Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES

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by Neil Godfrey

Last weekend I watched Tim O’Neill present his arguments against the idea that there was no historical Jesus. I said I would respond in a post to his points and expected to cover it all in one or two sessions. But time is getting away from me this evening so here I will address just one point, Tim’s opening claims.

Tim begins by arguing that mythicism is appealing because it pulls the rug out from Christianity.

My response:

I am not interested in and do not refer in my comments to conspiracy theorists and cult-like following of a certain kind of mythicism that I equate more with interest in aliens, UFOs, Holy Grail, type theories. I am referring to the serious scholarly stuff led by the likes of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie and Carrier who ground their research and arguments in the publication of biblical and other recognized scholars.
  • I don’t know of any evidence to support that claim, the claim that, in general, people who are attracted to the mythicist viewpoint do so because they are motivated by some anti-Christian animus. No doubt. In fact, the evidence that I have been able to collate suggests that this is not true.  Some mythicist authors have in fact expressed the deepest respect for Christianity (e.g. Francesco Carotta, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Hermann Detering, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Tom Harpur, Edward van der Kaaij, Robert M. Price).
  • Some mythicists have even remained Christians after embracing mythicism and it is through acknowledgement of Jesus as a “mythical” creation they find deeper meaning in their faith (e.g. Thomas Brodie, Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).
  • I do not recall reading a single scholarly mythicist work that attacks Christianity as a faith. One of the most prominent warriors against Christianity is John Loftus and he has said that arguing mythicism would be the worst way to try to turn someone away from Christianity. I have posted the same thoughts here. Tim O’Neill tells us that Richard Carrier has said the same. So I don’t know if anyone is seriously attempting to attack Christianity by means of arguing that Jesus did not even exist. (No doubt there are some less well informed people who do this sort of thing, or I assume there must be in a universe as vast as ours, but I am speaking throughout of those who are focused on the scholarly arguments for mythicism by such authors as Brodie, Carrier, Doherty, RM Price and RG Price, Detering, Lataster, Fitzgerald, Ellegard, Wells, Parvus, Onfray and such.)
  • Further, if many who are attracted to mythicism are already atheists, then it hardly seems likely that they are motivated by a desire to find pretexts to undermine Christianity. I suppose some atheists are on a vendetta against Christianity, but not even the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens used mythicism as a deadly cudgel. They did nothing more than refer to its possibility in passing and with some diffidence. They certainly held back from using it as serious weapon.

  • I do know many atheists who have acknowledged that it makes no difference to them personally if Jesus existed or not.
  • And I don’t know of any atheist or anti-Christian who has taken up mythicism as a cudgel to try to deconvert or disillusion Christians. Maybe some have somewhere out there, but they do not have a large enough critical mass to have registered with me at least.

See my list of names and their religious backgrounds at WHO’s WHO: Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics. This table was originally put together when I was attempting to establish the grounds for some belligerent attacks on certain mythicists by Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey (and later Bart Ehrman). The table demonstrates the baselessness of Casey’s assertions that most mythicists are somehow in rebellion against early fundamentalist experiences.

Explaining fence-sitters

Further, I know of others who, as I was for a while, are undecided about mythicism and remain on the fence. It seems unlikely that they are motivated by an anti-religious vendetta if it takes them some time before deciding. Many of us who were once mixed up in fundamentalist type cults or worse are very wary about being swept up in another false belief and are perhaps more cautious than most. They are all too well aware of just how easy it is to be wrong.

In other words, I see no reason to think that Tim’s lengthy attempt to impute a hostile anti-Christian bias among mythicists is anything but fanciful conjecture without any clear or significance evidence.

Ye olde ad hominem

That would not be so bad if that’s all it was, but unfortunately the baseless charge also appears to be an attempt to poison the well, to impute illegitimate motives as the primary factor in any person who is persuaded by or argues for a mythical Jesus.

Finally, one might feel permitted to wonder if it does make sense that the motives and character of mythicists would come under attack if “historicists” felt their work and beliefs of a life-time were coming under scrutiny and certain arguments exposed them to feelings of vulnerability.


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16 thoughts on “Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES”

  1. His arguments remind me of the more general argument of the religious people that we are atheists because we hate god. As a self-proclaimed atheist, Tim should know better that this is not the truth. More than this, as an atheist I couldn’t care less if Jesus existed or not. What I care, is that the gospels are full of fantasy and conflicting stuff (i.e., I recon that Ron Hubbard was a real person, but I still find the scientology utterly ridiculous). Jesus presents interest to me only as a presumed historical character, who influenced the life of billions.
    Alas, Tim builds more straw men than L. Frank Baum. I like to believe that the Non-Sequitur show invite him similar to them inviting flat earthers – unfortunately, they seem to treat him with undeserved respect and without any competing position.
    Thank you for taking the time for answering to his gratuitous assertions.

  2. • For the record, Neil Godfrey is not a “mythicist”.

    Neil Godfrey (10 December 2017). “Why I don’t see myself as a Christ Mythicist“. Vridar.

    After all, a number of biblical scholars see everything in the gospels as “mythical” and even the crucifixion as a heavily theological narrative that can have no historical reliability. They are not called “mythicists”.

    Critical scholars who do not believe Moses existed are not called Moses Mythicists.

    How many William Tell Mythicists have you heard of?

  3. • The “Poisoning the Well” fallacy—Illegitimate motives are the primary factor in any person who is persuaded by or argues for a mythical Jesus—is propagated ad nauseam.

    Gullotta, Daniel N. (2017). “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts: A Response to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt”. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. 15 (2–3): 310–346.

    Despite the fact that most professional academics reject mythicism, interest into the theory has not subsided. Casey and Ehrman ascribe this to atheist activists’ disdain for organized religion (especially the Christian tradition) and the increase of online and independent publishing platforms. —(p. 313)

  4. I don’t know of any evidence to support that claim, the claim that, in general, people who are attracted to the mythicist viewpoint do so because they are motivated by some anti-Christian animus.

    This part especially strikes me as really nonsensical. Attacking Christianity because Jesus wasn’t a real person makes exactly as much sense as attacking it because Satan isn’t a real being – it’s nonsense that would convince no believer to come to your side. If you are not a Christian then you already believe that the Jesus of the Bible did not exist. No one who isn’t a Christian believes that the Incarnate Son of God wandered through Roman-occupied Palestine 2000 years ago performing miracles who was then sacrificed as a blood offering to redeem Original Sin (or whatever your particular sect of Christianity preaches is the purpose behind the Crucifixion). If I believed that I’d still be a Christian.

    If you are not a Christian then at most the “historical Jesus” that you have in mind is some David Koresh-like figure that gathered a cult around himself and got himself executed by the Roman authorities for the crime of claiming to be the King of the Jews. And then after the fact his followers refused to give up on the cult and deified his memory. That’s actually a better stance in my mind for attacking Christianity than the idea of the vision of a heavenly Christ being crucified and reborn that appears via a revelation to James or Cephas or Paul or some other person whose name has been lost to time who then gathered followers – at least the idea of a mythic Christ leaves open the possibility that there might have been an actual Divine Revelation to found the religion rather than it being a crazy person with delusions of grandeur or a con artist taking his followers for a ride (which are our modern examples of people founding religions). To be quite honest the idea that there may not have been a crazy weirdo starting a cult in Palestine has caused me to shift to be a little more agnostic in my stance towards Christianity in many ways.

    It just strikes me as strangely blinkered to think that the idea of a mythic Christ would be primarily a vehicle for attacking Christianity. I’m mostly interested in the idea because I’m curious about the origins of Christianity and other religions – but Christianity is especially fascinating given the culture that it appeared in (and, admittedly, because it was the religion I was raised in). Christians already give me enough ammunition to attack Christianity as a religion if I wanted to do so, I don’t need to look to the historical origins of the religion to find more.

  5. On the other hand, Tim is good evidence that some cling to The Real Jesus hypothesis out of hostility to those who are open to the possibility that the character of Jesus is literary in origin…

  6. I’m also inclined to agree that mythicist ideas are probably only appealing to people who have either always been atheists or who have already walked away from their religious faith a long time ago. I can’t back that up with any data, but I can speak from personal experience. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian faith but eventually came to see that it didn’t make sense. After that I became very interested in trying to research and relearn the origins and history of Christianity in a effort to deprogram myself. In the course of my own research I had run across the claims of mythicism before, but until as recently as 5 to 10 years ago it all sounded so crazy and “out there” to me that I dismissed it all outright in the same way all these other scholars do. It was only after years of considering different scholars claims about the historical Jesus and seeing the contradictions, things that didn’t add up, arguments that had to be taken on faith, etc., that I gradually started to see how mythicist ideas provided simpler, more probable explanations that made a lot more sense than the other convoluted mainstream theories.

    The point of sharing all this personal background history being that I don’t think my story is atypical. As Loftus said, mythicist ideas are the worst way to try and deconvert anybody. I know from my own experience how mythicism seems like a weird, crackpot thing to the majority of the general public, even to non-fundamentalists. You have to have already become quite skeptical about the range of viewpoints accepted by mainstream Jesus scholars to even be ready to give mythicist theories a chance. If your aim to pull the rug out from underneath Christianity, the long-established, conventional wisdom of respectable mainstream liberal scholarship is a much more palatable and effective means to that end. People are much more inclined to accept that there was a real Jesus who lived 2000 years ago who was a good teacher and righteous man who was crucified by the Romans and whose followers who founded a movement that was eventually co-opted and corrupted into a superstitious religion by the Roman Empire, etc., etc. than they are willing to accept that most everything in the gospels and New Testament (including the very existence of Jesus) is pure fiction.

    1. Yes, good points. Naturally one would expect atheists to be more open to the arguments for mythicism than believing Christians. But it does not follow that it is some secret inner vendetta against Christianity that motivates them embrace the arguments.

      At the same time, your experience (I agree it is probably a widespread one) makes more interesting those cases of Christian clerics who become mythicists through their own studies and remain Christian or positive towards Christianity, and of the numerous (see the Who’s Who table) people without an “extreme” religious background who take up an interest in the question.

      1. In regards to those Christians who keep identifying with Christianity after they reach their mythicist conclusions, I think they’ve evolved to a point where they understand that an ideal doesn’t necessarily need to be based on historical facts. When you think about all the purely fictional characters that have inspired and fascinated generations of people (like Sherlock Holmes, Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, etc.), does it really matter that their stories are fiction instead of fact? Don’t their stories remain important and influential even if they’re fictional? I think the mythicist Christians understand that a symbol can be just as, if not more, powerful than something that’s merely historical.

        I would guess that the one thing that mythicists of all backgrounds and experiences have in common is simply a genuine interest and curiosity about these kind of questions in and of themselves. Why does anybody develop a deep interest (obession?) with studying anything in great detail? Maybe long and deep exposure to reading the Bible helps to foster a mythicist curiosity that survives even when one no longer reads the stories as if they really happened? That’s the case for me and I’ve heard Robert M. Price echo that same sentiment many times over.

    2. How does the bumper-sticker go – “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it”? That is actually why I am not a Christian: I followed G.A. Wells’ advice and I read Paul without the Gospel-tinted specs and concluded it wasn’t possible to understand him as writing about a real person rather than a mistaken hallucination; that the other apostles believed similarly; and that all his disputes with others arose from their different interpretations of their hallucinations and where those stood in respect of scripture. Pfft!, my already questioning faith vanished.

      Further: the point of The Christ is what exactly? To reverse “The Fall” of Adam and Eve. Who are fictions; never mind “The Fall” and “Original Sin” being conjured out of textual misreadings and misunderstandings (I am aware there are a minority of sects this doesn’t necessarily apply to). This side of The Enlightenment and The Scientific Revolution, if you hold such beliefs unexamined, you are ignorant; if after examining them you still hold them, you are away with the fairies. I wouldn’t argue with such Christians anymore because arguing with loonies is futile.

  7. This is such an excellent discussion ! Thanks to contributors who enrich the experience of us all. I find so many views expressed echo my own thoughts and feelings. I like the way we are trying to respect all positions, even extremes (and I borrow from people’s thoughts in the discussion thus far) :

    Christians may say
    – most mythicists are somehow in rebellion against early fundamentalist experiences.
    – people are atheists because they hate God
    – God would never allow his word to be corrupted

    And non-Christians may say
    – believers are deluded
    – Christians can check their brains at the door
    – science has proven that the Bible is a fairy tale
    – the early Christian movement was co-opted and corrupted into a superstitious religion by the Roman Empire

    Yet based on our modern day experience, the last point says it best and allows us to maintain respect for sincere Christians, yet many are apathetic and do not check on the substance of their beliefs, not wishing to move out of their comfort zone. Many today are fed the lie of 911 and believe it. The whole gambit of bringing in a “new world order” as Bush senior put it, parallels the origins of Christianity as of a more sinister and political origin, also bringing in a new world order by Rome. Some say that the US took advantage of the attack on the buildings; to me it is evident by the facts, as we must also check for with Christian origins, that the whole thing was planned and orchestrated by the wealthy political power base in control of the governments, finance, the military and intelligence. I think we do well to read Joseph Atwill and D M Murdoch and ponder their views too. While I am not convinced that all Atwill’s theories are true, he does open up the field for revisiting the motives of the early historian Josephus whose work has had a major role on what we know of the origins of Jesus. Do you think I’m crazy comparing 911 to Christianity’s origins ?

    1. I agree with Peter that this is an excellent discussion and share his thanks to Vridar!

      And while I won’t touch the 9/11 issue here, other than to say I do agree the Bush/Cheney administration certainly took advantage of the attack, I DO want to mention why mythicists like me find the various “Romans invented Christianity” notions so problematic.

      Here’s the thing: Atwill is 100% right that Jesus never existed, but he’s 100% wrong for the reasons why (and not just wrong, but completely painfully, ridiculously wrong)… To make his theory work (or any other theory that the Romans invented Xty), he has to ignore decades, if not centuries, of evidence of religious evolution, early Christian history, the fact that the Romans were barely even aware of the obscure little Jesus cults for hundreds of years, and on top of that, he has to reject another 500 years or more or early Christian writings as later forgeries!

      Honestly, if he was smart enough to concoct this notion in the first place, he should have been smart enough to know it’s a total nonstarter.

      So it’s frustrating; this is the kind of stuff that just makes our job harder. On the bright side, in my own book “Jesus: Mything in Action,” I discuss the extensive evolution of Xty that Atwill & co. have to ignore to make their various “Roman conspiracy” theories work.

      But in the meantime, here are more guys whose analyses I respect…



      Review – Atwill’s Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus by Robert M. Price

      Joel Watts: http://unsettledchristianity.com/2013/10/joe-atwill-bill-oreilly-and-josephus-sitting-in-a-tree/

      Aaron Adair: http://gilgamesh42.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/the-roman-jesus-propaganda-of-joseph-atwill/

      1. If the Flavians had created Christianity one would expect more substantial foundational texts than jist the Pauline epistles and the mess that is the gospels (and all the other books of the NT). Moreover, one would expect that the texts of Josephus would have had something substantive to say about Christianity. (and perhaps that Jesus would have been a post War saviour).

  8. Well David, I finally meet you. Wish it was in person, I love your presentations. I’m going to take your thoughts on Atwill’s views very seriously and check out Carrier, Verena and Price on it, thank you for the links. Your say…..
    centuries, of evidence of religious evolution, early Christian history, the fact that the Romans were barely even aware of the obscure little Jesus cults for hundreds of years, and on top of that, Atwill has to reject another 500 years or more or early Christian writings as later forgeries!
    I am trying to understand what you imply by this. I understand Atwill’s points are that firstly the Romans needed a Messianic scheme with a passive Christ to diffuse the Jewish rebellions, evidenced in Jerusalem in AD 70, from springing up in other parts of the empire, and secondly to portray the rebelling Jews as the bad guys, rather than the Romans being seen as the oppressors. He uses Josephus’ emphasis on the competing views of who was the coming Messiah – was it a Jewish leader or was God planning to use a Gentile (Roman) Emperor, Titus to chastise and admonish God’s chosen people the Jews. Where I do have difficulty with Atwill is the great secrecy, satire and cynicism he attributes to the Roman conspiracy to invent or perhaps we can say “hijack” the Christian religion.

    So I need to grapple with the 500 years of subsequent Christian writings you refer to. Once the religion was established by Roman facilities, could the believers not have taken it from there and developed it ? I wish I knew more Roman history.

    But if what you say is true then Atwill will turn out like Barbara Thiering did, yet she helped many to focus on the Dead Sea Scrolls. But that D M Murdoch and Robert Eisenman respected Atwill’s views also counts for something. And that Robert M. Price respected Murdoch’s views is also noteworthy.

    And I’m sorry David that you wont recognise 911 as a parallel “invention” – I mean it’s all plainly such a fraud. The official report of 911 is what I call ridiculous ! And while I happen to be public accountant and super fund auditor, it does not take a pro to see that the frenzy in put options trading on insurance stocks in the weeks leading up to the attack prove that many wealthy and powerful people were in the know. And how about building 7 ! If masses can swallow the demonisation of Islam by 911 today, while we have the internet, it isn’t a stretch to think of how the Roman elite power mongers could have used the Destruction of Jerusalem to advantage in the first century as the “official report” to defraud a largely illterate population with the demonisation of Judaism.


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