A constructive exchange with Tim O’Neill on the question of the historicity of Jesus

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Tim O’Neill has given up much of his time to write a detailed post (over 8,700 words) as a guide for non-historians to find their way through the mass of nonsense on the web about Jesus never having existed.

Tim is responding to posts by biologist PZ Myers who is asking questions of a “professional historian” (with a degree from Cambridge, Tim stresses), Eddie Marcus. In this post I address his references to historical methods and to the question of the power (or not) of Christian bias. (Maybe another day when I am at a loose end and looking for another idle time-filler I’ll address the second part of Tim’s post.)

Do ancient historians rely upon late sources?

Early in his post Tim laments the way some listeners of Eddie Marcus’s discussion seemed to pre-judge what he was saying and miss his point. (As with my previous post I will try to replace the original unhelpful language with more neutral or constructive phrasing — italics and square brackets.)

One [commenter], “weylguy”, [wrote] “I stopped watching the video around the 3:00 mark, when the ‘historian’ claimed that the New Testament is “wonderful evidence.’” If “weylguy” had [listened] a few seconds more, he would have heard Marcus explain that the gospels are great evidence for what the communities of believers they were written for believed about Jesus, not [that] they were necessarily evidence about the historical figure of Jesus.

I think Tim is being overly generous to Eddie here and that weylguy’s comment was not so far removed from Eddie’s meaning.

Eddie Marcus is stating over and over how he would love to have such evidence for the subjects he studies and he is not talking about the study of an obscure community of Christians around 100 CE. He is obviously talking about the evidence we have for the study of Jesus Christ as a historical person. He explains that the beliefs of that late community are “best explained” by the “fact” of the historicity of Jesus and clearly wants listeners to believe that those gospels are indeed therefore “very good” evidence, even “enviable evidence”, for Jesus’ existence. (Mythicists themselves say the gospels are “good evidence” for what the later communities believed. But we find here another assumption creeping in and determining the argument’s conclusion: the Jesus and other characters in the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, are so “unrealistic” and evidently very often theological ciphers that we cannot presume their original readers understood them as historical anyway.)

Listen to the video around that 3 minute mark to check this out for yourself.

Further, I know of no study of ancient history that does not stress the absolute importance of contemporary sources (not ones a generation or more later). Yes, many of our surviving historical documents are from much later times but the sources the historians rely upon are those in which they can find a reliance upon sources, usually identified and testable in some way, that do go back to the times being narrated. See, for example, Comparing Sources for Alexander and Jesus; also The evidence of ancient historians.

Little informed discussion of how historical method works

Tim continues:

He [=weylguy] was also not the only one to try to dismiss Marcus on the grounds that he was not a specialist in first century history, despite the fact Marcus readily noted this at the beginning of his conversation. He was talking mainly about the topic under discussion – the way the historical method works – and as someone with a degree in history from Cambridge, he is more than qualified to explain something as basic as that.

Unfortunately, though, Eddie Marcus did not confine himself to the methodological question but did indeed venture to “specialist arguments” for the historical existence of Jesus. Moreover, his methodological arguments were limited to the misguided point that sources a generation or more removed from the events, without any ways of testing for reliance upon reliable contemporary sources, are “wonderful evidence”.

Marcus expressed only one particular (and rather extreme) view of a postmodernist approach of history that says the narratives and their persuasiveness is all the evidence we can have and all we need to be concerned with to prove Jesus existed. Eddie has a degree in history from Cambridge but for the sake of relevance I would like to know what units he studied to attain that degree. Did he specialize in philosophy and epistemology in historical research? Methodology as related to epistemology? I somehow doubt it or I would have expected a more nuanced series of responses about methods to PZ Myer’s questions. Just saying a persuasive narrative is all we need is short-changing the less well informed.

That said, judging from his comments, he [Eddie Marcus] also has a sufficient grasp of the mainstream, non-Christian views of the New Testament texts and the historicity of Jesus to give a decent assessment of those topics – certainly solid enough to satisfy any reasonable person, as opposed to … [m]ythicists ….

On the other hand I found Eddie’s grasp of the scholarship relating to Christian origins and historical Jesus studies to be somewhat shallow and at several points flatly wrong. He conveyed the impression that he had little more than a superficial memory of a few points that Bart Ehrman has recycled in his “trade books” for the mass market — points which, anyone familiar with the field knows, are hypothetical and find limited acceptance among serious critical scholars. (See the outlines of Eddie’s discussion with comments, part 1 and part 2.) As a number of scholars can attest, Ehrman seems to be relying too much in recent years on his reputation to make the necessary effort to keep up with the field or to expand his mastery of its many tributaries. Eddie Marcus towards the end of the discussion even indicated that he knew little or nothing more about the question than what he had read in Ehrman’s popular books.

Accounting for the absence of contemporary sources

Next point:

Myers goes on to dismiss the persistent but invalid claim that we “should” have contemporary accounts of Jesus if he existed. …. [H]e understands that the fragmentary nature of ancient sources on anything or anyone makes this claim ridiculous – as he says “we’re lucky that we even have third person accounts from decades after his death of this hypothetical individual”.

Both Myers and O’Neill, I believe, miss the actual point that is often argued. The point about an absence of contemporary evidence is that we know who was responsible for, and had the motive to, preserve any and everything, good and bad, said about Jesus. The good things anyone might have said are naturally preserved — so say those who claim Josephus wrote something at least neutral about Jesus. The bad things (e.g. the writing of Tacitus) are also targets for preservation because they highlight the wickedness of the enemies of Christ and the superiority of Jesus in the end. Even if manuscripts somehow fell through the cracks, as no doubt many would, we would still expect Christians to be writing about many of them and leaving us some knowledge of their existence — as we know they did when they obviously could.

Of course, if our explanation for the absence of contemporary evidence is that Jesus was so obscure a figure that no-one but a few locals noticed him, then the way to proceed is to construct questions attempting to anticipate what the evidence for such a figure would look like when it did appear, drawing upon comparable historical models. But simply dismissing the absence of contemporary evidence without any matching arguments that can be tested is making the mistake of falling back on ad hoc rationalizations.

I am referring here to the way critical ancient historians work. To date I have not seen any attempts to apply comparable methods among biblical scholars when addressing the historicity of Jesus.

But let’s move on.

Many different Jesuses; one unchallenged assumption

At this point Tim comes to the point that I addressed in The Phlogiston Jesus, so I won’t repeat those things here.

On hidden biases and overt tyranny

On the consensus Tim remarks:

. . . the fact that when people note the consensus of scholars they are not actually making an argument, just noting a pertinent fact . . . .

This is, of course, a naive claim. Facts are not neutral. Facts are raised to make points. Making points is the making of arguments. And the point in this case is indeed an appeal to “an argument from authority”, or what one prominent historian once labelled an appeal to the “prevalent proof“.

Some people defy a consensus for bad reasons. But scholars themselves concede the ideological forces within many of the fields in the humanities and biblical studies is surely (one of) the most ideologically infused field(s) and it does not follow that all disagreement with a consensus is for bad reasons.


The claim is that the consensus is only because the scholars are either Christians or somehow so hopelessly in thrall to Christian biases that they simply cannot entertain the idea that Jesus did not exist.

I think we have an oversimplification here. I think we are talking not only about direct Christian bias but more generally cultural assumptions. One can be biased towards a particular perspective for any number of reasons. To believe that Jesus is historical does not mean that one must of necessity either

  • studied the arguments and evidence for and against and come to an honest conclusion


  • be a Christian


  • be in thrall to Christian biases.

One can certainly be a “non-Christian” and for any number of reasons — cultural, family, career, professional, environmental, social, personal preferences for any number of reasons — still be biased towards a view that also adheres to the Christian teaching. One may not even be aware that one is biased or that the general assumption lacks serious foundations. People have different ways of responding when foundational assumptions behind their work of a lifetime are challenged.

At the same time, however, there can be no doubt that Christian beliefs do exert a tyranny over much of the field, and to see that this is true one only needs enquire into the number of scholars within the guild of biblical studies who have experienced ostracism, dismissal, demotion, and so forth, for expressing views contrary to a certain faith — including the view that Jesus did not exist. It is also interesting to reflect on the names who have waited until near or past retirement to express their openness to the Jesus-myth position.

Besides, biblical studies is a broad area of study and I am sure even I could, in other circumstances, find myself happily and profitably engaged as a scholar of, say, intertextuality, social and intellectual contexts of the canonical texts, etc. without any need to dip my toes in otherwise unacceptable ideas such as questioning the historicity of Jesus.

The following point by Tim should be thought through.

Now, obviously in New Testament Studies there are inevitably going to be a large number of Christians and these Christian scholars, liberal or conservative, are most likely going to be highly inclined to accept that a historical Jesus existed. But even if we completely ignore the Christians and only focus on the non-Christians in the field, we find the consensus remains. 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.

Look at those names.

Maurice Casey: How many scholars really believe Casey’s particular arguments against mythicism and for a historical Jesus? He argued that the evidence in the earliest Gospel tells us that disciples with Jesus recorded what he said on the spot with their wax tablets and had it all written up in the first gospel within ten years of his death.

Zeba Crook: Does he in any of his work address the question of the historicity of Jesus, or like his peers generally, write with the working assumption of his historicity? But Crook does remind us why even non-believers can find a successful career in a field like Jesus studies. He tells us that even novelists with all sorts of odd and original ideas can attract interest among Christians. With the “riotous diversity” of historical Jesus studies out there, is it fair to be reminded that it is variety, whether fictional or scholarly, that really does appeal to curious Christians, scholarly and lay.

Who writes Jesus novels? They are written by Christians. Jews, atheists, and agnostics: fervent Catholics, lapsed Catholics. Protestants, evangelical Protestants, and Maronite Christians: men and women: North American, European, and Asian writers: big-name writers seeking to apply their trade to retelling a well-known story . . . .

Yet despite the fact that not all Jesus novels are equally literary, they all offer something interesting and unique to this familiar story. . . . As “absurdist fiction,” it is in a class of its own, and despite its humor and profanity, it has received a surprisingly warm reception among Christian readers.

Crook, Zeba. 2010. “Jesus Novels: Solving Problems with Fiction.” In The Blackwell Companion to Jesus, edited by Delbert Burkett, 504–18. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.

James Crossley is on editorial board of The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus and co-editor, Michael Bird, has made it clear that they will never publish anything in favour of mythicism. That sounds like censorship and the very antithesis of a scholarly spirit. Crossley, interestingly, was friends with Philip R. Davies, a biblical scholar of some renown, and one who called for biblical studies to open itself to the question of Jesus mythicism in order to attain some genuine scholarly credibility!

Bart Ehrman: He said as far as he was aware he was the very first scholar to actually undertake a systematic exploration into how we can know that Jesus actually existed. That tells you that Jesus’ existence has been an assumption, never seriously questioned or established per se, in the academy.

Paula Fredriksen and Jeffrey Gibson: Anyone interested in the exchanges of either of these persons with mythicist Earl Doherty can view them here and here.

Robert Funk: In a review of Gerd Ludemann’s book Funk expressed his inability to share Ludemann’s level of conviction of faith:

For example, as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations.

See my post that I added subsequent to this one for the context of Funk’s statement: Postscript to my Constructive Exchange post.

Michael Goulder: I love reading his stuff. In his biographical Five Stones and a Sling Goulder many times describes the “conservatism” of biblical scholars and their “hankering after putative lost sources and oral traditions”. At one point he laments his early naivety about the field:

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. (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. (p. 134)

Gerd Lüdemann. Lüdemann said he believed in the historicity of Jesus but he also said he admired the mythicist Arthur Drews and that the Christ Myth theory is a “serious hypothesis”!

As for the other names, I suggest none has addressed the question of whether Jesus existed. Those who have explored the historical Jesus have done so on the premise that he existed. That is, existence is never in need of proof. It is assumed. (Or they have made no statement about where they stand on the historicity question.)

We know exactly what would happen to any of the above scholars if they did (or had) come out in favour of mythicism. The same thing that happened to Bruno Bauer and more recently to Thomas Brodie. The fact that at least thirteen contemporary scholarsGerd Lüdemann, Burton Mack, Thomas Brodie, Hector Avalos, Kurt Noll, Arthur Droges, Philip R. Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, Robert M. Price, Hermann Detering, Raphael Lataster, Richard Carrier, R. Joseph Hoffmann (who later recanted through a personal offence involving Richard Carrier) — within biblical or ancient historical studies (in addition to respected scholars in other fields) have publicly expressed an openness to the mythicist arguments where mythicism is clearly a threat to scholarly reputation is not insignificant. (Informal discussions with scholars in history and other departments indicates far more than the thirteen names above can be found to be sympathetic to mythicism.)

Tim continues:

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 [untenable].

The quotations above from Michael Goulder show the idea is not unreasonable. Lüdemann’s comments demonstrate the same. The fact that Thomas Brodie waited till the end of his career to “come out” as a mythicist also reminds us that there is a culture in biblical studies that does indeed place limits on what questions can be explored. Nor the history of expulsions from departments of theology since Bruno Bauer.

The guild of biblical studies is not of the same disciplinary rigour as, say, physics or biology. Ideologies really do get messed up with the publications, and various strands of thought do scarcely even seem to talk to each other, so that each produces quite different views of Christian origins.

See (again) The Phlogiston Jesus

So if these 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, it is very strange that this highly Christian influence is 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?

I addressed this question in The Phlogiston Jesus.

To add to that discussion, the fact that the historicity of Jesus is a bedrock assumption supporting every other hypothesis for Christian origins might be, just possibly, maybe, a reason why leading powers in the scholarly guild get very irate, even resort to personal insults and worse, if someone, especially an unwashed outsider, asks, “How do we know that the emperor is wearing clothes? Are those his doodle-dots I can see?” Biologists and paleontologists when asked a question by a creationist can, and usually do, reply with the evidence and reasons. They do not need to resort to personal abuse and intimidation.

Are Jewish scholars a problem for Christians?

Tim brings in Jewish scholars.

Far from being influenced by Christian biases and ideas, it is the work of Jewish scholars over the last 70 years that has had a profound and quite revolutionary effect on New Testament Studies, with even the more conservative Christian scholars having to strive to accommodate the often uncomfortable but unavoidable fact that, properly examined, the NT material and the Jesus it describes fits very neatly with our increasing understanding of Jewish beliefs in this period.

I don’t know of any scholars, not even conservative ones, who have indicated any difficulty with the Jewish contribution to Jesus studies. I tend to see scholars of all persuasions embracing any new “Jewish aspect” of Jesus as adding authenticity to the figure. In the last seventy years there has been a swing against the “History of Religions” school that placed greater emphasis on Hellenistic (as distinct from Jewish – though many Jews were indeed Hellenized) influence on earliest Christianity and Paul’s thought.

Again, though, Jesus is simply a given. The arguments are the type of historical figure he is thought to be. We return again to the platitude that scholars find the type of Jesus who mirrors their own ideals.


At this point the Tim’s discussion slips into a tone that I don’t find constructive or genuinely informative. He follows with a second line of argument but maybe I can address that some other time.







The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

52 thoughts on “A constructive exchange with Tim O’Neill on the question of the historicity of Jesus”

  1. Listen to the video around that 3 minute mark to check this out for yourself.

    From 2.35 Eddie Marcus says “the four gospels are, for most purposes, considered to be amazing [Eddie’s emphasis] … they’re 2,000 yr old texts which are written comparatively close to the events they say they’re describing … they’re reasonably reliably transmitted through the last 2,000 years, so we can know the Greek texts we have now are, give or take, very similar to what the first audience, at least by the time the texts became fixed, which is about the year 100 or so.”

    He says most historians would love to have this sort of evidence, calls them biographies, and says “this is evidence”, and this is what atheists don’t realise …


  2. For those wanting to see a critique of Carrier online by Tim O’Neill I would recommend a presentation he gave on The Non-Sequitur Show on U Tube.

    The link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUDP0Wc31o8

    I found it helpful and got a chance to see if O’Neill fits the rumors I have heard about him.
    He seems like a conscientious fellow and well-read on the issue . I am not too happy with Carrier’s constant attacking and name calling with regards to this issue. From what I see he calls everyone a stupid crank if they disagree with them. He does this more in his writing than in his open public debates.

    But then again Ehrmann and Hurtado and others also have already spilt so much poison into this arena that I find it disgusting on the professional level.

    1. • O’Neill does not understand (or ignores) that there is positive evidence for “this original form—the belief in a non-historical Jesus”.

      Per O’Neill ap.Jesus, What A Question! | Tim O’Neill“. YouTube. The NonSequitur Show. 19 October 2018.

      [35:40] The whole of mythicism is based on the idea that this form of Christianity, this original form—the belief in a non-historical Jesus—it exists, but there is no clear overt evidence for it.

      And the problem with an idea based on the supposition [of a non-historical Jesus] is Occam’s razor.
      [36:14] This is why fundamentally, why most scholars accept that there was a historical guy.
      [36:52] The point is nowhere do we have a text that says this is how happened guys, it was in the heavans, he never came to earth. Or he was in the heavens, he got crucified in the heavens and he went back up to Yahweh, which is sort of the Carrier form of Christianity.

      It’s just, there is no such text and mythicists have to resort to conspiracy theories to explain why this evidence isn’t there and the problem is given what I just said it should be there because we have this massive corpus of apologetic literature that deals with all these variant forms of Christianity doesn’t mention this one at all. The most logical rational reason that there is no evidence of this form of Christianity is that it didn’t fuckin exist.

      1. db – you say ‘there is positive evidence for “this original form—the belief in a non-historical Jesus”.’

        I’m not sure what positive evidence you mean when you say that. The only piece of evidence I can think of is the Ascension of Isaiah. Establishing the original nature of that composition is exceedingly difficult, given the textual variations of the extant versions, and the clear scribal and editorial activities that have transformed all of those versions to some degree, but according to one reconstruction of the original, the death of the Son takes place in an entirely supra-terrestrial arena(in the “firmament”).

        That’s the one piece of positive evidence I can think of for an original belief in a “non-earthly” dying and rising saviour. Have I missed others?

        1. Some of the so-called “Docetism” refutations (of early date) from the “massive corpus of apologetic literature” noted by O’Neill are more likely to be refutations of “this original form—the belief in a non-historical Jesus”.

          • Second Epistle of Peter
          • Ascension of Isaiah
          • Letters of Paul
          • Irenaeus, per the cosmic-Jesus literature he was attempting to rebut

          Cf. “How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus?“. Richard Carrier Blogs. 9 November 2017.

          1. So I think we are agreed that there is very little positive evidence. Of that list, most are at best indirect evidence, open to various interpretations. Even the Ascension of Isaiah, since the original edition was “destroyed”, is ambiguous, since reconstruction/interpretation of the original is very speculative. In short, the “fully” mythicist version of Doherty & Carrier (ie of the celestial saviour – whose drama took place in a super-terrestrial arena only) is not well attested.

            In OHJ, quoted in your link, Carrier mentions the possibility of “a ‘transitional’ state of the cult in which the historical narratives were seen as playing out what was simultaneously occurring in the heavens”. But given the dearth of evidence of, it may be that this may have been the “original” understanding of the Saviour – and the purely celestial one that Carrier describes as “minimal mythicism” may never have existed at all. [Curious that he calls this “minimal” as in a way this reconstruction strikes me as “maximal” mythicism. ]

            1. Carrier writes that the Bayes’ factor of Ascension of Isaiah: “barely makes a dent against the probability of historicity.” With the caveat: “It is only because there is no such [real/good] evidence for historicity that the evidence in the Ascension of Isaiah has any appreciable effect at all.” (“McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 5 March 2015)

              • Bayes’ theorem is the best tool to evaluate the historical explanation for the data as outlined by Richard Carrier.

        2. A lot of recent literature looking at the so-called Gnostic or Gnostic-like literature has opened up that field as pre-Christian literature, especially as there are new ways of looking at the development of the books of the NT and how they might not have been finalised in their canonical forms until the mid to late 2nd century -ie. some or even the majority of the Gnostic literature might not be a ‘reaction’ to early Christianity as we have been led to believe.

      2. Carrier asserts that proponents of the invented version of a historical Jesus, destroyed all the literature of those who had ever protested it. Carrier gives some facts that lead up to this destruction.

        Comment [now bolded] by Richard Carrier—November 14, 2017—per “How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus?“. Richard Carrier Blogs. 9 November 2017.

        01. FACT. Many counter-cultural Jewish sects were seeking hidden messages in scripture.
        02. FACT. Cephas (Peter), a member or leader of one of those sects, had “visions” telling him one of those messages was now fulfilled.
        03. FACT. That fellow influenced or inspired others to have or claim supporting visions.
        04. FACT. They all died.
        05. FACT. Then some later folks did what was done for all savior gods: they made up stories about their savior god to promote what was by then a lifetime of the accumulated teachings, dogmas, and beliefs of various movement leaders.
        06. FACT. They all died.
        07. FACT. Then some later folks started promoting those myths as historically true.
        08. FACT. Those who protested that, were denounced as heretics and agents of Satan.
        09. FACT. They all died.
        10. FACT. Those who liked the new invented version of history won total political power and used it to destroy all the literature of those who had ever protested it.

        All ten points are indisputable facts. Not theory. Facts. Documented. Undeniable. Facts.

        1. This is all so; but we must also point out Dr Carrier on multiple occasions in multiple media over multiple years points to benign neglect as much as malevolence: they weren’t interested in the documents and so failed to copy them. It was very expensive, labour intensive and time consuming to do so: it took an imperial grant and commission to produce just fifty certified copies of the scriptures in the 4th century for instance. This accounts for most of the loss of classical knowledge and literature; never mind rival theology. A similar, if more extreme, attitude prevailed in Islam after the 12th century.

          1. The fifty ‘certified’ copies of the scriptures produced in the 4th century would have been ‘special editions’ ie. versions that would have reflected then current theology (it is said Codex Sinaiticus doesn’t reflect those imperial editions). We don’t know what was in them or what scriptures predominated before the Council of Nicea (or even what scriptures were favoured or looked like before the previous turn of the century).

            There are many gaps in the transmission of early Christianity.

      3. Per O’Neill ap. “Jesus, What A Question! | Tim O’Neill“. YouTube. The NonSequitur Show. 19 October 2018.

        [35:40] The whole of mythicism is based on the idea that this form of Christianity, this original form—the belief in a non-historical Jesus—it exists, but there is no clear overt evidence for it ….

        [36:52] The point is nowhere do we have a text that says this is how happened

        The mythicist argument is more nuanced than that: well, it ought to be.

        O’Neill’s talking points – appeals to Occam’s Razor, appeals to consensus, and “a text that says this is how happened” are simplistic.

        Aspects of Carrier’s propositional-premise and arguments are rigid, too. He fixes the date of many of the core extant Christian texts in the first century and, like O’Neill, seems focused on the likes of Ehrman, and never seems to touch on what other scholars have been publishing in recent years, such as the scholarship around Marcion and propositions and hypotheses based on that (which has been fairly prolific).

        At least Carrier has us looking at inter-testamentary literature like Philo, the Ascension of Isaiah and docetic or gnostic-like ways of looking at Paul, etc.

        1. Much of that Dr Carrier concedes for the argument. Similarly Dr Katherine Heyhoe doesn’t emphasise the age of the Earth when arguing for AGW and the necessity of combating it to Christian audiences, only showing ice core and other proxy data going back 6,000 years. Such things are distractions from the central argument. One battle at a time; we can argue the minutiae when the numpties have been driven from the field. It doesn’t matter a great deal whether the Gospels etc. are twenty or one hundred and twenty years after Paul. The point is Paul is dead and these texts are at least a generation later and the wrong side of at least one genocidal war.

          I’d like to hear Dr Carriers full arguments for dating Paul and the Gospels myself. The internal evidence puts Paul c.65BC and G.Mark, I think, c.135AD. Dates of c.55AD-c.110AD seem to depend on circular argument and wishful thinking as much as anything to me. But I’d set that apart from arguments of historicty; it isn’t germane and muddies the waters.

          1. The internal evidence puts Paul c.65 BC …

            Did you mean BC?

            The internal evidence puts … G.Mark, I think, c.135AD. Dates of c.55AD-c.110AD seem to depend on circular argument and wishful thinking as much as anything to me.

            Interesting. Good point about dating G.Mark to c.55AD-c.110AD depending on circular argument and wishful thinking.


            It doesn’t matter a great deal whether the Gospels etc. are twenty or one hundred and twenty years after Paul

            How about if the Pauline epistles and the synoptic Gospels were written or started concurrently ~135 AD onwards?

            1. Yes, I meant BC. The only Aretas we know controlled Damascus as Paul states is Aretas III, who held the city in the decade to 72BC, certainly previous to Tiradates the Great capturing it, and possibly again between Tiradates’ defeat and Pompey’s establishment of Roman hegemony in the region. That Roman hegemony renders the idea of Aretas IV holding the city all but impossible; nevermind this not being reported anywhere else. See Josephos on Tiberius’ reaction to Aretas IV war with, and defeat of, Herod Antipas: the proconsular governor of Syria was ordered to assemble the Syrian legions and smash him. Reaction to Aretas taking control of Damascus would hardly have been different and likely stronger. This AD dating of Paul appears to be an artefact of specious Christian/Scholarly fantasising and circular reasoning again.

              That there was a Paul can be argued from the existence of the Deutero-Pauline literature: fakes imply originals; else why fake?
              Those originals have to be in circulation and to have become widely known before the fakery. That couldn’t happen overnight: the Deutero-Pauline epistles could be concurrent with the Gospels; those of Paul must have preceded them, and by some considerable time. G.Mark might be Paul’s theology allegorised, that is it might be the external myth of a Christ cult; but the later gospels seem to understand that Jesus was a real person. Something catastrophic seems to have happened in the meantime to have all but eradicated memory of that cult of a cosmic Christ. The three Jewish wars would be sufficiently catastrophic and wide-ranging for that.

              Several of the surviving texts are unaware that the Temple cult has ceased and the Temple been destroyed, placing them before the first Jewish war. Clement of Rome’s homily is such; there he records Paul dying in Spain and the Christian faith is written of as being ‘ancient’.

              No; I think it is stretching belief that the Pauline epistles and the synoptic Gospels were written or started concurrently ~135 AD onwards. All of the above, and not enough time.

              I might conjecture G.Mark the myth given to catechumens and outsiders, along the lines of the euhemerised Osiris myth of Isis cult, that was later mistaken after catastrophes had destroyed the Christ cult’s priests and inner circle (We know from other cults that the inner mysteries of such were close kept secrets not likely written down and secrecy is a theme of both Paul’s epistles and G.Mark); I might speculate Alexander Jannaeus was the High Priest behind Paul’s mission of persecution to Damascus, Aretas and Jannaeus being enemies hence Paul’s pursuit by Aretas’ governor; I might conjecture from G.Mark’s use of the Abomination of Desolation that it dates circa Hadrian putting up statues on the Temple Mount (I think that the best fit for the data); but that would just be more story telling at this point. All we have is stray datum. Those datum need explaining; but, though it might be destructive of some hypotheses, I think we need more to erect a better hypothesis on. Speculation in=Speculation out. It might well be Garbage in=Garbage out for all I know.

          2. Comment by Richard Carrier—July 10, 2018—per “Then He Appeared to Over Five Hundred Brethren at Once!”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 28 June 2018.

            [I]f we didn’t have the Gospels and Acts imagining a 30s AD date for the religion’s origin, or if we decided to reject that as fiction —[then] Paul’s letters are more or at least as congruous with the Hasmonean date for the origins of Christianity…

            1. Indeed, thanks. He writes later Aretas IV might have taken or invested Damascus during his war with Herod Antipas. What on Earth for? What reason to go randomly attacking folk who have nothing to do with the dispute? Vitellius would hardly need orders from Rome to respond overwhelmingly to an unprovoked attack on an allied, tributary city. That is just daft straw clutching that doesn’t make a ha’porth of sense.

    2. Like Carrier, O’Neill comes off as more arrogant and insulting in writing than on video. For some examples of this, see his disqus comments: https://disqus.com/by/Thiudareiks/

      When Carrier identifies someone as a crank, it’s not because they disagree with him, but because he regards their arguments as stupid. I’ve never seen a single indication from him that he thinks that all historicist arguments are stupid, which means that he doesn’t think that everyone who disagrees with him is “a stupid crank.”

      Carrier debated Dennis R. McDonald and he never identified him as a stupid crank. Likewise with Zeba Crook. He also respects Mark Goodacre, who disagrees with him. I don’t think Carrier even regards Mike Licona as a stupid crank, since he identified him as the best Christian apologist and has repeatedly praised the sit down debate they had.

      1. Well it’s par for the course in this internet age (but probably long before), that people write things far nastier than they would ever dream of saying in person. I gave up reading Carrier’s blog because, irrespective of the content, the tone of his comments was unpleasant and the air positively sulphurous. And I’m not impressed when people defend nasty comments along the lines of “well, I didn’t call HIM a moron, I just said that all those things he was saying were moronic.” Carrier is guilty of that sort of impeccably logical, but emotionally unintelligent response; he seems genuinely surprised that people are upset by those sorts of comments. But he’s certainly not the most empathetic of personalities and for that and a number of other reasons, I have come to think of him as the Sheldon Cooper of the Historical/Mythical Jesus controversy: brilliant in some respects, but woefully deficient in others.

        In connection with that, I think that Carrier’s presentation of the entire Jesus-Myth issue in a rigidly binary way (the probability of the “minimal mythic” vs. the “minimal historical” scenarios) has actually impoverished discourse on this subject by more or less eliminating discussion of any alternatives to that pair of opposites. But perhaps that’s less his fault than the fault of readers who have allowed his construction of the problem to determine the course of the debate. Actually Neil Godfrey has alluded to these alternatives on this blog, but I got the feeling that the general response has been muted. Which takes us back to a characteristic of the internet age, with it’s preference for 1/0, true/false, good/bad, black/white binaries.

        1. I think the debate is binary, though I think Carrier’s introduction of probability theory via proposing use of Bayes ‘Theorem should have made people think in terms of shades of grey. However, the response to Carrier has been toxic because, I think, the idea of Jesus mythicism is abhorrent per se to many Christians (as well as to many atheists) and because Carrier vehement responses have inflamed opponents to his propositions and arguments.

  3. Per O’Neill, “If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like . . . Zeba Crook . . . Robert Funk . . . None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.”

    • Funk, Robert W. (1995). “The Resurrection of Jesus”. The Fourth R. Westar Institute. 8 (1): 9.

    [Per] what we can know about Jesus himself. For example, as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations.

    • Carrier (24 July 2012). “Ehrman on Historicity Recap”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    We also have sympathizers among mainstream experts who nevertheless endorse historicity but acknowledge we have a respectable point, like Philip Davies (Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University) and Zeba Crook (Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton University).

  4. Upon watching the Tim O’Neill utube presentation I was curious about his statement that there never existed any “Jesus” mythicism data from the 1st cent, context. From my reading and study of the Johannine epistles I noticed this internal debate going on in that community:

    Did Jesus come in the flesh or did he not? The Johannine community is attacking those who left their ranks due to the question of whether or not Jesus came in the flesh.

    I didn’t watch the show live and would have loved to raise this issue in the chat room.

    What do the rest of you think re: this concern in I John?



    1. I think that the standard reply is that this would be a reference to Christian Docetism, the idea, condemned as heretical, the the Jesus of the Gospel narratives did not have a physical body but was some type of phantasm/illusion. Such a docetistic interpretation of Jesus would not deny that he was on Earth, but would claim that he was not bound by the rules of the Earth for humans. That having been said, I could see how the question of whether Jesus came in the flesh could be interpreted in a Couchaud/Doherty type mythicism model. So much interpretation of the bible, alas, has been based upon the idea that it is all true in some way (see, for example, efforts to find scientific explanations for the plagues of Egypt); once scholars such as Thompson, Gmirkin, and Doherty/Carrier move beyond such presuppositions, the Bible becomes more interesting.

    2. Tim subsequently explained that he considered every reference to Jesus coming, even as a non-human spirit in the appearance of a man, was deemed a historical event. At one point Tim stressed that the biblical point about Jesus having “the form of a man” was a distinct reference to an understanding that Jesus made an historical appearance.

    3. • See Doherty, Earl. “A Solution to the First Epistle of John“. The Jesus Puzzle. “Supplementary Article No. 2”.

      In theology and doctrinal points, in language and expression, the epistles are more primitive than the Gospel; even those who argue that the Gospel came first acknowledge this impression. In 1 John, not a single Gospel detail is brought in, no teachings are attributed to a human Jesus; there is not even a specific reference to the cross and nothing at all about a resurrection.
      Christ is referred to obliquely by the pronoun “ekeinos,” meaning “that one”. This is peculiar, and no one has provided a convincing explanation for it. My own instinct is that it began as a way of referring to a specific part of God, that emanation of him which served as intermediary; in other words, the spiritual Son. It has an impersonal character out of keeping with the idea of a recent historical person or distinct human personality. This is one of the characteristics of this epistle, that there often seems to be no sharp distinction between God and Christ, a curiosity encountered in other New Testament epistles.
      [Per the] schism contained in the early part of the letter, between the forces of the original stage 1 and those of stage 2. It now becomes clear. A great dispute has arisen between those who adhere to the initial Jewish outlook from the sect’s beginnings, a faith based entirely on God, and those who reflect the new development in religious thinking which was permeating fields far beyond the sect’s own: the existence of the intermediary Son. The writer’s group is convinced that the Son is the avenue to the Father; to be without him is to be without the Father. Both groups claim to be legitimate representatives of the sect, but the group holding to the traditional views have “gone out,” since they cannot accept the new doctrine.

      • Does anyone know the original year of publication? Doherty created the website The Jesus Puzzle in 1996 and then started publishing supplementary articles.

  5. O’Neill mentions that the reason there is no mention of Jesus by anyone outside the bible during his lifetime is that preachers weren’t written about in that period. People such as “Theudas, for example, or the Egyptian Prophet, or John the Baptist.” Does this seem like a good argument?

    1. Each of those people is associated with a one off event and, interestingly, there are theological undercurrents to those account, too (perhaps more due to Josephus than to the entity they are describing)

      Josephus’ account of Theudas’ includes a claim to be able to divide the river (Antiquities 20.97-8) which many think is a distinct allusion to Joshua 3.14-17, which has everything to do with the redemption of Israel.

      The accounts of the Egyptian prophet (War 2.259-263 & Antiquities 20.169-171) mimics Joshua 6 where Joshua led the crowd to make the walls of Jericho fall.

      Josephus’ account of the Samaritan prophet (Antiquities 18.3-4/85-87) — taking a mob to Mount Gerizim, the most sacred of mountains, where he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses had buried there — is similar to a Samaritan story about the Taheb, a restorer-prophet like Moses, who would bring about the return of all the Israelites associated with the resurrection of the dead (said, in turn, to be based on Deuteronomy 18.15-22). And, ironically, Pilate features in Antiquities 18.85-87. Aspects of some or all three of these accounts are also said to be reflected in John 4:25 and John 12:44-5.

      ie. even those stories have intriguing theological replicas, foundations, or ties.

      Even Josephus account of john the Baptist —Antiquities 18.5.2– has theological undertones –

      Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism … Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion… Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.

    2. Tim argued that people such as Theudas and the Egyptian prophet attracted sufficient attention that the Romans had to send out significant numbers of troops to quell them. If we have only one late reference to these (Josephus) then how much less likely is it that we would have any reference to a quiet preacher in Galilee.

      1. Tim has also asserted that “we have but a few brief mentions for any of these analogous figures [while] [w]e have Far More source material about Jesus that ALL says he was a recent historical human being and Far More non-Christian testimony that says the same.”

        He shifts the goal-posts depending on how people are trying to counter his assertions or arguments.

        1. Tim speaks with confidence, assurance and some authority. He presents very well. Only by knowing the material does one notice that he is often merely expressing fact-free opinions (and sometimes even outright erroneous statements) and yes, as you point, out, saying one thing one time with much emphasis but later saying something that contradicts that — so he can never be pinned down. He reminds me of Sam Harris in that respect.

          1. Someone who presents themselves well and speaks with confidence can get away with quite a lot. That is a problem with the mania for holding live ‘debates’ on controversial topics.

      2. My reply to Tim O’Neill about no contemporary references to Theudas and the Egyptian was that I could see why not, since those two were failed prophets. But that Josephus mentioned those two while not mentioning Jesus at all. The two references to Jesus in Josephus being interpolations. And that the second mention of Jesus wasn’t even about the greatest man that ever lived (Christ). He loves name calling and wasn’t happy at all. Then the brown nosers on the site had to chime in.

        1. I just bought a copy of The Works of Josephus ($1 on Amazon) for my Kindle, did a search for Jesus and noticed that Josephus, when mentioning a Jesus he always says “Jesus, the son of.” Does he do this for all named persons?

          For example:

          “and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James,”

          I wonder why Josephus doesn’t say “Jesus, the son of” or “James, the son of?”

          I’m sure someone has commented on this.

          1. I’m sure, like you, that the point has been covered before. You may want to look at Tim O’Neill’s article at https://historyforatheists.com/2018/02/jesus-mythicism-2-james-the-brother-of-the-lord/ and scroll down to the subheading How Josephus uses identifying appellations where there is a related discussion. You can also ask on the earlywritings forum — someone there is sure to know and point you to a source: http://earlywritings.com/forum/

            1. Neil, thanks for the link. I’m know I’m off topic so will stop after this post. Tim says Josephus always uses an appellation after a person’s name when mentioned for the first time, such as “Jesus, the son of.” So I asked him about the Jesus in the paragraph below (which he doesn’t mention in the article).

              “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.”

              The Jesus mentioned before this one was the son of Sie according to Josephus (a chapter or two back). Told Tim that was news to me. I don’t expect him to post it because we had a good squabble during my last visit.

              1. I’d be interested if you come across any further responses from Tim. (I think you will see from my other posts addressing his claims in the Non Sequitur show that sometimes he, how do we put this politely… doesn’t quite have the complete grasp of a topic that he seems to believe he has.

              2. Neil, it’s been over about 10 days since I submitted a post to Tim O’Neill’s blog about “Jesus, the son of.” He hasn’t responded so he’s seems he’s not going to acknowledge my comments.

              3. Tim O’Neill ap.Jesus, What A Question!“. YouTube. The NonSequitur Show. 19 October 2018.

                [46:46] The key point, the way you measure whether or not we should expect to have contemporary references to someone like Jesus—is by looking at the other people who were like Jesus.
                • Do we have contemporary references to any of them? No!
                Like Jesus we only have references to them that were written decades—or even centuries, whatever—later. That’s how you determine how much evidence we would expect to have.

                Tim O’Neill (25 May 2018). “Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus” – History for Atheists”. History for Atheists.

                [N]aïve Mythicists do not seem to realise exactly how scanty our surviving sources are even for highly prominent events and famous people, let alone for the minor doings of a Jewish peasant preacher.
                we have good evidence of other early first century Jewish preachers, prophets and perhaps Messianic claimants who, by the accounts given in Josephus, were much more prominent and famous than even the Jesus depicted in the gospels, yet who were not mentioned by anyone at all until Josephus wrote at the end of the first century – decades later.
                [Per Jesus] the gospels, which are clearly striving to depict him as highly significant, only show him as a local preacher who, when the time came to suppress him, was arrested by a body of Temple guards in a minor scuffle.

              4. Tim O’Neill (25 May 2018). “Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus” – History for Atheists”. History for Atheists.

                we have good evidence of other early first century Jewish preachers, prophets and perhaps Messianic claimants who, by the accounts given in Josephus, were much more prominent and famous than even the Jesus depicted in the gospels, yet who were not mentioned by anyone at all until Josephus wrote at the end of the first century – decades later.

                The gospels, even the earliest one, Mark, have Jesus’ fame spread throughout Syria, Galilee, Judea and beyond Jordan. Tim regularly ignores the passages in Mark that make this point and effectively says they don’t exist. None of the Jewish prophets Jesus mentioned were said by Josephus to have comparable fame.

                Tim just says stuff like that.

        2. that Josephus mentioned those two [failed prophets, Theudas and ‘the Egyptian’] while not mentioning Jesus at all.

          Good point.

          Josephus, when mentioning a Jesus, always says “Jesus, the son of.”

          That’s interesting.

          Does he do this for all named persons?

          I dunno, but you’ll probably get a sense when looking though them.

  6. • Fredriksen′s 2003 critique of Doherty′s article A Conspiracy of Silence was never intended as a formal criticism.

    Doherty, Earl (5 December 2003). “Challenging Doherty: Critiquing the Mythicist Case (including a response to Dr. Paula Fredriksen’s comments on my first website article)“. The Jesus Puzzle. Archived from the original on 15 December 2003.

    [Paula Fredriksen′s] remarks [were] made not to me, but to a third party who sent her a copy of the first [web] site article [A Conspiracy of Silence] and asked her [Fredriksen] to give that [third] party some feedback [on the article].
    As far as I know, Dr. Fredriksen did not visit the site and read further, and thus was exposed to very little of my overall argument. Her remarks were informal and off-the-cuff, with evidently little time or effort put into them (for which, under those circumstances, I don’t especially fault her).

  7. O’Neill makes hay from the following Jeffrey B. Gibson quote:

    • GDon (January 2011). “Review of ‘Jesus: Neither God Nor Man’ Part 1”. optusnet.

    As one Doherty sympathiser named Doug wrote in a post on FRDB:

    Doherty’s is the only plausible hypothesis I’ve seen, but for the average person its plausibility depends on a knowledge of ancient philosophy, specifically Middle Platonism, that almost nobody has except for a handful of academic specialists.

    Dr Jeffrey Gibson (New Testament scholar and non-theist) responded to Doug’s remark in this way (emphasis in his original post):

    I’m compelled to say that it’s just the opposite of what Doug asserts — i.e., that the plausibility of D’s hypothesis depends on not having good knowledge of ancient philosophy, specifically Middle Platonism. Indeed, it becomes less and less plausible the more one knows of ancient philosophy and, especially, Middle Platonism.

    • Earl Doherty (31 January 2011)—post 2—”Doherty’s Response to GDon’s Review of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man”. FRDB Archives.

    It’s not surprising that Don saw fit to quote Jeffrey Gibson, whose rabid diatribes against me suffered from everything but any familiarity with the actual arguments of my case, let alone included substantive counter-arguments against them. And since receiving a complimentary copy of my new book a year ago, there has been nothing but silence from him. Gibson may be an example of the worst elements in critical scholarship in its visceral animosity toward mythicism and mythicists, but his silence on any substantive rebuttal is equalled across the whole range of scholarship.

  8. Pingback: Remembering |

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading