The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)

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by Neil Godfrey

A spirit of obsession these past few days has possessed me with an intent to find something good and positive among mainstream biblical scholars of the historical Jesus and Christian origins. I fear I have proven to be a leaky and soon sunk vessel. All I discovered this past week was a post titled Revision and Dispute on the Critical Realism and the New Testament blog. I admit I was a little worried about opening and reading the post given my experience with a handful of other posts from the same author. But let bygones be bygones and focus on what we have in the here and now.

To begin:

In the opening paragraph the author directly compares (and I hope I am not misstating or misleading in any way) that the strength of evidence for the historical existence of Jesus lies in the same bracket of probability (that is, certainty) as the historicity of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

The author goes so far as to imply that anyone who doubts the historicity of Jesus is operating at a level equivalent to someone who would declare all the evidence for Germany’s invasion of Poland has been falsified.

Surely you jest. . . .

No, no, I am serious. But please let me continue. Please hear me out.

The same scholar (I believe he is a scholar, he says lots of things that indicate he is a real scholar) wrote

The recent resurgence in arguments for Jesus’ historical non-existence rested entirely upon the argument that there had emerged new insights into old evidence.

What “recent resurgence” did he mean?

He did not say. But I can only think he is talking about Richard Carrier. But that’s getting on a bit, isn’t it? Earl Doherty (an acknowledged inspirations of both Carrier and Price) took up the mantle from G. A. Wells, and before him we had P.L. Couchoud and, who knows ….. I don’t know what or who he means. He doesn’t say. But just from reading his post one would think that he is unaware of any mythicist publications until “recently”. He seems to suggest that Jesus mythicism has simply popped up “recently” from nowhere. So it is all very confusing.

Sigh. But surely there must be a smidgen of academic advance since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

No, no, not at all. The Critically Real Blogger says that

those competent in the matter and fully familiar with the evidence recognized immediately that these were not new insights at all but almost without exception insights that had been advanced and rejected the better part of a century ago.

You cannot be serious!! Sorry… I let reality sway my impulses for a moment. I mean, ….. Yes, yes, I know what you mean. Sigh.

Okay. Where do we go from here? Let’s think.

I suppose we could call on him to produce the citations that will lead us to where all of those competent had known and debunked all of those puerile mythicist myths long ago, even as far back as the eighteenth century. Surely!

Of course he will say he is too busy and flick us off to look for ourselves. The only problem, of course, is that we have looked at all of those rebuttals and see that they are for most part non sequiturs or worse.

So then he will tell us to look more closely and when we do we return to say that none of the initial arguments have been addressed. All the words that we read have to do with apologetics and non sequiturs and other fallacies.

Can I ask something here? Haven’t we, on Vridar, lately posted two series of critical reviews of mythicism that have appeared  in the Journal for the Historical Study of Jesus?


Do you think that that is part of the problem?

What do you mean?

Do you think our blogger is simply up in arms against those who do not submit to the good sense of his intellect?

How so? Surely, if our blogger is a genuine intellectual, and he surely is, then he will see from what we have written that we address nothing but the plain facts. We set out the plain facts of what the scholarly reviewer (whether Gullotta or Gathercole) says and side by side we place those words with what the reviewed target (Doherty or Carrier) says, and judge for ourselves the honesty of the review.

Yes, but I don’t think they see it that way. I think they want to portray any of us who questions the historicity of Jesus as idiots. Full stop. The want to reassure every faithful Jesus believer that they are on the side of “sanity”.

I am tiring of this post. I have been here too often before. SOME (NOT ALL BUT WAY TOO MANY) historical Jesus scholars really have no idea about the most fundamental principles of historical methods outside their cherished field of God and theology and divinity and faith and all that.

To cut to the chase:

I state here that every event that historians (setting theologians and divinity doctors aside for a moment) claim to be a bedrock fact can be found to be grounded in contemporary evidence, that is, evidence contemporary to the person under discussion, or to evidence that can be shown to have derived from contemporary evidence.

There is NO such evidence for Jesus. There IS such evidence for Socrates, for Cicero’s slave, and for Seneca’s philosophical rivals (figures with even less claim than Jesus to being significant enough to enter the historical record) who are otherwise lost from history.

Biblical scholars who write posts like Revision and Dispute demonstrate each time that they write that they have no inkling of how vast is the gulf between what they call history (something that opens visions of persons and worlds otherwise hidden behind texts) and what historians, real historians without any theological baggage, call history.




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Neil Godfrey

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  • Arkenaten
    2019-01-07 12:21:49 UTC - 12:21 | Permalink

    Excellent, Neil.

    Do ”Jesus Studies” follow proper historical method?
    Hmm … methinks not.

  • A Buddhist
    2019-01-07 13:12:16 UTC - 13:12 | Permalink

    How can he make such a claim? There are people still living who were alive when Poland was invaded, and we have documents (non-theological) that do not merely talk about the invasion of Poland but illustrate it – sometimes in more or less real time. Admittedly, prior to the 20th century, few if any events were as well-documented as the invasion of Poland, but weaknesses in past sources as compared to an ideal is something that historians would (I hope) be able to recognize.

  • Charles
    2019-01-07 13:24:05 UTC - 13:24 | Permalink

    I left a link to this article at the “Revision and Dispute” comment section. But it has to be approved, unlike this website, before it is published.

  • 2019-01-07 15:20:34 UTC - 15:20 | Permalink

    Believers will always see non-believers as delusional…and vice versa.

    Such is the nefarious power of belief.

    • 2019-01-07 15:46:18 UTC - 15:46 | Permalink

      The problem is that this particular question isn’t a question of belief, it is an empirical question of history.

  • 2019-01-07 15:53:34 UTC - 15:53 | Permalink

    Yeah, it gets tiresome. But as long as they keep at it, so must we.

  • 2019-01-07 16:53:51 UTC - 16:53 | Permalink

    The idea that Jesus was crucified during Passover is laughable. I would comment on that blog but would need to setup a fake google account first. The crucifixion of Jesus during Passover is one of the least believable aspects of the Gospel narrative.

    • MrHorse
      2019-01-07 19:37:45 UTC - 19:37 | Permalink

      I’ve recently been reading some commentary about the crucifixion being timed then because it allowed for a resurrection that coincides with the spring equinox (a time revered for an equilibrium), and, given celebration of Jesus’ birth nine months later, just after the winter solstice*, the spring equinox also marks what ought to have been His earthly conception.

      ie. as the sun is starting to renew: the ‘invincible’ sun.

      (Interestingly, John the Baptist’s birth is celebrated at the summer solstice).

  • db
    2019-01-07 16:58:00 UTC - 16:58 | Permalink

    • Just more “Circle the Wagons” propaganda.

    Per Bernier, Jonathan (3 January 2019). “Critical Realism and the New Testament: Revision and Dispute”. Critical Realism and the New Testament.

    There is a reason that one can count on two fingers the number of credentialed New Testament scholars who subscribe to the hypothesis that Jesus never existed: quite simply, competent familiarity with the data precludes affirmation of the hypothesis.
    avoid wasting time and energy either disputing that which is beyond reasonable dispute or seeking virtual certainty when the data does not allow us to do so.

  • 2019-01-07 19:11:33 UTC - 19:11 | Permalink

    So I crated an account and posted the following:


    The idea that evidence for existence of Jesus is on par with the 20th century German invasion of Poland is a non-starter, as would be the case with any person or event from ancient history. But the case is even more dubious for Jesus.

    You may think that the evidence for Jesus’ existence is sound, but it doesn’t take much looking to see that it just isn’t so.

    Take for example your claim that, “it is a virtual certainty that Jesus died on a cross sometime around Passover”.

    Actually that Jesus would have been tried and killed during or on the eve of Passover is one of the least believable aspects of the Gospel story. The Jews at that time had laws against holding trials and executions on the eve or or during holidays. The whole trial and execution of Jesus in the Gospels is clearly intended to be symbolic and absurd.

    The reality is that there is only one account of the Crucifixion of Jesus, the account first given in the Gospel of Mark, and then copied by everyone else. The account in the Gospel of Mark is clearly fabricated. The whole account is line-for-line crafted from scriptural references, primarily to Psalm 22 and the book of Amos. Those scriptural references are copied into every single account of the crucifixion ever recorded, canonical and non-canonical, which means that not a single person had any knowledge of the real event, because everyone copied from a clearly fabricated account. This is actually not news, this is acknowledged by biblical scholars.

    Clearly the crucifixion of Jesus during Passover is symbolic, he represents the sacrificial sin offering of the paschal lamb. So the idea that this really happened is actually very unlikely indeed.

    But it goes beyond that. In the Gospel narrative the motive for having Jesus executed is his actions at the temple. That scene too is clearly fabricated, just as the crucifixion scene is, in much the same way.

    For a brief overview of this see the following: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/examples.html

    The reality is that the mainstream consensus regarding the existence of Jesus is built on a bunch of unsupported assumptions. Mainstream biblical studies is a house of cards built on assumptions for which no evidence has ever been found. When you really dig into it, even many major biblical scholars acknowledge that they have no evidence for most of their claims (such as Mark Goodacre’s assessment of Q).

    All of Jesus “historicism” relies on assumptions about the Gospels, many of which are actually easily proven false. The fact, however, is that there is only a single source of information about Jesus: the Gospels. All the Gospels are clearly copied from a single story, the Gospel of Mark, with a few later embellishments. The Gospel of Mark is clearly a fictional story, in which basically every scene is based on literary references, just like the Crucifixion scene.

    In fact, this assessment of the evidence if far more parsimonious than the contrived rationalizations offered by those claiming that the Gospels are biographies based on oral accounts of the life of some real person.

    All the best

  • MrHorse
    2019-01-07 19:19:19 UTC - 19:19 | Permalink

    Jonathan Bernier wrote –

    The recent resurgence in arguments for Jesus’ historical non-existence rested entirely upon the argument that there had emerged new insights into old evidence.

    Neil commented –

    What “recent resurgence” did he mean?

    He did not say. But I can only think he is talking about Richard Carrier.

    Bernier is being shady. First he refers to arguments plural, then he refers to “the argument that there had emerged new insights into ‘old evidence’.”

    The reference to “the argument” is unnecessary, and the use of ‘rested’ and ‘had’ – past tense – is an attempt at dismissal. Of something he has raised. Which he does not specifically address. Then the dismissal gets superficial and patronising –

    The reason that ‘these arguments’ fail is because those competent in the matter and fully familiar with the evidence recognized immediately that these were not new insights at all but almost without exception insights that had been advanced and rejected the better part of a century ago.

    Ah, yes, we must venerate those familiar with ‘the evidence’ and ‘competent in the matter‘, who are of course also familiar that unspecified ‘insights’ had been ‘rejected the better part of a century ago’.

    Then he goes off on a tangent. Discombobulated.

  • 2019-01-07 20:00:38 UTC - 20:00 | Permalink

    I think the fact that the “mainstream” consensus is formed almost entirely by theologians is a serious point lost on most people. These are not objective investigators. And the fact is that even so-called “secular scholars” like Bart Ehrman have degrees of theology and divinity. Look at Ehrman’s education, its all from religious institutions. These are not institutions of science and objectivity. These are institutions of faith. Now Ehrman may claim to have lost that faith, but his entire approach, training and perspective is rooted in the religious ideology, not objectivity.

    This is a key issue for me, because IMO, the vast majority of people who are looked at as “authorities” on this subject are actually totally unqualified. The irony is that actual secular historians shy away from the field and kind of leave it to the theologians out of a mix of respect and disinterest and not wanting to rankle feathers. But really, New Testament studies is a mostly illegitimate field IMO.

  • MrHorse
    2019-01-07 20:35:30 UTC - 20:35 | Permalink

    I largely agree with what you say, r.g., yet would like to tease out the notions of ‘secular scholars’ and ‘secular historians’.

    Often secular is used to mean non-religious, but it is essentially a group concept: something that refers to a [wider] community or a society not being uniformly religious or non-religions. Some individual members of a community or society will be religious and some will not be, and those that are religious will often be of a variety of religions or of a variety of subdivisions or denominations.

    I’d say professional or academic historians in non-religious ‘settings’ would reflect the society they’re in – maybe half (give or take 10-20%) would be religious and maybe X% would be non-religious (with some being ambivalent or nominal, or spiritual, or belong to a ‘minority religion’). So, some would not question or not want to question the historicity of Jesus for religious reasons, and those that might have contemplated the issue would be, as you say, ‘not wanting to rankle feathers’ and not wanting to receive widespread condemnation from “those [supposedly] competent in the matter and fully familiar with ‘the evidence’,” (Bernier 2019).

    Certainly I agree that people like Bart Ehrman are not objective, especially given his publications for the first 2/3 of his academic career contradict the way he now holds on to core assertions, and given he does not address recent significant scholarship such as that of Dieter Roth, Jason BeDuhn, Sebastian Moll, Judith Lieu etc on Marcion and that of Joseph B Tyson, Shelly Matthews, Jason BeDuhn, etc, on the dating of Luke relative to Marcion. Bart seems to be more interested in populist preaching to the masses.

    • James Barlow
      2019-01-08 07:23:15 UTC - 07:23 | Permalink

      Jesus is big biz baby!

  • James Barlow
    2019-01-08 07:20:56 UTC - 07:20 | Permalink

    The idea that the invasion of Poland in 1939 ranks with the nonhistoricity of Jesus in evidential value is laughable on the face of it. How old is Jesus mythicism, anyway? And why should that matter? Suppose it should? Well, as Dr. Price noted in his debate with Ehrman, the proposal that Jesus was pure invention was proposed as known fact as early as the second century (Justin’s dialogue with Trypho).
    Somewhere Ehrman says that if Jesus did not exist, someone should have informed his brother James; then goes on to quote Paul as having met “the brother of Jesus.” (But that is not what the text says. It says “brother of the Lord.” This from the guy who wrote a book titled “Misquoting Jesus.”) If you listen carefully to Ehrman, he occasionally slips into the rhetorical style and presumptive regimentation of evangelical homiletic regurgitation. (I for one don’t mind saying that his claim to atheism might just be as disingenuous as it appears.)
    If only Christianity’s minister of propaganda Eusebius had lived two centuries earlier and had had a newsreel camera to record the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus like a Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl!

  • Pingback: Scholarship and “Mythicism”: When the Guilty Verdict is more important than the Evidence or Argument |

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