Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints

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by Neil Godfrey

I do care about bad history. — O’Neill (13 min 50 sec)

Bad history is carelessly getting basic facts wrong. It is also failing to acknowledge and engage honestly with other points of view concerning the sources.

Two instances of “bad history”

At about 27 minutes we are told that “mythers” say there is no contemporary reference to Jesus therefore he didn’t exist. That, we are told, is “a terrible argument” because, even if the historical Jesus really walked on water etc, etc, the gospels say that he was famous only in the back sticks of Galilee.  That’s like being famous in the “north-east corner of Kentucky”. That’s “not famous”. So why would anyone in Rome or Athens or Alexandria write about “a dirty peasant” teaching “Jewish crap to peasants”! Also, when we look at other figures like Jesus, first-century Jewish preachers and prophets, we have NO contemporary references to any of them. We have more references to Jesus than any other analogous figure of the time.

Response 1 — not famous by gospel standards?

No, the gospels say the fame of Jesus brought crowds flocking to him from Syria, Lebanon, south of Judea and Jordan. Mark 3:8 tells us Jesus’ fame was such that people flocked to him from “Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” That’s more than Galilee. Even if, as O’Neill is suggesting, the biblical account of Jesus is historical, then “multitudes” travelling from so far and wide to Galilee would most certainly attract the attention of the upper classes. Herod, we read, was so alarmed and thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead and fearfully went so far to plot to kill him. The first-century Galilean historian of Justus would have had his works preserved for us to read today.

Maps from Hayes and Hanscom, 436 (above); holyland-pilgrimage.org (right)

Response 2 — No contemporary record of any comparable figure?

We DO have contemporary references to “other figures like Jesus, first-century Jewish preachers and prophets”. O’Neill makes a special point of arguing that Josephus was a contemporary of “James the brother of Jesus” who was martyred. O’Neill also mentions that Josephus wrote about Jesus ben Ananias who, in the lifetime of Josephus, madly prophesied the destruction of the city and temple. Josephus also speaks of Thaddeus and “the Egyptian” who were both his contemporaries. Another figure some of us compare with Jesus is Socrates. He was also depicted satirically as a henpecked no-hoper who didn’t work for a living but spent his time in a single city market-place in idle speculation with passers-by. His contemporaries, both students and critics, left us records of him.

As for the assertion that “we have more references to Jesus than any other analogous figure of the time”, here we run into the error of confusing quantity with quality. We have a few contemporary references to Cicero’s slave Tiro; fewer still to a public rival of Seneca, Publius the Stammerer. But the contemporary status of those references along with the function those references serve strongly suggests to us that those figures were historical.

A third instance of “bad history”

O’Neill speaks at length (from about the 50th minute) about the second passage in Josephus’s Antiquities with a reference to Jesus:

When therefore Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. . . . So he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James: and some others; [or, some of his companions.] And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Antiquities, 20:9.1)

Within the constraints of the interview, O’Neill could not reasonably have been expected to cover all the arguments for and against the status of this reference to “Jesus who was called Christ” but he could have very briefly at least have mentioned in passing the most commonly expressed view of mythicists such as Earl Doherty. Instead, he set up a fallacious comparison to imply mythicists have no reasonable case to make at all. The words translated “who was called Christ” could not be the work of a Christian interpolater, he declares, because a Christian interpolater would not have been able to control himself and would have waxed eloquently and in-depth on so much more about this Jesus. How does he know? Why, the Slavonic manuscript of Josephus contains paragraph after paragraph of the deeds of Jesus! Besides, O’Neill adds, the phrase “called Christ” has “no apologetic utility”; it is nothing more than a “passing reference” so it is simplest to conclude it is original to Josephus.


Both options [whether “the brother of Jesus, called Christ” or just the words “called Christ” were interpolated] been proposed, beginning with the simplest process, namely that “James” stood alone in the original text and a Christian scribe added a marginal note, “the brother of Jesus, called Christ,” the scribe assuming that it was the Christian James the Just that was being referred to, perhaps in light of a tradition that this James had died around that time. Alternatively, the original text may have included “the brother of Jesus” as Josephus’ identification of his James, and a marginal note, “called Christ” served to identify the Jesus the scribe believed Josephus was speaking of. In either case, the marginal note was subsequently inserted into the text. In view of the difficulties, as shall be seen, which are involved in envisioning Josephus as the author of the composite phrase, and especially its second part, the marginal note would be the simplest and most effective explanation.

(Doherty, 571 f)

And we have the works of Photius who “at a number of points also seems to quote marginal notes from his copy of Josephus, giving evidence of the ease with which such things could have found their way into the original text….” (Doherty, 541). Metzger and other authors of studies of the New Testament manuscripts discuss the different ways and frequency with which scribal marginal notes came to enter the main body of texts.

Recall O’Neill’s praiseworthy insistence on being open to ambiguity in our sources. We cannot be dogmatic. But we cannot deny that there is some oddity in the Greek construction “and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James” and we have a responsibility to find satisfactory explanations for that oddity, not merely brush it aside. It is “bad history” to flatly declare that the passage can only have been written by Josephus when we know that very few ancient texts survived without some corruption.

A common refrain in studies of Josephus’s texts is to note the absence of any reference to “messiahs” or “messianism” in them. The explanation usually offered is that Josephus was too fearful to use a word that would remind Roman readers of the “messianic movement” that supposedly led to the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. That Josephus would decide to identify James — whom he treats as an undeserving victim of injustice — as a brother of. “messiah” (“Christ”) is clearly inconsistent with this larger thesis to explain the larger absence of the term.

O’Neill appears to try dodging that little anomaly by saying that Josephus could write at least “neutrally” about James and Jesus because they were crushed by Jewish authorities while the other (“comparable”) rebel figures were put down by the Romans (about 42 min 55 secs). Presumably, O’Neill favours the Gospel of Peter over the canonical gospels as a historical source since it is in that gospel that we read of the Jewish king Herod crucifying Jesus.

Unfortunately, we are not finished yet. There is more “bad history” to uncover.

Doherty, Earl. 2009. Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications.

Hayes, Carlton J. H., and James H. Hanscom. 1968. Ancient Civilizations: Prehistory to the Fall of Rome. Collier Macmillan.

Lambert, Derek. 2020. The Problems With Jesus Mythicism – Tim O’Neill. Youtube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkZTiLacoks&feature=youtu.be.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints”

  1. Ah, thanks, Neil. It’s about time someone took dear Tim to task. I’ve had a couple of run-ins with him over the years and found him to be an obnoxious, arrogant twot, to use the most approriate scholarly term I could come up with.

    I have occasionally wondered if he was not on some sort of financial retainer by a few Christians to obliquely plead their case because there are times he sounds much like an apologist only with a bigger chip on his shoulder!
    Anyway, good stuff.

    1. Speaking entirely theoretically, of course, when one notices a person being careless and mistaken in so much of what he says, and when one notices that same person advertizing his own successes in other areas, and when one notices that same person savagely and ruthlessly insulting and attacking in all sorts of vicious ways anyone who stands against what he is trying to demonstrate, and when one notices the same person ridiculing or dismissing as of no consequence those whose knowledge he cannot match so that others whose following they crave do not give those rivals any credit or time of day, and when one notices that the same person even boasts and justifies their revengeful and cruel language to curry laughing admiration of an audience, then one is reminded of an insecure narcissistic figure, not unlike Trump — though most with that condition do not have it to the same extreme extent as Trump and do a better job of hiding the worst excesses of it. In short, such persons deep down know they are frauds and they are therefore compelled to make others look like the real frauds to deflect attention from their own failings. But I’m speaking entirely theoretically, of course.

      1. “then one is reminded of an insecure narcissistic figure, not unlike Trump”

        Waoh!!!…not half an hour ago, after reading part 1, I made a similar observation in a comment to Bob S regarding our joint experiences with the fud…surely an “Unweaving the Rainbow” moment.

        1. True. Further, I sometimes think back on what another academic passed on to be about Maurice Casey’s background in the Anglican Church and how he appeared in some ways to be responding to that with the way he positioned himself and attacked mythicists. O’Neill’s posts are curiously full-on supportive of an outright Catholic Church apologist, James Hannan, and O’Neill himself was brought up Catholic and always had an interest in religious debates. It might be interesting to get to know O’Neill better personally but I must excuse myself from that task as having too many other priorities to attend to! 😉

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