Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)

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by Neil Godfrey

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. — Isaac Asimov

Properly read, the books arguing for the historicity of Jesus by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey present a strong case for being agnostic about the existence of Jesus. — paraphrasing Raphael Lataster

Part One of Questioning the Historicity of Jesus addresses the case for the historical existence of Jesus. The first difficulty here is finding the best and strongest scholarly arguments for Jesus’ historicity:

I have long searched for good cases for the Historical Jesus. I sought fairly recent, peer-reviewed academic books or articles, solely/primarily focussed on arguing for Jesus’ historicity, written by secular scholars in relevant fields. Not one source met these criteria. I would have loved the opportunity to critique books focused on this topic written by a James Crossley or an Aaron W. Hughes, and published with Oxford University Press, but such books – perhaps like Jesus – do not exist; so I have settled for two popular books written by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. (Lataster, p. 29)

Those books are Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (2012) and Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? (2014). Long time readers of Vridar will be aware of many posts covering in detail both of those works. Lataster’s criticisms overlap with much that has been posted here and by others, such as Richard Carrier. Even some of the scholarly quotations I posted here alerting readers to professional disagreements with the methods of Ehrman and Casey are also found in Lataster’s book. The arguments are so flawed that it hardly seems worth the trouble addressing them again, but I’ll try to outline the main points Lataster focuses on.

The sad part is that Ehrman has such a high reputation for critical acumen.

I respect the man, and I respect the rest of his work. On this topic, however, his work fails to impress . . . (p. 31)

Most of us know the failings: well-poisoning, false dichotomies, speculations on the motives of unknown authors, inconsistency in relying upon hypothetical sources for his own arguments but condemning appeals to hypothetical sources for opposing arguments, insisting that hypothetical sources included information upon which his argument depends, reliance upon speculation, circular reasoning, fundamental errors of logic, selective naive readings of the sources, the possible to probable fallacy, misrepresentations of the Judaism of the Second Temple era and unjustified generalizations about religious groups. Lataster dissects each of the above failings in Did Jesus Exist? but interestingly goes further and contrasts Ehrman’s failings there with his books written before and after that one:

Before and after writing that book, Ehrman was and is capable of proper critical research on the biblical texts. But for some reason, during the writing of Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman’s standards dropped remarkably, only for the ‘old Ehrman’ to return soon after, as if he suffered from a fugue state. I suspect that Ehrman consciously or unconsciously realised that the case for Jesus would be very poor indeed if he consistently applied his critical approach and all of his vast knowledge to this question, leading to this strange Jekyll and Hyde situation. (p. 71)

Other scholars may have stressed other “proof points” for Jesus’s historicity (e.g. the “core” of a Josephan reference to Jesus) but Lataster shows how Ehrman effectively demonstrates the inadequacy of such material as clear evidence for Jesus.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Ehrman’s critical awareness of the limitations of the sources that we do have (the gospels, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius) leads him to explain why in none of those can we find secure grounds for believing Jesus to have had a historical existence, and that having dispensed with those sources he falls back on hypothetical sources behind the gospels.

Ehrman has been very bold – though mostly fair – so far. He has effectively ruled out the sources that we objective and secular scholars might place more confidence in, so that he has no choice but to ‘go all in’ with the evangelistic Christian sources that we would no doubt be very sceptical about. They are the only cards he has left in the game. In any case, Ehrman has started his investigation brilliantly and critically. This has been worthy of the opening chapters of a book that denied or doubted Jesus’ existence. Would that he had stopped there.

Unfortunately, Ehrman moves on to critique the Christian sources. This is where it all goes wrong, in the sense that Ehrman mysteriously loses his ability to think logically and critically, though he still finds time to pummel the Gospels, which he gleefully does whenever he isn’t dogmatically asserting that Jesus must have existed. (p. 38)

This is where Lataster’s strongest, at times even savage, criticism is targeted. Lataster elaborates on the fallacies and the idiosyncrasy of Ehrman’s appeal to such sources. The point is not that it is wrong for scholars to hypothesize the existence of lost sources behind the gospels in order to resolve textual anomalies; rather, the point is that Ehrman goes on to second-guess the motives of the authors of such sources, the reliability of their contents and, in turn, their hypothetical sources, and even to assert that they “must have” contained the evidence that he needs to make his case.

It is perfectly reasonable to posit sources like Q to hypothesise solutions to certain literary-critical issues, but it is another matter entirely for a historian to create a multitude of merely hypothetical sources, and to simply assume that these all but confirm their views. (p. 54. Bolding in all quotes is my own)


[E]ven if we grant that these sources actually existed, it is the reliability of these highly questionable sources that still needs to be established. (pp. 42 f)

And once more,

It is as if Ehrman is not even aware that feebly positing these foundational sources is not enough. He must convince us that we should trust them, especially when they are – like the “scant literary remains that survive” – filled with obvious fictions and implausible claims. (p. 81)

For the benefit of readers not familiar with the arguments, Ehrman embraces the hypothesis that narrative material that is unique to the Gospel of Matthew and unique to the Gospel of Luke must be derived from other sources named M and L. And it is further assumed that these hypothetical sources were independent of each other. And that they derived from oral traditions that went back to the historical Jesus himself. The simpler explanation, that the authors of those gospels created the material themselves, is not considered. This appears to be particularly problematic given that we can often see how the evangelists responsible for those gospels reinterpreted and rewrote certain other stories that we find in the canonical and non-canonical Jewish literature available to them.

As this appeal to, combined with the uncritical use of, imaginary sources is obviously so rare in scholarship, it does not even have a label; so please allow me. For brevity’s sake, I shall dub this monstrosity of method, Ehrman’s law. The law states that if your preferred theory is not well aligned to the available evidence, you may simply invent as much evidence as is required, and you may further proclaim the unquestionable reliability of your imagined sources. The law also requires you to make grand claims about how this new evidence supports your – and only your – theories and to mercilessly ridicule others who try to do likewise. Given that even contemporary sources by known authors who do intend to write history are scrutinised, specialist scholars’ appeal to Ehrman’s law is downright preposterous. Unfortunately, Christian scholars like Richard Burridge and James Dunn are all too happy to agree with Ehrman’s disturbing ‘method’ in appealing to imaginary sources. Noted Christian apologist William Lane Craig also enthusiastically appeals to them, in his case for Jesus’ resurrection . . . . (p. 64)

No other field of historical inquiry that I know of resorts to such methods and Lataster is right to explore the extent of its fallaciousness and the double-standards with which it is applied.

Nonetheless, I half suspect that Lataster goes a step too far in his efforts to highlight the unscholarly nature of “Ehrman’s law”. Example,

In other words, it is possible that the very earliest sources, which no longer exist, confirm that Jesus did not exist as a human on Earth – we could label such a source as Ephemeris de Paulus [=Journal of Paul]. According to this source, which pre-dates Paul’s extant writings, Paul is ignorant about a Historical Jesus and is experiencing visions of the celestial Son of Man that he, as an apocalypticist Jew, already believes in. In this hypothetical source, the links to the intertestamental literature are even more obvious, and there are hints that Paul is suffering from mental illness. I just made this source up, of course, but that is the point.87 That Ehrman somehow ‘knows’ that made up sources support his views is bewildering. This seems more like the musings of a fundamentalist believer rather than a properly critical scholar. (p. 53)

I am not so sure that the analogy is exact. Ehrman does not simply declare without any attempt at a justification that another source existed. He points to data in the gospels and rationalizes its existence by appealing to a hypothetical source. Is it not overstating the problem to compare it to just imagining another source behind, say, Paul’s letters, without any attempt at some sort of justification in the Pauline corpus, however slight? Lataster makes the necessary point without such exaggeration. Exaggerations that point to a slight misrepresentation of the biblical studies methods open one up to avoidable attack from the less amiable debators.

Lataster addresses Ehrman’s equally fallacious and inconsistent use of Paul as evidence for the historical Jesus. Paul is to be trusted when a naive reading supports Ehrman’s view but dismissed as a liar or exaggerator when he does not. What Jews of the time believed, how they interpreted and reinterpreted their scriptures, and how Ehrman’s misinformed and often blatantly false claims about some of these issues (Lataster demonstrates these failings with many appeals to other better informed scholars), and his contradictory arguments, are all scrupulously examined.

Part 2 of Did Jesus Exist? reveals something very disturbing, that I must stress again. In apparently debunking various mythicists’ claims, he makes it clear that mythicists attempt to explain Paul’s portrayal of Jesus through sources that actually exist. Ehrman’s approach is, as we have so decisively seen, to push the basic Gospel portrayal of Jesus (less the bits he doesn’t like) through sources that don’t exist, rather than to ascribe it all to actually existing sources and the creativity of the authors (both of which he actually admits, though not in whole). And yet, the prevailing scholarly view is that it is the mythicist that grasps at straws. (p. 96)

The third and final chapter in this first part of the book takes on Maurice Casey’s attempt to prove the historical existence of Jesus. My own recollection is that Casey’s book was about to be published but when Erhman’s book beat him to it his publisher (Sheffield) held it back for a year. My own recollection is that my exchanges with Casey’s student, Stephanie Fisher, so incensed him that (as Fisher informed me at the time) he was going to write a book “exposing” me and all others with similar views. Much of the book actually reads like a petty tirade from Fisher herself, with Mary described as “preggers” and Thomas L. Thompson sarcastically said to be a “scholar” with quotes, and expressions like “slagging off” and so forth. I was mystified that any publisher, especially Sheffield, actually had it printed. I don’t think it worthwhile to cover the generally nonsense-contents throughout the book. As Lataster notes,

. . . . unnecessary and libellous errors are continued throughout the book . . . .

It is petty and pathetic . . . and also manages to degrade historical Jesus scholarship to new levels of incompetence and obscenity . . .

With constant mischaracterisations, ad hominem argumentation, homophobic and unprofessional language, and easily avoidable errors, questions must surely be raised as to the confidence Casey had in his case for Jesus’ historicity. We should surely have expected a simple and straightforward explanation of the evidence and how wonderful it is. I suspect that it is the fact that the latter is not realisable which partially explains the unnecessary embellishments. (pp. 100, 124)

Yet certain scholars still appeal to Casey as a standard from which to “debunk mythicists”.

The chapter concludes with comments on John Dominic Crossan’s principal arguments for a historical Jesus. Crossan’s stated main reason for believing in the historicity of Jesus is that Jesus could not have been invented because Christians were “too uncomfortable” with him as he was and had to continually change him to be more the person they wanted. As a scholar of religion Lataster knows full well that such changes are par for the course in the world of religion.

So the first part of the book was a depressing read insofar as it covered ground all too familiar to me, drawing attention in forceful ways to the bankruptcy of so much of what passes for “historical method” among too many biblical scholars, especially when it comes to their attempts to defend their most fundamental assumptions.

We now come to Part 2, “The Case for Agnosticism”.


Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill.

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27 thoughts on “Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)”

  1. Since publishing this post I have updated it with this paragraph:

    I am not so sure that the analogy is exact. Ehrman does not simply declare without any attempt at a justification that another source existed. He points to data in the gospels and rationalizes its existence by appealing to a hypothetical source. Is it not overstating the problem to compare it to just imagining another source behind, say, Paul’s letters, without any attempt at some sort of justification in the Pauline corpus, however slight? Lataster makes the necessary point without such exaggeration. Exaggerations that point to a slight misrepresentation of the biblical studies methods open one up to avoidable attack from the less amiable debators.

  2. My interpretation of Ehrma’s argument was that is was entirely circular – We know the gospels track back to Jesus because his followers would have told stories about him, some of which would have been in the gospels.
    Was I misunderstanding? Did he offer a method of detecting which stories had a historical basis rather than
    Theological (it seems well established among secular scholars that some such as the cursing of the fig tree are allegorical – Do any of them think it derives from an actual event, or do they think it was just made up?
    Literary – stories such as feeding the multitude, or the slaughter of the innocents that seem a direct retelling of old Testament events – again, do secular historicists think these were based on real events?
    Does Ehrman think the gospel authors made any of it up, or do they think the fictions (for want of a better word) were either created earlier, or developed over time?

    1. I think its more that Ehrman is defending his education. Basically, to follow the evidence where it really leads he would end up having to acknowledge that everything he was taught was wrong and that, basically, a theology degree is worthless in terms of understanding how the Bible was actually written. So for Ehrman, and many “biblical scholars”, the fundamental problem is that they can’t really engage with critical scholarship without acknowledging that the fundamental methodologies they use are nonsense, and thus their credentials are meaningless because everything they have been taught is wrong.

      1. I think about this sometimes. Claiming to read the mind of another is a foolish endeavor. But here I go. These are snapshots of how I believe many people in this guild (and many others, probably including myself!) think:

        Ehrman’s studied under a luminary at Princeton, whose name escapes me. Was that man’s lectures and research on the life and times of Jesus all wrong? Was he waving around that chalk like some misguided fool? It would diminish this man. Isn’t it more likely that these mythicists are the fools?

        Ehrman wrote a book about Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher. It must have taken years of research and a great deal of hard effort to come to understand what Jesus’s motivations were and who he was. Is all his work just… misguided and wrong? Imagine sitting on your porch in the evening after working on this book, enjoying a beer, with all this knowledge and insight in your head, enjoying musing over Jesus. Rightfully enjoying the intellectual fruits of your labor. “Hey, I know a lot about this era and it’s fun noodling around with it in my head!”. Now imagine being very wrong about this. You aren’t the expert on Jesus’ life and times, you realize. [I wouldn’t agree. He is an expert.] Or, is it more likely that you’re right and these diletantes are wrong? C’mon.

        Ehrman’s has stated his convention drinking buddies are believers and even fundamentalists. “We accept each other despite our different beliefs!” Now imagine he comes out as a historicity-agnostic, a view outside the window of normalcy in that world.

        Ehrman has positioned himself as being something of the radical in the guild. He’s the guy who writes books about forgeries in the Bible! And he can back it up too. But those guys to his “left”, those mythicists, that’s radical. He needs to be the one to push that back, hold the gate and protect the guild against those unserious radical amateurs who aren’t in the guild.

        And of course, more broadly, the ugly but simple truth is that without the financial support of the devout, biblical scholarship would crumble to dust. I’m not saying Ehrman is dishonest in order to get grants and sell books. I’m saying the entire guild and enterprise is saturated with certain norms.

        If Ehrman ever becomes historicity-agnostic, I’d wager it would come after someone in the guild publishes on the matter, with some analysis that is trivially different than Carrier’s. “Carrier’s carelessness was missing this important, convincing piece of the puzzle, but Dr. Crossley’s research expertly presents a compelling argument.”

        Of course I’m wrong. I don’t know the man. Don’t mind-read people.

        1. Ehrman’s M.Div. is from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied textual criticism of the Bible, development of the New Testament canon and New Testament apocrypha under Bruce Metzger.

          the ugly but simple truth is that without the financial support of the devout, biblical scholarship would crumble to dust.

          Yes, there is a circular reinforcing pattern, with money and prestige flowing to scholars who endorse and support the historicity of Jesus, and all of that scholarly research and opinion encouraging the flow of money and prestige.

    2. Ehrman said he was initially focused on researching How Jesus Became God (2014), when he decided to first write Did Jesus Exist? (2012)—apparently (based on the quality of it) over a three day weekend?

      Ehrman said he was receiving questions about his position on mythicism, and his awareness about his work being cited for mythicism on amateur websites, etc..

      Therefore Ehrman decided to put mythicism to the torch, so that no dirty mythicist would ever dare cite his work in support of a mythicist argument again! And also to avoid being called a mythicist pinko in regards to How Jesus Became God (2014).

  3. op: “Casey’s book was about to be published but when Erhman’s book beat him to it his publisher (Sheffield) held it back for a year.”

    Do you mean?
    • Casey (2014). Jesus. Bloomsbury – T & T Clark.

    They may of released in response to Carrier (2014).

    1. Casey’s last book was published before Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus and he complains more about me than he does Carrier. The earlier comments (by Fisher [corrected, see below]) record here and the posts on Hoffmann’s site and the contents of Casey’s book establish the point I made.

        1. The confusion might arise from T & T Clark, Trinity Press International, and Sheffield Academic Press merging in 2003 as Continuum, since subsumed in Bloomsbury in 2011.

        2. Omg, this is about nothing. Yes, I made a mistake. The publisher was not Sheffield but Bloomsbury / T&T Clark. Everything I said about the background to it stands. I was there. I lived through it. It was a big topic on this blog with Stephanie Fisher — the mouthpiece, student and partner of Maurice Casey — for two years leading up to the book. Stephanie kept us in touch for two years up to the date of its intended publication. When it was about to be published Ehrman’s book appeared. Casey’s was held back because it had been robbed of thunder against the mythicists. It was published at a suitable time after Ehrman’s. It was before Carrier’s book appeared. I withdraw nothing except my mistaking Sheffield for Bloomsbury. I should not have made that mistake but I did because Sheffield was the university of other close associates with Maurice Casey at the time, including James Crossley, who also found fit to respond with some hostility towards me — and Stephanie was the one here informing us all that Casey-Crossley and Stephanie were all together, etc etc etc

            1. I was informed by Stephanie Fisher of happy collegial get-togethers of her, Maurice Casey, James Crossley and Philip Davies. She would inform me that they all would scoff at the ridiculousness of mythicism and how my application of Davies’ method was ridiculously misapplied. But I could never help but wonder how distorted all of that was coming from Fisher. I did really want to contact and discuss the points with Davies myself, but I felt it might be awkward, especially for him, given the tensions that had arisen between me and his friends Maurice and James. So I never took the chance to talk to him, unfortunately. Crossley, I fear, was unnecessarily offended by a review of mine and made it clear he had no wish to talk to me, least of all to discuss my approach, even attacking with misrepresentation this blog in a footnote in one of his books. Anthony Le Donne was very friendly towards me over my blog work but suddenly cut off contact with cold words when he teamed up on a new blog with James Crossley and Chris Keith (Keith also loathing my work).

              Loyalties to their colleagues obviously must come first. Personal relations, concern for professional reputations — these are the dynamics at play. Pure professionalism in exchanges of ideas is buffeted around like a plaything by these dynamics.

              We saw something similar with R. Joseph Hoffmann. He was a mythicist, in effect, until Richard Carrier got involved — and somehow Hoffmann ditched his mythicism, mercilessly attacking the idea and any who espoused it, when he made his personal loathing of Carrier known to all.

        3. Bloomsbury places the T&T Clark imprint as: Academic>>Theology>>T&T Clark now publishes ground-breaking books by some of the most creative voices in theology and biblical studies today.

          Chris Hansen is making hay from this.
          • Per Hansen, “THE QUEST OF THE MYTHICAL JESUS: A History of Jesus Skepticism, ca. 1574 to the Present”. Academia.edu.

          Lataster’s one comment that Casey’s work was not published in an academic press (100) is well worth noting as a sign of his apparent bias. Casey’s book was published by Bloomsbury Academic, which is a well-known and respected academic division of the house. Lataster does not deliver the same level of skepticism towards his Jesus Skeptic peers like Carrier, whose book and peer review process has its own problems. —(p.163, n.124)

          1. I read the Introduction to the book. I am away from home and some of my books at the moment but want to check some of his claims when I return. First impression is that there is some muddled thought at work. I wanted to see it if was just me or if there was something more objective to that impression so ran it through an LIWC analysis — it scored relatively low on analytical discussion.

            1. Hansen gives a jaundiced and uncharitable reading of what Lataster actually wrote: “One can only wonder how this calumny [Casey 2014, Jesus] had passed peer-review. . . . Clearly peer-review is not the be-all and end-all. Hence, we should focus on the arguments. Also, it is quite likely that the book was not peer-reviewed, since it is actually a popular book, and not a proper monograph published by an academic press.” —(p.100, n.8)

  4. Crossan’s stated main reason for believing in the historicity of Jesus is that Jesus could not have been invented because Christians were “too uncomfortable” with him as he was and had to continually change him to be more the person they wanted.

    Totally inexplicable, yes, since absolutely nothing happened to change Roman and Jewish culture between the writing of the letters of Paul and the gospels. Complete stasis the entire time.

    1. So Crossan appears to assert that gospel authors after Mark freely embellished the Jesus story, therefore it is impossible that Mark created a fictional Jesus story?

  5. Is it made clear from the book that: The mainstream point of view of secular contemporary scholars—who have written a defense for the historicity of Jesus—is that “Non-Christian sources” fail to provide attestation for the Historicity of Jesus?

    Therefore those who hold a contra viewpoint on “Non-Christian sources” are what, a minority?

  6. • Is the following arguably correct?

    Ehrman presents seven Jesus narratives as independent attestations for the historicity of Jesus. Ehrman derives these independent narratives from “either entirely or partially independent” extant sources (DJE p. 141). Said sources being the four canonical gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John; and three non-canonical gospels: Thomas, Peter, P Egerton 2.

  7. In my above comment — (Casey’s last book was published before Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus and he complains more about me than he does Carrier. The earlier comments (by Stephanie) record here and the posts on Hoffmann’s site and the contents of Casey’s book establish the point I made.) — I referred to Fisher by her first name and the males by their surnames. I apologize for causing offence to some readers. I would hope that it will also be noticed that as a general rule on this blog I do attempt to use gender-inclusive terms and strike a balance of equality in how I refer to men and women. Sometimes, though, because of personal familiarity, and even online friendships (even though the friendship might at times be tense — and Stephanie Fisher and I did have regular online and offline correspondence and I often sought to make the peace with her, and I think she appreciated some of that) I might slip into calling a person by the name they regularly used in correspondence here — and referring to certain males by their last names, perhaps from the habit of seeing Stephanie Fisher regularly, almost exclusively, refer to those same males by their last names in our correspondence. I shall to be even more conscious of avoiding possible offence in the future.

  8. OP: “Lataster makes the necessary point without such exaggeration.”

    Not sure how to parse this:

    • Lataster [already] makes the necessary point without [needing] such exaggeration.

    • Lataster [should] make the necessary point without such exaggeration.

  9. “For the hypothesis answered the question, “From what does the common non-Marcan material of Matthew and Luke derive, since neither had read the other?”

    If there is no difficulty in supposing St. Luke to have read St. Matthew, then the question never arises at all. For if we find two documents containing much common material, some of it verbally identical, and if those two documents derive from the same literary region, our first supposition is not that both draw upon a lost document for which there is no independent evidence, but that one draws upon the other. It is only when the latter supposition has proved untenable that we have recourse to the postulation of a hypothetical source. Now St. Matthew and St. Luke both emanate from the same literary region-both are orthodox Gentile-Christian writings-composed (let us say) between A.D. 75 and A.D. 90, in an area in which St. Mark’s Gospel was known. Moreover, St. Luke’s own preface informs us that he writes “in view of the fact that several authors have tried their hands at composing an account of the things fulfilled among us”. He claims to know, and, one would naturally suppose, to profit by, more than one gospel-narrative other than his own. By all agreement he knew St. Mark’s, but what other did he know? It would be natural for him to know St. Matthew’s, supposing always that it had been in existence long enough.”


  10. Neil,
    You make the point that Ehrman’s appeal to hypothetical sources M, L, etc.. is not ridiculous, prima facie. But what then is appealing to the to hypothetical sources for M and L → M’ and L’; and then their hypothetical sources M” and L”. At what point does it become risible nonsense, M””” and L””’?

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