The mention of it is due to an old and firmly established tradition. There is ground therefore for saying that mystic commemoration of the saving death, the mystic communion with the crucified Christ, is superposed on a form of the Supper as an anticipation of the banquet of the elect in the Kingdom of God, a form clearly indicated in a saying embedded in the oldest tradition of the synoptic Gospels:

Verily, verily, I tell you
that I will drink no more
of the fruit of the vine,
Until that day
when I drink it new
in the Kingdom of God.

The account of the mystic Supper, in First Corinthians, belongs to the evolution of the Christian Mystery at a stage in the development of that mystery earlier than Justin, earlier even than the canonical edition of the first three Gospels but notably later than Paul and the apostolic age. It must be dated in the period when the common meal was in process of transformation into a simple liturgical act. The passage in question is a conscious attempt to further the transformation by giving it the apostolical authority of Paul. . . .

(Loisy, pp. 244f, my formatting and bolding)

Loisy suggests that the transformation was made some time in the late first century or early second century, towards, say, the time of Marcion (who esteemed Paul as his sole apostolic authority) in 140 CE.

That makes sense to me. In my earlier post I referred to early traditions, clearly in tension with the one we read in 1 Cor 11: 23-26, that speak of a Lord’s Supper as a happy fellowship occasion for thanksgiving and with no connection at all with mystic symbolism of blood and flesh.

But what of the canonical gospels? If the mystical ritual in Paul’s letter was not part of what Paul himself wrote, and if the earliest canonical gospel that of Mark, was (as some argue – Tarazi, Dykstra, R.G.Price) indebted to Paul’s ideas, how do we explain the gospel account of Jesus instituting that ceremony? Continue reading “The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death”

## So it has come to this?

#### by Neil Godfrey

I have never visited the United States of America and have no plans to do so. (I must add that I have been told by some good American friends that there are certain pockets I would love and where I would feel very comfortable with people I really would like, and that not all Americans are racist, gun wielding, bible-bashing, anti-intellectual, loud-mouth, ignorant conspicuous consumers.) Nor have I ever taken a strong enough interest in sports events to attend major football (rugby, AFL) matches here in Australia. So I cannot seriously compare the following account with what happens here but I would be very surprised (and disappointed) if major Australian sports events were following suit.

To what extent has sports and the military become “increasingly fused” in the US? I ask because of an article by William Astore on TomDispatch about the militarization of sports and the redefinition of patriotism.

Since 9/11, however, sports and the military have become increasingly fused in this country. Professional athletes now consider it perfectly natural to don uniforms that feature camouflage patterns. (They do this, teams say, as a form of “military appreciation.”) Indeed, for only \$39.99 you, too, can buy your own Major League Baseball-sanctioned camo cap at MLB’s official site. And then, of course, you can use that cap in any stadium to shade your eyes as you watch flyovers, parades, reunions of service members returning from our country’s war zones and their families, and a multitude of other increasingly militarized ceremonies that celebrate both veterans and troops in uniform at sports stadiums across what, in the post-9/11 years, has come to be known as “the homeland.”

These days, you can hardly miss moments when, for instance, playing fields are covered with gigantic American flags, often unfurled and held either by scores of military personnel or civilian defense contractors. Such ceremonies are invariably touted as natural expressions of patriotism, part of a continual public expression of gratitude for America’s “warfighters” and “heroes.”

. . . . .

Highlighting the other pre-game ceremonies the next night was a celebration of Medal of Honor recipients. I have deep respect for such heroes, but what were they doing on a baseball diamond? The ceremony would have been appropriate on, say, Veterans Day in November.

There is more but you get the idea.

Then there is this:

What started as a post-9/11 drive to get an American public to “thank” the troops endlessly for their service in distant conflicts — stifling criticism of those wars by linking it to ingratitude — has morphed into a new form of national reverence. And much credit goes to professional sports for that transformation. In conjunction with the military and marketed by corporations, they have reshaped the very practice of patriotism in America.

Now there I do see a synchronicity with Australia. There has never been a repeat of the public insults directed at troops, many conscripts, returning from Vietnam. Now we see what I can’t help thinking is an opposite extreme, equally ignorant: the call for gratitude and honour that must stifle any public questioning of the motives and morality of those who sent them to kill and die. The masters of propaganda learned their lessons well.

I sometimes wonder if what we are witnessing now, but as an outsider it is difficult for me to say too much about America, is a gradual infusion of a type of fascism and militarism by stealth. The ignorant personalities don’t lead the way as they once did; but they do emerge somehow as symptoms or afterthoughts as the tide is changing.

I don’t know. Just thinking, wondering.

## Religion Explained – Why Rituals (Explaining the origin of the Lord’s Supper)

#### by Neil Godfrey

Why for that matter do people gather in a special building, listen to accounts of a long-past torture-session and pretend to eat the flesh of a god? (Boyer, p. 262)

As we noted recently, our historian friend Eddie Marcus made the following comment — I paraphrase:

Christians obsessed over the eucharist.

The reason we think it MUST have been Jesus was their obsession over it. ALL faith communities have this in common. . .  — this bread and wine ritual obsession. Something triggered that. Easiest explanation for that ritual is that one person did it.

I don’t think so. I think the explanation that “one person did it” is the most difficult explanation.

Luke 22:14-20
And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I shall not eat it, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: for I say unto you, I shall not drink from henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.

The reason I think it is difficult to imagine one person starting the ritual as per the gospel narratives is that such an explanation fails to take into account the nature of ritual itself. What is the eucharist, or Mass, or Lord’s Supper? Before taking up the question of origins it is surely necessary to first understand what it is that we are seeking to explain.

We know of stories where comrades in arms, after experiencing a traumatic bonding time together, solemnly vow to meet every year to commemorate those who did not survive and renew their friendship. I don’t think we’ve ever heard of any of those gatherings expand to include their children and subsequent generations, certainly not other friends, continuing the anniversary long after the original parties have died.

But you will be quick to say that that is not a fair comparison because there is no divinity involved. I would say that the comparison rather draws our attention to what it is we are seeking to explain. What is a ritual?

Scholars of religion, including anthropologists and psychologists, have identified special characteristics about rituals that are unlike other sorts of behaviour and emotional responses.

One such theme in rituals is

purity, purification, of making sure that participants and various objects are clean, etc.

(Boyer, p. 237)

Paul stressed as much when he wrote:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body. For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep. But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged.

1 Cor 11:27-31

Yes, as Eddie said, the early Christians “obsessed” over the eucharist. But what he failed to appreciate is that most people who observe the ritual today also “obsess” over it. That they did so in Paul’s day is not necessarily a pointer to the historicity of its etiological myth any more than today’s “obsessives” are evidence of the historical truth behind Luke 22:14-20.

But Eddie did come very close to what is actually the defining trait of the ritual when he spoke of obsessive interest. Continue reading “Religion Explained – Why Rituals (Explaining the origin of the Lord’s Supper)”

## They Do History Differently There; or, Did Apollonius meet with emperors?

#### by Neil Godfrey

In these dark times when our heads ache from the thunderous reverberations of there is no reason to doubt or we must avoid ‘hyperscepticism’, I felt my soul lifted up and filled with the purest joy when, on turning away from biblical studies publications I picked up a compendium of essays by a classicist and specialist in ancient Greek fiction to see what he had to say about Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana.

It has been easy to dismiss them as unhistorical. There is no external evidence for any contacts between Apollonios and these emperors. The only event of this kind that is confirmed by an historical source (Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.18) is the scene in Ephesus in AD 96 when Apollonios in a vision sees Domitian being murdered in Rome and cries out in triumph (VA 8.26).

(Hägg, pp. 393f)

My god. Tomas Hägg is in a world where independent corroboration is assumed to be necessary in order to confirm the historicity of a text’s narrative.

Hägg, Tomas. 2004. “Apollonios of Tyana — Magician, Philosopher, Counter-Christ. The Metamorphoses of a Life.” In Parthenope, edited by Lars Boje Mortensen and Tormod Eide, 379–404. Museum Tusculanum Press.

## How a historian approaches the question of the historical Jesus: concluding the PZ and Eddie Marcus discussion

#### by Neil Godfrey

Previous posts:

I have as a rule paraphrased main points that each person spoke in their exchange.

–o–

PZ: You (Eddie) say it is unlikely that anyone would conspire to create a Jesus myth, but compare Mormonism. Joseph Smith invented this “ridiculous past history for the North American continent”. And people believe this.

Eddie: It’s not a question of what people believe. We have to account for the evidence. History of Mormonism would start with historical techniques. So it would start with a real Joseph Smith. And using the tools of history we can analyse the Book of Mormon itself and identify disparate sources and influences.

Comment: I think Eddie has missed PZ’s point here.

–o–

PZ: We can do all of that, yes, but that does not give any credence at all to the mythology that was created and believed.

Eddie: Let’s look at what a historian means by “the historical Jesus”.

— The earliest accounts of Jesus are Paul’s writings. Paul believed “the historical figure of Jesus” becomes Christ, the Messiah, at his death or resurrection.

— Then the gospel writers thought there had to be something more to this Jesus before his death so they created the gospels.

— Mark says it (becomes the Messiah) happened at Jesus’ baptism.

— Then others said it (Messiahship) happened at his virgin birth.

— Then John pushed him right back to the beginning of time/creation.

Such is a linear presentation but in actual fact it would not have been so tidy; rather it would have been different community groups arguing with one another.

The point of this is to split the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ.

So we can account for why we have a virgin birth, using standard historical techniques. It is naive to say that a miracle could not happen so there was no historical person behind the stories. It’s part of an ongoing discussion about at what point Jesus becomes the Messiah.

Comment: Technical point. In Romans 1 Paul writes that Jesus became the son of God at his resurrection, not the messiah or christ then. Same with the gospel writers shifting the moment back further, to baptism, to birth, to the beginning of time. What they were shifting back was when Jesus became the son of God, not messiah.

I take Eddie to be meaning that we can explain why miraculous or mythical stories emerged by means of rival interests and search for deeper meanings etc among the communities following Jesus. He appears to be saying that this is how historians “find” the historical Jesus. They package their historical explanations for the miraculous tales as a narrative and this is the evidence for the historical Jesus. At least this certainly appears to be Eddie’s message later in the discussion.

To say that the narrative itself is “the evidence” sounds a bit like one of the less conservative postmodernist views of what constitutes history. My readings about history and how history is done by historians thankfully assure me that not all historians accept this view.

–o–

PZ: So there could probably be a kernel of truth there but the communities were adding layers of myth to the story.

Eddie: The gospel writers added the myths because of what they meant to convey (though they may have also believed they really happened) — e.g. virgin birth. But that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t really born.

PZ: Granted all of that. But where did the mythmaking start and end, and where was the reality? Continue reading “How a historian approaches the question of the historical Jesus: concluding the PZ and Eddie Marcus discussion”

## How an executed war criminal became a mythic national hero

#### by Neil Godfrey

Years ago I walked out of a movie theatre enraged. Thousands throughout Australia at that time did the same. People talked about it for months afterwards, asking “How could they do it!” The “they” were the British colonial masters led by Lord Kitchener; the “it” was the execution of two Australian soldiers as scapegoats to protect the international image of Great Britain. The film was Breaker Morant, based on historical persons and events in the Boer War at the turn of the last century. Morant, nicknamed the Breaker, was a national hero few of us at the time had even heard about. The film revived memories from the early twentieth century that the Breaker was very much a national hero and a sacrificial victim to the British overlords.

Morant has gone not so much into history as into legend. He followed the admired track of other Australian folk-heroes — Ned Kelly, Moondyne Joe, Captain Starlight. They were all men against authority; good bad men or bad good men, always with enough human appeal to disguise the fact that they were outside the law, that they robbed and killed and were brought to book. Behind them all are the near-mythic figures of Hereward the Wake and Robin Hood, of William Tell and the outlaws of the Old West. People prefer to think of them all as bold and brave individuals, self-reliant and strong, defiant against great odds. Morant, in the popular mind, has joined their company.

(Denton in Closed File, cited by Walker, pp. 18f )

Here are the facts about Morant according to Shirley Walker’s article ‘A Man Never Knows His Luck in South Africa’: Some Australian Literary Myths from the Boer War. I list them first so you can begin to wonder how such a figure was able to acquire the status of an Australian mythic hero.

• His name was Edwin Henry Murrant, son of the Master and Matron of the Union Workhouse, Bridgewater, Somerset.
• He lied about his age to marry Daisy O’Dwyer, soon afterwards deserting her and eventually remarrying as a bigamist
• “A young English scapegrace consigned to the colonies for some youthful escapade”
• He had a reputation for defaulting on debts
• A “womanizer”. His nickname Breaker referred to both his breaking in of horses and his breaking of women’s hearts
• A horse thief
• A regular drunkard
• In the Boer War he shot prisoners, including a number who entered his camp under the white flag.
• He also had witnesses to these crimes, including a missionary, murdered.
• On being caught he was tried and executed by firing squad.

There was a positive side:

• He was “well known throughout Australia (i.e. the colonies) as a rough rider, a polo and steeplechase rider”
• a bush poet published in the leading magazine, The Bulletin, under the pen-name “The Breaker”

#### How does one make a Hereward the Wake or Robin Hood type hero out of raw material like that?

First, one needs the right soil for any seed to germinate. Or, to change the metaphor, one needs a mold by means of which to cast the person to become the hero.

In other words, the ideas of the myth are “out there”, in the minds of an audience who are prepared to love the idea of finding exemplars to fit those ideals. Continue reading “How an executed war criminal became a mythic national hero”

## Review of R. G. Price’s book on the Christ Myth theory — and a review of Richard Carrier’s to come

#### by Neil Godfrey

I have posted a review of R. G. Price’s book , Deciphering the Gospels — proves Jesus never existed, arguing for the Jesus of the gospels being an entirely literary invention on Amazon. At the time of this post it has not yet appeared but I expect it will be processed and published soon. I have posted a copy of what I wrote below.

Meanwhile, I have been persuaded I should also do my own review of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus. It’s a big book and the review will be lots of work so it won’t be completed by tomorrow but it is in the “to do” basket.

Here is what I wrote for amazon on Price’s book:

## Tall tales do not mean we doubt the historicity of Davy Crockett; why should we therefore doubt Jesus?

#### by Neil Godfrey

It is Sunday morning and I beg to be allowed a lazy post for once. Let me copy here a comment I left on PZ’s site and that I originally made in reply to a visitor to Vridar.

Someone on my blog asked a vital question. . . . The question (after addressing the legends about Davy Crockett)

Perhaps the question we should be asking about Jesus, is not if the surviving texts about him are purely mythical or if they represent the honest to god unquestionable truth, but if they are hagiography and whitewashing, and if anything historical can be extracted from them.

That’s an excellent question and one I have written about many times here, often discussing the works of classicists and ancient historians as they themselves inform us how they address that type of question. The second post in this series contains links to some of those posts: https://vridar.org/2018/09/06/how-do-historians-decide-who-was-historical-who-fictional/

Some of those articles:

— As for figures about whom we have contradictory records, such as Socrates, we have seen whether and on what grounds his status is determined in Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed.

— As for the status of mythical persons such as Gyges we have seen How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical. (In this case the myth is determined to have a historical core.)

— As for reports of miracles, we see how historians work with the evidence in Even a Bayesian Historian Can Slip Up! (once).

— On vague rumours, such as stories about the Celts ritually killing their kings, we have considered how historians work at Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings?

— When it comes to fictional accounts of something like the Exodus we have critically reviewed one work at Can we extract history from fiction?

— Or when our only written reports are by enemies, we have seen a historian at work in Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed?

We have also looked at general comments about methods by the renowned ancient historian M.I. Finley in An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

Many ancient historical figures are said by ancient sources to have become gods or were sons of gods, and to have performed miracles, and to have done things that were very like what the myths said gods had once done. How do we know they were real?

Example: emperors became gods at death, some were said to be gods with divine ancestry while on earth, one Roman emperor healed a blind man in a manner that strikingly resembles a healing by Jesus; Hadrian dressed and acted like Hercules, Alexander the Great followed in the footsteps of Dionysus in conquering the east, etc.

But in every single case of those historians deem to be historical we have evidence that exists about those persons independently of the myths and legends surrounding them. Further, we can trace the origins and reasons for those myths by comparing them with what we know independently of the real historical figure.

The ancient authors whom we rely upon know they are writing about historical figures and their works are indeed forms of ancient history or biography. Those authors do know the difference between normal human characteristics and those of the gods and myths, and when they tell us about the mythical tales or comparisons associated with their historical subjects they nearly always either give their sources for the information or express some sympathy with their readers who may be reluctant to believe the tales. In other words, they do not tell the stories as tall tales because they want to inspire credibility in their accounts.

On the other hand we have other stories about ancient persons (some of these tales actually include genuine historical characters as part of the plot) that are told for entertainment or to convey moral or philosophical lessons and historians always call the main characters of these stories fictional. They do so because they are told just like the novellas or short stories of the day: none of the cautions and trappings of reliability of account as for the historical persons are to be found in these narratives. They are told as if the reader is expected to suspend all critical imagination and just accept or even believe their stories of miracles and nymphs and talking with gods, etc.

If we strip away the mythical trappings of Alexander and Plato and Pythagoras and Davy Crockett, we still find a real person there.
If we strip away the mythical trappings of stories of Achilles and Adam and Jesus we are left with no body to examine at all.

You might also like to consider the following posts addressing the methods of ancient historians:

Can we extract history from fiction?

## How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical?

#### by Neil Godfrey

–o–

PZ Myers asks: How do we approach this kind of topic?

Eddie Marcus, introduced as a professional historian, responds:

Eddie Marcus informs listeners that his expertise is in Australian culture and history, not first century Palestine. He has a business webpage, History Now, and a blog, Dodgy Perth. His LinkedIn page informs us that he has a BA in history from Cambridge and a Post Graduate Diploma in Cultural Heritage from Curtin University of Technology.

there is a lot of commonality between how science approaches evidence and how history approaches it, and that way we could get there slowly.

Comment: Eddie unfortunately does not explore this “slow” option of determining the historicity or otherwise of Jesus (or any historical figure). This is a significant oversight, in my view, because it is that “scientific approach” that is the one used by the major authors of the Christ Myth theory, in particular Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price. (I am not suggesting that their arguments are infallible; like many scientific approaches they find themselves in need of testing and revision.) It is also the method used by some historical Jesus scholars (e.g. John Dominic Crossan) to reconstruct their interpretation of what Jesus was like. As with any scientific exploration, results will likely vary according to the assumptions underlying one’s starting questions. Carrier’s book on Proving History is one excellent discussion of how a “scientific approach” to history is ideally undertaken. (For anyone who thinks that Bayesian reasoning is not used by historians I recommend a work by the philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker. Bayesian reasoning does not have to involve numbers, by the way. More simply and immediately, one can see how a more valid approach to evidence has been advanced by an Old Testament scholar, Philip R. Davies. Davies, by the way, urged biblical scholars to take up seriously the question of Jesus’ historicity in order to become a more academically respectable guild.

–o–

Eddie refers to the scientific method sets it aside in order to launch instead into the discussion at “the deep end”. How, he asks, does a historian approach “the resurrection”.

But to start at the deep end, consider the resurrection. We have “loads of evidence” about the resurrection. It’s what we do with the evidence that becomes history.

The best evidence Eddie cites (he calls it “amazing” evidence) is our collection of four gospels. They are written, he says,  “comparatively close to the events they say they are describing.”

Most ancient historians would kill for that kind of evidence. I wish I had it for most of the stuff I study.

Comment: Right from the start Eddie jumps in the deep end of biblical scholars’ interpretations and models, bypassing the evidence and methods themselves. It is not a “fact” that the gospels were written “comparatively close” to the events they narrate. Such a claim is an interpretation and one that is grounded in the theological desire to date the gospels as close as possible to Jesus in order to buttress their credibility as historical sources. (Christian theology is for many though not all theologians grounded in belief in historical events: see Nineham.) To see how documents are dated “scientifically” I recommend Niels Peter Lemche’s discussion that I have summarized at Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels. Lemche was referring to Old Testament texts but the same principles apply. Cassandra Farrin set out a comparable set of points to consider in relation to New Testament texts.

It is possible that the four gospels as we know them in their canonical form did not exist until at least the mid second century. I think there are very good reasons for dating our earliest canonical gospel, Mark, soon after the year 70 CE, but there are also very good reasons advanced by some scholars for dating the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles to the mid to latter half of the second century.

But even if the gospels were all written according to biblical scholars’ conventional dates in the last decades of the first century, by the standards of historians of ancient times that does not make them “amazing” or “close” enough to the events narrated to be worth “killing for” (as Eddie says). The highly renowned ancient historian, M.I. Finley, discussed the problems we have with ancient sources that I think many New Testament scholars would profit from reading: An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally. Ancient historical works are of value to the extent that their sources and provenance can give the modern scholar some degree of confidence in their reliability. In the case of the gospels we have no information about their provenance (only speculations) or their sources (only the hypothesized oral tradition). See, for example, Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons.

If the only evidence Eddie had for an historical figure said to have existed forty years earlier, and the story was riddled with tales of the fabulous, and their was no way to identify its author, then I do not believe Eddie would consider such evidence as having any worth as testimony for the historicity of that person at all. This would be especially so if he found on closer inspection that that story (or “biography”) could be seen to have adapted many phrases and motifs from Alice in Wonderland.

–o–

Eddie describes the gospels as biographies.

He further says that we know exactly why Luke wrote his gospel because he tells us so in his preface: it is to assure Christians of the origin stories that justify their rituals, like the eucharist and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Continue reading “How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical?”

## How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

#### by Neil Godfrey

PZ Myers is a biologist with a curiosity about how historians determine whether a person appearing in ancient records is considered historical or otherwise. He asks:

How does one assess people and events that are contradictory, vague or preserved only in stories passed on by word of mouth?

And many more, including surveys of works by leading specialists in oral traditions such as Jan Vansina.

But if we are to ask PZ’s question as a lead in to the Jesus myth debate then it is worth pausing and taken one step back first.

Vague? Yes. Some of the earliest statements about Jesus, such as some in Paul’s letters, are certainly vague.

Preserved via word of mouth before being written in the gospels? That is the general idea we encounter whenever we pick up a study of gospel origins. But how do we know that the gospel narratives were picked up from oral reports?

The reason we think they were is because this is what the stories in the gospels and Acts implies. The stories tell us that Jesus’ followers went out preaching after the resurrection, and since the first gospels were written by a subsequent generation we assume “the obvious” — that the material for these stories came to the authors from word-of-mouth preaching and traditions. But recall how this model of how the stories came to be known is circular by both New Testament and Old Testament scholars alike. We saw how the late Philip Davies pointed out this circularity with respect to the Old Testament accounts: “How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”. We have also seen New Testament scholars acknowledge the same difficulty with respect to the gospels: It all depends where one enters the circle.

Yes, there is a passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that speaks of a teaching being passed on, orally, about the resurrection. Nonetheless Paul also speaks of learning his “truth” through visions and the scriptures without owing any debt to a fellow human.

The truth is that the idea that oral tradition lies behind the gospels is a hypothesis. It is not a fact. Indeed, we have posted at length on the work of two scholars who have questioned that hypothesis: see the Brodie and the Henaut archives.

At the same time I think that surely all critical scholars of the gospels acknowledge that at the very least some of their narratives have been shaped by other literary narratives such as those found in the Jewish Scriptures. Some may add that the literary allusions to, say, Moses and Elijah are ways the authors have chosen to shape stories that originated in oral tradition. That’s fine, too, and it is another hypothesis that we need to consider in the light of the evidence and background knowledge of how Jewish and other authors worked.

It is often heard that the gospels are biographies, even very much like other ancient biographies. So it follows we can treat them as accounts of a genuine person. No, it doesn’t follow, unfortunately, because we even have ancient biographies that appear to be about historical persons but in fact are arguably entirely fictitious. Previous posts have demonstrated that even straightforward biographies of ancient persons, by contemporaries, such as the biography of Demonax, require historians to exercise caution: Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ and Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? Besides, it is not a fact that the gospels are biographies. Other scholars disagree. So it is a hypothesis or an interpretation. There are other interpretations.

All of the above was written to address just a single point in the original question. If anything, I have hoped to point out that even the way we frame our questions can be an indication of our assumptions and therefore influence the answers we might find.

As we posted not so long ago, a philosopher of history reminds us that the real historical question is not: Did this event (e.g. a miracle) happen? But rather, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

So we begin. I will in future posts comment on some of Eddie Marcus’s statements in the light of what various professional historians have written.

## PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism

#### 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.

## Just a small point

#### by Neil Godfrey

Finally I have been able to catch up with the answer to one particular small question that arose for me when I first read Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. In the first pages of his review Gullotta directs readers to numerous works that are said to offer a detailed history of mythicism or a detailed list of serious engagements with past mythicist ideas. For example, on page one he writes:

For an in-depth review of mythicism up until Arthur Drews, see

Shirley Jackson Case, ‘The Historicity of Jesus: An Estimate of a Negative Argument’, The American Journal of Theology 15.1 (1911), pp. 20–42;

Maurice Goguel, ‘Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ’, Harvard Theological Review 19.2 (1926), pp. 115–142;

Walter P. Weaver, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900–1950 (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999), pp. 45–71;

B.A. Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on Reformation Heritage (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 230–247.

(Gullotta, p. 311 – my layout)

The first three works I was somewhat familiar with (and I might have reason to question their portrayal as “in-depth reviews of mythicism up until Arthur Drews” although I can understand why Gullotta thought they might be) but the fourth, the one by Gerrish, was new to me. Only in recent days have I been able to read it.

Here is the full extent of the “in-depth review of mythicism up until Arthur Drews” given by Gerrish:

The problem of the historical Jesus was scarcely a new one. It had been one of the persistent motifs of nineteenth-century German theology, thanks largely to D. F. Strauss and his critique of Schleiermacher’s christology, and in the work of Bruno Bauer it had already issued in doubt whether Jesus ever existed. But it can hardly be claimed that Bauer had greatly shaken the world of German Protestantism. Towards the end of the century, shortly after the death of Albrecht Ritschl, a new phase of the discussion had begun, for which the year 1892 may stand as a convenient marker since it witnessed publication of the notable studies by Kaehler and Weiss. However, renewed discussion had remained the relatively genteel preserve of professional historians and theologians. Arthur Drews’s book, by contrast, became a cause célèbre because he enlisted historical skepticism into a vigorous public campaign on behalf of a post-Christian religious philosophy, which called for abandonment of faith in Jesus.

(Gerrish, pp. 230f)

That’s it. The remainder of the chapter is an in-depth critical review of how one particular theologian addressed the ways in which belief that Jesus had a historical existence was necessary for the faith of the Christian. It is not about mythicism, certainly not about the history of mythicism, but entirely about theological debates over whether Christianity was more about meaningful symbols, community interactions, than it was about the existence of a historical Jesus. Such debates arose in response to the possibility raised by Arthur Drews of even considering the question: How important is it for Christianity that Jesus did exist?

As I read the chapter I came to see more clearly how some few Christians today appear to have reconciled their Christian faith with the idea that Jesus was a metaphor, a symbol, an idea, and not historical. See the posts on Thomas Brodie for an example of how a Roman Catholic priest came to believe Jesus had no historical existence yet still finds deep meaning in the Christian faith.

If there’s a lesson to this post it is by no means a new one. It is one I have experienced many, many times over. And the example I have given above is far from being the only instance in Gullotta’s review. The lesson is: never blindly trust footnotes even in the most scholarly-looking articles, especially in the field of biblical studies at any rate. Always check them for yourself before running with the claim that they say or are what the author has written about them.

Gerrish, B. A. 2004. “Jesus , Myth, and History: Troeltsch’s Stand in the ‘Christ-Myth’ Debate.” In The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage, 230–47. London; New York: T & T Clark International.

Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (2–3): 310–46. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-01502009.