The Phlogiston Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Fourcroy (Wikipedia): “There are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.”

PZ Myers: A consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 200 years ago there was a consensus phlogiston existed. The key thing is: show me the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this.

(From video discussion with Eddie Marcus; see also transcript/paraphrase.)


Tim O’Neill: If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like Maurice Casey, Zeba Crook, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Funk, Jeffrey Gibson, Michael Goulder, Amy Jill Levine, Gerd Ludemann, Jack Miles, Christina Petterson, Alan Segal and Geza Vermes. None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have most of these scholars ever published or publicly stated a view about mythicism, either for or against. Nor have they all even published a perspective on the historical Jesus, either. It is probably fair to say, however, that in their writings they all have, when and where relevant, embraced the assumption of a historical Jesus.

And to [suggest] that these scholars are simply too unimaginative or too timid to examine and accept the idea that there was no Jesus at all is [without foundation]. [Some of these names are] the leading proponents of conceptions about Jesus and the origins of Christianity that are so much at odds with orthodox Christian ideas that conservative Christian apologists write whole books warning their faithful to beware of their supposedly wild and radical theories. . . . So if [some] leading non-Christian scholars are so shackled to the Christian idea of a historical Jesus because of the vast influence on them of Christian culture, [we need to explain why] this highly Christian influence [appears to be] so narrowly focused and selective. Why is it only on the question of Jesus’ existence that this supposedly pervasive Christian orthodoxy has such influence on these non-Christian scholars, but not any other ideas? How is it that this supposed Christian control only works on the historicity of Jesus, but somehow fails completely on topics such as the rejection of Jesus as

  • a Jewish apocalypticist,
  • or the promotion of the Farrer Thesis over the Two Source Hypothesis
  • or conservative views on the dates and authorship of the gospels
  • or any of the dozens of other issues on which the scholarship is sharply divided between non-Christians and orthodox Christian scholars?

Why can and do these scholars present Jesus as

  • a Jewish preacher,
  • a charismatic hasid
  • or a Cynic-style sage

– all ideas substantially at odds with Christian orthodoxy – yet baulk at the idea that he did not exist? . . . It makes no sense that this supposedly powerful cultural bias would only affect non-Christian scholars on historicity and not across a much wider range of disputed topics.

(From O’Neill, Tim. 2018. “PZ Myers and ‘Jesus Agnosticism.’” History for Atheists (blog). September 29, 2018. https://historyforatheists.com/2018/09/pz-myers-and-jesus-agnosticism/.)

I have replaced words in Tim’s original post that I believe are not in the best interests of a sober discussion (some contain rhetorical flourishes laced with unprofessional attitudes; some are sweeping, misleading or incorrect statements) with my own hopefully more neutral words in square brackets and italics. The bolded highlighting and dot-formatting is my own.

Tim’s question is clearly intended to be rhetorical but actually a little reflection on PZ Myers’ reference to the scientific consensus on phlogiston will suggest a ready answer.

The existence of phlogiston was at one time agreed upon by all chemists. That did not mean that all scientists had a clear and single understanding of the nature of phlogiston.

This insistence on existence is conspicuous especially given the acknowledged fundamental disagreements about phlogiston’s theoretical status, about its constitution, about its properties and even . . . . about the very meaning of ‘existence’ of a chemical substance.

Boantza, Victor D., and Ofer Gal. 2011. “The ‘absolute existence’ of phlogiston: the losing party’s point of view.” The British Journal for the History of Science 44 (3): 321.

Phlogiston existed, so went the consensus at one time, even though there was a wide range of explanations about its properties and how it was constituted.

Is it not reasonable to compare the many views of the historical Jesus, many of them incompatible, such as

  • a Jewish apocalypticist
  • a Jewish preacher,
  • a charismatic hasid
  • or a Cynic-style sage

The other points Tim listed — the Farrer thesis, dates of the gospels — are not relevant to mythicism per se since mythicists generally take the same sides with mainstream scholars, aligning with one side or the other, on these questions. They engage with the scholarship in areas they debate. The one question mainstream scholarship will not allow to be raised in debate is the one the mythicists take up.

You can see where the phlogiston comparison is leading. It is one thing to have many theories and competing explanations for the assumed existence of X; it is another to go so far to question that assumption that X exists.

The radical thinker who came along to challenge that assumption was Antoine Lavoisier. His collaborator, Antoine François, comte de Fourcroy, sounded a bit like certain mainstream scholarly critics of historical Jesus studies when he wrote:

What proves that they are not in the true road to truth, is, that each phlogistian has framed a particular theory of his own, which has little or no relation to any other theory; so that there are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.

Antoine François de Fourcroy, Elements of Natural History, and of Chemistry, 2nd edn, vol. 1 (tr. William Nicholson), London, 1788, pp. xvi-xix. — cited in Boantza and Gal (2011).

Now that sounds very much like mainstream critical scholars lamenting the failure of historical Jesus studies to discover “a” historical Jesus. It also sounds like the same criticism raised by many mythicists in relation to incompatible theories about the historical Jesus.

(We should also be aware that Antoine Lavoisier’s oxygen theory did not replace phlogiston overnight; it also took some time for the new theory to stabilize, ironing out its own initial variants and inadequacies and come to a settled conception that was able to answer all the problems and questions raised against it.)

To put it like the start of a bad joke,

What is the difference between phlogiston and the historical Jesus?

That there are so many different reconstructions of a historical Jesus, most of them incompatible with one another, and that scholars continue to pursue this elusive figure, is not at all evidence or an indication that the assumption that such a figure once existed is sound or has even been critically examined.

Jesus has more staying power than phlogiston, though. He is a millennia-aged cultural heritage. He belongs not just to Christian believers but to us all with a Western heritage. He has been an icon for political and social movements as well as religious faith. He is part of our everyday language and appeals to ethical behaviour and ideals of humanity. He has truistically become “the most influential person in history.” And of course the Christian believers dominate the academic study of this figure. To suggest that they exert no pressure over the field is simply contrary to what we know very well from so many testimonies of the mainstream scholars themselves. Michael Goulder (one whom Tim cited) wrote:

I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome. This however is only partly true.

(Goulder, p. 28)

Another section in the same book demonstrates just how entrenched views can be among biblical scholars:

I once had an uncomfortable conversation with Christopher Tuckett, with whom I have had a slightly uneasy friendship over twenty-five years. He asked me two disturbing questions: first, ‘Do you really not believe in Q, Michael?’ and second, ‘Do you think I am honest?’ as though he thought that one or other of us must be playing games, rather than seriously pursuing the truth. I do think that Christopher is honest, but I am unable to understand how, after years of discussion orally and in print, he still finds the evidence I have produced so unconvincing. It was reassuring to be told by Francis Watson, when he was Professor at Aberdeen, that I had persuaded him about Q; but I think it is probably asking too much to expect those like Neirynck and Tuckett, who have nailed their colours to another mast, to be able to consider with the necessary openmindedness a view which so undercuts their own position.

(Goulder, p. 134)

Another whom Tim cited is Gerd Lüdemann. Check the link if you don’t know what happened to him for concluding that Jesus did not say everything the Bible says he did. Lüdemann also made positive remarks about the mythicist Arthur Drews and respected “mythicism” as a serious theory.

Then there’s Thomas Brodie, a highly respected mainstream biblical scholar who felt obliged to wait until his retirement before “coming out” as a mythicist — at which point, of course, he was personally degraded and even his previous work was suddenly deemed to be under a cloud by many mainstream scholars.

There is nothing mysterious or even unusual about scholars debating all sorts of models and theories about something they have long assumed to have been real or existed, only for later generations to realize that their different reconstructions were all built on a false premise.

Chemistry, on the other hand, has not had the same historically entrenched guardians to monitor what is open to question and what is not.


Boantza, Victor D., and Ofer Gal. 2011. “The ‘absolute existence’ of phlogiston: the losing party’s point of view.” The British Journal for the History of Science 44 (3): 317–42.

Goulder, M. D. 2009. Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “The Phlogiston Jesus”

  1. “What proves that they are not in the true road to truth, is, that each phlogistian has framed a particular theory of his own, which has little or no relation to any other theory; so that there are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.”

    This quotation is a good find, and applied to other areas of scholarship or research does seem to indicate that there may be a serious problem. The gist of this observation has been a part of my thinking, likely stimulated by some author whose name I can’t recall.

  2. I’ve mentioned before that I reckon Ehrman will do exactly what Brodie did once retirement looms. And no doubt there will be a lucrative book deal in the offing for him!

    I wonder what O’Neill thinks about Brodie after he ”came out”?

  3. A similar case is: Aether (classical element) —thought to be the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.

    • Since the development of special relativity, theories using a substantial aether fell out of use in modern physics, and were replaced by more abstract models.

  4. From a trusted source somewhere in British academia:

    Casey was son of rector of St Giles Church in Durham, took theology as his first degree, lost his faith and then did Classics because he thought it would improve his employment prospects. That seems to me psychologically interesting: would explain the love-hate relationship Casey has with the Christian material. He’s obviously a clever guy but with a chip on his shoulder. Incidentally, it’s funny how radical revisionists like him can end up in paradoxically conservative positions, e.g. in accepting pretty well everything in Mark as true, which he does because he dates Mark untenably early (it’s got to be ca 70). He’s right, however, that NT scholarship is often distorted by anxiety about faith considerations.

    1. Huh. I thought Casey to be Christian, I guess, because he advocated such conservative positions that, if true, would allow many people to uphold Christianity as true.

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