Simon Gathercole’s Failure to Address Mythicism: (#5)

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by Neil Godfrey

The abstract to Simon Gathercole’s article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus begins

The present article seeks to show that the case for the mythical Jesus is seriously undermined by the evidence of the undisputed Pauline epistles. By way of a thought experiment, these letters are taken in isolation from other early Christian literature, and are discussed in dialogue with mythicist scholarship. (183, my emphasis)

Unfortunately it has been all too easy for me in the previous posts to demonstrate that Gathercole’s article has failed to engage in dialogue with mythicist scholarship, and that it instead seriously misrepresents the scholarship that it attributes to mythicism. We have seen that two points he claims undermine mythicism are

  • that “born of a woman” is a common expression as seen in the Book of Job and Sirach, an indisputable reference to the historicity of Jesus, and a phrase that can only be dealt with by a “trigger-happy” resort to interpolation;
  • that Paul recognized other apostles who had been preaching the faith of Christ before him, a fact that Doherty did not know.

I have demonstrated from the work of Earl Doherty (the same work that Gathercole cited) that both claims are false. On the contrary, Doherty

  • spoke of Paul’s recognition of other apostles before him preaching the gospel of faith in Christ; and
  • demonstrates that Paul has not used the common term found in the Book of Job or Sirach and has argued his case for mythicism on the understanding that the expression “born of a woman” is authentic to Paul and not an interpolation (Doherty’s argument that the phrase is an interpolation is a speculative “extra”).

One has to wonder how an article by a highly reputable scholar making such false claims could be accepted in a peer-reviewed journal.

When a reviewer of another’s work informs his readers that the work reviewed argues the very opposite of what it really does, then one has to surely question whether or not the reviewer ever read that work with any serious attention and why the reviewer would even bother spending time on such misleading articles.

We saw how Daniel Gullotta committed many similar errors in his review of Carrier’s work, failing to notice that Carrier did not argue what Gullotta claimed he did, and at other times Carrier did indeed say what Gullotta asserted he had not. We have seen similar falsehoods published in books by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. (Again, all erroneous claims have been documented in posts on this blog.) If Simon Gathercole really had read Carrier’s book (I don’t mean just skimmed, pausing at selected pages here and there) then he would have known that Gullotta’s review fell a long way short of being

One of the best recent critiques [noting] some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume. (185)

(Anyone who is interested to know where Gullotta repeatedly failed to understand or even failed to read much of Carrier’s book that he reviewed should see my carefully documented critique.)

One of the main reasons I am writing these posts is to endeavour to point out to those scholars who are genuinely interested in engaging with mythicist arguments that so far they are not engaging with them at all, not even when they write criticisms for peer-reviewed journals, that more often than not they are advertising their ignorance of mythicist arguments even though they claim to have read their books in full. If mainstream scholars want to persuade members of the general public then they cannot rely upon ad hominem or careless misrepresentation. By doing so they are continuing to alienate themselves from those who have serious questions about the historicity of Jesus.

To put the matter beyond any doubt 

After his “born of woman” discussion Gathercole writes

To put the matter beyond any doubt, Paul actually calls Jesus an ἄνθρωπος, a human being, on three occasions with a further reference to him as an “Adam”. First, in Romans:

‘But the gift is not like the transgression, for if by the transgression of the one man many died, how much more will the grace of God and the gift abound to the many by the grace which belongs to the one man, Jesus Christ (ἐν χάριτι τῇ τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ)’. (Rom. 5.15)

Here the parallel between Adam and Christ is underscored by reference to them both being ἄνθρωποι. (Paul appears clearly to think that Adam was also historical.) The same analogy is drawn again in 1 Corinthians:

‘But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, resurrection of the dead also comes through a man (καὶ δι᾽ ἀνθρώπου ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν). For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ will all be made alive.’ (1 Cor. 15.20–22)

To add to this, Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 15 to contrast Adam, the first man, with Jesus who is defined as ‘the last Adam’ (ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδάμ), drawing attention to their analogous positions (1 Cor. 15.45). The passage goes on to contrast the ‘first man’ made from the dust, with Jesus ‘the second man’ (ὁ δεύτερος ἄνθρωπος) who comes from heaven (15.47).

This is a curious objection to mythicism because I don’t know of a single serious work by a mythicist that denies Paul spoke of Jesus as a “man”. Chapter 14 of Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man is titled, “Paul and the ‘Heavenly Man’. Doherty discusses the scholarship of both non-Jewish and Jewish religious and philosophical ideas that speak of divine or semi-divine figures who are each said to be a man or son of man or heavenly man. A mythicist reading Gathercole’s article would be wondering what his point is.

Though a possible objection may linger. . . .

The only exception is Gathercole’s citation of Richard Carrier’s claim that the word translated “found” is “most curious”, with Gathercole claiming it is “standard biblical Greek.” (190)

Gathercole does not address any of the mythicist literature when making this particular observation (that Paul calls Christ a man or second Adam) but he does raise what he calls a “possible objection” and over two pages, and citing a wide range of scholarly references, he discusses what Paul means when he speaks of “likeness” or “in appearance” as a man, most famously in Philippians 2:7-8. To engage in that sort of depth over a “possible objection” might seem odd, especially so since Gathercole fails to cite a single mythicist or mythicist argument he is presumably addressing. By not citing any particular mythicist argument and by addressing nothing more than “possible objections” it does appear that Gathercole has failed to familiarize himself with “real” mythicist arguments.

I am sure this Jesus will not do (Blake)

Gathercole returns to Galatians 4:4 to focus on the phrase “born under the Law”, linking this with other passages that inform us that Jesus was a descendant of Abraham and of the seed of David. In the course of this discussion Gathercole covers much of the material we addressed in the earlier posts when examining Earl Doherty’s analysis of Galatians 3 and 4. Unfortunately Gathercole’s discussion betrays no hint that he has ever read Doherty’s work. The only mythicist argument that Gathercole appears to be aware of is Richard Carrier’s somewhat idiosyncratic argument or his anachronistic description: that God withdrew from a sperm bank in heaven to give Jesus a Davidic genealogy. Once again, anyone who has read mythicist arguments is well aware why mythicists are rarely, if ever, persuaded by repeating the same points that mainstream “historicist” scholars have been making ever since the nineteenth century; as is clear from what we have seen of both Gathercole’s and Gullotta’s books, serious mythicists do read and engage with the scholarly literature but “historicists” do not seriously engage with or read the mythicist claims. The “historicist” scholars are therefore failing to address the questions and concerns of their supposedly target audience.

Thou shalt call his name . . . .

Yes, every mythicist I am sure knows that the name “Jesus” is “a very standard Jewish name” so repeating the obvious point does nothing to advance the arguments of those who wish to address mythicism. At this point I digress to point to an article discussing something unusual about this very common name by a classicist who made it clear to me that he was not a mythicist: Jesus the Healer by John Moles. Another sub-digression I will make is to the anti-mythicist scholar Guignebert and his discussion of the name Jesus. My point is that scholars need to be more open to interdisciplinary fields and do more to make themselves aware of the literature and life in the ancient Mediterranean world. I know a good number of biblical scholars do do this and I have posted on some of their works. But I have also noted that those same scholars do express a wish that more of their New Testament peers would do the same.

Once again, however, Gathercole turns to Carrier as his representative mythicist, even though the argument by Carrier about Philo’s supposed pointer to Jesus being the messianic name prophesied in Zechariah is unique to Carrier. I think in this unfortunate case Carrier has opened himself to criticism that could have been avoided had he tested his thesis with peers in academic journals before entering the argument into his book. Gathercole writes a 337 word footnote tackling this particular discussion but makes no mention of any of the more standard mythicist views.

I saw no other apostles except…

Gathercole continues his “thought experiment” of reading the letters of Paul “without gospel presuppositions” and decides that Jesus had brothers. What Gathercole fails to realize about his exercise is that he is using gospel presuppositions to direct his questions and reading of Paul. He looks only at certain passages that do mirror gospel narratives and fails to notice anything else written by Paul that would qualify or recontextualize those observations. Or as Mark Goodacre said in another context . . . . (You know the quotation by now. Read it in any of the previous posts in this series.)

I tire of this discussion because it generally comes down to a “proof-texting” level of argument. “How silly mythicists are for not noticing this verse here! Or how screwed up they must be to think brother doesn’t mean brother!” That’s not discussion. That is nothing more than stating one’s own “argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis” and hence entirely circular and a way of avoiding a “fair assessment of the competing evidence.” (Mark Goodacre, 2002, 82) To see how genuine historical inquiry approaches this question read the Thinking Through post.

Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

To bring this series towards an end let’s rush over some of the other matters in the article.

Gathercole reasons that witnesses of the resurrected Jesus had to have known Jesus in the flesh in Palestine before their vision or else they could not have recognized who it was they were seeing. Surely the many faceted flaws in this argument can be seen by readers, apart from the fact that Gathercole’s point flies in the face of certain recognition scenes in the extant literature of the day and visionary experiences of mystics.

What has all the fuss been about?

Other areas covered include Jesus’ teaching, his ministry and disciples, his character, and readers can well take comfort that everything he says coheres well with what they know of Jesus in the gospels. So much so, that one must begin to even wonder how anyone could ever have seen any significant gulf between the gospel narratives and Paul’s writings in the first place. One is reminded of “pleading too much”.

His doubts are better than most people’s certainties (Hardwicke)

(Mythicists must believe with absolute certainty that this passage (1 Thess. 2:14-16) is an interpolation, a degree of confidence which is surely not justified.) (201)

Gathercole points to Dale Allison’s bibliography of scholars arguing for the authenticity of the passage. I can see I have marked that page in Allison’s book, clearly intending to return to it some time and follow up the references. I must do that soon. Meanwhile, a discussion on the inauthenticity of the passage is found in the Eddy & Boyd posts here.

But oh boy, if there is a half-way reasonable case to be made that a passage is an interpolation, how can a scholar legitimately rely upon the absolute certainty of the authenticity of that the passage as a significant part of his case? That does not sound very legitimate to me.

Ritual, death, burial and all very recent

The usual arguments about Jesus initiating a ritual in his lifetime to commemorate his death (surely a unique event in the annals of anthropology or sociology), his death as an earthly event, and Paul speaking of such things as recent happenings, are all covered in the same way. The only mythicist engaged is Carrier, something one would not expect if books of others like Price and Doherty were also known. We have already seen in earlier posts how other mythicists understand Paul’s references to recent events — that what is recent is their revelation, not necessarily their actually having happened. Gathercole appears to be unaware of this central mythicist interpretation of Paul.

The Ascension of Isaiah gets involved, too, but with very little depth or awareness of the scholarship and the various possible interpretations that arise through uncertainties in the manuscript provenances.

Rulers of this age surfaces, again with only a narrow perspective on the scholarship addressing these crucifiers of Jesus. See Rulers of this age for my attempt to collate some of the recent scholarship on this phrase.

I am not so thoroughly convinced that the crucifixion had to take place in the lower heavens. I think there are good arguments to be made for Jesus coming to the earth to experience death and descend to Hades, but now is not the time for that discussion.

The circularity and déjà vu of it all

Nonetheless, the point remains that Gathercole has presented a neat and cogent set of interpretations to justify his belief in the humanity and historicity of Jesus. But he has done so by restricting his questions and options to those that naturally arise from his traditional and conventional belief in the gospel. He has failed to inform himself of the mythicist perspective and as a result has failed to notice many remarks in Paul’s and other epistles that are given more notice by mythicists. The scholarly mythicists do engage with and often embrace the mainstream scholarship about those passages and incorporate it in their models. New Testament studies is a vast field and no-one can keep up with all aspects of it, but “historicists” who want to counter or even engage with a public who do read mythicist literature are going to have to make themselves aware both of what mythicists — and their own New Testament peers — are actually saying.

I have quoted often enough a sentence by Mark Goodacre to identify the primary failure of the Gathercoles, the Gullottas, the Ehrmans, so here’s something different:

Philip Davies

[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (recte: The Messiah Myth) (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. — Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012


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.


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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Simon Gathercole’s Failure to Address Mythicism: (#5)”

  1. Peer review: a type of fetish; an emperor that if clothed may be clothed according to the pompous fashion of emperors in splendid elegance.

    It is a tool. It has its limits.

    If one’s work is judged by one’s peers, one’s work is judged by those who will tend to have similar background, similar opinions. One’s peers will be the best judges after a fashion. They will know the professional details of the guild, of the craft, of the cult, of the profession, of the ideology, of the way of life, the personalities–backwards and forwards, inside and out. They can cite the literature chapter and verse; they can recite volume, page number, and year and authorships with less effort than chewing food. They can often determine or at least guess well where the article came from even with the author’s identity deleted, and even if it was written by a student rather than by the great professor. They know as a fish knows water. Fish of the same species, in the same school.

    However they will tend to share the same biases and prejudices, the same limitations, slight or grave. They may not know how to know from the outside, how to think originally.

    1. It’s hardly peer review (more pear-shaped review). As for the emperor’s cloths analogy, I was just listening to an audiobook about the pagan religions of the roman empire* – on certain dates members of various religious cults used to dress statues of their deity-entities and parade them through the streets on chariots. Some of those deity-entities were emperors. Moreover, it was often/mostly their spirit that was worshipped post-mortem (almost as if a resurrected form of the emperor. Interestingly, some after being deified, some were later de-defied (by a subsequent emperor) then, later again, re-deified by a later emperor).

      ‘The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity’ by Kenneth W. Harl

  2. I have demonstrated from the work of Earl Doherty (the same work that Gathercole cited) that…Doherty …

    … has argued his case for mythicism on the understanding that the expression “born of a woman” is authentic to Paul and not an interpolation (Doherty’s [proposition] that the phrase is an interpolation is a speculative “extra”).

    Galatians 4:4-5 shows that the phrase is part of a Law-centred pericope, viz. –

    4 Then in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman, [thus] born under the Law,

    5 in order that he might purchase freedom for the subjects of the Law, so that we might attain the status of sons.

    That “[t]he halakhic definition, by which a Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother, seems to have crystallized at the end of the Second Temple period, when its final formula was set by the sages” (https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-defining-who-is-a-jew-1.5330118) would be significant (sure, “a Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother seems to have crystallized at the end of the Second Temple period” is merely a proposition in by a news article, but one would think it would be true give it’s in haaretz).

    1. “[t]he halakhic definition, by which a Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother, seems to have crystallized at the end of the Second Temple period, when its final formula was set by the sages”

      The vagueness of the way the information is presented signals to my antennae that there is no evidence for the claim, only assumption based on much later evidence.

      1. It would need someone expert in or knowledgeable of the Mishnah and Tosefta to know. I have found (i) in the Mishnah, Kiddushin 3.12 rules/ruled that the status of a child born of a mixed marriage is determined by that of his mother; and, (ii) in the gemara, Yevamot 45a ruled/rules that a child born to a Jewess the child is Jewish [lit. “kosher”], even if the father is gentile.

  3. It would need someone expert in or knowledgeable of the Mishnah and Tosefta to know. I have found (i) in the Mishnah, Kiddushin 3.12 rules/ruled that the status of a child born of a mixed marriage is determined by that of his mother; and, (ii) the gemara (Yevamot 45a) ruled/rules that a child born to a Jewess the child is Jewish [lit. “kosher”], even if the father is gentile.

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