Can the Gospels be “True Fiction”? Did Ancient Historians Have a Different Understanding of “True”?

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by Neil Godfrey

A few days ago someone thoughtfully sent me a link to a Westar video interviewing Professor Arthur Dewey, author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered. Dewey begins by addressing the prevalent belief that the Passion story of Jesus is essentially true history. He says:

Unfortunately, not just people who are literalists who read the Bible assume this to be the case when we come to the Passion, but also many biblical historians. The reason for that is the assumption that the text is document and is reflecting what actually happened. 

Of course regular readers will know that it is that assumption that we regularly question here. But Dewey, his interviewer and Westar generally are addressing a different audience and I like to think that that is the reason they seem to couch arguments in a way more appealing or acceptable to a certain kind of Christian believer, in something of a “liberal apologetic”, than I like to do.

I have not read his book (there does not seem to be a copy available either commercially or in any library in Australia, not even digitally) so my comments here are entirely my reactions to the interview.

Arthur Dewey begins by pointing out that ancient historians were primarily interested in “truth” as “insight” into the meaning of events for their audiences. He does not say that they were not interested in “facts”, too, but that their main focus lay elsewhere. There is a certain truth to this as (again) we have discussed many times when posting on the methods of ancient historians. What niggles me when I encounter a biblical scholar elaborating on this point (Dewey is far from the only biblical scholar to present this “truth as insight” characteristic of ancient historians) is that I think the other side of what ancient historians were all about is lost. I think they too easily overstate the case in the interests of attempting to keep the gospels relevant at least for the more liberally minded believers. I hope that’s not too harsh or unfair but it is how it comes across to me.

The fact is that ancient historians regularly made strong claims for getting their facts right. Yes, sometimes they would acknowledge that they had no firm idea of what happened, but when they were writing of relatively recent events they stressed the superiority of their work by declaring that they themselves were eyewitnesses or that they spoke to eyewitnesses. Yes, we further know that sometimes ancient historians were not entirely (or even remotely) truthful when they made such claims, but the fact that they did make them at all demonstrates the importance of the ideal of “getting the facts of what actually happened right” for their readers. Rather than take the time to set out examples here I will merely note that examples of these sorts of details can be found in Ancient Historiography and Historians — Vridar Posts.

Biblical historians in recent years appear to have taken to speaking of the gospels as “true fiction”. Bart Ehrman is one of the more prominent names who has certainly pushed this message. The flaw in his presentation is that he is confusing two different senses or applications of the word “true” and implies that the fault lies in the reader if that reader for keeping the two types of “true” meaningfully distinct:

It might matter to people whose only concern is to know what really took place in the past. But why should that be a person’s only concern? Shouldn’t we be concerned also about other things? If we want to read a book, do we really only want to read histories and historically accurate biographies? Are our only human interests tied to what has really happened in the past? Don’t we also want to read novels? And short stories? And poetry? Don’t imaginative storytellers who piece together complicated plots with intricate but invented characters have something to say to us? Can’t “truth” be bigger than the bare-bones question about what happened before now?

. . . .

At the end of the day, I find it troubling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn’t happen, it isn’t true, in any sense. Really? Do we actually live our lives that way? How can we? Do we really spend our lives finding meaning only in the brute facts of what happened before, and in nothing else?

Think about the things that matter to us: our families, friends, work, hobbies, religion, philosophy, country, novels, poetry, music, good food, and good drink. Do we really think that the brute facts about the past are the only things that matter?”

(Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, digital edition)

Of course the brute facts of what is and was in the world matter as “truth”. So does the “truth as meaning” matter. It is mischievous, surely, to suggest that his readers must bury the one in preference for the other. Scholars themselves don’t do that in their research. Why try to pummel readers into embracing “the truth of the gospel story” even though it is not really true? Once again, I can’t help but wonder if we are seeing scholars like Ehrman attempting to justify or impute meaning to what they themselves are doing. A kind of apologetic, as I said before.

But there is more. Recall the criticism that even biblical scholars fallaciously assume that the gospel narratives “reflect what actually happened”. But even “liberal biblical scholars” like Bart Ehrman make that same assumption:

No one today would seriously maintain that these memories of Jesus and his followers were historically accurate. These are not accounts of the past that depict events that really happened in the ways they are described. But does that really matter?

My emphasis. In other words Ehrman, and I think many other ‘liberal’ scholars, continue to rely upon the assumption of historicity. They only quibble over the details.

But I am veering off course from Arthur Dewey’s interview.

Dewey speaks of memory and memory patterns. Using memory theory to explain the gospel narrative is surely based on an assumption that the events are historical and remembered as such, no matter how garbled they eventually become as memories tend to do. So again, I think he is beginning with the same fallacy as the literalists with the difference being primarily in how much of the detail is “true”.

Dewey refers to Mary Carruther’s book on memory, The Book of Memory: A Study Of Memory In Medieval Culture. I’d like to read that. Related to his discussion of points in that book, and most interestingly for me, was his focus on George W. E. Nickelsburg’s discussion of literary motifs or patterns in Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity. Nickeslburg analysed a number of ancient stories of persecution and vindication — Joseph, Ahikar, Esther, Susannah, Daniel, Maccabees — and identified structures they all share: Introduction, Provocation, Conspiracy, Decision, Trust, Obedience, Accusation, Trial, Condemnation . . . Rescue, Vindication, Exaltation . . . . Mark’s Passion narrative deploys the same elements. By doing so it fits the regular pattern of the same type of story that had been known for well more than a single century. I suppose real historical events can be fictionalized to be told through similar patterns but then the work becomes historical fiction and no longer history. And remember, we don’t want to stand on mere assumptions of historicity. That’s not being hyper sceptical. It’s simply holding judgment in abeyance until we can find some external control to give us a valid reason to tip our judgment either way. Perhaps the plethora of fictional narratives being found to use the same structural elements is that sought-after external control.

Another interesting point made by Arthur Dewey towards the end of the interview: he said that by making Jesus special we are playing into the hands of Empire. Ah yes, Westar and its political scholars! Carrying on the tradition of Crossan? 🙂  The point was that the Markan community found meaning in Jesus’ death because it enabled its members, many of whom were also dying or witnessing crucifixions of their community around the time of 70 CE, to identify with the innocent sufferer who would be vindicated. By making Jesus special and exalted this identity is broken. Perhaps. I would need to read his book. I’m thinking of Paul both identifying with the sufferings of the Jesus he himself exalted.

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Neil Godfrey

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59 thoughts on “Can the Gospels be “True Fiction”? Did Ancient Historians Have a Different Understanding of “True”?”

  1. The Greek concept of “Truth” or “A-letheia” was a rich one. It could mean “correct,” as in a “true sentence.” With the alpha privative, it also carried the sense of “un-hidden,” such as when we say he “re-vealed” himself to be a cheapskate. Further, it carried the sense of “exemplary,” such as when we speak of a “true” friend. And, it meant “ownmost,” such as when we say the great “truths” of the human condition.

    1. Just like the English concept of “truth”. In English we also use the word in all of those senses, depending on context.

      So why do scholars like Ehrman effectively deny these nuances or try to place one nuance over another as more valid somehow. They have different functions for different contexts. A historian today uses “true” in one sense, and a literary critic uses it in another sense. The exception, it seems once again, is in biblical studies, where one use is said to have a higher meaning than another, even denying the importance of the other. That’s rank apologetics.

      1. And really, in ancient Greek truth as “correctness” is subordinate to truth as the “un-hiddeness of beings” because it is not really “correct” that someone is a cheapskate unless they have already “showed/revealed” themselves to be a cheapskate. The state of affairs must be disclosed for a proposition to agree with it in correctness. Greek speaks of “alethes on,” “true beings,” which clearly doesn’t mean “correct beings.” We moderns tend to attribute “truth” to sentences, not to beings. In Greek, even “belief/opinion,” “doxa,” retains a sense of self-showing, as in “doxa theou,” “the glory of God,” not “an opinion about God.”

        1. Language is always about context. That is beyond dispute. When an ancient Greek historian announced he was going to tell the truth of what happened he meant “what facts actually happened”: e.g. Thucydides in one of his opening passages to his Peloponnesian War:

          There are many other matters, too, belonging to the present and not forgotten through lapse of time, regarding which the other Hellenes as well hold mistaken opinions, for example, that at Lacedaemon the kings cast not one but two votes each, and that the Lacedaemonians have the ” Pitana company ” in their army, which never at any time existed. So averse to taking pains are most men in the search for the truth [= αληθείας] [e.g. mundane facts about how how many votes Spartan kings cast], and so prone are they to turn to what lies ready at hand.

          Bother to read the rest and you will see Thucydides is talking about the “facts of what happened”.

          I have little patience with your regular attempts to rationalize your way out of logical and factual errors, John. You have lost a lot of respect in my eyes since your refusal to apologize for the blatantly silly claim that Vridar has posted countless times on Galatians 1:19 (relying on your invalid word search bringing up every post with “of” and “the” etc for example) and then your equally fallacious attempt to dig at me for pointing out your error by inferring I was at fault for not submitting to your or others’ appeal to authority! (When you said our arguments on Galatians 1:19 are attempts to deny the obvious I can only conclude you did not even bother to read them.)

          If you wish to be treated with respect in comments then you do the right and honest thing. Or just leave and keep on spreading your lies about vridar elsewhere as you have been doing.

          1. Neil,

            What in the world are you talking about? Granted, understanding my remarks on Aletheia require a basic background understanding of the genealogy of the concept of Aletheia in Greek cultural and intellectual history (such as Parmenides’s thoughts on Aletheia), but your consistent inability, in general, to grasp even basic concepts in your ‘attempt’ at communicating is baffling. “A-letheia” first and foremost means “un-hidden” to an ancient Greek ear, with “correct” being a secondary meaning. Its companion concept, as Heraclitus says, is “Physis kryptesthai philei:” ‘being loves to hide.’ Hence, “Truth” is understood as ‘disclosing out of hiddeness.’

            And you accuse me of losing credibility? In whose eyes, yours? You are a bored, old librarian who is trying to get famous by contributing to the destruction of Christianity (like Loftus) by posting on idiosyncratic religious studies scholarship, a topic you have no training in. Why should anyone care to be credible in your eyes? For the unsuspecting reader, you, for instance, deceitfully parade a positive comment from Dr. James McGrath on the “What They Say About Vridar” section of your homepage, completely clouding the fact that when McGrath later became more fully aware of your inept hermeneutic abilities and unthoughtful, dogmatic mythicism, McGrath realized that you were a moron/troll and stopped dealing with you, blocking you from spreading your brand of stupidity on his blog.

            This is a silly waste of time. I’m not posting here anymore.

            1. I am sorry you did not find your moment of fame here.

              But you live in hope as you spread the news around other blogs that you once “did a guest post here” (no, you didn’t; there’s a difference between a guest post and me just copying another comment as I frequently do) as you most recently did on McGrath’s blog where I am prevented from commenting on your blatant falsehoods.

              I have read Neil Godfrey. I even did a guest post at Vridar a few years ago: https://vridar.org/2015/09/

              Why do I get the feeling that if only I had flattered you and withheld criticism from your comments you would still be here reminding every newcomer that you once “did a guest post here”?

              1. Yesterday on Dr. McGrath’s blog one of your readers commented that:

                Is not Carrier a Dr. also? I find that the math weakens Dr. Carrier’s arguments (distracting with numbers as they are) – but then, math is not my strong suit.

                That having been said, I think that Carrier is wrong in his central thesis about Jesus.

                In response I said

                I should probably apologize to Dr. Carrier in that regard. Carrier is very bright and highly creative (although I think a tad too creative with his cosmic sperm bank argument). Sometimes I get caught up with the adversarial tone of online discussion and get a little more crass than I should be. I have studied logic, predicate calculus, etc., and so from the point of view of my limited understanding of Carrier’s math, it’s relevance to the debate seems a little overstated. He is certainly making an innovative use of math. But there are aspects of Carrier’s OHJ that I really like, such as investigating secular approaches to the Corinthian Creed resurrection appearance claims (Carrier mentions the 1 Hallucination hypothesis, and the 2 Noble lie hypothesis) Anyway, I admit I enthusiastically get caught up in the heat of debate, and so am prone to hyperbole. I realize people like Carrier and Neil Godfrey are intelligent and defend their theses with passion and rigor, so I certainly don’t have the right to belittle and dismiss them as I have in the past. So, I’m sorry.

                So anyway, I apologize for the negative things I said about you.

              2. The issue goes deeper and further back than your personal insults, John. Recall the following:

                You have lost a lot of respect in my eyes since your refusal to apologize for the blatantly silly claim that Vridar has posted countless times on Galatians 1:19 (relying on your invalid word search bringing up every post with “of” and “the” etc for example) and then your equally fallacious attempt to dig at me for pointing out your error by inferring I was at fault for not submitting to your or others’ appeal to authority! (When you said our arguments on Galatians 1:19 are attempts to deny the obvious I can only conclude you did not even bother to read them.)

                If you wish to be treated with respect in comments then you do the right and honest thing.

                It is obvious to me that you have little patience with (let alone comprehension of) both the arguments presented here and me personally. You are clearly more comfortable with blogs that continue to spill blatant lies about both me and this blog so I don’t really know why you have returned here. It’s nice that you apologize for one personal insult, but I’m looking for sincerity and honesty, and a genuine effort to read and understand whatever it is you are reading before posting a response.

      2. Ya…Ya..right on Neil!!

        I guess it is sometimes a case about the fear of being “dog–matic” about this or that and then “pussy-footing” around on a lot of other things.!!

  2. Beyond the first few centuries it was taken to be true that angelic beings and gods existed, just as 2,000 years later today we take it as true that the earth earth revolves around the sun. What transpired between was Copernicus’ astronomical discovery so that we can safely ignore the old belief. Likewise Darwin’s work and Freud’s work have further provided biological and psychological truths. Thus truth is relative. While there is virtue in the humility of allowing for the possibility that what we now believe as true may yet be redefined dramatically differently in future, we should nonetheless not spend too much time debating whether God, the gods or angelic beings exist until they tap us on the shoulder or aliens arrive from outer space to enlighten us. Carl Sagan is my authority in these matters in his book “Our Demon Haunted World”.

    1. “Thus truth is relative. ”

      Eh? Relative to what? And how does changing beliefs show that truth is relative?

      But I’m surprised to see a piece about ancient understandings of truth that does not include any reference to the ancient philosophers.

      Aristotle’s views are frequently quoted


      but Plato, the Stoics, and the others had ideas about truth as well.

      1. But I’m surprised to see a piece about ancient understandings of truth that does not include any reference to the ancient philosophers.

        Another reader had a heated problem with my lack of reference to ancient philosophical discussions about the nature of “truth”. But my post is not about philosophy, but about what everyday people in the normal course of affairs regard as “having actually happened”, “factual” as opposed to myth etc.

        The ordinary person was not a philosopher any more than people are generally exercised by philosophical debates over the “nature of truth” today.

        The historians themselves made this very plain when they spoke of what they expected their readers to understand as what had “actually happened” and was so verifiable by eye-witness testimony, etc, as opposed to lies, fiction.

  3. OK, so a liberal scholar will say, “Of course Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead, but the story of his resurrections means X, and you should believe X.” Fine. I will ask, “Why should I believe X,” and we can continue our discussion from there. But if liberal scholar then says, “Because that’s what the story means, and we know the story is true in that sense,” we’re going to have a problem.

  4. Thanks Neil for being upfront about your personal reactions and reflections about this issue here. I shy away from using the term “true fiction” . It is like some sort of oxymoron , just like saying ” Jumbo Shrimp”!!! Weird…unless something is necessary to explain, and we get into all kinds of rationalizing about how such and such a “true fiction” touched my life.

    btw the way Bible readers…the way you react to the Bible in terms of some “inner” resonancedoes not ipso facto prove the inspiration or proof of any special pleading preacher or professor or whatever….who says the Bible is true..

    Heh, folks try to get a copy of Randell Helms Gospel Fictions….in this regard…

    We all read stories, whether ancient or modern….and sort of see our situations or personal stories in parallels to them..this is how the gospels got written….

    As for Dewey , Neil, I have read things of Dewey as a member of Westar Institute..I think he died recently but I want to be careful about it certainly..and if he is still alive he is an interesting scholar that should not be ignored.

    Though Neil has a different purpose in utilizing Dewey to help us, in my view, to help us clarify such weird charlie horse phrases such a s “true fiction”…
    More clarification is needed here. I remember reading years ago some book but I can’t remem ber right now the name of the author…Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths…?

    1. Yes, as Clarke says, Paul Veyne: Veyne, Paul. 1988. Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?: An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination. Translated by Paula Wissing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

      And yes, I was only responding to certain points in the interview. I would like to read Arthur Dewey’s book itself.

      I would have liked to have asked a question and left a pointer to my reaction in this post on the Youtube site but I cannot see any way to leave a comment there, despite others obviously having found a way to comment.

  5. Here is a quote from Ehrman

    “No one today would seriously maintain that these memories of Jesus and his followers were historically accurate. These are not accounts of the past that depict events that really happened in the ways they are described. But does that really matter?..”

    Did he ever discuss why it doesn’t matter?

    There is a big part of me that really respects Ehrman, but he retreats to things he knows nothing about or says he doesn’t believe in…but it sounds like he believes in “transcendent truths” that defy “history” “in “fictions”.

    It is just plain weird…Hoe does he know that there are particular “truths” beyond the fictions that he disbelieves…or doesn’t believe ???!!!!

    What are these truths….that the fictions are teaching???

    Ehrman is still stuck in some of his decoversion processes….. like many of us….btw…let us be honest that we are all struggling still to “give up ” this or that point that we were once possessed by and we have leftover residue of things that still don’t make sense …

    Religion causes lots of fear…. if you interpret Paul’s epistles or any NT texts differently than what has been handed down by tradition you are doomed to destruction…. see 2 Pet. 3:14ff

    How sad that scholars and students of scripture will condemn “the other” private interpretations of scriptures (2 Pet. again chap. 1!!).

    “Peter” a liar, a forgerer…..(2 Pet. !!)says he doesn’t use cleverly devised “myths” (muthoi!) regarding Jesus’ bodily existence , etc. and in the same breath begins his second chapter with hijacking the Greek “myths” of Tartarus..what a fucking evident form of hermeneutical hypocrisy…!

    It is called having your historical /theological cake and eating it too!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. I liked some of Ehrman’s earlier work but I do not really understand why he is so popular among a wide-spectrum of liberal believers and non-believers alike. I get the impression from some of his more recent books that he doesn’t do serious homework on the topics he is writing about. They seem rushed and ill-thought through.

      1. I think the most enlightening and startling book I have ever read from Ehrman is his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture . What an eyeopener… And ever serious student of the text of the NT should read it for all its great worth…but these days his books have not been as important…and Ehrman makes a most striking claim in his book about Jesus Becoming God….. He has never defended Jesus is an angel and if he did he would be more in trouble with all the collegues he would like to keep as fellow scholars but who would crucify him for saying such a thing…

        Ehrman is flying under the radar on this. Moreover, he has never worked out the detail or implications of this new position of his…He does not realize that if Jesus really was an “angel” this simply provides more data for the Christ-Myth theory..

        But in some weird way he believes that Jesus was both human and an angel…He believes this…. his own remake of the incarnation of Jesus…which he actually doesn’t believe….

        A great scholar but terribly inconsistent in my view at many points…

        Ehrman has to believe in a historical Jesus or he would feel he has been involved in extensive research to find he has been believing and researching a “pink bunny”!!!

        And he won’t go down the rabbit hole of even “doubt” about such an issue…I still think Christianity could go on and did go on without any real historical figure backing it all up.

        I think Ehrman as many others have painted themselves into a serious cul de sac and not they are stuck there!

        1. To be completely honest, I haven’t read an Ehrman book since his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture that has ever impressed me as much as that one has.

  6. Just a question to think about that has bothered me for a long time:

    If Paul had never met Jesus in the flesh and all the sentient feelings and connections that such MEa meeting would be present, negative or positive, how is it that he he alone in the entire NT has such a recognizable “intimacy” with Jesus that not one of the 12 Apostles ever manifest o talk about on a personal level……????

    Paul even thought he turned into or had become “the Christos” himself..without knowing hardly anything about the historical Jesus? See Galatians. Did Paul think he had become an angel just as he says was?? Galatians again!!!!

    Only in scripture is there such a thing as an angel showing up in flesh or a flesh being becoming an angel…But no historical or ontological reality exists as far as our empirical and rational tools have allowed us to discover…!!!

    Mark’s gospel is creating stories in my view of “Christic” events , not Jesus events per se, of things happening at a certain level that were seen as “saving” events…by a powerful entity that Paul and Mark encoutered and expressed in their own genres… one was theological autobiography via the letters and the other “narrative “theology to put “flesh” on Paul’s fleshless Christos!!! the gospel of Mark… Both Jesus and Paul were Martyrs in the traditions of Paul and Mark…

    And last but not least why is it that Paul is pre-eminently concerned about the suffering dead Messiah… Christ crucified rather than Christ raised… Paul only deals with that later but never defends it anywhere apologetically…and simply assumes his Gentile readers at Corinth already believe it and no need to defend it but only to explain its “nature” or “how is this even goi g down very soon…in our day… since we don’t want to keep up these rituals of baptising on behalf of the dead…

    Paul says it is happening in his lifetime and their own…I cor. 15

    One thing is clear…it is not about “flesh and blood” but in conformity with their own identity as “one” in the “body of Christ” that glorious body of Jesus , not their own body as on earth…but their own body on earth is going to be replaced with Jesus’ glorified body, which he didn’t have on earth when he appeared to those spoken about in the stories.

    1. We might be able to begin to work on some of these questions if we could work out what was original in the letters we have attributed to Paul and what was added later and by whom and when and why. And then we would need to establish a provenance for that original layer, too — again the when, by whom, where and why…. Pending new discoveries I think some things will just remain unknown.

      1. Ya Neil,, I agree, but I hope… just hope… for things to change as you do…

        Now isn’t a lot of work to uncover something we have not known…we can only hope, but it has happened before…. eg. we used to hear only from those against the “gnostics” (different types of Christ-Mythers in my view) from the Church Fathers… eg. Irenaeus that the gnostics believed this and that…etc. etc. and then the Gnostics texts were accidently found… around 1945 and then also stayed in isolation until Pagels made them more accessible to many..she had some predecessors no doubt , but she put the Nag Hammadi Gospels on the map for “guys” and “girls” like us…

        I get tired with all of the chaos and confusion regarding many of these issues but that is what it means to be concerned, whether scholar or lay person or whatever…

        It’s all damn interesting..and that is why we are here and hope someone might eavesdrop on the critical,creative and concerned conversations that go on at this blog site…

        We are definitely interested in getting to the bottom of things…are we not?? We make mistakes here and there…yes, no doubt but let us not give up moving toward better understanding and the mysterious inculcations of values accrued in careful research whether we explore texts or testimonies of alleged histories and history that many of us could get on board with…until we have good reasons with integrity to change…

        Derrida was “right”, sort of , that the Parousia of “the real” and the “final” word is still to come on many things, but he was not some stupid philosopher and note he also said he loved the bible. To get rid of the Bible as a cultural, historical, religious collection of artifacts, not necessarily historical would be devastating and even diabolical in my view…. to change texts and history and so and so on…. in order to posit this god or that god… or any god… or no “god’… the Bible is part of the historical cultural heritage of humanity as we know it… it is better to understand that heritage rather than deny or hate it or whatever… Get to know it…

        These are “accidental texts’ of human historical (re)construction in order to make sense of a world which is so powerfully and phenomenologically now in our face (and before as well in various contexts) and also existentially real to us at every level of our senses, depending on how and why they are read.

        I am a Canadian and feel lots with my friends in Europe and the US and elsewhere that are struggling at so many levels with such things that have come upon us all of us these days..

        Hang in there everybody…

  7. I think this really highlights what I see as the big split in NT understanding.

    This is where I think “mythicsits” have really pushed the envelope and produced the correct understanding that mainstream scholars still don’t understand.

    Is the Gospel of Mark a record of anecdotes about Jesus that were developed or preserved by some pre-war community, or is the Gospel of Mark a completely fabricated narrative invented after the war based on the Pauline epistles?

    Now, this is really an easy question to answer for me, it is obviously the later. There is overwhelming evidence for the later and zero evidence for the former. The only reason to even entertain the possibility of the former is because the former provides a rationalization for how this post-2nd temple work could possibly contain any real information about Jesus.

    The former assumption is purely a postulation for the purpose of providing a model in which the Gospel contain meaningful history, that’s all it is. But there is no evidence to support the former position, it’s pure fantasy.

    The Gospel of Mark is not history in any way shape or form. It is a fabricated story based on the letters of Paul and scriptures. It is, in fact, direct evidence against the idea that there was any known oral narrative about Jesus. As I say in DTG, the Gospel of Mark is one of the strongest pieces of evidence against the existence of Jesus.

    These people need to read “Mark Canonizer of Paul” and “Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul”, along with perhaps “Hebrew Gospel: Cracking the Code of Mark.” These works present real evidence that the Gospel of Mark is not history in any way shape or form. But it seems as if mainstream scholars, now 15 to 20 years into the intertextual revolution, still aren’t paying any attention to the intertextual evidence.

  8. @rgprice – reading your common on Mark being written right after the war and a being a fabricated narrative .. on the Pauline epistles. Also reading Parvus’ recent post which if I understand is saying much of the theological points in the Epistles might have been incorporated 20-30 years later. Am I missing something, or is the RGPrice idea not compatible with Parvus and perhaps the other Price’s work on Paul?

    For all, this leads me to a bigger question – which of the dominant Christ myth/Christain Origin theories are incompatible with each other and why?

    1. On your “bigger question”, I see the difficulty arising over two types of approaches to the question of Christian origins. One approach attempts to draw inferences from the evidence in order to recreate plausible events, scenarios along the way. Another approach is to line up the many “bits” of evidence to survey the most plausible evolutionary development of the faith and early beliefs. In this latter approach the question of “plausible events and persons” responsible for that development is left untouched. Inferences are out, in other words.

      And a major difficulty that rules out even the possibility of any certainty is the confused and incomplete state of the evidence: What did “Paul” originally write and when and to whom? Should the “pocket gospel” in the Vision of Isaiah be counted as part of the original? What did the original Gospel of Mark look like compared with its canonical version and what is the significance of Secret Mark?

      And so on .

      1. Thanks – to answer another post who asked “who cares”, I do. I am not in the league of the all the knowledgeable people here and I know there are no simple answers. There are many ideas out there and it would be great if they could be collated into a few “meta” plausible scenarios with an understanding of what other bits of evidence those scenarios are not compatible with. I think @rgprice has done one such. I suspect Doherty/Carrier have another. Parvus maybe another still. Each incompatible with the others. This may be second nature to those deep in this world, but for readers like me, it is quite difficult to sort through. For those of us not able to absorb all the nuance, it would be great to have an “elevator speech” for the major plausible Christian origins. Perhaps this is a pipe dream. I do appreciate your response. I think you get it.

    2. Well, one thing I’m confident in is that whoever wrote Mark had read and used the collected letters of Paul.

      I’m less confident in when that happened and where Paul’s letters came from, but I think its safe to say that some collection of letters attributed to Paul existed before gMark did and were highly influential in the creation of gMark.

      I think gMark being after the war is also a safe conclusion. As for how long after the first war is a much harder question. I like to think of gMark being written “shortly” after the First Jewish-Roman War, but I concede that at this point any date up to around 120 is possible. And the more I think about it the more I think the date of gMark must be pushed back to at least 80 CE at the earliest because there had to be time to process the events of the war and time for “Paul’s letters” to be formed into a collection.

      So really, IMO, a key to understanding when gMark was written will be understanding when Paul’s letters were collected. And I would also consider the possibility that the person who wrote gMark is the same person or part of a group of people, who assembled the first collection of Paul’s letters.

      I’m leaning half-way to Detering’s camp now, of considering that Paul’s letters are an amalgamation of many smaller works. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Paul never existed or that someone named Paul or Saul wasn’t the original author of the core of the letters in his name, but I do think now that the Pauline epistles likely underwent a series of edits, and that the original formation of the collected letters of Paul likely included significant additions to the original material by one or more editors.

      So the way I see Paul’s letters is that they were likely some loose collection of short writings, that were then collected up and edited together into longer epistles and given their current names. In that process it seems that the shorter fragments were edited and stitched together using language from the editor. And then after that, much later, additional interpolations were made to the letters as well. But the key is that even the “originals” aren’t really original to begin with.

      It stands to reason that whoever wrote gMark was working from the collection after it had been assembled, thus some time had to pass between original authorship by Paul and the assembly of the collection. This is why I think the date of gMark gets pushed back to at least 80 if not beyond. But as I said, it’s also possible that the author of gMark himself assembled the Pauline collection or was part of a group of people who did so. And BTW, to give full disclosure, some of these ideas come from Brodie and Tom Dykstra.

      1. As to the dating of Mark:

        In Mark, Jesus seems to find a Pharisee hiding behind every tree. They’re all over the place.

        As I understand it though, prior to the Jewish War the Pharisees were pretty much confined to Jerusalem, or at least Judea. They weren’t very prominent in Galilee. But after the war they were able to displace the Sadducees, who had lost their base of operations in the Temple, and who had perhaps discredited themselves through general corruption and through their collaboration with the Romans.

        The role of the Pharisees in Mark is of course literary and polemical, not historical. But the author presumably wouldn’t have even considered using them for these purposes until two things had happened. First, the Pharisees had to supplant the Sadducees, a process that must have taken at least a couple of years to stabilize. Second, the new prominence of the Pharisees would have to become so well known, not only to the author but also to his intended audience, that they could be enlisted as ready-made stock villains for the melodrama.

        If my understanding of the history is correct, then I have trouble imagining all of this happening before around 75 CE, and even that is probably pushing it. Mark may well be a reaction to the Jewish War, but probably not an immediate one. I don’t know if a five year interval qualifies for what you call “shortly.”

  9. I agree largely with Mr R.G Price above, but also regard the Homeric origins as relevant, as explained by MacDonald, Carrier and R.M. Price. And who really cares about setting the variants of the Christ-myth theory against each other ? We’d be arguing about how many angels could NOT dance on the head of a pin.

    Mr R.G. Price I am reading your book on Deciphering the Gospels and loving it.

    1. I’m not sure there is much variation in the Christ-myth field (I do realise variation is different to variant, but let’s set such potential ambiguity that aside). The core of the Christ myth theory seems to be that Paul’s texts are based Mark elaborates on Paul and some more OT texts (and perhaps some of the passages Paul used re-worked differently; and perhaps apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha), and more reifies and anthropomorphizes Jesus than Paul’s texts do; and the other NT gospels elaborate on Mark.

      It seems to be a question of fully clarifying and documenting the pre-Pauline and pre-Gospel texts used and when they were used, and how and when the gospels were started, developed, and finalised.

      1. So Paul wrote something, and then Mark wrote something, and then maybe Paul’s writings were edited, and then maybe Mark’s writings were edited and then other people read Mark and wrote new things and edited Paul’s things, and after that, there was a lot more editing and writing. And we don’t know if the original Mark was just after the war and responding to a very narrow bit of stuff attributed to Paul (or perhaps Paul was more fleshed out by then) or whether it came later, perhaps much later and responded to a much more edited Paul. As a matter of fact, we don’t even know if Paul was at all. And, oh yes, there was almost certainly something pre-Paul, but we have no idea what that was. Finally, after Paul, Mark, the editing and the new writings, all sorts of stuff was invented and “pre-dated” such as TF to make it seem like Mark et. al, had real stories when they didn’t.

        Am I missing anything?

        (that is my current elevator speech)

        1. I think that’s reasonable: the proposition/s that there were preliminary versions of key texts which were edited in relation to other ‘ur’/ ‘proto’- versions of what also became key texts is reasonable. Tertullian alludes to such things (eg., Adv Marc bk IV, chapters 3 and 4). Paul and Mark could well be latter than has been and is thought. I’d say it’s likely that Paul was ‘fleshed out’ more as part of such processes.

          I agree there would have likely been a lot of stuff floating around when Paul was being written and used: the early, what-we-think is first generation Gnostic stuff [‘Sethian’] and the next generation stuff like Valentinus-related theology. Justin Martyr seems to repeat and elaborate on some of Philo’s philosophising too, in later chapters in Dialgoue with Trypho.

          1. Thanks. There are so many data points and so few organized edifices to attach them to. Do you think that absent discovery of manuscripts from the period that we will ever be able to tease anything more revealing from what we have?

            For me, I am reminded once again of Bertrand Russell’s advice:

            When the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain.

            When they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert.

            When they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

            The problem, of course, is in the ability of “the ordinary man” to discriminate between true experts, experts clouded by bias and false experts. In this field, credentials seem not to be correlated to true expertise. The non-dogmatic open-minded approach where everything reasonable is considered is one of the reasons why I appreciate the contributors and (most) commenters on this blog so much. I never miss a day.

      2. Of course I don’t think it hurts to keep in mind that the idea that the Gospel of Mark was using Paul is a hypothesis and not a fact. We might also posit that the evidence points to Mark and Paul being written around the same time when the same sorts of interests were in vogue — if so, should Paul’s letters be dated to around the same time period as Mark? (And then again, what version of Paul’s letters are we talking about — where do we draw the lines between what was original and what was “adjusted” in the second century wars over Paul?

    2. Thanks. I’ve long been skeptical of Homeric influences, but I’m finding ways that that could make sense as well, which I’ll be covering in my new book, which, BTW, probably won’t be out for at least a year if not longer.

      @All below
      Yeah, I think the basics are just what was stated: Paul made stuff up, Mark wrote a story based on Paul’s letters, other people copied Mark and added to it. That’s the basic crux of it. Of course there are many details to be worked out, but that’s the basic outline of the case, which, BTW, is essentially what Early Doherty said almost 20 years ago now.

      I do think that there is some core of Pauline material that was produced before the war. I would also say that Mark having used Paul is a pretty solid conclusion at this point. I would doubt that Mark was written at the same time as the original Pauline material, but not that Mark was written at the same time that Paul’s letters were assembled, if that makes sense. See my comment above for more detail.

      Regarding, “I’m not sure there is much variation in the Christ-myth field”. I think what we’re seeing is growing agreement on where the data is leading.

      1. I’d be quite surprised if you are still skeptical of the Homeric origins of Gospel material. I recommend that you watch the series “Excavating the Empty Tomb” by Truth Surge. Not only is it in my view sound historical-analytically, but it is entertaining, with a few pinches of cynicism here and there, and it’s presented in about bite-size episodes, from memory about 30 of about 10 minutes each. This work really opened my eyes. Oh and he gives full credit to Dennis MacDonald’s research and book on the subject.

        A great discussion/ debate between Drs D.MacDonald and R.Carrier that covers many of the mythicist assumptions, arguments, interpretations, implications and conclusions is at


        1. Funny enough, MacDonald’s book is one of the first I read related to mythicism and really turned me off to it at first because I was very underwhelmed by it. But maybe I’ll give it a second read now that my views on it have evolved some. Thanks for the link.

          1. I never thought of MacDonald’s book leaning towards mythicism. He explains in it that he sees the Homeric influences as existing side by side the biblical influences, and that neither were the “origin” of the gospel itself but influences in how it was told.

            More generally, I think Homeric influences are to be expected given that anyone who learned to read and write Greek was inevitably exposed to a study of Homer and was required to write exercises that adapted or were in some way based on Homer. The fundamental structure of the gospels is ultimately derived from Homeric epics, especially the Odyssey: a string of seemingly disconnected events as the hero travels here and there concluding in a detailed dramatic climax where colour and drama suddenly bring everything to a moving conclusion. It was a common enough structure that was taken up by “Mark”.

            1. Sorry for this response which may seem old by now..I remember MacDonald in that debate that he believes in a historical Jesus, but not God…. So he is not an Theist but believes in Jesus’s existence, and also puts a lot of stock in Papias related material.

              I think MacDonald’s book puts forward methods and mythically related motifs and structures that can be transferred to various hermeneutical methods that have proven very insightful and helpful,,but I am not totally on board with MadDonals for example to explain Paul’s conversion experience related by the somewhat questionable historian of Luke-Acts..

              So for my book on the satan I am now carefully working through Numbers 22 where Balaam is stopped on the rode by an angel who opposes him.. and I have found numerous linguistic and motif-related material to think that “Paul” in that Acts 9 is being adversarily attacked by Jesus , a sky-being in Acts 9 and so I think Luke is engaging the Lxx and Semitic motifs to show how God attacks and adversarily stands against so-called Jewish duplicit prophets or priests like Balaam and Paul!!

              I am just working on this so no one please get your gotch in a knot by my grief comments here…I am showing some new midrahic interpretations which show more resonance with HebrewAramaic texts than Greek ones… and MacDonald does not dismiss Hebrew parallels. I take it he is trying on some new ways of reading in terms of mimetic motifs and motive and morals in text… oh well at least my reading..

  10. Yes Peter…

    it is not either or.. re Semitic vs. Hellenistic, though I have found Semitic parallels and inter-textual echoes or hermeneutical hauntings, both forward and backward have more going for them…..

  11. Very interesting, much to think about.
    But part of the tragic mistake, as hit upon in the last few minutes of video is this: in my humble opinion. The whole story is about a Jewish man, written by Jewish people. The mistake made for the last 1900 years, is that the texts are trying to be understood from a Roman, Greek and Hellenistic gentile mindset and there in lies the problem. It takes a different type of thinking to understand Jewish texts.

    1. The mistake made for the last 1900 years, is that the texts are trying to be understood from a Roman, Greek and Hellenistic gentile mindset and there in lies the problem.

      These texts were written in Greek though. That’s kind of a hint that Hellenism is involved.

  12. @Marty
    ” The whole story is about a Jewish man, written by Jewish people. The mistake made for the last 1900 years, is that the texts are trying to be understood from a Roman, Greek and Hellenistic gentile mindset and there in lies the problem. It takes a different type of thinking to understand Jewish texts.”
    I’ve been re-reading the Gospel of Mark recently in depth approaching it as a novel and it occurred to me that it’s very pro-Galilee and anti-Judea and anti-Roman administration. From the start we have a Judean prophet stating that he’s inferior to the hero from Galilee, everyone in Judea confessing to sins, vs only one from Galilee (who is chosen by God!), repeated criticism of the Pharisees, who were based in Judea. Jesus is accepted in Galilee but killed in Judea and while the fishermen are simple and have failings they are good hearted, yet Judas, whose name identifies him as from Judea, is a lying traitor.

    It’s like a novel supporting Galilee by a Roman writing in Greek.

    1. re “From the start we have a Judean prophet stating that he’s inferior to the hero from Galilee”, I presume you’re saying the Judean prophet is John? If so, is there something explicit that says John is from Judea, or is it just implicit?

    2. Yes, the contrast between Galilee and Judea has been often discussed among scholars of the Gospel of Mark. Galilee is seen by some as symbolic of the kingdom of God while Judea and Jerusalem represents the enemy or opposition to God. The opponents of Jesus in Galilee are explicitly said in Mark 3 to have come from Jerusalem.

      1. Here is something to confirm this and kick it up a notch or two…

        Where does the GMk “begin” (arche) (such a powerful first word in Mk!!)?

        ie. the good announcement from Jesus Anointed..

        IN Galilee…of course. He appears out of nowhere..unlike the rest of the synoptics..

        Also JohnB appears out of nowhere in that Gospel (note the verb ginomai for both!)

        And how does that same Gospel “end” its telos…

        Well in in Galilee.??? Read Mark 16:1-9!!!!

        In Galilee!!!

        My oh my!

        The best “book ends” one could imagine!!!!!

  13. Well I am understanding the texts from Roman point of view, since the RC church held the lions share of the market for most of history. I suspect that they were involved from the early days. I know many of you don’t agree with me but I put the probability at about 90% that Christianity is all one big Roman fraud or at least has been hijacked in the process. I have to weigh this up with the answer to the puzzle of who made the choice of the NT canon i.e. which books made it in and why, and if this was independent of Roman involvement.

  14. The early group of followers of Jesus were Jews of Judah and from the area of Galilee. There was no R. C. until hundreds of years later. Once the R.C. wrestled control from the Original Jews, they then perverted the previous understanding of what happened and how to understand what happened. Yes, the texts we have are written in Greek and yes Hellenism was very much involved. All should know there was a Hebrew Matthew, and possibly of other texts as well. We only have Greek texts now, but scholars know there is a link back to more ancient texts, we just have not found them at this date. The writers of the “Greek” text quote form the Jewish bible, mostly from the Greek translation(LXX). A plain reading of these texts, tells us that it all started in the womb of the Jewish religion of the first century. Would it not make more sense to look from that perspective then one from a R.C. perspective that has spent the last 1900 years trying to destroy the Jewish(womb) perspective, when trying to understand these N.T. Greek text?

    Ben Murat, I agree. Galilee held a school of thinking that was somewhat different then that of Judah. Judah was the seat of Power – the corrupt leaders and priest who where in bed with the Romans(Rulers of the day). After the second temple was destroyed – if I remember correctly guess where all the Rabbis gathered? Galilee- I wonder why? This puzzles me!

    Scholars spend most of their time living in a bubble and never asking the family that started this whole body of texts what they think of these texts and how they should be understood from within the family understanding of what happened and what they mean. Although, this is changing somewhat and has been accelerating for the past 70 years. A true scholar should look at all the information and not just that information that supports their presuppositions that they bring to the texts. Even the early church fathers work to distance the “church” – Christianity from the Jewish synagogue and their understanding of what happened in the first century. One of those most guilty of this was Wellhausen. Is influence has lead three generations of scholars down the rabbit hole.

    1. “There was no R. C. until hundreds of years later.” = True.

      But whether “the early group of followers of Jesus were Jews of Judah and from the area of Galilee” remains unverified and unproven; that’s just what is asserted.

  15. Hi Marty,your comments “the corrupt leaders and priest who where in bed with the Romans(Rulers of the day). After the second temple was destroyed…..” makes me ask whether my analysis is based on presuppositions or common sense. But it does get back to the question of how real and big a threat Judaism was to Rome through the Christian foundations. Neil has tried to correct me on this before and I keep his comments in mind, and am still researching. In fact last night I attended a presentation at the Society for the Study of Early Christianity at Macquarie University in Sydney. Connections being made in SSEC with eminent scholars will help me to catch up on Roman history I am looking forward to the conference on 4/5/19, expecting high calibre presentations as in past years.

    And when you say “There was no R. C. until hundreds of years later. Once the R.C. wrestled control from the Original Jews, they then perverted the previous understanding of what happened and how to understand what happened.” it still makes me think that Rome, as a power, whether politically, religiously, culturally or economically was in control all the way. As the winners wrote history, I again reflect on how to be objective.

  16. By the way my friends here…

    Dr. Robert M Price is himself rethinking these issues again as all of us must do in the light of new data, not known before or looked at in a new way… in a recent book called Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity . by … James Valliant, C.W. Fahy.

    You might want to check out his discussion with them on Utube. regarding this…..quite interesting I must say…

    Also, I want to put a plug in for some of my Canadian collegues in biblical studies and historical methods… Dr. Willi Braun – a fantastic lecture on MarkG as 2nd century text. check it out on utube. It is so good one has to watch it at least 3x to get the implications of it all.

    Also Dr, William Arnal.. see his videos as well… again, quite good and enlightening,, though some apologists who visit this site and make an ass of themselves won’t go for it,,but they can’t refute it because they are apologists and not scholars…

    NT scholarship is not NT apologetics in favor of one’s image, idea, or ideal of Jesus or the Christ figure…

    btw… just as a side, I think anyone who likes to be called a Master apologist or Dr. Min. Apologist (eg. Frank Turek) should not be recognized as being any kind of a scholar…It is the same as getting a degree in Ouija Board Bible Exegesis!!! Those of us who have had to do the rough and tumble of real master’s and doctoral work have no patience or respect for such alleged experts on Christianity…

    And also Warner Wallace should go back to catching bad guys,, rather than messing up the Bible and theology and history and so much more as he does…texts which serious students of these scriptures try so hard to understand and render as intelligible as one can…

    And as far as John MacDonald is concerned… bye bye bible bully!!

    1. Hi Martin and thanks for the info, and humor. Will certainly try to check out Valliant & Fahy and discussion with Dr RMP, as well as have a look at Drs Braun & Arnal. I am perhaps a little too predisposed towards the “Caesar’s Messiah” approach already, as I think that Joesph Atwill often makes sense, but I want to keep an open mind. I once got a little too excited with Barbara Theiring’s work too, so I need to be careful before running along too fast.

    2. I have admired Robert M. Price since I discovered his work almost 20 years ago, and was a longtime fan of his Bible Geek podcast. I am sometimes uncomfortable with the lengths he will go to in order to reinforce unconventional theorizing until I notice that he is really saying no more than, “Don’t dismiss it just because it is unconventional.”

      Having watched his review, I know nothing more about Valliant and Fahy’s book than what Price said about it. If he said it represents good scholarship, I’ll take his word for it until I can read and judge it for myself, which I don’t plan on doing right away.

      I gather that theirs is a historicist theory. I have never seen a historicist theory that does not presuppose Jesus’ existence, and as best I can infer from Price’s comments, this one is no exception. It could possibly be the best historicist theory out there, but until that presupposition can be justified, I don’t see how it can defeat some variant of Doherty’s mythicist theory.

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