2020-11-17

Interlude: Why I Doubt the Historical Existence of Jesus

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Since recent posts have in some way drawn me into the question of the historicity of Jesus once again let me set out where I stand. There is nothing new here.

I have never, as far as I recall, set out an argument that Jesus did not exist. The reason? I have no interest in doing so. My interest has long been to understand the nature and origins of the biblical texts. And what I have learned so far is that the gospel narratives can most economically and comprehensively be explained as inventions woven from other texts without any need to introduce oral traditions going back to a historical Jesus.

Similarly for the New Testament epistles. We do not need to introduce a historical Jesus to understand their contents.

It’s really as simple as that.

–o0o–

Why don’t I begin with the assumption that the gospels are historical or biographical accounts, even if exaggerated, of a historical Jesus? Because as far as I am aware that’s not how any other historical inquiry works. We need to apply the same methods to the study of Christian origins that we rely on for any other inquiry.

Here’s how valid historical inquiry works across the board, whether studying ancient, medieval, modern, eastern, or any other history. I copy from another page where I have discussed this some time back….

A historian needs to establish some fundamental facts about the sources at hand before he or she starts pulling out data from them to make a historical narrative or argument. Let’s take the gospels as one set of sources to be used in investigating the question of Christian origins. What does any historian need to establish about these — or any — sources?

  • We need to know when they were written.
  • We need to know by whom and why. (“By whom” means more than the name of the person: it refers to where the person is from, to what social or political entity he or she belongs — “Who is this person?” — that is more important than a mere name.)
  • We need to know what they are, what sorts of documents they are. Their genre, if you like. This will include knowledge of how they compare with other literature of their day.
  • We need to know something about their reception at the time they were written and soon after.
  • We need to know something about the world in which they were written — both the political and social history of that world and the wider literary and philosophical cultural world to which they belonged.
  • We need to know a little how the documents came into our possession. Through what authorities or channels were they preserved and what sort of manuscript trail did they leave.

That’s the first step. We can very broadly classify all of this knowledge as the provenance of the documents.

If we draw blanks on any of these questions then we need always to keep those blanks in the foremost of our minds whenever we read and interpret the gospels. Those blanks will help remind us of the provisional nature of anything we draw from the gospels.

So for the first point above, the date of the gospels, we can do no better than accept a range of year in which they were written. A combination of internal evidence and the evidence that they were known by others leads us (well, me at least) to a period between 70 CE and the mid-second century (possibly known to Justin, certainly to Irenaeus).

Those who argue for a date prior to 70 CE fail to take into account the apocalyptic character of the gospels. Apocalyptic literature (e.g. Daniel) is known to be about events in the recent memory of the readers. The pre-70 date also fails to take account of the internal evidence for an audience facing persecution, including persecution from Jews. There is no confirmable evidence for such persecutions of Christians until post 70 CE. If some dispute this and argue for a much earlier date then I’m happy to address those arguments, too; I would be willing to change my view if they proved to be plausible and if the scare Caligula gave with his threat to install a statue in the Temple was the best explanation for other features in the Synoptics.

The question of who wrote the documents is of primary importance. Just saying the author was a Christian is way too broad and tells us nothing except the obvious. It’s no more useful than saying a work of history was written by a Greek historian. So what? We need to know what sort of Christian, where, when and why — whom was he writing for? why? Since we know none of these things — speculations and educated guesses change with the tides of fashion — we are at an enormous disadvantage in knowing how to interpret or understand the gospels.

Is what we read a composite document composed over several editorial hands? That, too, is a most important question to answer. Again we are at a real disadvantage here.

The above gaps in our knowledge of the gospels ought to pull up every historian short and make them wonder if it is worth even continuing to work with these documents. Certainly any historian worth his or her salt will always be tentative about any conclusions and data taken from them.

The second step.

This is the “What is it?” question. Are we reading a letter? A memoir? A biography? A what? What’s a gospel?

Codex Vaticanus -- 4th C gospels manuscript
Codex Vaticanus — 4th C gospels manuscript

Here scholarly opinions vary. Many say the gospels are a form of “bios” or “ancient life” — let’s for simplicity’s sake use the word “biography”. The name one most commonly hears as the authority on this view is Burridge. Superficially Burridge appears to make a reasonable case. That’s fine. That’s a possibility. One has to ask, however, why not all scholars are convinced. It doesn’t hurt to check out the range of views and hear the arguments for each one. It also helps to read several other ancient biographies, especially those referenced by Burridge, to better understand the arguments. One quickly discovers that the biography classification is not so simple after all. It lacks theory about different types of literature. Its dot-point comparisons could be viewed as a superficial comparison that misses more fundamental if implicit features of the gospels. Others have argued for apocalyptic literature. Some compare them with ancient “novels” or other popular fictional types of writings. Some see in them strains of Greek tragedy even though they are in prose. To make the problem even more difficult we know that writers, including ancient ones, sometimes imitated a genre to create an impression that they are sending a certain message when in fact they are meaning something else. Satire is an example. Narratives can also be symbolic or allegorical.

This is a critical question that needs to be resolved before we can know how to interpret what we are reading.

You’ll notice how the question of genre or the nature of our documents potentially could be more readily answered if we knew more about their provenance and authors.

Again, if we admit any doubts about the nature or genre/s (a literary work can blend multiple genres) of our documents then any interpretation we embrace must again be held tentatively in the knowledge that it could be overturned if we are wrong.

To answer this question it helps if we read widely the literature known to be from around the same era as the gospels. That includes Jewish, Greek, Roman and anything else. It also helps to become familiar with how literate classes learned, what they learned, and so forth.

When we do all of this we may begin to see threads in common across the different forms of literature. We may begin to recognize relationships between the gospels and certain other writings. All of that is essential information.

The third step.

What do we make of what we are reading? Is it a true story? Is it partly true? Based on true persons and events? Obviously, our conclusions from the above two steps will have some impact on our answers to these questions.

Narratives, even ancient fictional ones, certainly can and sometimes do involve persons known to have a real historical existence. And probably most ancient fiction is known to contain scenes based on real ethnic groups, geographic areas and cities.

What I find interesting is asking the question: How do we know, say, the Galilee in the Gospels was a real place? How do we know, say, Pilate was a real person? Don’t think this is a cynical question. It can be even more challenging and interesting if we ask it of other ancient literature – or literature of any era. It’s a vital question. We don’t want to assume. How do we know Julius Caesar existed? Maybe that’s too easy because of the tangible records in coins and monuments. But how do we know the ancient accounts that he conquered Gaul — including the one claiming to be by Caesar himself — are true? What about Spartacus? Or Hannibal? How do we know what to believe in Tacitus, in Polybius, in Josephus?

Sure we trust the textbooks and our teachers. But how do they know and how can we know if what they think they know is really true?

If we can’t answer that question I am not sure we are really in a position to ask the same question of the gospels. That’s because the gospels have so many more problems than other sources — such as uncertainties about their provenance and authorship as well as the sort of literature they are.

The more details in a work that can be independently confirmed as historical and the fewer details that can be proven to be false, the greater the confidence we are entitled to have in the larger narrative of that historical work.

As far as I can tell the answer is this:

We place trust in the contents of documents to the extent that

  • what we know of their authorship and provenance gives us an understanding of what they are about and why they were written;
  • we know the genre of the documents — given that genre is a key to understanding the intent of the author;
  • (and this one is most important) . . . information in the documents can be independently verified.
Tacitus manuscript
Tacitus manuscript

Of course, there is probably no ancient historical work that can be independently confirmed in every detail. So we take the next best step. The more details in a work that can be independently confirmed as “historical” and the fewer details that can be proven to be false, the greater the confidence we are entitled to have in that work’s overall narrative.

Our confidence in a work is also increased if the author explains both who he is and what sources he used. But we can’t be naive. Take Herodotus for example. Generations of scholars took for granted the claims of Herodotus, the “Father of History”, that he travelled the world and collected his information first hand. More astute scholars in recent years have taken a closer look and presented very cogent arguments that his claims were mostly fiction. He did not read the monuments or interview the people he claimed he did. His history is an attempt to imitate reality. It has even been analysed as much a “theological”-like narrative as is the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) of the Jewish Scriptures. In place of Yahweh and the Temple is Apollo and the Delphic Oracle. It is a lesson for the Athenians to fear god and humble themselves before him lest they suffer the same fate as arrogant nations of the past.

So everything needs to be tested. We can’t assume anything.

Knowing more about genre and the wider literary environment in which Herodotus wrote helps us determine the level of trust we can have in his historical claims.

The more we know about the personality and social and political background of an author the more we can understand what he is likely to want readers to believe and know and what he does not want them to know or understand.

The more we know about the historical events that may have had traumatic impacts on authors and audiences the more likely we will be to understand why a particular work dwells on certain themes.

And that’s about all my idea of “historical method” is.

There’s a lot more that can be built on this foundation but that takes us into the questions of the philosophy of history and what kind of history we want to write — whether a gripping story or a clinical analysis of source materials or an argument for social change etc.

One thing should be clear. This method is really just the nuts and bolts of what any investigator of the past should follow. I think most historians do follow something like this although in many cases the certain questions about source materials have been long settled and implicitly understood. That is, they are taken for granted.

Sources like the gospels, however, cannot be taken for granted. We have inherited their status as essentially historically true documents from the Church. They are the key documents of a religion that teaches faith in a historical event. Historians need to be conscious of this background — it is easy to overlook since it is part of the culture we have grown up with — and make an extra effort to test the foundations.

I don’t think anything I have said here would be controversial among historians.

Most theologians studying Christian origins appear to assume that the gospel narratives contain at least a very broad outline of historical events. I don’t see that any harm could come from them stepping back and asking how they know that that’s so. Even better, I think if they threw out those silly “criteria of authenticity” (they know they are riddled with logical fallacies and inconsistencies and contradictions) and tested their assumptions along the same lines other historians test theirs when they encounter new documents, then we could see some real progress in the exploration of Christian origins.

And forget that silly question about mythicism. Just follow where the evidence and sound method lead.

 

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)



If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!


39 thoughts on “Interlude: Why I Doubt the Historical Existence of Jesus”

  1. Hi Neil, while I share many of your views, I tend to focus on the “why” of the Gospels which I don’t think you explained. I cannot get past the Roman Catholic organisation and how it has been in virtual control of Christianity for 1500 years. I am skeptical, cynical and suspicious and I openly confess to this. Wealth, power and politics are my guides and I have concluded that, unlike you, it is important whether there was a historical Jesus, because it seems to me that the Bible is almost certainly a fraudulent document, a propaganda tool purporting to be what it is not – God’s word. And there are many in controlling positions within Christianity i.e in the Vatican, who still profit from cultivating believers in the so called God-given power of the ruling clergy.
    .
    To me it would be no more than a coincidence that there was around the time of the Jewish war in 70AD at least one rabbi called Jesus who had a Messianic complex.
    .
    My view on the why of the Gospels still agrees with Jospeh Atwill that the Roman’s put it together as propaganda to support the Flavian emperors and divide Judaism, while I think the majority of other mythicists go with the Jewish renewal view that Judaism had to reinvent itself to cope with the destruction of Jerusalem.
    .
    When believers recognise the dearth of evidence for a historical Jesus they either defensively move into deeper spiritual experience of faith or come face to face with the question “What if Jesus never existed ? ” and how that would impact their values, morals and beliefs.
    .
    Fascinating stuff !

    1. Thanks for the explanation of your view, Peter. One of the difficulties I have with the view you present is that the Bible as we have it does not appear until long after the Flavian emperors and in the meantime Christianity was not welcomed by Rome. Perhaps some of these questions can be revisited another time but feel free to comment further here if you wish. I do very much appreciate your approach of respect for a different view and ability to disagree without being at all disagreeable. Thank you.

    2. Atwill’s thesis is a re-hash of what Bruno Bauer proposed in Christ and the Caesars in 1877; something others have also done to varying degrees. I don’t think it’s plausible because, in a different framing of what Neil has indicated in his reply to your post (ie. ‘the Bible as we have it does not appear until long after the Flavian emperors’), we would have expected to see more literature about Christianity in the late first century c.e. Yet there is none.

      I am not aware of other mythicists’ views that Christianity is the result of concerted Jewish reinvention or renewal.

      The evolution of Christianity is likely to be more passive and over a longer period of time than such proposed concerted actions (and Christianity’s key texts, the key Pauline epistles and the canonical Gospels, and are likely to have been finalised later and over a longer period of time than is traditionally asserted).

  2. One of the most important facts you recognize in this post is that western cultural history has always accepted the claims of the gospels as true, which include claims of supernatural events. The Enlightenment created a problem for the Church, because western culture was now on a path to reject supernatural claims outright. This led to the attempt by religious scholars to pre-empt rationalistic discourse on the subject, and to take a position rejecting the supernatural claims of the gospels, while retaining the central figure as historical. In doing this, they were now at cross-purposes with the authors of the gospel, who had as one of their most important purposes to induce commitment to belief in supernatural events. For me, the gospels go beyond the practice of ancient historians such as Herodotus, who include tall tales in their narratives, because in the gospels, inducing belief in supernatural events is not incidental, but the essential function of the narrative. If virtually all we have for the existence of Jesus is a document whose central purpose is to induce belief in supernatural events, we are on shaky historical ground.

    1. Thomas L. Thompson summed it up in The Mythic Past when he wrote

      Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach. (p.44)

  3. Neil, you are surely sincere in your list of your own reasons to doubt, but sincerely my own doubts derive from the concrete possibility that the Couchoud/Doherty/Carrier “outer space” theory is correct. If the mythicists had limited themselves ONLY to Wells’s mythicism (as you seem to follow), then I would be inclined to support historicity. Note that the majority of the past mythicists would agree with me. It is not only me who is creating this false dichotomy between earthly (=historical) Jesus and a celestial(=mythical) Jesus.

    Note in particular how prof Painchaud (historicist) has found other evidence of an outer space crucifixion even after the Gospels.

    1. Giuseppe, when it comes to our canonical gospels I don’t see any room for debating a celestial versus earthly Jesus. The gospel narratives appear to me to be created out of a midrashic-like reading of Jewish Scriptures and their Jesus is clearly an earthly figure — but at the same time he is an entirely literary-theological construct without any “historicity” to flesh out his character or events in his life at all.

      In other words, in my view of the gospels, the question of a supernatural vs earthly Jesus does not even arise. The gospels are theological tales with theological messages that bear no relation to history except as a rhetorical device.

      I am trying to approach the question by the same historical methods used in any other project and that includes a study of the nature and origins of the source documents. Wells, Doherty, Couchoud have quite different approaches and interests. I don’t think their approaches are invalid; I am simply following a different tack.

      1. Neil,
        I disagree with your denial a priori of “any room for debating a celestial versus earthly Jesus” when it comes to our canonical gospels. There is at least a point, a point that is the culmination of the entire Gospel story, i.e. the trial before Pilate (once removed the various decorative details):

        So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.
        “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.
        “You have said so,” Jesus replied.
        He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

        …where the midrashical source is a polemical source, i.e. the rival Gnostic propaganda found in the ‘untitled text’, where a celestial crucifixion is meant:

        Then, when the seven rulers came, they saw him and were greatly disturbed.

        They went up to him and seized him. And he (viz., the chief ruler) said to the breath within him, “Who are you? And whence did you come hither?”
        It answered and said,
        “I have come from the force of the man for the destruction of your work.”

        When they heard, they glorified him. (On the origin of the world 115,23)

        I think you are able to detect the similarities. Clearly the polemical nature of the midrashical source reveals the intention of the invention of the Gospel episode: Jesus has to be the Jewish Christ because (1) Pilate “say so” and (2) Pilate kills Jesus.
        Before this, I doubt you can still say that our Gospels are a mere reaction against the destruction of the temple. What I see is an excessive insistence that Jesus is the Christ against Gnostic adorers of a Jesus who was not the Christ.

        1. …where the midrashical source is a polemical source, i.e. the rival Gnostic propaganda found in the ‘untitled text’, where a celestial crucifixion is meant

          I don’t understand how you can justify a claim that the Gospel of Mark, say, is some sort of re-writing of a gnostic text. I can think of no rationale for that view that does not involve circular reasoning. Or have I misunderstood you?

          1. I can justify a such claim because I have just described in the post above a specific case of a re-writing of a gnostic text in action. In order to accuse me of circular reasoning, then you should deny that there is a relation of dependence between the two quotes above. Do you deny a such relation, really?

              1. try to read the gnostic text in question. No mention of Jesus there, or at most no mention of a Gospel Jesus and/or gospel cules. Only of a celestial Adam.

                The dependence is necessarily in the other direction.

              2. Necessarily? Sorry, I cannot agree. I know of no evidence that places that gnostic text prior to the Gospel of Mark. The midrashic sources for the Gospel of Mark are clearly enough understood and explained without introducing gnostic texts. One can see the evidence of gnostic writings in dialogue with the proto-orthodox but we have to agree to disagree that the Gospel of Mark contains evidence of drawing on a text like the Origin of the World.

            1. GUI: I find your argument still somewhat interesting. Especially I think that those of us who went to some of the intellectual – ie “spritual metaphor” -churches, heard an awful lot of sermons on Jesus as an invisible, “spiritual” being. Which tried to put God and Jesus firmly away; invisible, in the clouds, or outer space.

              But it takes hearing a few dozen of those “spiritual” sermons, teasing out the somewhat scant Biblical references, to make that stick.

    2. It’s hard to know what you mean when referring to you and others ‘creating [a] false dichotomy between [an] earthy historical Jesus and a celestial mythical Jesus’.

      Reading your posts on BC&H shows you are aware there were various theologies leading up to the gospel accounts of Jesus. And there are various texts and discussions about them that suggest there were notions of various largely celestial beings and entities visiting earth.

    3. I should add, Giuseppe, that I feel as if you are attempting to impose a false dichotomy onto my view. I do not and never have (since Doherty) denied Paul’s view of a celestial Jesus. Nor have I ever been dogmatic about the place of the crucifixion.

      But I don’t think arguments should be decided by counting numbers of heads in a particular group of authors or by not liking the consequences of one view or another. Such appeals do nothing for me. It’s the arguments themselves that we must examine.

      1. Neil,
        I don’t try to persuade you, but I am curious only to know how you would reply against this objection. Thanks in advance for any answer.
        Giuseppe

  4. I also appreciate Peter Grullemans comments above, and add this:

    (1) the idea of a postwar Roman-propaganda model, as opposed to a postwar Jewish renewal view, as explanation for the Gospels (good description), is appealing on many levels; however, with no offense intended toward Atwill, Atwill does not seem to me to have argued the case well at all, has introduced many unconvincing rabbit holes, and to the extent Atwill has branded the Flavian theory as his own has compromised an objective consideration of it. There are better authors to cite to make that case.

    (2) Echoing Neil’s point, whereas the dating of the Gospel of Mark is disputable, Luke/Acts seems certainly post-Flavian in composition, and the Gospel of Mark and the other Gospels may be as well (I think so). The dating of the Gospel of Mark therefore becomes pivotal in any such consideration. The weight of mainstream scholarship has long supported an early-Flavian dating of GMark and there are arguments for that, but in the end there seems to be no final or decisive evidence nailing down that early dating stronger than argument from scenario, as opposed to a later dating of GMark which also has argument in favor of that. But if all of the Gospels are post-Flavian, then they were not Flavian propaganda. They could, however, be Roman propaganda from a post-Flavian era.

    (3) An assessment of Flavian-era Christian textual phenomenae along different lines might be proposed in which the Gospels are excluded (as 2nd CE literary productions) and attention instead refocused on Revelation and the letters of Paul. The letters of Paul are dated pre-First Revolt in mainstream scholarship and I am not aware of a serious published argument for post-First Revolt ca. 70-90s CE era of composition of the letters of Paul, but I may at some point attempt to make and publish that argument (this would be in keeping with my sense that Paul is the historical Apollonius [note the inversion of the usual construction’s wording]). Of course in this assessment of the arguably real Flavian-era texts in the Christian canon there is a gigantic contradiction, in that Revelation is clearly anti-Flavian, whereas the letters of Paul read well as pro-Roman (and Revelation, especially Rev 2-3, reads well as anti-Pauline). Revelation is clearly not pro-Flavian, but both Josephus and Paul may be pro-Flavian and Flavian-sponsored.

    (4) Are there relationships between figures of the First Revolt which appear in Josephus such as Jesus ben Sapphias of Galilee, Philip ben Jacimus, John of Gischala, Simon ben Giora, and Josephus, and similarly-named characters that appear in the guise of “apostles” and other luminary figures in second-century CE Gospels and Acts’ historiography and tales of origin? Cutting through the historicity/mythicism debates, this seems to me to be the questions of interest here.

    1. (4) Are there relationships between figures of the First Revolt which appear in Josephus such as Jesus ben Sapphias of Galilee, Philip ben Jacimus, John of Gischala, Simon ben Giora, and Josephus, and similarly-named characters that appear in the guise of “apostles” and other luminary figures in second-century CE Gospels and Acts’ historiography and tales of origin? Cutting through the historicity/mythicism debates, this seems to me to be the questions of interest here.

      Oh indeed! On reading Josephus these figures hit one like small but regular splashes of cold water but what can one do but dry off and move on? Do share as much as you feel you can at this stage. Even Ted Weeden did not seem to know what to make of the Jesus ben Ananias echoes. My curiosity is rekindled. I must think some more. But the more you can offer to chew on the better.

  5. This is again a good discussion as it covers the means, motives and opportunities for Christianity.
    .
    I think that Clarke puts it well “induce commitment to belief in supernatural events”. It has a ring of fraud and propaganda.
    .
    Neil you make great points that cause me to question my pro-Atwil mythicist view when you say that
    1. the Bible as we have it did not exist til well after the Flavian emperors
    2. Christianity was not welcomed by Rome
    .
    I agree that these two points must be addressed and resolved. My mind is not made up and is subject to further study. I hope you too will benefit from how this pans out with regard to the thesis of the partnership of the Flavians and the elite Jews of their time to concoct the gospels. When I have time I will look into this further, or you may wish to elaborate first on (1) and (2) but it’s your blog and I don’t want to hijack it so perhaps this is an issue for a separate post.

    1. I don’t mind any discussion here following on from your comment. Feel free to add further explanation and see if others are interested in responding.

      Just to add a little to my second point at this stage:

      I’m thinking of Christians facing official sanctions for failing to sacrifice to the emperor’s statue. If Christianity stood opposed to the gods that Rome honoured I find it difficult to understand how Rome could have manufactured the religion in order to pacify the Jews.

      But more than this, I don’t see the evidence for the view that Rome considered Jews unusually historically troublesome and in special need of a different kind of religion. Judaism accommodated itself to Roman rule.

      If Christianity was meant to trick converts into worshiping Vespasian as the messiah, it surely failed. Is there any evidence to inform us that any Christian didn’t think their messiah stood above and over the Roman power and would even overthrow it in the last days?

      Those are some of my thoughts off the cuff at the moment.

      1. Neil I feel very inadequate to assert anything in the company of scholars in this post who obviously have a much better grasp on history. My contributions stem somewhat from growth out of a born again experience at 19 years of age in 1974 but then 10 years later discovering how I had needed the protection of that faith in Christ to help me establish myself morally and intellectually. I have come a long way since then and retain a lot of empathy for Christians. It was not propaganda that drew me into the faith but sincere and zealous preaching of love, acceptance and forgiveness and the joy and bold mission to save the world in a community of like-minded believers. The majority of professing Christians in the world have not had such a dramatic conversion and lapse. In the first century there were all sorts of believers and it’s a bit odd to lump them all together as “Christians”. I prefer the term “messianists” as a general name for those drawn into what we now describe as a committed Christians.
        .
        To your points about
        .
        1. “Christians facing official sanctions” from Rome, these may not have been anything like the Christians we think of in the New Testament. I imagine they were still just Jews, not Christians. They may have been messianists but not followers of the Jesus we know from the NT, who under the mythicist view, did not really exist anyway. My point is that the Gospels may have been written to prevent the Jews from rising up, not Christians.
        .
        2. “tricking converts into worshiping Vespasian” is again not an issue if there were no converts, as they were still just Jews.
        .
        3. evidence that “any Christian didn’t think their messiah stood above and over the Roman power” is addressed in the NT’s largely pro-Roman and anti-Jewish stance.
        .
        This is why I think Joseph Atwil has a credible theory, even though as Gregory Doudna puts it, there are rabbit holes i.e. dead ends with less convincing proofs not as strongly connected to his main thesis. I found that when I read the book Caesar’s Messiah, but I found the YouTube documentary more persuasive with contributions from Robert Eisenman, Rod Blackhirst, Kenneth Humphreys, Timothy Freke, Acharya S., John Hudson.
        .
        Please correct me in my general understanding of how the Jewish / Roman tensions played out.
        .
        I am following up on MrHorse’s point about Bruno Bauer having already posited the “Caesar’s Messiah” theory in the 1870’s . This is intriguing to me and I will look at it, thank you, and try to see if or why it was not widely acclaimed then, and what Atwil may have added to the argument. I found this link which I’m looking at now.
        http://sidneyrigdon.com/vern/1879BaurEng.htm
        .
        To me, underpinning the quest for the historical Jesus, if that is itself not a misnomer, is the treachery, deceit and politics of the Roman empire cum church. Keeping that in mind reinforces my word view and how the birth of Christianity, with a much long gestation period, as MrHorse posits.

        Cheers

        1. Neil I feel very inadequate to assert anything in the company of scholars in this post who obviously have a much better grasp on history. My contributions stem somewhat from growth out of a born again experience at 19 years of age in 1974 but then 10 years later discovering how I had needed the protection of that faith in Christ to help me establish myself morally and intellectually. I have come a long way since then and retain a lot of empathy for Christians. It was not propaganda that drew me into the faith but sincere and zealous preaching of love, acceptance and forgiveness and the joy and bold mission to save the world in a community of like-minded believers. The majority of professing Christians in the world have not had such a dramatic conversion and lapse. In the first century there were all sorts of believers and it’s a bit odd to lump them all together as “Christians”. I prefer the term “messianists” as a general name for those drawn into what we now describe as a committed Christians.

          We are all learning and had to start somewhere. When I first learned about online discussions among scholars where outsiders were permitted to look in and I spent a very long time just reading, watching the exchanges, and picking up books that helped me get a better handle of everything over time — and eventually asking “silly questions” in those discussions. I’ve also been very lucky in having had access to more sources than many other amateurs as a result of my profession and personal circumstances that have allowed me more time to read than many others do. If I can share some of what I find interesting I’m content.

          Yes, as for conversion, the feeling of belonging to a new loving family is a very powerful drawcard. I was fascinated to learn that it’s also a powerful factor in radicalization of those who have become terrorists. Bizarre world.

        2. Neil I’d be interested in your thoughts, or anyone’s, about my comments to your points (1) (2) (3) as this does seem to be a contentious and critical area. It relates also to what some call the myth of Roman persecution e.g. the infamous Nero’s targeting of Christians – were the victims really followers of the NT Jesus or rather messianic Jews whose saviour was someone/something else ?

          1. I am skeptical of any persecution alleged by early Christians, especially when the historicity of the ‘first persecution’ i.e. under Nero, 64–68 CE, hinges on “the preposterous reference to Pontius Pilate’s execution of someone called Christus” (Allen, 2015).

            Ref. Allen, N.P.L. (2015) Clarifying the Scope of Pre-Fifth-Century C.E. Christian Interpolation in Josephus’ Antiquitates Judaicae (c. 94 C.E.). Unpublished Philosophiae Doctor thesis, Potchefstroom: North-West University.

            Cf. Candida Moss (2013). The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-210452-6.

            Cf. Shaw, Brent D. (2015). “The Myth of the Neronian Persecution”. Journal of Roman Studies. 105: 73–100.

          2. Sure:

            1. “Christians facing official sanctions” from Rome, these may not have been anything like the Christians we think of in the New Testament. I imagine they were still just Jews, not Christians. They may have been messianists but not followers of the Jesus we know from the NT, who under the mythicist view, did not really exist anyway. My point is that the Gospels may have been written to prevent the Jews from rising up, not Christians.

            I was not clear on the context to which you were referring when first read this question. But in your new reply I see you are speaking of Nero’s persecutions.

            My response to that is that I do not know of any reliable evidence that Nero ever did “target Christians” or “messianic Jews”. https://vridar.org/2015/12/17/the-myth-of-neros-persecution-of-christians/

            2. “tricking converts into worshiping Vespasian” is again not an issue if there were no converts, as they were still just Jews.

            You might have to explain your perspective here more fully. I am not sure I understand where you are coming from. I don’t understand how anything in the NT can be seen as a tool for “tricking Jews” into “worshiping Vespasian”. If a Roman looked at someone praying to Jesus, would they think, “Ha ha, that person doesn’t realize they are praying to Vespasian!” And would the person supposedly praying to this Vespasian in disguise have any more reason to feel loyalty to Rome because of their worship? Would not they still be praying, “Dear Jesus (secretly Vespasian), come and destroy these wicked Romans quickly!” How does this Jesus being a cipher for Vespasian make them any more loyal as subjects?

            3. evidence that “any Christian didn’t think their messiah stood above and over the Roman power” is addressed in the NT’s largely pro-Roman and anti-Jewish stance.

            I wonder if interpretations of the NT “pro-Roman and anti-Jewish” perspective are exaggerations and very often a view that is read into the texts.

            Certainly Christianity became more anti-Jewish over time, but I don’t see evidence for these biases in the Gospel of Mark. I understand that some of the statements that sound to us like a blanket condemnation of Jews were common expressions used among Jews themselves to describe their theological opponents. Those of the truth were the “true Jews” and their opponents were “Jews falsely so-called.”

            Many scholars attempt to interpret many things in the gospels as signs of fear of the Roman power. Rather than being pro-Roman, it may be easier to read some of the NT as “fear of Rome”.

            The Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Mark is for all nations and that involves both Romans and Jews being guilty before God and in need of salvation. When the Jews hand Jesus over to the ruling Gentile power then both become equally guilty before God, both stand condemned and in need of salvation.

  6. Neil,
    Note that:
    1) the historicist Canadian prof Painchaud recognizes the existence of that midrashical dependence
    2) but he says that Origin if World is based on Mark and not viceversa.

    Frankly, the idea that a Gnostic author replaced “Jesus before Pilate” with the “celestial Adam before 7 Archontes”, preserving the same sequence: question —> answer —-> crucifixion, is totally beyond of me.

    At most, I may concede you that the two texts share a source in common. But, obviously, that source talked VERY PROBABLY still about a celestial context (== it was more similar, in content, to Origin if World than to Mark), not about “Pilate”.

  7. Hi Neil,

    I basically agree with you on the Gospels, but I think you tend to sell the Greek historians short. Herodotos above all. Not just in this post, but in your other posts on the topic as well. At best, this may not be strategically wise.

    For example, you tend to present the revisionist case against Herodotos and then just conclude that this case is justified. Like in this post. That way a simplistic dichotomy is created between “astute” modern scholars and hopelessly naïve, backwards positivists from bygone days. You fail to mention, and even more so to discuss, the recent critique of the revisionist case here. Revisionism against Herodotos, for example, has come under heavy fire the last 30 years. And this by the top players in the field who can’t be palmed off as a bunch of benighted reactionaries (Hornblower, Rhodes et al.). Even an “old-timer” like Pritchett scores some good points against Fehling, West et al. The considered opinion today in the field seems to be that the revisionist case against Herodotos failed and that he isn’t just prima facie, but widely de facto reliable as a historian. Especially about historical events in his living past. And note: This considered opinion has been reached by following the basic rules of historiography and evidence-based reasoning itself. (The case against Thoukydides’ reliability is actually much stronger here, but that is a topic for another conversation.)

    What I’m getting at is that it may not be wise to hitch the case against the historicity of Jesus to a case that has already been tried in the relevant field and found basically wanting. As I said, revisionism in the case of Greek historians like Herodotos is controversial, and this not just because it goes against the prevailing wisdom or is avant-garde either. That revisionism is wrong here is arguably a considered opinion that has been reached after due consideration, using ordinary historiographical criteria and evidence-based reasoning. That’s not the case with Jesus at all. Here all doubts about historicity are arguably rejected off-hand, i.e. dogmatically and without due consideration. Historicity here isn’t a considered opinion, therefore, because one basically refuses to try the case using ordinary historiographical criteria or evidence-based reasoning. Here we do have good grounds for being genuinely skeptical about the portrayal of putative people and events in the gospel-writers recent past.

    I’m not telling you what to believe obviously. I’m just making you aware how it might come across to professional ancient historians and die-hard believers in Jesus’ historicity alike. At least I would include the proper qualifiers to show how the case against Herodotos and the gospel writers are different too.

    1. Do please do cite works you think I should read if you think I am way out of date. (I am aware of corrections and criticisms of Fehling’s work.)

      I am surprised you think I rest my case on Herodotus, however. I could have chosen other examples — even Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens.

      But I look forward to a core list of historians whose works that would change my perspective.

      1. I have already given you a select list of main players who have criticized the so-called Liar School of Herodotos. All of these have published their works in the last 30 years, and these works are easily accessible.

        As I said, my point is not to prove to you that Herodotos wasn’t unreliable, or even to change your mind necessarily. Rather it’s to report how your take on Greek historians might come across to the relevant experts in the field themselves and to avoid the impression of one-sidedness in your presentation of Greek historians.

        As I also said, Thoukydides would make a much better candidate, but even here one has to be careful about presenting and weighing the pros and the cons. Take the plague. The presence of literary tropes do lesson prima facie reliability, it’s true, but the mere presence of a literary trope or intertextuality by itself isn’t enough by itself to clinch the case against Thoukydides’ de facto reliability here. (See e.g. Rhodes’ “In Defence of the Greek Historians.”). Woodman’s portrayal deserves consideration for sure, but it’s is hardly a knock-down, drag-out argument against the historicity of the plague itself. There’s a case to be made for historicity here too and this ought to be presented and/or the extra-textual evidence for and against named and weighed at least. Woodman doesn’t really do this, which makes his account insufficient and ex parte in the end. (For the record, I’m inclined to think he has a good case here and that there are even stronger examples in Thoukydides where his de facto unreliability is beyond any real doubt.)

        All this stands in stark contrast to the gospel writers. Here there are neither good prima facie nor de facto reasons to think that any of the main events happened or that the main character even existed. They show no real awareness of the historiographical method or even a rudimentary concern for getting at the truth through evidence-based reasoning.

        In other words, to use Greek historians to undercut the historicity of the Gospels has both very limited evidential and strategic value.

        1. Thanks for your concern. Unfortunately I am not as familiar with all the secondary sources as you are so I am not clear on where the problem is that you see in my portrayal of Herodotus. I am aware that some scholars who have responded critically to Fehling have offered alternative explanations for Herodotus’s motives and rationales, but in my limited reading (including a Brill chapter by Hornblower and the article by Rhodes you cite) I was not aware that anyone was calling for some sort of “return” to a naive acceptance of the historicity of what Herodotus said.

          But yes, I do agree that the gospels are not in the same league as Greek histories no matter what we think of them. At the time I wrote the above post (I copied it from one I wrote a few years back) I was probably thinking of those New Testament scholars who do certainly come across as the “hopelessly naive hopelessly naïve, backwards positivists from bygone days” when they seek to declare that the gospels should be read with the same credibility as we read other ancient historians.

          Agreed, it goes without saying that a literary trope does not of itself establish fiction, but if all we have are literary tropes then that’s all we have — and we are left without any way to decide (apart from speculation) on underlying historicity, exactly as with the gospels. That’s why the most fundamental principle is the need for independent corroboration of some kind. And as Moses Finley pointed out, that leaves us with no grounds for confidence in so much of what we read in ancient historical works.

          I agree with the point that by working with all the usual qualifications we actually have more grounds for believing an uncorroborated report by a Greek historian than we have for accepting a statement in the gospels because knowing something of the authorship and provenance of a text gives us a guiding handle where these are lacking in the case of the gospels. But there is more to the content of the gospels that cries out warnings of fabrication. (I think we both agree here.)

          Still, I take your warnings to heart and will check again the scholarship and if necessary add more qualifications to references to Greek historians. I find I am doing that all the time with much else that I have written.

        2. It’s been a while since I’ve been reading about the ancient Greek historians and no doubt some of my views were influenced through personal correspondence with some of the classicists whose works I have addressed. I take your comments as a springboard to refresh my past reading and to extend it further.

  8. Neither Hornblower nor Rhodes are “calling for some “return” to the naïve acceptance of the historicity of what Herodotos said.” That would be impossible anyway, seeing as Herodotos’ historicity has never been naively accepted but has always been in question! Fehling is only building on hit pieces from people like Ploutarkh here. The naïve acceptance of historicity that you speak of has been more a problem with Thoukydides, not Herodotos.

    Anyway, the scholarship of the last 30 years is trying to take the newer literary approach seriously without giving up a real concern for evidence and truth. In other words, they’re trying to steer a middle way between the naïve positivism of the past of people like Gomme on the one hand and the hyper-critical readings of more recent times by people like Fehling, Greenwood, et al. on the other. If the former tends to accept the claims of Greek historians at face value, it can certainly be said say that the concern for objective truth and external reality tends to go missing altogether in the latter approach. Above all, Hornblower is taking a more moderate course in his commentaries on Thoukydides and his other works on Herodotos and Greek historiography in general. But even a more traditionalist like Pritchett is answering Fehling et al. on a case-by-case basis, using evidence-based reasoning.

    As a philosopher with a keen interest in epistemology and philosophy of science and a formal education in history, I find this process highly fascinating. Like philosophy itself (Hilary Putnam et al.), the study of ancient history is in the process of moving on from both old-fashioned positivism and the more recent fashion of post-modernism of the late 80s and the 90s. I’m not saying Woodman has become old-fashioned obviously. Or that literary readings was just a fad per se. I find Virginia Hunter’s research above all both rigorous in its own right and highly damaging to Thoukydides’ overall reliability as a historian. But they’re still literary readings though and so aren’t really able to settle the historicity-question on their own. Only a careful gauging of the plausibility of the event itself, the “thickness” of the literary or intertextual context in which it’s embedded, and a thorough sifting of the extra-textual evidence can do that.

    So take the plague again. Let me play the devil’s advocate here: Plagues are natural phenomena that have happened many times throughout human history, right? So it isn’t highly unlikely it actually happened here either then. And when we also consider they’re especially likely to happen when a lot of people are crammed together in a tight place over a longer period of time (etc.), and that this was the case in Athens during the first years of the Peloponnesian War because of Perikles’ war-strategy? Well, then it’s even likelier. Now, you might say that plague is a literary motif in Greek literature from Homeros onwards. Why would Thoukydides choose to include it in his history though? Just think about it: That’s way too risky a move, given plague is widely seen as a form of punishment from the gods for the leader’s hubris at this time (e.g. Apollo punishing Agamemnon and the Akhaians for his treatment of Khryses). In the mind of most of Thoukydides’ contemporaries then, that would only mean Perikles by default was a bad leader who was rightly punished for his hubris! He himself is clearly sold on the totally inverse view though: For him, Perikles was a great leader and Athens only got herself into trouble after his death and because they ditched his war-strategy (2.65 passim). The Greeks loved a good challenge for sure, but to include the plague as a mere literary motif in this way seems not just risky but foolish. If it was just a literary motif, why not put it to better use in the last Sicilian campaign, say, thereby acting as a support for his overall thesis about the evils of post-Periklean Athens? What’s going on here?

    One likely possibility, the likeliest possibility in fact, is that the plague did happen and that Thoukydides is writing his history in large part to try to reverse the common wisdom about Perikles and the war. He himself admits writing revisionist history (T 1.23; cf. Kagan). Now, obviously the plague would have been too well-known throughout the Greek world for him simply to omit it from his history. He can’t really hope to change his contemporaries’ mind of the plague as a divine punishment for the leader’s hubris either. So what does he do? He includes it, but claims he’s writing for future readers instead (T 1.22). In other words, he’s behaving more as a biased reporter than as a fiction writer here: Suppressing “bad” information when that’s possible and engaging in evidence-spinning when it isn’t (see e.g. Badian). It’s the explanation that makes most sense.

    It explains why he keeps schtum about the actual charges against Perikles in 2.65, for example. Or why he’s so hostile even to talking about the religious, to the point of making 5th century events much less understandable that way (cf. Hornblower, Badian). Or why he’s so insistent and black-and-white in his authorial judgments about Periklean vs. Post-Periklean Athens and why, frankly, these judgments are so poorly motivated in hos own narrative (T 2.54; cf. Hunter, Luginbill et al.) We have no real basis in the text itself for his claim that Perikles was a great leader, for example. Why? Because he’s pretty much scrubbed his own narrative of Perikles’ greatest political and imperial achievements in the late 60s and the 50s! (see e.g. Aristotle’s “Constitution of Athens;” cf. Davies, Azoulay’s “Pericles of Athens”). His value-judgment of post-Periklean leaders like Kleon is infamously biased and even more poorly motivated in the text itself again (as pointed out by Grote onwards). The list goes on.

    Again, that the plague really happened is the most likely scenario here: Not just because it’s likely as such, but also because it makes the most sense of the text itself. That Perikles was widely seen a bad leader at this point is clear not just from passages in Aristophanes but also from quotes from his other contemporaries in Ploutarkh’s Life of Perikles (cf. Knight, Luginbill). As I said, Thoukydides himself gives indirect evidence of Perikles’ unpopularity at this point (2.65). That Perikles was a highly flawed leader was also a widely-held view after him too the way, as the quote from Epiphoros in Diodoros shows. All this begs the question: If open criticism of Perikles was the rule from his own time forward, why on earth would Thoukydides need to come up with a much more muted, indirect criticism? It doesn’t make sense. There’s simply no need for more esoteric theories about his oblique or hidden criticism of Perikles here (pace Taylor, Monoson & Loriaux et al.)

    Again, all this in stark contrast to the gospel-writers. Even in a writer so arguably ex parte and biased as Thoukydides, we see, there’s room for belief in historicity and for separating the wheat from the chaff. In the gospel-writers though this isn’t doable at all because all we have is chaff. Here we’re faced with a main character who’s supernatural through and through and with a plot and main events that aren’t just unbelievable, but absurd and downright laughable right off the bat. We can’t imagine ever discovering the kind of evidence needed to justify belief in historicity here either. Finally, the gospel-writers themselves don’t make a pretense at writing serious history or caring about evidence-based reasoning. They don’t even qualify as biased reporters—here it’s fiction writing all the way down.

    Which is why comparing them to Greek historians won’t really work. New Testament studies have and will never reach the stage or sophistication that classical studies are now in the process of reaching.

    1. But they’re still literary readings though and so aren’t really able to settle the historicity-question on their own. Only a careful gauging of the plausibility of the event itself, the “thickness” of the literary or intertextual context in which it’s embedded, and a thorough sifting of the extra-textual evidence can do that.

      I have problems with this approach. Can plausibility really be the determining factor for assessing the probability of a historical event? This question probably requires a discussion in its own right.

      On your method of reading Thucydides for purposes of historical investigation, unless I am mistaken I don’t believe I ever argued that the plague itself was a fictional event. A quick word search took me to the following statement I made in one discussion:

      This post does not argue that there was no plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War — although see the side box for the status of the evidence for its historicity.

      I am not sure I understand the rationales for all of your assumptions in your reasoning. I may well be persuaded they are justified on further discussion, but till then, the question I have is this: Is it necessarily “better” to strive for what might be interpreted as a “middle position” when looking at what are interpreted as two “extremes”?

      Your reasoning about Thucydides is all very plausible for certain questions, but to use it as a basis for establishing the probability of a particular “fact” strikes me as problematic for a number of reasons. The method reminds me to some extent of the way many historical Jesus scholars reason about the gospels in their “quest for the historical Jesus” which I find problematic.**

      Which is why comparing them to Greek historians won’t really work. New Testament studies have and will never reach the stage or sophistication that classical studies are now in the process of reaching.

      I think I have posted several times making the same point. It is certain biblical scholars who attempt to compare the gospels with ancient historians.

      I don’t believe I was comparing the gospels with Greek historians in the above post (though I have only skimmed it since writing it some time ago), but I did refer to Greek historians to illustrate a point of critical thinking about sources. I could have used any number of other examples but chose that one because of the point I made in the previous paragraph.


      ** added post posting…..

      It is another instance of applying “the criterion of embarrassment”.

  9. Hi again, Neil,

    I’ve been busy finalizing my monograph on the reliability of Greek historians, so I haven’t had time to answer before now.

    Anyway, your responses to my friendly criticism leave me a bit mystified. I assume you’ve read my «Why Jesus Most Probably Never Existed» too, given that you yourself have discussed it on this site. Quite frankly, I’m not quite sure what you’re actually arguing against here.

    So you begin by quoting me saying that the plausibility of an event is not enough to determine its historicity and then you go on right away to say I claim that it is! Now, the most reasonable interpretation based on the natural wording of the quote itself here is that plausibility is a necessary but not sufficient criterion of historicity. Also, I’m clearly indicating that a literary approach is needed too («the “thickness” of the literary or intertextual context in which it’s embedded»), but that it has to be supplemented by a reasonability-based and evidential approach. You say you have problems with the approach I lay out here. (I’ve elsewhere clearly said the author’s prima facie reliability is relevant too (us knowing who he is and him showing a basic commitment to the historiographical method and ordinary evidence-based reasoning.) My question to you then, is: What other approaches can there possibly be for establishing the historicity of a person or event?

    Also, you blame me for claiming you argued the plague was a fictional event though I claim no such thing or even imply it anywhere as far as I can see. What I did claim was that the literary approach is not enough to settle the historicity-question by itself, something you yourself agree to given your reference to independent corroboration as «the most fundamental principle»! Not just that: I actually stress that Woodman «has a good case» and that I’m only playing the devil’s advocate here («Let me play the devil’s advocate here»). So again, I’m mystified.

    As to where I’m supposed to have claimed it is “necessarily” better to strive for a middle position, I’ve searched in vain. Why on earth would I want to argue for such a strongly metaphysical and an openly ridiculous claim? You’re not worried about making things a bit too easy on yourself here? Yet again, what I have argued is for the need to steer a middle course between naïve belief in the historicity of the claims of an author about the past and a purely literary approach where truth and evidence tends to go missing altogether. Again, you yourself have indicated you’re in favor of a middle way here (both by your remarks about naïve acceptance of historicity and the fundamental principle). Yet again, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to be arguing over here.

    Now, on to potentially more interesting disagreements. I say “potentially” because though I suspect they’re actual disagreements, I don’t want to prejudge.

    (1) Your tendency to want to assimilate Greek historians to the Gospel writers. Am I right that you think the plague in Thoukydides basically and/or ultimately has the same epistemic status as key events and/or people in the Gospels? It certainly looks like that’s what you’re thinking, given what you say about literary tropes being all we have and this being «exactly as with the [G]ospels.» If so: That’s just plain wrong. Plagues are natural events that we meet up with in our ordinary human experience. People performing miracles, say, or rising from the dead, aren’t. The former category isn’t only not a purely literary trope, they’re also way more probable qua events than the latter category. If that’s indeed the case, then I’m genuinely surprised you would even think so. Add to this the fact that the Gospel writers, unlike the Greek historians, don’t even identify themselves or show a basic commitment to the historiographical method or to ordinary evidence-based reasoning either. To assimilate Greek historians to the Gospel writers isn’t justified then—not even as literary genres!

    (2) You overplaying decidability and coming across as positivist thereby. Yes, decisive evidence (independent corroboration by reliable witnesses and/or conclusive physical evidence) is needed to finally settle the historicity-question. Yes, we don’t have decisive evidence the plague in Athens actually happened. But not having decisive evidence for claims about the past doesn’t mean they’re all on par in terms of likelihood, much less that they’re purely speculative. There are many of our beliefs about events or people in the past that we have no decisive evidence for actually. They’re still likely to have happened or existed though. Again, plagues aren’t purely literary tropes and are inherently way likelier too than supernatural miracles or risings-from-the-dead. Circumstantial evidence would count here towards separating them as truth-claims as well.

    In the case of the plague, we do have physical evidence too, even though it’s disputed. Thoukydides’ description of the plague is problematic in places, yes, but not problematic enough for archaeologists and epidemiologists to have disregarded them completely and not bothered looking for physical evidence for it. You don’t even mention this, which is what I’m not talking about when I mention coming across as one-sided. It isn’t like we have absolutely no evidence for the plague. Finally, as I said, we can easily envision new evidence coming to light that would settle the issue conclusively.

    In the case of Jesus and him performing miracles or rising from the dead though, we have nothing. No valid disputed physical evidence. No valid circumstantial evidence. The character and his acts are inherently almost infinitely unlikely to boot. We can’t even imagine conclusive evidence ever coming to light here. To compare a person like Perikles or an event like the plague in Thoukydides with the Jesus and his miracles and resurrection of the Gospels is fundamentally wrong-headed. In the former case historicity is partly disputed, in the latter case there’s simply no historicity to be had!

    Maybe we’re mostly just talking past each other here. I do think you tend to sell the Greek historians short and overplay the similarities between them and the Gospel writers though. Again, my real concern here isn’t about how things are or turn out to be but how they might come across now.

    1. Hi Narve, I certainly don’t mean to come across as hostile or aggressive in my comments. If I have misunderstood you then I have misunderstood you, no more.

      Have I really “tried to assimilate Greek historians to Gospel writers”? Sorry, I still don’t understand how I have done that or even appeared to have done that. (I am sure that I have often posted how unlike each other the two types of sources are.)

      But given that the boundaries of ancient genres were more fluid than we generally like to think of the boundaries between genres today, it is not out of place to notice a poetic trope appearing in different types of work — histories and gospels — and for identifying it for what it is, a poetic trope. It surely raises interesting questions about ancient writings when we see our “facts” wrapped up in literary tropes to the extent they sometimes are. (I am trying to be careful not to say more than I mean here because even today, of course, we will read words from fiction applied to discussions of contemporary events: e.g. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”)

      I don’t see the question of the “likelihood” of the historicity of a plague in Athens having relevance to the discussion I have been focusing on.

      In a post I generally focus on just one part of a larger point, and as a rule I try to point out that that’s what I’m doing in one way or another. As I recall, and I might be wrong here, I think when I compare ancient historical writing with the gospels it is in response to biblical scholars.

      Have I really misleadingly elided Greek works of history with the gospels in this post? If so, then I will need to add some clarification, but at present I am unable to see it. Sorry — I don’t mean to come across as thick…. 🙁

  10. Hello Neil,

    I fully agree with your opinions in regards to the need to carefully evaluate historic sources, and I would like to share with you an idea that I encountered during my own research. What if ancient writers employed allusions to provide the proper context needed to fully understand what they had written?

    For example, in Revelation 13:3 there is this:

    “One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast.”

    And in Josephus’ Wars of the Jews we are presented with this:

    In the mean time, Josephus, as he was going round the city, had his head wounded by a stone that was thrown at him; upon which he fell down as giddy. Upon which fall of his the Jews made a sally, and he had been hurried away into the city, if Caesar had not sent men to protect him immediately; and as these men were fighting, Josephus was taken up, though he heard little of what was done. So the seditious supposed they had now slain that man whom they were the most desirous of killing, and made thereupon a great noise, in way of rejoicing. This accident was told in the city, and the multitude that remained became very disconsolate at the news, as being persuaded that he was really dead, on whose account alone they could venture to desert to the Romans. But when Josephus’s mother heard in prison that her son was dead, she said to those that watched about her, That she had always been of opinion, since the siege of Jotapata, [that he would be slain,] and she should never enjoy him alive any more. She also made great lamentation privately to the maid‐servants that were about her, and said, That this was all the advantage she had of bringing so extraordinary a person as this son into the world; that she should not be able even to bury that son of hers, by whom she expected to have been buried herself. However, this false report did not put his mother to pain, nor afford merriment to the robbers, long; for Josephus soon recovered of his wound, and came out, and cried out aloud, That it would not be long ere they should be punished for this wound they had given him. He also made a fresh exhortation to the people to come out upon the security that would be given them. This sight of Josephus encouraged the people greatly, and brought a great consternation upon the seditious. (Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, Book 5, Chapter 13, paragraph 3.)

    Obviously, without the proper context, the Book of Revelation can be interpreted many ways, but if a person KNOWS that the “beast” represents the Roman army (accompanied by Josephus), then interpretation becomes much easier.

    Here is another example. In 1:Corinthians 15:5-6 in which the Apostle Paul refers to “five hundred” mysterious “witnesses” to Christ’s resurrection:

    “5…and that he (resurrected Christ) appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred…”

    And in Clement of Rome’s letter, also the the Corinthians, there is this:

    “…There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years.” (First Clement 25)

    So, the ideas of “Corinthians”, “five hundred” and a “resurrection” are found in both letters which represents either a remarkable “coincidence” or a deliberate allusion. I am aware that there is a general consensus among historians that Paul’s letter predates Clement’s and therefore Paul could not have alluded to it, however, it could easily be the other way around with Clement alluding to Paul’s reference. Clement may have felt this was necessary to give credence to a pagan invention because many of Paul’s more “enlightened” readers were failing to recognize Paul’s allusion to some earlier account of the Phoenix (Herodotus?).

    And one last example. I am sure that you are familiar with Mark 4:10-12 which reads:

    “When he (Jesus) was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He  told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside  everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” 

    But have you ever seen this from Plato’s Theaetetus?:

    “In the name of the Graces, what an almighty wise man Protagoras must have been! He spoke these  things in a parable to the common herd, like you and me, but told the truth, his Truth, in secret to his own disciples.” 

    This is a remarkable “parallel”, but if is also intended as an allusion, then what are we to think? Protagoras was a Sophist and the Gospel accounts were actually written during a period known as the “Second Sophistic”. Furthermore, in Plato’s Protagoras, Protagoras describes his fellow Sophists this way:

    “Now the art of the Sophist is, as I believe, of great antiquity; but in ancient times those who practiced it, fearing this odium, veiled and disguised themselves under various names, some under that of poets, as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides, some, of hierophants and prophets, as Orpheus and Musaeus, and  some, as I observe, even under the name of gymnastic‐masters, like Iccus of Tarentum, or the more recently celebrated Herodicus, now of Selymbria and formerly of Megara, who is a first‐rate Sophist.  Your own Agathocles pretended to be a musician, but was really an eminent Sophist; also Pythocleides recently the Cean; and there were many others; and all of them, as I was saying, adopted these arts as veils or  disguises because they were afraid of the odium which they would incur.” 

    If Homer and Hesiod were actually Sophists, then why not the Gospel authors? Also, look at the very nature of Christianity. It’s founders claim a Jewish origin, but there is very little in the actual practice and beliefs of Christianity that are in agreement with Judaism. In other words, Christianity could be viewed as employing Judaism as a “veil” for something else.

    I have more examples if you are interested.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.