Addressing Simon Gathercole’s “Historical and Human Existence of Jesus” (#1)

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by Neil Godfrey

To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence.Mark Goodacre, 2002 (82)
Simon Gathercole

Simon Gathercole has had an article published behind the paywall of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus opposing the idea that the Jesus figure of the New Testament originated as a theological and literary concept and in favour of the idea that he had a historical existence. Gathercole is addressing the evidence in the Pauline corpus, being titled, “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.”

Gathercole opens with a statement that seems to run against certain claims of others (viz Ehrman, Hurtado, McGrath et al) who have argued against mythicism:

“Mythicism”, the view that there never was a Jesus of history, has in recent years attracted increasing interest from scholars. This interest is a positive development, not only because of the increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship, but even more importantly because of growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public.

There has been an “increasing interest from scholars”? There have been “increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship”? There has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public”? Outright denial of the first two statements has at times been used by scholars and their public backers as a reason to dismiss the questions raised by mythicist arguments. Perhaps Gathercole is thinking of critics of mythicism in his first claim such as James McGrath, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, Daniel Gullotta. But it is unusual to hear from a critic that mythicists are making “increasing attempts to engage with scholarship”. In fact, mythicist arguments that have most impressed me are those that have engaged with mainstream historical Jesus scholarship from the outset: e.g. works of Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, R. M. Price. As for the final point, that “more importantly” there has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public” one does have to wonder why current scholarly publications addressing such a “problem” are not made freely available to the public.

Simon Gathercole’s abstract to his article contains the following:

Attention to the language of the birth, ancestry and coming of Jesus demonstrates the historicity and human bodily existence of Jesus. There is also information about his ministry, disciples, teaching and character in the epistles which has been neglected. Paul’s letters, even taken alone, also show the Herodian timeframe of Jesus’ ministry.

And that’s where my opening quotation from Mark Goodacre (made in the context of the Q debate) enters the picture. Gathercole unfortunately does not address the core arguments of mythicists (from Drews to Couchoud to Wells to Doherty to Price) that argue for Paul’s view of an ahistorical figure of Jesus. He does partially address one idiosyncratic suggestion by a more recent scholarly mythicist which we will address later. Gathercole’s essay focuses almost exclusively on an expansion of the passages used by scholars to argue against mythicism (let’s for convenience call them “historicists” in this post) but without addressing the primary arguments of mythicists to the contrary, and therefore without anticipating what mythicists might say in reply to his expansions of the historicists’ position.

It may help if I set out my own cards on the table for all to see before we start. 

I am an atheist who cares not one whit whether Jesus was historical or mythical. A historical Jesus sits in perfect comfort with my world view of religion, Christianity in particular, and everything else in the universe. I became an atheist long before I ever considered the possibility that Jesus might not have been historical. I have never had any desire to go to any trouble to “deconvert” Christians, but I am keen to make any ideas that I find interesting publicly available – hence this blog. I think the very worse, the least effective way, to undermine anyone’s faith in Jesus would be to try to convince them that there was no historical Jesus. Any effort along those lines would obviously meet with very early failure. The last thing I would ever attempt if I were ever to think it worthwhile to try to deconvert anyone from Christianity — the very last thing I would attempt would be to try to convince them that there was no historical Jesus. I would instead use the sorts of methods used by Hector Avalos in his The Bad Jesus and John Loftus in his blog Debunking Christianity. My interest in Jesus mythicism is in the same class, entirely, as my interest in any other scholarly study of the literature of the Bible. The final tipping point that led me to sympathize more with mythicist arguments over against “historicist” ones of Jesus was actually the obvious inability of mainstream historicists to present an effective and logical rebuttal of certain core mythicist arguments. The most voluble efforts to do so, unfortunately, turned out to be outright ad hominem attacks and even personal insults, non sequiturs, and blatant misrepresentation of the mythicist arguments. Happily, Simon Gathercole does not descend to the worst tactics of his peers.

Not very long ago I did address, in detail covering 22 posts, the criticisms of Daniel Gullotta in the same journal, The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, and pointed out step by step the litany of Gullotta’s misrepresentations and fallacies in his response to Richard Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus. At the same time regular readers of Vridar will know that Tim and I have both been open about our disagreements with Richard Carrier’s arguments. We disagree on some fundamental points relating to the question of Christian origins, so no-one can reasonably assert that we are knee-jerk supporters of Carrier when we protest against Gathercole’s description of Gullotta’s review. Gathercole writes:

One of the best recent critiques is that of Daniel Gullotta, who notes some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume.

If Gullotta’s critique is “one of the best” then I suggest that no critique, not one, of Carrier can ever seriously be called “best”. Please read my evidence-backed criticism of Gullotta’s review if you have doubts.

As we continue to read Gathercole’s article we see more clearly the truth of the quotation from Mark Goodacre at the beginning of this post. Gathercole continues:

The present article seeks to focus on Paul, with the aim of providing a more comprehensive and systematic treatment of what the undisputed epistles can tell us about the historical Jesus and the historicity of Jesus, while also responding to a variety of recent mythicist claims. . . . .

The method here is to engage in a thought experiment. . . . This article aims to adopt a kind of counterfactual approach to history, in which all of early Christian literature is set aside except the undisputed letters of Paul, in order to try to glean what can be learned from them alone.

That passage makes it clear. Simon Gathercole has set aside the arguments of mythicists themselves and explains that he will seek to provide “a more comprehensive and systematic treatment of what the undisputed epistles can tell us about the historical Jesus and the historicity of Jesus.” [At this point re-read the opening quotation from Goodacre in another context.] Apart from a subordinate clause that says “while also responding to a variety of recent mythicist claims” we are given no indication that the time-honoured and sustained arguments (as recapitulated by Wells, Doherty and Price) that Paul’s Jesus was an ahistorical figure are to be addressed.

Continuing . . . . 

Gathercole, Simon. 2018. “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 16: 183–212.

Goodacre, Mark. 2002. The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem. Harrisburg, Pa: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.


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18 thoughts on “Addressing Simon Gathercole’s “Historical and Human Existence of Jesus” (#1)”

  1. I am a Buddhist for whom the historical Jesus is an advantage and the mythical Jesus a disadvantage. A mythical Jesus is like Amitabha Buddha as a heavenly saviour figure, but a historical Jesus can be dismissed as a madman, a cult leader, a brainwasher, and so many other negative things.

    I am thrilled, however, by the respect that this scholar gives to Jesus mythicism. May it become a new norm!

    1. • Fixating on the name is a case of: “Cannot see the forest for the trees”.

      Per Carrier (14 February 2016) [now bolded]. “Can Paul’s Human Jesus Not Be a Celestial Jesus?”. Richard Carrier Blogs.


      blockquote>[Per Nordgaard, Stefan (8 June 2011). “Paul’s Appropriation of Philo’s Theory of ‘Two Men’ in 1 Corinthians 15.45–49”. New Testament Studies. 57 (03): 348–365. doi:10.1017/S0028688511000075]

      Nordgaard points out that the “two man” theory Paul uses here actually comes from Philo (or predecessors of both who developed this theory), and Philo was perfectly comfortable talking about an earthly “man” and a heavenly “man,” even when the latter never had a mortal body of flesh at all nor ever resided below the heavens!

      […] As Nordgaard explains:

      Philo developed his theory of the two men on the basis of the creation narratives given in the book of Genesis. As is well known, Genesis offers two different accounts of the creation of the human species (one in 1:26-27 and another in 2:7). While this has suggested to modern scholarship that the text of Genesis has come down to us as a compound of different sources, it suggested to Philo that God had created two categorically different ‘types of people’ (Leg. 1.31): a ‘heavenly man’ (ouranios anthrôpos), ‘fashioned in the image of God’ (cf. Gen. 1:26-27), and an ‘earthly man’ (gêinos anthrôpos), ‘moulded out of clay’ (cf. Gen 2:7). [Ibid. p. 353]

      Philo in fact says this “heavenly man” is the first created being and viceroy of God, the “image” of God, God’s “firstborn son,” high priest of God’s celestial temple, the supreme archangel, whom God tasked with the rest of creation, and who governs the universe on God’s behalf. Philo says this Being is the Logos. The same exact being the Gospel of John says Jesus is. But Paul was already saying this. He only never had occasion to use specifically the word “logos,” aka the ‘word’ or ‘reasoning’ of God (though Paul does say Jesus is the ‘wisdom’ of God, which is what Philo equated with the logos of God), and doesn’t get around to discussing his celestial priesthood (that’s in Hebrews 9); but every other identification Paul made. And to know Jesus by so many specific and unusual attributes is an impossible coincidence. Paul clearly only knew his Jesus to be this supernal figure known to Philo. There is no evidence any Christians before him thought differently.

      1. db said

        And to know Jesus by so many specific and unusual attributes is an impossible coincidence. Paul clearly only knew his Jesus to be this supernal figure known to Philo. There is no evidence any Christians before him thought differently.

        Unless Paul was simply modelling his discussion/portrayal of the historical Jesus on the supernatural figure known to Philo. They did like mimesis at that time.

        1. John MacDonald, do you think mimesis and religious syncretism could be the same (or two sides of the same coin) per the following case:

          Many mythologies of the Greco-Roman era and region feature myths of a god who dies and returns to life. Richard Carrier gives the following as germane examples that were extant prior to the origin of Christianity: Osiris, Adonis, Romulus, Zalmoxis, Inanna. And notes that Mithras is not a dying-and-rising god, but like those gods, Mithras is associated with a suffering or struggle that results in a triumphant victory over death.

          And thanks to nightshadetwine for updating me on the following:
          Miroshnikov, Ivan (2018). The Gospel of Thomas and Plato: A Study of the Impact of Platonism on the “Fifth Gospel”. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-36729-6.

          The fact that Philo’s Logos and Plutarch’s Osiris are functionally identical and that Osiris can also be called Logos demonstrates that Philo’s philosophy of Logos was part of a larger Middle Platonist tradition and that this tradition as a whole should be recognized as a possible background for the Johannine Logos. —(p. 20)

          Also as: Miroshnikov, Ivan (2016). The Gospel of Thomas and Plato: a Study of the Impact of Platonism on the “fifth Gospel” (PDF). Dissertation: University of Helsinki.

          1. I’m just saying Paul’s portrayal of Jesus could simply be the result of legendary material such as characterizations of Philo’s supernatural being added to the understanding of the historical Jesus. Or, as you say, maybe Paul thought of Jesus as akin to Philo’s supernatural being. Who knows?

            1. John MacDonald, If I understand correctly:

              It is possible that the ahistorical Logos of Philo was grafted on to the historical Jesus, who was someone like Jesus ben Ananias, but who died during the “Jerusalem Administration of Pontius Pilate” (likely by crucifixion) rather than during the “Fall of Jerusalem” as did Jesus ben Ananias.

  2. None of the authors of ANY of the letters in the New Testament [including those reportedly written by James, Jude, Peter, or John (including the John of Revelation and the author of Hebrews)] reveal ANY knowledge whatsoever of the life and ministry of Jesus as presented by ANY of the Gospels.

    How do those who believe in “an historical Jesus” explain this?

    1. Often they explain that point by saying that the authors were writing with different interests and to address different problems at the time, and we should therefore not expect them to tell us about the life of Jesus.

    2. My response would be: Paul had received from others the information that: Jesus had been crucified, buried, and that three days later he “rose” from the dead; and that then some of his disciples claimed Jesus appeared to them in some unexplained fashion. That’s it. I doubt that Paul had ever heard of a Virgin Birth, Jesus’ trip to the Temple at age 12, the story of his baptism, any of the stories of his miracles or healings, or the details of his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and most importantly, the appearance stories. All these stories are later legends that developed sometime between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospels.

      During his life, Jesus was a nobody. His death was a non=event for Romans and Jews. That is why not one single contemporary of Jesus wrote about him. If Jesus was the big deal the Gospels make him out to be, surely Philo would have said something about him. Only after his death did Jesus become something, and when he became a “somebody”, all kinds of magic-filled legends developed about him, just as had happened with Caesar Augustus and others.

      I still assert that the overwhelming majority of JEWISH scholars reject the idea that the concept of a dying messiah existed in Second Temple Judaism. And if that is true, it is very hard to explain the sudden appearance of this belief (at least by 55 CE) unless some guy really had been crucified for claiming to be the Jewish messiah (anointed one/king).

  3. Kal-El, known better as Superman, was born in Kryptonopolis, capitol city of the planet Krypton. His parents were Jor-El & Lara, his father being a member of a historically prominent family. Although the exact year year of his birth is unknown it happened shortly after the great rebellion led by General Zod.

    He is known for promoting truth, justice & the American way in the manner of FDR’s policies. He gathered many followers and was a charter member of the Justice Society of America. Perhaps his greatest teaching was that all persons deserved equal rights w/o regard to race or religion – this being documented in print & in recorded radio shows.

    Yet some don’t believe he was real.

  4. Gathercole could just as easily be talking about Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind.” His method can extract “truths from a fictional charchter in a narrative just as easily as an historical figure in a narrative. Why these folks haven’t come up with a method to determine one from the other is – interesting.

  5. The Superman and Rhett Butler examples are wonderful. (I had been thinking about Harry Potter–I have some suspicion I might have read that example in a similar context here, years ago.)

    However, perhaps a too-obvious and tedious point:

    Before one takes these arguments elsewhere, however, one probably can anticipate the argument that these examples are not relevant since there are ample contemporaneous references to Superman and Butler as being fictional. I do not know the literature, but were there, for example, Jewish writings dating to the first centuries CE describing the Jesus story as overtly fictional? The counterargument (not mine) may go along the lines of, “But Superman was well-documented to be fictional in multiple contemporaneous sources. The Jesus story did not get directly contested until centuries later, and even then what you tended to get was mockery of the Jesus story rather than direct contradiction.” Thus the historicity of the Jesus stories will continue to be backed by default.

    1. ” but were there, for example, Jewish writings dating to the first centuries CE describing the Jesus story as overtly fictional?”

      Why would there be? The Jesus cult would be just one more among competing Jewish based cults, of which there were several that Josephus talks about. Were there writings against all those too? Did the Jews write tracts against Pagan cults? Since most of the growth of Christianity was out among the Gentiles, would they have even known what was being taught in the first place? maybe it’s an argument, but it’s a weak one.

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