Responses to some points made in a larger argument for the historicity of Jesus, Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion (I posted then soon deleted much of what follows about three weeks ago. My initial post was couched in a misunderstanding about the background to the original post.) I did return to the original site to continue discussion there but when I saw that commenters there are entitled to use insults on the apparent condition that they somehow “justify” them, I decided to have nothing to do with any discussion there.
Josephus and Tacitus say
So here we go. I link to posts where I have set out more detailed arguments for those interested in following up a particular thread:
Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed, . . .
Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate.
In a very loose way of speaking these statements are true. We do read those statements in our widely published texts of Josephus and Tacitus. However, each one is justified in the scholarly literature of which I am aware only by special pleading. Even though everything we know about ancient copying of texts and manuscript transmission warns us against being too ready to accept their contents at face value, scholars with a particular interest in arguing for the historicity of Jesus sometimes dismiss the serious arguments against the authenticity of key contents relating to Christianity. Often we read among works arguing for the historicity of Jesus that the reason Josephus did not mention “messiahs” of his day was that he did not want to upset his Roman audience who supposedly had sore memories of fighting a war supposedly inspired by Jewish messianism. Yet when it comes to finding the word for “messiah” (“Christ”) in Josephus relating to Jesus, suddenly there is no problem with Josephus breaking his supposed rule about not mentioning the word. That one place the word Christ appears is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation, and the second place it is clearly seen to be part of very awkward syntax, does not deter the “believers”. Contrary to what we would expect to find in the record if Josephus had said there was a Jesus known as the Christ “historicists” insist that Josephus must have said something like that anyway. That the second occurrence of the word — that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed — conforms to everything the manuals of textual criticism tell us about scribal glosses makes no difference. Suddenly the instructions in such standard texts are forgotten.
As for the Tacitus reference, see The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians
Contortions to Hide a Birth in Nazareth?
Here is another point commonly used to argue for some historicity behind the gospels:
Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seemto be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.
Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all?
The first sentence is actually a conclusion that arises from circular reasoning. An interpretation is imposed on selected passages in the gospels and those sections that doe not fit are interpreted as a problem for the evangelist, not for the modern interpreter. How does the scholar know “what the evangelist is trying to tell us”? By setting aside a passage that they believe does not fit their theory. That is, by selecting only those details in the gospel that support the scholar’s theory and declaring the left-over bits as problems — not for the scholar — but for the evangelist.
But we know from countless instances in the ancient records, including the gospels, that if an author found something “embarrassing” or that did not fit a theological agenda, then the solution was simple: leave it out — no matter how well known it was. A classic instance of that is in the Gospel of John. That fourth gospel does not admit or hint that John baptized Jesus. Yet two other gospels clearly said he did; and a third hinted at it, omitting only that it was John himself who did the baptizing of Jesus.
The argument is sometimes called an appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment”. Yet the argument here assumes the historicity of Jesus as its premise. Why is a detail in the gospels a supposed embarrassment to the evangelist? Because we assume the evangelist is writing about not only a historical Jesus but about a Jesus who was also born at Nazareth, and that everyone knew this (even though Nazareth was supposedly so insignificant it would not be widely known at all), and so forth.
But if we make no assumptions at all about the gospel’s narrative having derived ultimately from historical events, then we have a perfectly seamless story with the Bethlehem-Nazareth scenarios posing no difficulties — for either the evangelist or modern reader — at all. It is well known that the title given Jesus of “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” does not derive from the place name of Nazareth (that would mean Jesus was known as “Jesus the Nazarethite”) but was related to an early name for a Christian sect. It is also evident that in the Gospel of Matthew we read a very tortured justification for linking this title to the town of Nazareth. The simplest explanation for the first Bethlehem-Nazareth story is that an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect.
There are other reasons for questioning whether a historical person of any status would ever have been known as “So-and-so of Nazareth”. There would be no point of saying someone was from a place so insignificant few would ever have heard of. Besides, does anyone know of any other case where a religious leader is known by some nondescript suburb or rural town? No, they are known by some label that identifies their teaching or sect. Furthermore, those who have taken the trouble to read either of Rene Salm’s book on the scholarly literature about the archaeology of Nazareth knows that there are good grounds for thinking that Nazareth was not repopulated in Roman times until the latter half of the first century. (Tim O’Neill’s objections are careless misrepresentations).
Even IF Jesus had been known by a reference to a place that most people had never heard of it makes absolutely no sense that his followers would be called by the same epithet. Yet we know that in some quarters early Christians were called “Nazarenes” or “Nazirs”. (I understand the Muslim culture still calls them by such a term.)
Why would anyone….!
Here is a clutch of the more common claims made for the historicity of Jesus — expressed as rhetorical questions:
Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include thee mbarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?
Some regular Vridar readers will be familiar with the following warning:
I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 178)
Rhetorical questions are too often substitutes for reasoned conclusions. They can convey the message, “My conclusion is surely so obvious that it needs no further justification.”
If one is not familiar with the breadth of scholarly literature on the questions raised then one might well feel that “the conclusions are obvious”. No contrary argument would be reasonable, it would seem. Continue reading ““Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited”