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.
Not the Christian message
I’ll take each one in turn:
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?
Scholars who argue like this come across to me as playing mind-games with audiences and trying to make them doubt their own senses.
That — a crucified criminal who failed — was not the Christian message. The Christian message was about an innocent man (not a criminal, falsely associated with criminality) only “appearing” to fail (but in fact succeeding to “the wise” who understand) and by his overcoming death, he overcomes all evil powers and is destined to crush all earthly enemies, too. That was the Christian message and its appeal is surely obvious. The message was that the cross was a victory, not a defeat. The message inevitably has an appeal to those who feel down-and-out, persecuted, mistreated. It’s a message that gives those people hope and liberation within their new society.
Why involve the Romans at all?
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?
Again, we return to the mind-reading argument that basis its conclusion on only those details that support the conclusion. The Gospel of Mark evidently portrayed Jesus as the messenger to Jews and gentiles alike so it stands to reason that both Jews and Romans were to be made responsible for his death.
How do we know that the evangelists wanted to “put as much blame on the Jews as possible and to gloss over the Romans’ role”? Again, though circular reasoning and discarding or re-interpreting evidence that does not support our conclusion.
For or against the Pharisees?
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?
The answer is spelled out in the first gospel:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. — Matthew 23:1-3
Again, why assume such a mind-reading conclusion about the evangelists? There is no reason to conclude that any of the evangelists sought to portray Jesus as an enemy of any political or religious group per se. We are reading dramatic and theological narratives. Read them for what they are, not what we imagine to have been going on that is nowhere to be found in our sources. As I have posted recently, it is necessary for a historian to first analyse our sources for what they are, the sort of literature they are, and not to bypass such a process as so much unnecessary fluff and dig in “beneath and behind” the sources to an entirely imagined scenario.
(From another conversation with the author — Dr Sarah — I seem to recall she has been influenced by Hyam Maccoby. Maccoby’s views are, shall we say, somewhat controversial. That’s fine, but it is not useful to bandy them about as facts.)
Some days the force was not with him?
Why did they include the embarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?
The narrative itself explains why. The gospels are creating a character from the details in the Jewish Scriptures that instruct the faithful in how prophets are always treated. When we see a character that is like other characters in the same literary tradition performing miracles when the plot makes them necessary and failing to do so when the message of the narrative calls for it then we can fairly suspect we are reading another character created from that same literary tradition.
Again, the question begs the question — assumes a historical Jesus as its premise. The question was raised and fairly comprehensively addressed in William Wrede’s Messianic Secret. (Even some scholars appear not to have read Wrede’s work carefully and sometimes show they have failed to grasp his argument when they protest “there was no messianic secret because look at verse xxx”.)
No way they would have done what they did
And thirdly, above all; there is absolutely no way anyone of that time would have thought that inventing a character who was supposed to be the Messiah but had been executed by the Romans would have worked well to sell their religion.
We have covered part of this argument above. “Absolutely no way,” tells us that no doubts can be legitimately held. Yet scholars surely know that in their field there are other scholars who seriously have written much about how Jews came to imagine such a messianic figure. Clearly, Jews did imagine a messiah who was executed by the Romans. I am not aware that there is evidence for unusually rapid growth of the religion, but we can read many scholarly works that do explain why Christianity did have appeal to many.
If we begin with the assumption of a historical Jesus, then we have to grant that they did do just that.
But there are numerous scholarly works discussing the origins of the Christian message that make it very clear that there was indeed an evolving belief in a suffering and eventually slain messiah whose death atoned for the sins of all Jews, and later gentiles, too. See, for example, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son and Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs (among numerous posts on these topics).
Examples: the earliest surviving Christian art places great emphasis on a blessed life after death; there is little to no interest in the crucifixion for some reason. Christianity appealed to the highest Roman values, too. Other scholars have demonstrated the evolution of messianic ideas through Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, Isaac’s binding, Daniel’s Son of Man who represents the martyred and victorious Maccabees, and so forth. We have posted many times about these studies here. Studies of religious movements demonstrate over and over that those doctrines that invert the experiences of failure or suffering into success and power are not uncommon and certainly not without appeal; one might even say they are a necessity for a successful religious movement. Jesus has been portrayed with different types of emphasis throughout the ages according to the needs of the time.
Messiahs everywhere except where they are mentioned
Another instance of interpretation of the sources presented as source-facts:
. . . . this page is about military expectations of the Messiah around Jesus’s time, this is an extremely famous rabbi’s list of Messianic expectations, still considered the main go-to list to this day, which clearly includes the expectation that the Messiah will be a militaryleader, and this page is about one failed Messiah who had a substantial following amongst Jews who were quite happy with his military approach. (https://www.livius.org/articles/religion/messiah/messiah-2-military-leader/) (https://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/articles/maimonides-laws-pertaining-messiah/) (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-bar-kochba-revolt/)
If a scholar is presenting a majority interpretation then the best way to present it to lay audiences is to make clear that it is an interpretation. Some scholars have published doubts that such figures really were considered messianic hopefuls. The messianic connotations are read into them by modern scholars; they are not there in the sources. Again, we are confronted with the indoctrination of a majority opinion and not the factual information itself. It is not difficult for a scholar to say that “even though the sources do not themselves speak of messianic pretenders, most of us believe they were seen as messiahs even though a few of us disagree”.
For some detail on the way texts that don’t mention “messiah” tend to be privileged for interpretations about a “messiah” over those that do use the term: Myth of popular messianic expectations at the time of Jesus
They all called him Messiah?
Jesus had crowds of Jews calling him Messiah, which meant they thought of him as the king who’d kick out their oppressors (i.e. the Romans) and become their new ruler.
Here we read another interpretation of the gospels as if the opinion of a scholar is a fact. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, in fact explicitly denies that “crowds of Jews were calling him Messiah”. More to the point, the gospels are clearly theological narratives and their details are presenting theological messages, not historical facts — unless we bypass the basics of historical method and begin without question with the assumption that they are historical records.
The gospels go to lengths to point out that “crowds” did not call Jesus “Messiah”. Some thought he was one of the old prophets, and so forth. The Gospel of John at one point says the crowds wanted to make Jesus king but it pretty quickly drops that detail and has them rejecting him. The details change as the theological message weaves its course.
Confusion about historical methods and use of sources
Biblical scholars very often are known to go beyond their areas of expertise and say things that demonstrate this all too clearly. Example:
(For comparison, here’s (https://historyforatheists.com/2018/05/jesus-mythicism-3-no-contemporary-references-to-jesus/) one historian blogger pointing out that the only existing reference to Hannibal that dates back to his own time is one passing mention in an inscription. Not because people didn’t write about Hannibal at the time – they did – but because the writings just didn’t survive. If that was the case for a highly famous and influential general, . . .
It is misleading to call Tim O’Neill a “historian” because as far as I am aware he never studied history as such (though he did work on medieval literature) beyond high school and has no “training in history” (at least he has not clarified exactly what his “training” involved). His posts have regularly demonstrated a lack of understanding of basic historical methods and even the nature of historical inquiry itself. This particular note is a good example. A large quantity of sources whose provenance and sources cannot be established is not as decisive as a single source that does meet those criteria. We in fact do have ancient historical accounts of Hannibal that are from known persons (one of these was a contemporary of Hannibal) who used known sources that do go back to Hannibal’s time. A historian ought to understand that that is the sort of evidence that allows us to assess the historicity of Hannibal and that that is the sort of evidence we do not have but would expect, for Jesus.
Theudas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theudas). First-century Jewish rebel, executed for his attempts. Total surviving contemporary mentions (i.e., dating from the time he lived): zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one short paragraph in Josephus.
Not actually zero. Josephus was a boy at the time of Theudas. But yes, one does not expect much to be written about a person who had little historical impact. As for someone who was reputed to have drawn crowds travelling from areas almost the size of Italy just to hear him and whose followers started a movement that did take root and grow, then we would certainly expect more in the records that do exist.
Athronges (https://www.livius.org/articles/religion/messiah/messianic-claimant-3-athronges/). Rebel from the end of the first century BCE, led a rebellion that took theRomans two years to defeat. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: several paragraphsfrom Josephus.
Unnamed Samaritan (https://www.livius.org/articles/religion/messiah/messianic-claimant-7-the-samaritan-prophet/). Rebel from the first century, led a mob thatrequired armed Roman warriors to defeat them. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time:one paragraph in Josephus.
Simon of Peraea (https://www.livius.org/articles/religion/messiah/messianic-claimant-2-simon-of-perea/). Rebel from the end of the first century BCE, burned down the king’s palace and many of his other houses, had a mob of followers who had to be defeated by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero.Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: two paragraphs in Josephus, one line in Tacitus.
Unnamed Egyptian (https://www.livius.org/articles/religion/messiah/messianic-claimant-10-the-egyptian-prophet/). Rebel from the first century, had a group offollowers who were defeated rather rapidly by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from closeto that time: two different paragraphs in Josephus.
Josephus was a young man, a contemporary, of this Egyptian. So no, not “zero” contemporary mentions.
Jesus of Nazareth. Rebel from the first century, had a group of followers, kicked up some sort of fuss in the Temple, arrested and executed by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one passing mention of his brother’s execution by Josephus, possibly (https://historyforatheists.com/2020/10/josephus-jesus-and-the-testimonium-flavianum/) one other short paragraph in Josephus, one line in Tacitus.
Interesting confusion of detail here. Josephus knew nothing of Jesus “kicking up some sort of fuss in the Temple”. O’Neill has to mention that to make it sound as if this Jesus is comparable to troublemakers listed above. But it is irrelevant if it did not get a mention by Josephus.
O’Neill’s memory has let him down somewhat, though, because he has overlooked — in this particular discussion — other comparable figures that did get a mention by Josephus: James and the insane Jesus ben Ananias. The latter has been noted in the scholarly world as having some remarkable overlaps with the gospel Jesus.
Yet none of the above figures presents historians with anything like the difficulties that confront them with the two passages mentioning the Jesus of Christianity fame. That is surely a significant detail that should be made clear in any serious presentation of an argument. Otherwise, we are being subjected to misinformation, lack of awareness of what the sources actually say and their status among historians, and opinion posing as fact, and to appeals to authority.
The above argument was copied from Dr Sarah. 2020. “Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion.” Geeky Humanist (blog). November 7, 2020. https://freethoughtblogs.com/geekyhumanist/2020/11/07/another-jesus-mythicism-discussion/.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Another Angle on Paul - 2023-03-20 05:40:12 GMT+0000
- Jesus’ Unheroic Moment in Gethsemane – and a return to Vridar/Vardis Fisher - 2023-03-17 09:12:36 GMT+0000
- From Humble Beginnings: A Tale of Two Divinities — Jesus and Apollo - 2023-03-15 09:09:56 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!
67 thoughts on ““Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited”
Superman really was born in Smallville but that’s embarrassing so the Krypton story was made up.
Never mentioned (to my knowledge), probably because he is not a qualified “historian”, I have found the arguments and conclusions of Daniel Unterbrink (“Judas the Galilean: The Flesh and Blood Jesus” and
“Judas of Nazareth: How the Greatest Teacher of First-Century Israel Was Replaced by a Literary Creation”) very convincing. He insists that “Jesus” was just an honorific for the real Messianic leader, Judas of Galilee.
Before reading Unterbrink, I was [puzzled by the passages in the LUKE Gospel, e.g.
Luke 20:22-25 “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”…“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” I.e., “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give only to God what is God’s.” Their money had Caesar’s image on it, so it belonged to Caesar. That was the message of Judas of Galilee.
ALSO, Luke 23:2 “And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.”
ALSO, Luke 23:14 “and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion”
I think Saul/Paul of Tarsus never persecuted or killed any Christians, who were actually the Gentiles following his cult of the shapeshifted deity Christos he invented, based on Greek mythology. There was never any “conversion”. The Jews were following a rebel leader called Judas the Galilean whom they hoped to be the liberator messiah, not some divine savior for the Gentile world, invented by Saul/Paul.
Hi, Neil. I have now written replies to your comments on my blog (starting at https://freethoughtblogs.com/geekyhumanist/2020/11/07/another-jesus-mythicism-discussion/#comment-4477). Apologies for the delay.
I’ll try to reply to this a bit at a time. Part 1 of reply:
[on the topic of the ‘brother of Jesus called Christ’ line in Josephus and the mention of ‘Christus’ in Tacitus]
Neil, I’m trying to be sure I’m correctly understanding what seems to be a rather astonishing claim on your part. Are you seriously trying to argue that the reason why the two lines to which I referred are almost unanimously considered authentic is because of pro-Christian bias on the part of scholars of ancient history? I mean… maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but that’s how it’s coming across.
From what I understand, that theory is that Josephus was supposedly trying to avoid the concept of messianism, rather than the word. In other words, the problem wasn’t with referring to someone as ‘Anointed’, but with explaining that Jews used the term to mean a victorious king who’d rule over a liberated Israel, or similar ideas that could have been seen as seditious. This might or might not be the case, but, either way, this doesn’t seem to me like a good reason for rejecting the idea that Josephus could possibly have used the term ‘called Christ’.
Was that the link you meant to put in? It seems to be to a list of posts about the Testimonium Flavium, which isn’t either of the quotes I mentioned above.
I’d like to clarify what you’re trying to say here. What have you found in manuals of textual criticism about scribal glosses that you feel would apply here? Given that the context of my comments was a reply to someone wishing to dismiss Jesus as an entirely mythical character, could you clarify in particular whether you are aware of any explanations for a scribal gloss here that would also fit with a mythical Jesus?
As far as I can see, this article seems to be about whether Tacitus was correct in saying that Nero blamed the fire on Christians. I can’t see anything in it relating to whether Tacitus was correct in his belief that the founder of the Christian movement was known as ‘Christus’ and executed by Pilate. Did I miss something in the post?
I never suggested anything about a “pro-Christian bias on the part of scholars of ancient history” and never would suggest “scholars of ancient history” are generally biased in that way.
As for the statement in Josephus, the only scholars of whom I am aware who have taken a special interest in the question of the authenticity of the passage are biblical scholars, not scholars in the field of “ancient history”. Classicists and ancient historians generally shy away from the topics of focus among biblical scholars and the respective fields’ methods of historical inquiry are very different. And among those scholars with a specialist interest in the authenticity of the Josephan references to Jesus Christ, yes, there is a clear bias to salvage the only piece of extra-biblical first-century source that witnesses to the historicity of Jesus. It has not always been that way among biblical scholars but has taken a shift in that direction since, I understand, the middle of the twentieth century.
You write: “almost unanimously considered authentic”. When one of the exceptions to the authenticity school happens to be one of the, of not the, leading scholar on Josephus in modern times, then yes, I think even an argument from authority in this case deserves some serious consideration. (Tim O’Neill’s attempts to dismiss his view as the ramblings of a feeble-minded octogenarian overlook the record that he first pointed towards the same argument almost forty years ago. The same ad hominem further suggests to me that the critic has no confidence in any argument alone to serve as an effective rebuttal.) The arguments for a residual authenticity of the passage are indeed special pleading: they are entirely speculative and ad hoc justifications and generally without any reference to the reasons advanced for considering the passages to be entirely interpolation and subsequent gloss.
As for the Tacitus passage about Nero’s persecution of the Christians, as far as I am aware the passage is widely assumed to be genuine and no arguments that address contrary viewpoints have been addressed to justify that assumption. I have little problem with that assumption as it is addressed in the literature among classicists. On the face of it, it is a perfectly reasonable position to take. The only scholarly question about the authenticity of the passage has come from those who raise doubts, as far as I am aware. I have not seen scholarly discussions in the literature taking up these challenges and attempting to refute them. From my perspective — and of course I am open to being better informed given that I am an outsider and layman — it appears that the doubts are raised and are left to stand as an interesting contribution. (I am reminded of my undergraduate days when, in our studies of Plato, it was mentioned in passing that there is question in some quarters whether Socrates even existed — but the issue was then left there as an interesting thought but one that was incapable of refutation and ultimately irrelevant.)
My point here is that with respect to the Tacitean passage, the only place of which I am aware where one finds any debate, to and fro, over the question of authenticity is among biblical scholars. The scholars whom one is more likely to find who are aware that there is some question of authenticity are those in biblical studies. From the classicists whom I know and have known personally, I imagine I would far more likely to have a genial and stimulating discussion of the authenticity of the passage by referencing articles that have been published questioning it, than I could with many biblical scholars.
As for “pro-Christian bias”, there is no doubt that there is an all-pervasive pro-Christian bias among biblical scholars as has been documented and published by members of that guild themselves (e.g. Avalos, Crossley). It does not follow that that bias necessarily undermines the value of their work, nor that all scholars are infected with that bias. Yet it is also clear that even non-Christian scholars in the field are impacted by the general bias built into the relevant academic institutions and publishing wings. For example, the editor of the leading journal of the study of the historical Jesus has declared outright that no article that presents any argument for the non-historicity of Jesus will be published that journal. That statement is telling anyone who wants their work published in a leading journal has to toe the ideological line, no matter if they are Christian or atheist. There are many instances in biblical studies where scholars have been penalized for publishing hypotheses that are deemed to defy the fundamentals of the “conventional wisdom”.
But most bias is unconscious. It comes from unquestioned assumptions. This is one of the reasons for the heated “debate” between mythicists and historicists. Hence Bart Ehrman was able to say, after decades as a biblical scholar, that only in recent years has he ever thoroughly or systematically sought to “prove” whether Jesus existed or not. He even declared that as far as he knew he was the first scholar to have undertaken such an investigation. The historicity of Jesus is generally assumed with only half-registered awareness of the reasons for that assumption. Scholars have often attacked mythicist arguments but as far as I am aware they have nearly all done so by in reality attacking straw men, what they think or want or misinterpret the mythicists to say. Even Albert Schweitzer admitted that historical inquiry simply cannot prove the existence of Jesus — and, as we know, Schweitzer believed in the historicity of Jesus. Biblical scholars would do well to admit the limitations of the historical method (I mean the historical method as applied in historical studies more generally, not that applied by biblical scholars to the “historical Jesus”) and acknowledge how much they rely upon assumptions and traditions in their field.
My sincere apologies for taking so long to have time to be able to take this discussion up again, and I hope it is still all right for me to post replies.
Now, the big problem with this particular subthread is that you’re not actually talking about either of the passages I was talking about. Despite me making it clear that I was referring to the ‘brother of Jesus called Christ’ line in Antiquities 20 and the Tacitean reference, you’re replying as if I was talking about the Testimonium Flavium. I’m not. It’s a different passage. I’m fully aware that there are significant problems with the reliability of the TF, which is precisely why it was not one of the passages I mentioned in this part of the post.
When I referred to the Antiquities 20 reference and the Tacitean reference, your reply was ‘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.’ Did you actually mean that those two passages were justified in the scholarly literature only by special pleading, and that this is the only reason for the virtually unanimous acceptance of those passages as genuine?
Good. Then it surely ought to count for something that almost no-one doubts the authenticity of the reference in Antiquities 20 and that there doesn’t seem to be anyone, other than possibly Carrier, who doubts the authenticity of the Tacitean reference.
…of the Antiquities 20 reference and the Tacitean reference. Those two passages – the two that are almost unanimously considered authentic – are the two which I stated were ‘almost unanimously considered authentic’. You responded to this phrase by writing about a scholar who doubted the TF, thus making it sound as though I had written this phrase about the TF. I did not. I expect that that misrepresentation of what I was saying was genuinely unintentional, but please be careful not to do it again. For the record, I am most certainly not claiming that the TF is ‘almost unanimously’ considered authentic.
And if you have a reference to him stating objections to belief in authenticity of the Antiquities 20 reference, I will indeed take that seriously. Do you have such a reference?
Really? That doesn’t seem to make sense; I don’t see why biblical scholars – the very people who, as you point out, tend as a group to have a pro-Christian bias – would be questioning this passage. Not that it makes a difference to the point either of us is making, but I’m really curious as to why you think this is the case. Anyway, to get back to the actual point… if none of the actual historians who’ve read Tacitus have raised any concerns about this quote being an interpolation, then that sounds like good evidence in favour of the quote’s authenticity.
I agree that such a bias exists, and I have no problem believing that there might be many people out there even amongst scholars whose considerations of the authenticity of extrabiblical passages about Jesus are affected by their faith. My argument was with your claim – whether it was made intentionally or through careless reading of the section to which you were applying – that the authenticity of the Antiquities 20 passage and the Tacitean passage were justified in literature only by special pleading.
In my post I tried to explain that the second passage (“brother of Jesus called Christ”) requires an earlier reference to Christ, so the second passage presumes the existence of an earlier reference to Jesus known as Christ. Without the first passage the second passage becomes even more problematic. If there were no earlier reference to Jesus known as Christ then that second passage becomes the only place in the whole of Josephus’s historical writings where he mentions Christ — that word that scholars explain was otherwise forbidden in Josephus’s mind.
I think, too, that the “Christ” reference in Tacitus would have been meaningless to most of his audience.
I am trying to point out difficulties of that second passage that are not often realized.
Yes. Do you know of works I might have missed? But I think there are relatively few writings I know of that do seek to argue the authenticity of the Tacitean passage.
What does it count for? If most scholars simply assume the authenticity of the passage without explicit justification then all it counts for is that most scholars simply assume the authenticity of the passage without second thought, yes?
The appeal to authority does count for something. But when someone has a question that does not seem to be widely addressed in the literature then someone has a right to expect a clear and reasonable response. Getting all insulting does not inspire confidence.
The additional article I linked to (re the persecution of Christians) shows that there are serious problems with accepting the authenticity of the passage in Tacitus — of which the Christ reference is an integral part.
But even if you want to separate out the Christ reference in Tacitus from his persecution narrative, then we still come no closer to evidence for a historical Jesus. All we have are beliefs of Christians at the time of Tacitus. I know of no other person in ancient times whose historicity is secured by such tenuous third-hand evidence.
Feldman accepts the authenticity of the “brother of Christ” reference and argues against Solomon Zeitlin’s reasons for claiming it was an interpolation along with the TF. But I take it you wish to justify the James passage without any prior assumptions about the presence of a TF.
The reason I think that is the case is because in all of my reading on the question I have only seen it addressed among biblical scholars. The few ancient historians who do intrude into these debates, from all the reading I have done, rely entirely on the arguments published by theologians, biblical scholars, etc. The questions of biblical scholars are not as predominant in the interests of many classicists and ancient historians. They have other questions that grab their attention.
Again, if you like to rely on authority of unquestioned assumptions then that’s fine. I find that that’s the bottom line among most people who argue for the historicity of Jesus.
But as mentioned above, there are indeed problems with the larger Tacitean passage re the persecution of Christians has been found problematic among a few scholars.
And besides, just basic logic and historical method, even if the passage in Tacitus were genuine, we would be no closer to evidence for the historicity of Jesus, as mentioned above.
I don’t know of any exceptions. Do you? (I am thinking of “justified” in the sense of making an explicit argument for a case, not simply assuming something without question.)
Profound apologies again for the very long time lapse between your posts and mine. I do enjoy discussions like these, but they take a lot of time and thought, and the time can be hard to find.
Anyway, thank you for your own time; starting back in again with replies. (I’ve done my best to cut out any extraneous or repetitive stuff, but there’s still a lot to discuss, so apologies if this seems too long.)
Well, my understanding from all I’ve previously read on the question of interpolations is that they’re a well-recognised feature of ancient historical texts and that historians in general are well aware of this. If this issue is well known in the field of ancient history, then surely plenty of the historians who’ve read Josephus or Tacitus over the centuries must be aware of the possibility that some of the lines in an ancient piece of work could turn out to be interpolations and of the signs to look for? Surely that’s how interpolations get picked up? I find it hard to believe that genuinely convincing signs of interpolation could have passed unnoticed by hundreds of scholars reading these works. So, when none of the experts reading the Testimonium Tacitean and almost none of the experts reading the James mention in Josephus are seeing anything in those passages that rings any alarm bells for them about possible interpolation…yes, that does sound like good evidence for the passages being genuine.
Whatever the truth of the claims about Christian persecution, how does that get us to the passage being a forgery? If the statement about Nero persecuting Christians was incorrect, then the possible explanations that I can see are that a) someone with a negative view of Christians carefully forged an interpolation in Tacitus’s exact style for no obvious motive, or b) Tacitus wrote the passage but made a factual error about persecution. You seem to be saying that, between those two, you think the former is the probable option; was that really what you meant? If not, can you clarify?
Wait; so you were bringing him up as one of the leading scholars whose views deserve serious consideration, when in fact you’re the one disagreeing with him on the point we were discussing and I’m the one agreeing? That seems contradictory to your argument. Is this opinion of his one of the ones that seem to you to be special pleading? If so, why?
That explanation does at least make more sense; I was previously thinking that you thought any scholar who believed this was believing it only through special pleading. Thanks for clarifying. All right; what arguments have you seen on these topics that you believe to be special pleading?
(will split reply here, as it’s already long; thanks for reading)
(Sorry, ignore my last sentence there; it’s the reply to the next comment I have to split, so managed to put that sentence in the wrong place.)
We’re going around in circles, now. All the points you ask me to explain have been explained above and in links above to specific articles with headers that clearly indicate the topics you are asking about again. I have already explained or provided links to answer each of the questions you raise here. If you read the article I linked to about the historicity of the Neronian persecution you would find the answer to your question about how it relates to the question of interpolation. It appears that after a long absence the flow of discussion has been lost in places, understandably.
I have given the reasons for suspecting interpolation and you reply that you don’t believe the biblical scholars would have missed any reasons to suspect interpolations. If you are only going to repeat that you believe scholars would not have missed anything important and therefore my arguments are moot then we have nothing to discuss. I’m more interested in the actual arguments that have been raised, what the scholars have actually written and discussed, and exploring the evidence itself.
You may have noticed (if you have read anything much on this blog) that I am not interested in arguing for or against the historicity of Jesus. For me, the question is a non-issue. (Though I will try to point out where I see clearly fallacious or baseless arguments — on both sides of the question.) There is no evidence of the kind that historians usually rely upon to accept the historicity of events and person in the case of Jesus. That doesn’t mean he didn’t exist. Maybe a historical Jesus will turn out to be the best hypothesis [not “fact”] to explain the evidence we have for Christian origins. To date, I find that hypotheses that draw upon a historical figure of Jesus need many times more complementary hypotheses to make such a figure work as the explanation for Christian origins than a few other explanations.
In the following exchange I fear we are risking a drift away from the central argument over historicity. I called attention to the uncertain foundation of the claims about Josephus and Tacitus with respect to Jesus because they are frequently put forth as “facts” that somehow “prove” or certainly “buttress” arguments for the historicity of Jesus. They don’t. So the following exchange is at two levels:
The argument is specific to the word itself because the word carried the connotation of rebellion. Example,
Without going into details here, Josephus deplored and excoriated all prophets who stood against the status quo. If Jesus had been crucified because he created “some disturbance in the temple” as many historicists claim then it is inconceivable that he would have had any kind word at all about Jesus.
But having said that, I should add that I only made the initial point I did about Josephus because it is one of many “facts” advanced by many biblical scholars that is an interpretation of the nature of the source material and not a fact in any normal sense of that word. It is a disputed claim, one that has emerged in a certain historical context in the scholarly field (one in which biblical studies has come to be dominated by generally conservative American scholarship), and it is not being honest to speak as though it is an indisputable fact.
That was my point in objecting to the initial claim about the witness of Josephus.
But to turn to my point about question of the historicity of Jesus, I don’t believe the witness of Josephus makes any difference there. It cannot by the standards ancient historians like Moses I. Finley (one who made explicit his thoughts on historical method in relation to ancient sources) be accepted as decisive. If the Testimonium Flavianum was even partly original to Josephus, we still have no reason other than to assume that he got the information from hearsay in while Rome. There are several indications that the passage incorporates Christological formulae, presumably passed on by associates who had spoken to Christians. Josephus gives readers no indication that the statement is derived from eye-witness or any other independent source.
You are correct. The James passage in Book 20 is not addressed directly in the posts linked on that page.
The link was to posts that address in detail the claims of biblical scholars who argue that Josephus did speak about “Jesus Christ” — including the reasons the so-called minimal or watered-down version of a Josephan statement are not viable.
— And the argument for the James passage does depend upon Josephus having referred to Jesus as Christ earlier in his work. The posts there show that Josephus mentioning Jesus as Christ in any form would be an anomaly and contrary to what we know of Josephus’s attitudes towards anti-establishment prophets.
The reference is to a James who is suggestive of the James according to extra-biblical Christian tradition and the words that identify this James as the brother of Jesus appear to be inserted in a way that creates a syntactical awkward expression. So we have here a passage that invites an explanation and therefore is a tempting target for a scribe to add a marginal note linking him to Jesus [explanation 1]; we have an awkward expression that encourages us to think such a marginal note was copied into the main text without altering the main text in other ways to accommodate it [explanation 2]; we also have the reference of “christ” which assumes that Josephus earlier called Jesus the Christ — a passage that is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation. There is no evidence for a minimal reference to Jesus in Book 18, and considerable evidence against that likelihood.
I’ll let you have that one, if you like. But if Nero did not blame the Christians then Tacitus had no call to talk about Christ — the whole passage about Christians falls. I don’t know how you can salvage the Christ-Pilate passage once we remove Nero’s treatment of Christians.
But as for the Josephan passage, my point was to call out a debatable position as a fact. It is not a “fact”.
But if I were to discuss the question of the historicity of Jesus directly, I would not bother with the Tacitus passage any more than I would with the Josephan one. Tacitus is not likely to have gone poring through imperial archives to learn details about who this “Christ” fellow was and what happened to him. Again, we have to assume that Tacitus was relying on hearsay about Christian origins. What he says was presumably a standard account in the early second century.
Such an approach is not “hyper-scepticism” as some claim. It is merely being consistent with how classicists at their best work with their sources, including Tacitus and Josephus. (Yes, there are a few exceptions like Michael Grant. Grant, interestingly, relies entirely upon the work of theologians and other biblical scholars for his study of Jesus and jettisons all that leading historians have called for with respect to ancient sources.)
You know, it strikes me that this false dichotomy – between ‘decisive’ and ‘doesn’t make any difference’ – accounts for quite a proportion of the mythicist case. I think it’s true that neither this or any other single piece of evidence we have can really be described as ‘decisive’, in the sense of providing conclusive proof for which no other explanation is even remotely feasible and thus ending all debate. However, mythicists will often use this as an excuse to dismiss several pieces of evidence that, while not ‘decisive’ in that sense, are still much easier to explain by theorising a historical Jesus than by theorising a mythical Jesus, and thus each tilt the scale pretty strongly in the ‘historical Jesus’ direction. And having several such pieces of evidence has a cumulative effect; a highly unlikely explanation for an individual point might still be the correct one (because highly unlikely things do sometimes happen), but, when we find that a theory is requiring multiple highly unlikely explanations in comparison to a competing theory which provides much more straightforward explanations, Ockham’s razor does give us a clear answer as to which one to go for.
Anyway, to get back to the specific point: What standard of Moses Finley’s do you feel the Antiquities 20 mention falls short of?
In terms of how much help the Antiquities 20 mention is for historicity… well, I think it’s fair to say that Josephus wouldn’t have actually spoken directly to James and asked him his family history. So, although he would have had good knowledge of the Ananias incident generally, he would have known that particular detail only through common knowledge rather than checking directly. However, I’m having a very hard time figuring out a sequence of events that could lead to it being common knowledge that James had a brother by the name of Jesus who was called Christ but that didn’t involve a Jesus who was called Christ actually existing. I’m happy to hear differently if you can think of a plausible explanation I’ve missed.
Why? You’ve said below – and I agree with you – that Tacitus probably only knew the term ‘Christ’ as a name for the group’s founder by common knowledge. If it was common knowledge by the time Tacitus wrote that the group in question had had a leader who was called Christ, then it’s at least plausible that it could have been reasonably widespread knowledge sixteen years earlier when Josephus was writing. If so, Josephus could have been using the word as one his audience would understand (‘ah, yes, the one who set up that group of troublemakers that’s still around…’) rather than as a reference back to a mention of the word by himself.
[on the subject of Antiquities 20:9 as a possible scribal gloss]
Sorry, I’m not following. Could you clarify what your theories are as to what the passage might have originally said and as to what would have then made a scribe think of changing it to the current form?
[on the Tacitean passage]
Wait a moment; were you trying to say that you think this whole passage might have been an interpolation? I thought you just meant that Tacitus was wrong about that point. Being wrong on that point wouldn’t affect whether or not he was right about Christianity having been founded by someone who was executed, because having a false rumour grow up about a persecution that never happened isn’t the same as having a false rumour grow up around a cult’s heavenly founder actually being a human who was executed by a Roman official. (The first is much more potentially explicable in terms of a possible martyrdom complex than the second.)
Agreed. So… how, on mythicism, would that have become a standard account less than a century later? First, we’ve got a situation where a group of Jews come to believe in a heavenly Messiah who was a sin sacrifice (which would have been quite a stretch to start with). Then, despite everything in their cultural upbringing telling them that throat-cutting was the method by which sin sacrifices took place, they come up with the idea that this uber-sin sacrifice took place through crucifixion. (See my comment below.) Then, someone somehow links this with a specific Roman official, even though that’s in no way necessary if the story is meant to be one of a sin sacrifice. And then, by the early second century, we’ve somehow got a situation where this story is fairly widely known among non-Christians, even though it would be precisely the one they wouldn’t want spread around… and, in fact, didn’t. (As I understand it, early Christian writings for non-Christians typically tried to keep the emphasis off the crucifixion and off Pilate, and you’ve said below that their art also seemed to avoid the crucifixion.)
So, how had Tacitus heard this story of Christianity’s founder being crucified by Pilate? Again, it’s straightforward to explain under historicity; this would have been something that actually happened and that other people knew about, so it’s perfectly plausible that this could have become widely enough known for Tacitus to be aware of it. How would it have happened if mythicism was correct? It’s one more thing that’s much more difficult to explain under a mythicist theory.
If all we have to rely on is ambiguous evidence that can be explained in different ways — for and against historicity — then that is not secure evidence at all, either way, either for historicity or mythicism.
Why do you think there is a false dichotomy between “decisive” and “doesn’t make any difference” when it comes to the evidence? Moses Finley certainly considered the difference significant and flatly said we cannot reconstruct historical narratives where we have only ambiguous or questionable evidence. To try to do so is doing nothing more than speculating.
Example: We have very good reasons, “decisive” ones, for believing in the historicity of minor figures like Cicero’s slave, Tiro, and for Seneca’s rival, Publius the Stammerer. Other evidence for other persons (e.g. Hillel) may be ambiguous and not decisive because it is very late and can be explained as originating in ways other than from historical tradition.
“Mythicists often use this as an excuse”? Let’s cut the ad hominem (imputing motives, e.g. “trying to find excuses”) and stick with specific arguments.
Sweeping condemnation that the other side relies upon more complex explanations when simpler ones are at hand is a judgement that I have yet to see proved. Most times I see this accusation it comes from those who are only superficially aware of a few of the mythicist arguments or have misrepresented them. Give examples rather than sweeping assertions.
The lack external controls. Independent or external controls are the key “standard” required for any reliable historical knowledge. (Have you read any of the posts about or relevant works by Finley?)
This argument is addressed in the literature — by historicists. It’s not a “mythicist” argument. (I mentioned Zeitlin in the previous post and one of his pieces comes most easily to hand but there are others as well: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1451577 )
You are quite correct re what is plausible. I have no argument with that. Many things are plausible. That a historical Jesus can be found at the origins of Christianity is a plausible idea. But we need evidence if we are going to establish a historical reconstruction.
The placing of “brother of Jesus who is called Christ” before the name James is unusual. It makes perfect sense to think of it as the sort of comment a Christian scribe would write in the margin to identify the Josephus’s James with Jesus’ brother. That a later scribe, uncertain of the status of the marginal note (was it meant to be included in the main text or not?) erred on the side of adding rather than subtracting and clumsily forced it into the passage as if it was originally from Josephus himself. That sort of gloss is common in the manuscripts.
There is a good case for it being an interpolation, yes. There are good reasons to question the historicity of the whole episode of Nero burning etc Christians as a response to the fire of Rome: https://vridar.org/2015/12/17/the-myth-of-neros-persecution-of-christians/
Quite so, or maybe he knew nothing about Christianity, and nor did his friend Pliny the Younger: https://vridar.org/2016/02/17/fresh-doubts-on-authenticity-of-plinys-letter-about-the-christians/
If you re-read your scenario about Christian origins — belief in a crucified man being a sin sacrifice — then you have just presented a very good argument against the historicity of Jesus. As you express it, the idea is preposterous. Such a scenario as you present is ridiculous — for historicists as much as anyone else.
So if it is so ridiculous, how do you explain Christian origins? How do you explain belief in such a crucified figure who was a sin sacrifice arose? Why would any Jew believe it in the first place? How could such a religion have got started? If a few believed it, then why, and how did they manage to convince others?
But if you step back and look at what biblical scholars and scholars of ancient Judaism have to say, you will see that the idea of a crucified or martyred figure (dying by any means other than throat-cutting) could shed saving or atoning blood for the whole people was indeed part of Jewish thinking in the Second Temple period. The idea of a crucified messiah whose blood atones for sins has been found by some scholars (mainstream scholars) as an extension of Jewish thinking about the offering of Isaac by Abraham and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah and the Son of Man in Daniel. I have posted about this several times now addressing this scholarly literature, both Jewish and Christian.
Biblical stories reiterate certain themes. Stories are re-written for new situations. Each new audience is deemed to be the “new Israel” for whom the new and old stories are written. We have the expression “re-written bible”.
As for the time line when belief in a gospel Jesus as the historical point of origin began, we have case-studies of other social movements. The apocryphal Ned Ludd’s name was appropriated as both leader and still living contemporary of the Luddite movement in England. (An anonymous story emerged that there was a real Ned Ludd 30 years before the first actions of the Luddites.)
There are no external controls to prove that the story was “widely known among non-Christians” as early as the “early second century”. That is debatable hypothesis. But let’s assume it to be true, the Luddites are an interesting control study: a fictional name can become “historical” almost overnight.
As for the assertion that Christians were embarrassed or wouldn’t want their core beliefs be widely known — that’s all based on a perverse reading of Paul’s letters and the opposite is in fact argued among Christians themselves (when not addressing mythicists). The gospels strongly focused on Pilate and the crucifixion of Jesus: the Passion scene in each of the gospels consisted of a full third of their lengths. We have the quip that the gospels are really Passion narratives with an introduction subsequently added. Paul wrote that he “boasted” in the message of “Christ crucified”! It was folly to the Greeks and weakness to the Jews? All the better, wrote Paul– that’s what we need to rub into their faces. The earliest surviving writings of the church fathers (e.g. Justin, Tertullian) did not shy from the point of crucifixion and Pilate by any means. They sought more and more reasons and ways to elaborate on the story.
Why is it more difficult to explain under “a mythicist theory”? From the way you depicted it above it sounds like the sort of thing that would never be believed by anyone — that a historical figure, crucified, was believed to have been the still-living messiah? How could anyone be persuaded by a few crazies who could believe such a thing?
The early church fathers found the evidence for the story — in the Old Testament and gospels of the “apostles” and their assistants. It began with the gospels, with the OT — there are no controls to lead us to believe that it began with oral tradition of historical events. It was a story that was shaped out of scriptures, a re-written scripture, that before long came to be believed as much as Ned Ludd was believed was real.
(I’m going to try splitting this reply into two parts)
Because that so often leaves out ‘makes it more probable’. When an explanation is the most likely explanation for several existing pieces of evidence, that adds up to good evidence for that explanation even if we lack any single conclusive piece of evidence for it.
A very fair point. I withdraw that statement and apologise, and offer instead ‘Mythicists often give this as a reason’.
Sure. I can point out examples in this thread as we discuss them, if you like.
[me] Anyway, to get back to the specific point: Of what standard of Moses Finley’s do you feel the Antiquities 20 mention falls short?
Thanks. All right, I’m confused here. I tried looking for information on external or independent controls in the historical sense, and one of the posts I found was https://vridar.org/2013/01/29/the-historical-jesus-and-the-demise-of-history-2-the-overlooked-reasons-we-know-certain-ancient-persons-existed/. In this post, you give Josephus as an example of a source that you feel does fit your criteria for a good source, such that – to give the example you gave – his description of Honi the Circle Drawer seems to be enough for you to feel reasonably confident that Honi probably existed. But you don’t see his mention of ‘Jesus called Christ’ as enough evidence that such a person existed. What am I missing? I don’t understand why you feel the external controls for Josephus’s work are good enough in one case and not in the other.
I’ve tried reading your posts about him; I haven’t read any of his works.
[me] Why? You’ve said below – and I agree with you – that Tacitus probably only knew the term ‘Christ’ as a name for the group’s founder by common knowledge. If it was common knowledge by the time Tacitus wrote that the group in question had had a leader who was called Christ, then it’s at least plausible that it could have been reasonably widespread knowledge sixteen years earlier when Josephus was writing. If so, Josephus could have been using the word as one his audience would understand (‘ah, yes, the one who set up that group of troublemakers that’s still around…’) rather than as a reference back to a mention of the word by himself.
I don’t know whether that’s the piece you meant to link to, but the author is using the Antiquities 20 reference to argue against the authenticity of the TF, which is a completely different argument from the one you’re making here. I’m confused as to what point you’re trying to make.
I’m a bit puzzled by what you’re trying to say here. I said ‘plausible’ because you thought the only way that Josephus could have mentioned the word ‘Christ’ in Antiquities 20 was if he’d already mentioned it earlier in his work, and I was pointing out that that argument doesn’t stand up given that there’s a plausible explanation for Josephus using that word even if he didn’t use it earlier in his work.
[on the subject of Antiquities 20:9 as a possible scribal gloss]
Why would a scribe, even a Christian scribe, assume that a randomly-mentioned James must be this one specific James, when it was such a common name?
Why would this be the sort of comment a Christian scribe would write in the margin? Since it was much more common for Christians just to use ‘Christ’ or ‘Lord’ or ‘Saviour’ for Jesus rather than ‘called Christ’, and since fitting in a long extra word like ‘legomenos’ would be difficult when scribbling a quick note in the margin, wouldn’t ‘brother of Christ’ or ‘brother of the Lord’ be a more likely comment for a Christian scribe to write?
What might the original passage plausibly have said, if that phrase was an interpolation? As far as I can see, this explanation leaves it reading ‘…and brought before them James by name and some others’, which seems like a bit of a clunky sentence.
Why would this be a better explanation for ‘brother of…’ being before the name James? Wouldn’t a scribe inserting the phrase have also assumed it should be after the name?
How, under mythicism, would the story about James being Jesus’s brother have arisen in the first place? I know Christians often referred to one another as ‘brothers in Christ’, or ‘brothers in the Lord’, to indicate the bond that their shared belief formed between them, but I don’t know of any other examples of people referring to one specific Christian as a brother of Christ, and it makes a lot less sense theologically to refer to the bond with your deity by a metaphor that implies that extra degree of similarity/equality.
The question was about evidence, not explanations for the evidence. This is where even biblical scholars seem to trip up too often. Evidence is evidence. It is the hard data. It is there or it is not there. Now when it comes to explaining that evidence we propose hypotheses and that’s when probability enters. We don’t “probably” have data or documents or texts that are the contents of our evidence. We do have them or we don’t. If scholars too often trip up over this fundamental point then we find it way too many times repeated among amateur debates.
This is the very point at issue. If a passage’s authenticity is questionable it can hardly be used as a solid rock to justify a historical claim.
Again, we are going around in circles. I have already pointed out that Josephus is “famous” for avoiding the term “Christ” totally — the only exception would be in the disputed passages. Many scholars have long believed that Josephus deliberately avoided using the term even when he was discussing the activities of various would-be messiahs in order to avoid making his Roman audience squirm at the mention of a word that had supposedly caused them so much loss in a four year war. So yes, if we accept that the only time Josephus used the term “Christ” was when he referring to Jesus — and he used it nowhere else despite his many and abundant opportunities to do so — then others may wish to be not to hold some reservations about how likely that is. Probability, as mentioned above.
A Jewish scholar, by the way, has even argued that the entire James section is an interpolation. https://vridar.org/2021/04/30/is-the-entire-james-passage-in-josephus-an-interpolation/ So we can argue back and forth over whether or not this word or that phrase was original, but the fact will remain that a question will be hanging over the authenticity of the passage.
Specific responses to some of the specifics of your questions have been addressed elsewhere in depth (e.g. second part of http://www.jesuspuzzle.com/jesuspuzzle/supp10.htm) and I have nothing to add to those — except to point out a Jewish scholar’s case that takes the interpolated passage much farther yet. There is evidently a series of problems with the section that will mean doubts will always remain at some level about the original text.
We can hypothesize all we like about why the text is as it is, but no hypothesis will remove the real problems that a few scholars — and not mythicists — have identified. The phraseology is not straightforward and does raise problems that at least a few scholars have recognized and pointed out (see link above for more details).
But the bottom line is that this would be the only place — the only place — Josephus uses the word “Christ” despite the other events he discussed and, according to every scholar I have read who has addressed this particular point, the very strong reasons to use it elsewhere, and his presumed diligent efforts to avoid offending his Roman audience.
What is the probability that the one and only time he used the word was to refer to the same Jesus who was clearly surrounded with corrupted interpolation?
(Second part of reply: Tacitus. I didn’t reply to the suggestion of possible interpolation as that’s already being discussed in a comment above, so this follows on from the next bit.)
Stage 1: A group of followers who believe their rabbi is the Messiah can’t let go of this belief after he’s crucified. Desperate to find some way to continue believing, they come to the belief that he’s actually been miraculously resurrected and will come back to be the Messiah, thereby giving them a belief in a crucified Messiah. So far, so good; this is in line with what we know about possible ranges of human reaction when faced with the crushing loss of a strongly-held belief system.
Stage 2: Over time, this belief in a crucified and resurrected Messiah spreads to some other people, including some with different backgrounds and different worldviews who put different spins on the interpretation. One of the people who picks up that image of a crucified and miraculously resurrected Messiah is someone who’s deeply preoccupied with sin and desperate for a way to feel his sins have been forgiven and erased, and who believes in the Jewish system of sacrifice for sins but who also has a more Hellenised background with different mental images of sacrifice. As you know, Maccoby’s theory here is that Paul – under great mental stress for various reasons, including the above preoccupation with sin – resolved his inner mental turmoil by fusing those mental images and making Jesus the once-and-for-all sin sacrifice that he subconsciously needed.
And, yes, that’s speculation – most of what we can say on this topic is going to be speculation – but it’s plausible speculation. I haven’t yet heard a similarly plausible speculation as to how such a fusion of ideas could have happened under mythicism, where, even if someone came up with the idea of the Messiah being a sin sacrifice, it’s highly unlikely they’d picture crucifixion as the method of sin sacrifice.
Sure. But the basic idea of Christianity is actually something that’s very different; the belief in the requirement for a sacrifice that’s both quasi-divine and the only route to humanity’s salvation. The Christian concept of Jesus’s atonement is based on the belief that humanity’s situation is hopeless without Jesus’s sacrifice; nothing we can do for ourselves is good enough to bridge the gulf between damnation and salvation, and it takes a divine (or at least semi-divine) being to make the sacrifice that saves us.
Martyrdom, in contrast, is the action of individual humans. So, the belief that individual martyrdom can bring about atonement is effectively a belief that atonement can be brought about by the individual choices and actions of humans. (Which is, of course, in line with a general belief of Judaism that humans ultimately have the ability to achieve goodness and God’s favour by our own choices and actions.) Now, of course, there’s a superficial similarity here with the Christian idea of Jesus’s sacrifice, in that both are examples of willing bloodshed leading to atonement. But there’s a fundamental difference in terms of theology; Christian theology depends on the idea that nothing any human can do is good enough. That effectively contradicts the Jewish idea of martyrdom as atoning; if humans can’t do anything to save themselves without Jesus, where does that leave the sacrifices of the martyrs?
So, Christianity doesn’t actually seem like something that would arise very naturally from existing martyrdom belief. Add in the extra problem that Judaism was a culture where sin sacrifice meant throat-cutting and it therefore wouldn’t be likely that someone coming up with the concept of sin sacrifice of a Messiah would think of the completely different act of crucifixion… all in all, it’s an unlikely combination of concepts.
How much was being written about him, though? From what I can find, it seems to be all variations on the same story of ‘Edward Ludd smashed his working equipment’. I haven’t been able to find any reference to elaborate stories mentioning a supposed birthplace, family members, conversations, itinerary… none of that. Do you know of any works of the time about Ned Ludd that are comparable to what we have in the gospels?
Well… sure. It’s the hypothesis you brought up, or at least the one I understood you to be bringing up. Wasn’t that what you meant by saying that what Tacitus wrote was ‘presumably a standard account in the early second century’? If not, then I guess I misunderstood you, so what did you mean?
I’m not asserting that Christians were ‘embarrassed’ about Jesus having been executed; I think their considerations would have been a lot more practical. Having a founder who was executed as a rebel and a criminal wouldn’t have been a good selling point to potential converts in a society where law-abidingness was important, and there was also the risk that it could have brought Christians themselves under suspicion from the authorities. Obviously there would come a time in any conversion pitch when they’d have to mention it, but it seems like the sort of subject they’d want to put off mentioning until the person to whom they were speaking was showing obvious signs of interest in joining up.
Of course they wanted their core beliefs as widely known as possible, but the name of Jesus’s executioner isn’t a core belief; it’s a detail. Why would that be widely known amongst non-Christians, if not from there being another source for the information?
OK… how do you think it’s explained under a mythicist theory? If Pilate’s involvement was just a story invented by Mark and spread among church members, how could Tacitus have not only heard of the story (given his contempt for Christianity, he pretty clearly wasn’t hanging out with Christians to hear all the details about their beliefs), but heard it in a way that left him thinking it literally happened and wasn’t just a peculiar symbolic invention of the church? I’m open to plausible theories.
It’s nice speculation, as you say, but without any evidence in its support.
The evidence I work with leads to different ideas of how Christianity started — and I don’t see to date any need to introduce a historical Jesus to explain that evidence. Everything I write I try to base entirely on the evidence itself. You seem to think that — given your preconceptions about the nature of Jewish ideas and practices — the explanation that adheres strictly to the evidence with a very limited number of hypotheses explain that evidence is not plausible. Again, the reason you argue it is not plausible is because it doesn’t fit your preconceptions about Judaism of the day. Much of my reading has been to learn about the Judaism of that period and to see what the scholarly research does actually say about it — to get beyond the popular misconceptions.
This is not how historians work. The evidence of Tacitus is only evidence for what was believed in his own time. It is not evidence for what happened, historically, a hundred years earlier. That’s simply not acceptable historical evidence in “nonbiblical” history departments.
Even the way you frame the question is so special pleading. You build in a host of assumptions and say we have to accept those and come up with an explanation within your assumptions. That’s not a serious discussion. It certainly is not how historians discuss evidence.
Do you really think that news of a crucifixion by Pilate of Jesus circulated completely independently of Christians to reach Pilate 90 years later? Testimony that appears even ten, twenty years after an event is typically rejected as evidence for that event by many historians — unless there is clear and demonstrable evidence for a line of communication or reliable testimony from the event to the late historical account.
As for your question: why not read some serious explanations of the mythicists themselves? Everyone I know — including all scholars who write about Tacitus and Pliny with this particular point in mind — acknowledges that Tacitus supposedly knew of Christians (if he knew of them at all) from Pliny and the testimony of Christians at their trials before the Roman judges.
This explanation falls upon the same objection you raise against the mythicist Jesus idea. The prior devout beliefs of those followers would not permit them to come up with that interpretation. On what basis do you say this is what we know about “possible ranges of human reaction etc”. What evidence, what other instances, can you point to to support that claim? If they held a strong belief system, what you are describing is them rejecting that belief system — so how strong was it to begin with?
I can think of many instances where devout followers become disillusioned with a person they once strongly believed in because events did not conform to their “strongly held belief system”. That is the more likely scenario and one with ample attestation in history.
Or they “spiritualize” their beliefs in the messiah’s coming: e.g. Seventh Day Adventists.
And that’s exactly what one “mythicist” explanation holds.
Part 2 of reply:
I’m not sure what led you to that assumption about how I reached my conclusion, but I’m finding it somewhat ironic that you’re making such an assumption in the midst of a post complaining about ‘mind-reading’ on my part.
Did you mean to post this in response to the section you did (i.e. in response to the example of the Bethlehem birth stories)? I mean, the reason I know that Matthew was trying to tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is because Chapter 2 starts ‘Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea’. The reason I know that Luke was trying to tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is because in Chapter 2 he states that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem and that she gave birth while there. That’s about as clear as they could have made it. I can see debating about why Luke and Matthew wanted to claim Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but I can’t really see how there’s any debate over the fact that they did claim he was born in Bethlehem.
Hang on; isn’t that the same kind of claim that has you calling me out for making assumptions/putting forth opinions as facts? As I understand it, there are some scholars who believe that the names didn’t derive from ‘Nazareth’, but it’s certainly not an unanimous opinion; see for example https://www.jstor.org/stable/3262160?seq=1 and the reply https://www.jstor.org/stable/3262342?origin=crossref&seq=1. (I don’t even think it’s a majority opinion, from what I’ve seen, although on that point I could be wrong.)
Why would someone want to rewrite the history of the name of the sect, and why would all four gospels then give us the same false claim?
The reason I made that assumption was that many biblical scholars have presented their reasons for believing it and I assumed you were taking your cue from what they have said. If you have other reasons that are independent of what has been published in the field then I would be interested to hear them.
I would have thought given the context of the many works published on this very point, and the point so often made by those arguing for the historicity of Jesus, that the point about what the evangelist is trying to tell us is that he is creating an “awkward narrative” because he is forced by embarrassment to hide the “truth” of Jesus’ birthplace.
Of course the gospels “tell us” Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They are hardly “trying to” do so — they DO do so. They are “trying to hide the fact that he was born in Nazareth when he was supposed to have been born in Bethlehem if he was the messiah” — that’s the argument I was addressing.
Do any scholars but those from fundamentalist and apologist seminaries take any notice of Albright today?
All four gospels were three gospels all dependent upon the Gospel of Mark. They certainly all belong to the stream of Christianity that ended up as the “orthodox” ocean. They all present certain disciples as pillars or as those who became pillars of the church while other Christian sects rejected some or all of those apostles. So our gospels all belonged to a certain common train of thought that stood in opposition to some others.
I don’t know the specific reason for wanting to remove the sect name from Jesus because we don’t know enough (or anything much at all) about the sect as it was in the first century or early second century. But the notion that a founder of a religion would be named after an insignificant village that presumably few would even have heard of, and that this disciples would also be associated with a religion that went by the name taken from that village — all of that is far more problematic than the evidence that the word derives from a sect name that had something to do with “rigorous observance”.
The Bethlehem/Nazareth contradiction, I’m pretty sure I did spot for myself; I remember finding it glaringly obvious. The Talmudic teachings that match Jesus’s Sabbath teaching I did learn about elsewhere, though I’ve checked the Talmudic passages for myself since then to confirm. The other examples I gave, I honestly can’t remember at this point to what extent I noticed them myself and to what extent they were pointed out to me by authors I read, although they are all passages I’ve since checked out for myself.
Good grief, if I’d made a statement as blatant as that I’d quite understand you criticising me for attempted mind-reading. There’s a difference between ‘X happened because of Y’, and ‘Y is the simplest and most obvious explanation for X’, and the latter is the argument I was making.
We know that two of the gospel authors come up with involved, clearly fictitious stories explaining how their main character could have grown up in Nazareth despite being (as they claimed) born in Bethlehem, and that there is no obvious narrative reason for this. We don’t know why they did this. The most obvious explanatory theory is that there actually was a historical Jesus who actually did come from Nazareth and that this was well enough known in the early Christian community that Matthew and Luke had to include it. And, while ‘most obvious explanation’ does not automatically equate to ‘correct explanation’ (believe me, that’s something I’m very well aware of after half a lifetime in medicine!), this is one of several points for which the most obvious explanation involves a historical Jesus. So, as I said above, I do consider the cumulative effect of these to be evidence on the pro-historical Jesus side.
No idea. But, regardless of what people think of that one specific scholar, is it really that well accepted that the name Nazarene ‘does not derive from the place name of Nazareth’? I’ve seen that theory once or twice, but wouldn’t have thought it was well accepted enough to be referred to as if it were a fact that was ‘well known’.
Yet we all know that, despite this, they differ significantly on all sorts of points as each writer wrote the story in his own way. Deriving a place name from a name for the sect would have been exactly the sort of detail on which we’d expect them to differ. The fact that all four of them give us exactly the same name very strongly suggests that Nazareth was an established part of the story before the evangelists started writing.
Neil, the problematic part isn’t the idea of the sect name originally deriving from a term for rigorous observance. The problematic part is the idea that all four evangelists not only wanted to explain away a sect name derived in such a way, but also came up with the same very odd and unusual device for doing so.
It really doesn’t seem hugely improbable to me that a man in that society might be identified as coming from a particular place; as I understand it, that was considered a valid alternative way of distinguishing between people of the same first name in a society that didn’t use official surnames (i.e., although people would usually use patronymics they could also use place names), so the point would not be whether anyone had ever heard of the place he was coming from, but simply that referring to this Yeshua as the one who was ‘of Nazareth’ would distinguish him from the many other Yeshuas that were around at the time. The idea that other people might have picked up on using this part of the founder’s identification as a name for his sect also doesn’t seem that improbable to me. Apart from anything else, it’s quite possible his opponents used the name as a way of jeering at the sect for following this peasant who came from such a no-account village.
Now, of course, all of that is speculation. But it strikes me as considerably more plausible speculation than the idea that his followers wanted to rewrite the history of the name of their sect or that they did so by claiming the name really came from an unknown village. I can’t see how the idea that some people referred to their sect by a name derived from its founder’s village is supposed to be more implausible than the idea that the sect felt the need to come up with the name of a fictitious village to explain away their original name.
Sorry, but I fear we are at cross purposes here. I was not faulting you for the source(s) of your observations. That was not my point at all.
I don’t understand. If the gospels are not trying to hide the fact that Jesus was born at Nazareth then why do they try to create a fiction that he was born at Bethlehem? I thought that was your point — that the Bethlehem birth was a fiction created to hide the “real fact” of Nazareth being his birth place.
What is the difference between:
They say the same thing to me.
Yes, I realize you do. My point was that you appear to be unfamiliar with the logical problems with that explanation and with alternative explanations that are more consistent with the evidence both within and external to the gospels. You do not address the alternative explanations or the various problems that are known to exist in the literature with your “simplest explanation”. Just repeating your point without addressing its weaknesses does not persuade me to change my mind.
Why not read more widely, then. I can provide you a list of sources if you are interested. It most certainly IS well-known in the scholarly literature, and Albright’s views are considered very often as little more than apologetics.
But even if you were aware of the argument existing among scholars, even if you were not aware if it was a minority or majority view, why would you not want to investigate it and see if you agree with the evidence for yourself rather than simply accept what you assume or believe to be a majority view that supports your opinion?
No, that’s not true. They don’t all give us “exactly the same name” at all. Translators might render “exactly the same name” in English, but that’s not what the Greek texts say.
And why do you assume that there was “the story before the evangelists started writing”? We have no evidence for the pre-gospel existence of such a story. The most economical explanation is that the evangelists created the story themselves from sources we can see and identify.
(If you are interested I can provide you again with scholarly work addressing the sources and problems with the theory of oral tradition.)
Well, they simply don’t all come up with the same “unusual device”. That’s clearly not so. And you acknowledge that the gospels are not independent, so there is no weight to the argument that “all four” agree on anything. That agreement does not prove a hypothetical pre-existing oral tradition for which we have no evidence but proves that they were indebted to each other. (One of the arguments scholars use to explain their differences is that the four evangelists did NOT have access to some common source known to all and to which they felt they must adhere.)
And simply repeating your argument that “the unusual device” is found in two gospels does nothing to address the logical problems with the explanation you try to give for that “unusual device”. The problems are not only logical but they fail to account for all of the known data, and in fact raise further problems with trying to explain the other evidence. Do you want me to explain all of those problems again in more detail?
Yes, calling Jesus by a place-name that no-one had heard of certainly would distinguish him from other Jesuses.
It doesn’t seem improbable to you that others would have picked up on that name to describe his sect of followers — even though the sect name is well known and demonstrably nothing to do with the place name Nazareth according to most (all?) scholars who have addressed that name, and even despite the fact that such an origin for a sect name is nowhere else known in history or human experience.
What is plausible needs to be assessed in accordance of what we know of other cases from human behaviour and history and especially the culture of the times. To ignore all of that and simply think your theory is more plausible when it contradicts all of that and a good deal of the available data is not the way to go. I prefer to follow an explanation that fits the culture of the times, known human experience, and leaves fewest questions outstanding in relation to all of the data, and is reasonably well informed of the serious arguments of both sides of a question.
Neil, two different questions seem to be getting tangled together here; whether ‘Nazarene’ was derived from ‘Nazareth’, and why all four gospel authors claimed Jesus came from a place called Nazareth. Whatever the answer to the first question, we’re still left with the issue I originally raised; what a plausible mythicist explanation would be for the latter.
You said in your post that the simplest explanation was that ‘an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect’, but you don’t have an explanation for why anyone would want to do this. What groups have you heard of that have rewritten the history of their sect name in such a way? Why would a group want to? I can see how sects might change their name, or members might form a breakaway sect with a different name; but why would a group who were keeping the same name want to change the backstory of where it came from? If their name originally came from a word meaning ‘rigorous observance’ – which, as you pointed out, is a perfectly good source for a sect’s name – why would they want to make up this story that it was actually the name of the village their founder came from? You’ve said you can’t imagine anyone calling their sect after the insignificant village their founder came from; why is it more probable that someone would claim their sect name came from an imaginary insignificant village that their founder hadn’t actually come from?
It’s not even some quirky inexplicable decision of just one evangelist. I mean, I was wrong when I thought they all gave exactly the same name – thanks for that info, I learned something – but they do all give what’s clearly a version of the name Nazareth as the name of Jesus’s place of origin. This includes the two who are also at great pains to say he was actually born in Bethlehem – even though this necessitates them coming up with complicated stories reconciling those two claims – and the one who brings it up in the context of someone being negative about the whole idea of Jesus coming from Nazareth. And, yes, we know that at least two of the evangelists copied from the first one; but we also know that they all put their own slant on the story and that Matthew was OK with correcting details in gMark that didn’t fit, so it’s not as though the other three would have been constrained to go with the ‘Jesus came from a village called Nazareth’ narrative just because Mark did.
So what explanation for this would fit with a mythicist theory? We’re getting sidetracked into the different question of how widely accepted the ‘Nazarene doesn’t come from Nazareth’ argument is amongst experts. Fair enough, I know I was the one who questioned that in the first place – widely accepted arguments are also usually widely known, so when I see an unfamiliar one, I think it’s worth questioning whether it really is widely accepted rather than taking that claim for granted – but, OK, if it’s one you’ve found to be widely accepted then I guess I’ve learned something, so, again, thanks. But that’s all by-the-by; we’re still left with the question of why all four evangelists agreed that Jesus came from a village called Nazareth, when we’ve got no explanation as to how this would have happened under a mythical theory.
I don’t have to turn to mythicists to find the singular point being made: no cult leader is ever named after his place of birth. Period. It is a meaningless attribution unattested in all of history and human experience. Jesus, once again, is the only exception. Bring in ad hoc and special pleading — the only exception in all of history.
Besides, I don’t see the relevance of the argument vis a vis the historicity of Jesus anyway. I responded to your point about Nazareth because of the misconceptions on which it is based.
The reason why Nazareth became attached to Jesus is no mystery. It is explained early on in Matthew’s narrative.
Anyway, after all this to-ing and fro-ing on the sorts of things that some people seem to think are important for proving the historicity of Jesus, I wonder why not just cut to the chase: What difference does the Nazareth question make to the historicity of Jesus? The best that can be argued is that Jesus was believed to have been from Nazareth, etc. But then one has to ask, So what? How does that establish the historicity of Jesus? I can point out what scholars identify as the flaws in many of the Nazareth claims, but even if we set all of that aside and imagine that there are no contradictions or further problems arising — none of that can prove Jesus was historical.
Arguing that “I think this is plausible” does nothing to establish historicity. Especially when the problems with the “plausible” scenario are swept aside because one prefers to think of the scenario as more plausible anyway.
The claims that Jesus came from Nazareth are easy to explain under a historical Jesus theory (under which the obvious explanation is that Jesus actually did come from Nazareth) but difficult to explain under a mythical Jesus theory (for the reasons I discussed above). I raised it as one of several points that fit that description. While no single such point can individually make the case for Jesus being historical (as it’s always possible there’s an explanation we haven’t thought of), the cumulative effect of having multiple such points is that ‘Jesus was historical’ becomes the most likely explanation overall.
If you are trying to argue for the historicity of Jesus along these lines then it’s an approach I am not interested in engaging with. Such kinds of arguments are not how historians establish the historicity of any figure. Hypotheses like yours are merely hypotheses and not the hard evidence. You reject alternative hypotheses and insist yours have more explanatory power but that is not how historicity of any person or event is established by historians.
Part 3 of reply:
Literally my next sentence after the part you quoted was ‘Sure, you can think of explanations for those, or speculate that maybe there’s some reason we just don’t know.’ I thought that made it obvious that none of my questions was meant to be beyond counter-argument; I’m not sure how I could have made that any clearer, though I’m open to suggestions.
Well, for goodness’ sake, I do realise that’s not the Christian message in terms of being what Christianity focuses on or what it now teaches. But it’s still an undeniable fact that Christianity has taught from the very early stages that their founder was crucified. Even though this is, as you point out, not at all the focus of the message. Even though there’s nothing about it that was inherently necessary for the storyline; there are plenty of possible narratives of suffering, and even of death, that don’t involve crucifixion. Even though Paul’s comment in 1 Cor 1:23 plus what we know of Roman and Jewish culture of the time suggests that the crucifixion story was off-putting to a lot of potential converts. Even though, even among the scriptures that were sometimes interpreted as pointing to Messianic suffering and/or that spoke of violent death, there were absolutely none pointing towards crucifixion as a mode of death. And, given that sort of context, a belief in a Messiah who was crucified is a very odd thing to come up with out of the blue.
Yes, of course, that doesn’t make it impossible; people sometimes do come up with very odd things out of the blue. It’s just an extremely unlikely thing to come up with. And the problem is that it’s one of several points that require similarly unlikely explanations if we go with a mythicist theory. It’s not that any single point on its own makes mythicism impossible. It’s that we have a whole lot of stuff that is much more straightforward to explain on a historicist theory than on a mythicist theory, which does seem to bring Occam’s Razor into play.
On top of all that, there’s the question of why this is being presented in the gospels as though the first part of the story has already happened. Sure, people made all sorts of detailed predictions about what the Messiah might do or might be like, and some of those included suffering, and very occasionally even death and resurrection (though I don’t know of any that involved conviction as a criminal and execution). But the only cases I know of in which a group of people started preaching that the Messiah had been on earth although the redemption-of-Israel happy ending was still to happen are the cases of Sabbatai Zvi and Schneerson, which both involved real people who were thought by others to be the Messiah. I find it incredibly difficult to imagine a sequence of events that would lead to people telling stories of a Messiah who had recently lived on earth that doesn’t involve an actual person being thought to be that Messiah.
Dr Sarah, how of grace can you say that the crucifixion is not implied as the ideal form of death for the Suffering SERVant of Isaiah, even more so when the crucifixion was known to be called the SERVILE supplicium par excellence ?
If you read what the passage actually says, it describes the servant being ‘wounded’, ‘bruised’, and ‘brought as a lamb to the slaughter’. We’re very used to associating this passage with the crucifixion story, so that’s what automatically springs to mind; but imagine reading this with no prior knowledge of Christianity whatsoever. The obvious form of death you’d think of would be throat-cutting, given the ‘lamb to the slaughter’ reference. Of course, that might be meant metaphorically, so you might picture all sorts of other forms of injury or death. But there’s nothing that would bring crucifixion in particular to mind.
I’ve never heard of crucifixion being called the ‘servile supplicium par excellence’. Can you give me a reference, and, more importantly, do you know of any references to this term that predate Christianity?
Dr. Sarah, ignore for a moment the servant being ‘wounded’, ‘bruised’, and ‘brought as a lamb to the slaughter’, and focus only on the word ‘SERVANT’. It cannot be a coincidence that the same Greek word: παῖς, can mean both ‘slave and ‘son’: that word inspired the idea that the Son/Servant of God had to die as a slave, and the crucifixion, the most shameful death of the era, was the apt slaves‘ punishment.
Cicero called the crucifixion servitutis extremum summumque supplicium (‘the most terrible torture inflicted on slaves‘, In Verrem 2,5,66, 169) and crudelissimum taeterrimymque supplicium (‘the most cruel and horrible torture’). Tacitus called it ‘servile supplicium’ (Historiae 4, 11, 3), supplicium in servilem modum (Historiae 2,72, 2), serviles cruciatus (slaves’s tortures) (Annales 3, 50, 1).
I just looked up παῖς on Google Translate, which says it actually means ‘parent’. I’ve also looked up the Koine Greek terms for ‘son’ and ‘slave’, and, while I won’t try spelling them here, they were definitely different from each other.
Even if the internet is wrong about that and there actually is a Koine Greek term meaning both ‘son’ and ‘slave’, why would that mean that someone would invent a complicated theology around it? People can usually handle the concept of homonyms.
In the highly unlikely event that such a term exists, anyone who formed a theology based on reading it would of necessity have to be literate and fairly fluent in Koine Greek. Have you any explanation as to why no such figure appears as a key figure in any of our accounts of Christianity’s origins, but, rather, the early church leaders are all presented as Jewish peasants?
A list of optimal reasons about why the crucifixion, as particular form of death, had to be connected with an invented mythical Jesus is found here/.
You may find extremely interesting that list of reasons.
The link is: http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=5536#p101924
Giuseppe, that is not a list of reasons why it ‘had’ to be connected. It’s a list of far-fetched suggestions that people came up with in response to a mythicist asking for possible reasons, without making any apparent effort to weigh up whether any of them were even remotely likely.
There would have been a point when the stories being told were when He hadn’t recently lived. Then one would think there would have been more stories from and about prominent and key early followers, and about their groups and communities. We kind of get a sense of that with the letters of Paul. Yet they are general letters to various communities well away from Judea & Israel: letters to communities in Asia Minor or over the Aegean Sea and beyond, eg. to ‘the Romans’. But we don’t hear any more about those communities. Ever, afaik. And they’re largely exhortations.
Moreover, we don’t hear much about the key disciples -James, Peter or John- Paul’s letters. We just get abstract commentary that they sort of ratified what Paul wanted to do, was doing, or wanted to do. We certainly don’t get accounts from Paul of Peter’s, James’ and John’s about their experiences with Jesus and what they said he said or did as one would expect. We also get Paul scolding Peter (& James), which is pretty weird considering it’s supposed to have been a movement based on accounts of Jesus’ teachings and action, and that antagonism against or among the disciples is something that gets repeated in Mark or Acts (or both).
You said, “it’s still an undeniable fact that Christianity has taught from the very early stages that their founder was crucified.” I would argue the stories we have and the history of those stories don’t portray Jesus as the founder of Christianity: the stories portray him as a sage or the like, with capacities for magical healing (with spittle as others such as Vespasian were said to have had), and with a streak of table-upturning.
Further to my previous point about accounts about the lack of early accounts about Christian communities, there is also an ongoing discrepancy between the gospel stories about Jesus and when the movement is first manifest in large scale: the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Origen and their contemporaries are not writings about Christian communities: they’re writing about other writings or, particularly in Irenaeus’s case, writing about and against nonChristians. AFAIK, the earliest account about a congregation is a 4th century priest complaining about his congregants turning to acknowledge the sun before they enter church, a legacy from the Sol Invictus religion that dominated the Roman Empire in the late 3rd century (but about which we hardly ever hear).
“I find it incredibly difficult to imagine a sequence of events that would lead to people telling stories of a Messiah who had recently lived on earth that doesn’t involve an actual person being thought to be that Messiah.”
Dr Sarah how many generations does “recently” imply? Why do you discount Pliny’s account of the Christian Cult in decline? Which implies an easy switch from a Celestial Jesus to an Earthly Jesus.
Cf. Carrier, Richard (2020). “How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus?” Jesus from Outer Space. ISBN 978-1-63431-208-0. pp. 152ff.
@db: Hi again! Replying to your comment:
Good question; ‘recently’ here is definitely a relative term, as we’re talking about decades (or probably 1 – 2 generations, if that’s how you prefer to do your measuring). However, all examples I’ve so far seen of people telling multiple detailed stories about the earthly life of an entirely mythical character are set centuries in the past, so either all the gospel writers were completely outside the typical range there, or else the story is actually a mythicised version of a person who originally lived on earth at around the given time.
Pliny’s letter doesn’t give an account of a cult ‘in decline’. It certainly doesn’t sound as though Christianity at the time was the runaway roaring success that the author of Acts tried to claim, and no great surprise there; but ‘decline’ means that things are going downhill from a previous state, and we simply don’t get that information from the letter one way or the other.
I don’t own the particular book that you’re citing, but I’ve managed to read the section on Pliny as it’s visible with the Amazon ‘look inside’ feature, and Carrier seems to be reading things into the letter that aren’t there. He writes that Christians ‘had never even appeared on Pliny’s radar, anywhere, ever’: no, what Pliny actually writes is that he’d never had any dealings with legal cases involving Christianity, not that the religion had never been on his radar at all. Carrier talks as though Pliny were actively searching for Christians (‘those who could be rousted up as Christians’, ‘it was a labor even to find them’, ‘…until he was pressed to search…’). But there is nothing at all in Pliny’s letter to suggest that he was searching for Christians or trying to ‘roust up’ anyone’; instead he refers only to people who came before him as a result of accusations. And, while Carrier’s technically correct to state that Christianity ‘was even losing membership’, in that Pliny does describe speaking to individuals who admitted to being Christians previously but swore that they had left the group years before, ‘losing membership’ is rather misleading as an overall descriptor, since it tells us nothing about the overall change in membership levels. (A group can lose individual members yet still grow overall; it depends on the comparative rates of losing vs. gaining, so the fact that Pliny encountered some people who’d left over the previous decades in no way gives us enough basis to conclude that overall membership was going down.) I agree that Pliny’s letter is evidence that Christianity was at best a small cult that hadn’t made enormous progress at that point, but Carrier’s interpretation requires making entirely unproved assumptions.
I also raised my eyebrows somewhat at Carrier’s claim that the decline he believes Pliny’s letter to demonstrate ‘corresponds exactly’ with when the gospels were written; that’s a rather ironic claim in view of his previous lamentations about how little we can actually know about when the gospels were written. He’s quite correct in his previous point that we have a very wide range of possible dates for the gospels… but, once we accept that, we can hardly then claim that anything ‘corresponds exactly’ with when they were written. We don’t have any degree of exactitude about when they were written, and that’s that.
(I did look elsewhere in the book just in case he’d come up with a new argument about when the gospels were written, but in fact he’s claiming late ‘70s as the most likely date for gMark. So… his best estimate of the date the first gospel was written is almost thirty years before Pliny’s letter, and he’s also been quite clear as to the impossibility of getting any clear data on this point. Sorry, but it’s a flat-out contradiction for him then to turn around and say that the gospels ‘correspond exactly’ with the time Pliny was writing.)
Why? This is the other thing I don’t understand about this argument. Setting aside for a moment the problems with the first part and looking only at the claim that the Church presented a formerly celestial founder as earthly in order to win converts… why on earth would such a claim win converts? Or, more to the point, why would anyone anticipate that it would? Why would the church leaders expect that a human founder born on earth would be more attractive to potential converts than a celestial divinity who visited earth? I don’t understand why this would be considered a selling point.
Dr Sarah says: “Why would the church leaders expect that a human founder born on earth would be more attractive to potential converts than a celestial divinity who visited earth?”
• How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus? • Richard Carrier. 9 November 2017.
• “Jesus was functionally irrelevant to the earliest stages of what contemporary researchers call the Jesus movement, or the Christ cult, or the Jesus-confessing communities (and that I will call early Christianity).” Noll, Kurt (2012). “Investigating Earliest Christianity without Jesus”. pp. 233-266. in Thompson & Verenna, eds (2012). ISBN:9781845539863
Dr Sarah says: “[A]ll examples I’ve so far seen of people telling multiple detailed stories about the earthly life of an entirely mythical character are set centuries in the past, so either all the gospel writers were completely outside the typical range there, or else the story is actually a mythicised version of a person who originally lived on earth at around the given time.”
Carrier responds separately elsewhere to a different individual on this topic.
• Comment by Richard Carrier—5 August 2020— per “Open Thread On the Historicity of Jesus”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 29 June 2020.
Dr Sarah says: “…multiple detailed stories about the earthly life of an entirely mythical character…”
@Dr Sarah, do you maintain that the gospels are multiple detailed stories about the earthly life Jesus?
Per Carrier (1 August 2021). “The GCRR eConference on the Historical Jesus: A Retrospective”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
Indeed. And Christianity was not universally popular until Constantine made it so “by law”. But the idea of a just man unjustly condemned is a very common — and to people at certain times and situations — popular, appealing motif in literature, in national myths, in religions. That the one who is reduced to the lowest emerges as the highest to vindicate himself and condemn his enemies does have an undeniable appeal.
There is no suggestion that the idea “came out of the blue”. It came out of Second Temple era Jewish culture. Considerable scholarship has worked on this question and traced its origin back to the events of the Maccabees and narratives of Isaac, the Suffering Servant and Daniel’s Son of Man. It is a very Jewish idea (Also Levenson).
I agree. And that’s what happened. People thought Jesus was the Messiah and that he had lived on earth. The gospels told them so. Even before the gospels they believed that Jesus had descended to earth to be crucificied in humiliation in order to be exalted and banish death.
Ditto with the Greeks. They believed Heracles lived on earth. Where else would the stories come from? People told accounts of how they had even seen him in their own time. He and others were even said to have been seen at recent battles.
If your difficulty is with understanding how and why things happened then that is a different question from deciding what the sources point us towards.
The gospel narratives about Jesus are not attested independently in the sources until the middle of the second century. (Normal dating of events in historical investigations relies upon independent verification.) To verify the “truth” of the stories Justin did not appeal to oral traditions but to scriptures as the proof that they had happened.
The first gospel was clearly not written as a “historical biography” but as another Jewish story that wove together motifs and allusions from Scriptures to create a new theological narrative. As historical biography the narrative is full of contradictions and nonsense. As a theological rewriting of Scriptural motifs and characters for a new context post the destruction of the Temple and the crucifixions of Jews it makes a lot of sense. It is a tale of a “new Israel” emerging — as prophesied — spiritually cleansed and spiritually victorious. Jesus was a personification of Israel, an extension of the image of Israel in Isaiah as the Suffering Servant, and Daniel’s Son of Man who represented the martyred yet ultimately victorious Maccabees.
Other writers copied its methods and created their own gospels, some of them (like the Gospel of Peter) never making it into our canon. But they clearly recognized the technique of crafting different narratives out of the Psalms and Prophets.
While these stories remained within the circles of Jewish exegetes familiar with this type of storytelling the various narrative contradictions and implausible details did not bother them and they treated them as theological narratives. But one can understand how outsiders, gentiles let’s say, could interpret them quite differently, even literally.
What other religions were you thinking of that use the motif?
I could buy that if, say, it was a story about Jesus being miraculously freed, or righteously smiting the judge or the executioner, or some such. But it’s a story about him being executed and buried, and, in the earliest gospel, all we get by way of a twist in the end is someone telling us that he’s risen from the dead; it’s only in later versions that we even get to see him reappear.
Isaac’s planned sacrificial death would, in the story, have been by cutting his throat. The Suffering Servant song only describes the servant being ‘wounded’ and ‘bruised’ and suffering ‘stripes’. Daniel doesn’t describe a death at all for the figure he describes as ‘like a son of man’. Second Temple Jewish culture was to make sin sacrifices by cutting the animal’s throat.
Even if a group of Jews of the time did come up with the idea that the Messiah was actually meant to be a sin sacrifice analogous to Isaac/the temple animals, then the mode of sacrificial death that would have come naturally to their minds would have been throat-cutting. That was the image of sin sacrifice that arose from Second Temple Judaism. Sacrifice by crucifixion was literally unheard of.
And yet, the story has Jesus being executed by crucifixion.
It’s not that that’s an impossible idea for someone to come up with; I don’t think there’s such a thing as an idea so bizarre or improbable that someone, somewhere, can’t manage to come up with it and maybe even come to believe it. It’s that it’s a very unlikely idea for someone from that culture to come up with.
The posts at those links seem to be mostly about the idea of suffering and/or dying Messiahs, rather than about the crucifixion specifically. The only thing I could find about the crucifixion was a theory that it had been derived from the Greek word for ‘wood’ in the sacrificial pyre in the Isaac story being the same as the Greek word for ‘tree’ in Deuteronomy law about not leaving hanged men on trees overnight. As connections go, that would be a hell of a leap for someone to take.
Again, it’s not that it’s totally impossible for someone to come up with some incredibly strange and strained connection like that. It’s that it’s vastly improbable. And, as such, it’s much more improbable than the idea that a group following a real person they believed to be the Messiah who was then crucified could have made sense of this blow by reinterpreting his crucifixion.
Agreed. The question is, how did people get to that belief? Sure, there are plenty of examples of people believing that heroes such as the Biblical patriarchs (from Hebrew culture) or demigods (from Greek culture) had lived on earth when that wasn’t actually the case; but those examples are of people who supposedly lived in a very distant past, not in recent decades. Do you know of any comparable cases from that culture in which people told and believed stories this detailed of a mythical person supposedly living on earth in recent decades?
Even if people were claiming he’d visited Earth recently, wasn’t that on the background of an already existing belief that he had lived in a non-specific distant past, with the stories of his life being set there? As far as I know, there’s no record of anyone claiming that his supposed life on Earth had been recent and naming a specific well-known recent person as responsible for his execution.
There’s also another difference here. The myth of Heracles, as far as I can see, is similar to the myth of, for example, King Arthur, in that the purpose of the story is to inspire us. It’s a story about a legendary hero. Yes, people believed it was true, but there’s a sense in which it really doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not; what matters to us is the power of the story. Same with other mythical figures such as the Biblical patriarchs; sometimes the story is about winning through in the face of the odds, sometimes it’s about overcoming flaws, sometimes it’s even about falling prey to flaws, sometimes it’s about all of the above, but, in each case, the important thing is the story and what message it gives the audience.
But the concept of the Messiah was different in that it was primarily a practical one. The reason the Jews wanted the Messiah was because his arrival would signal the time in which they were liberated from their oppressors. It’s not so much about the person as about the longed-for future he represents. So, how would the idea arise of a Messiah who’d already lived a life on Earth prior to coming back to do the actual job? There’ve been I don’t know how many Messianic prophecies over the centuries about Messiahs who would arrive, and there’ve been many cases in which people latched onto a real person whom they believed to be a Messiah that had arrived, and I think there might even have been cases where people believed that the Messiah had arrived but was still hidden; but I don’t know of any cases in which people came to believe in detailed yet entirely fictional stories of the Messiah living a human life on earth that didn’t yet include the actual ‘defeat the bad guys and bring about the good days’ bit of the story that was meant to be the key part.
(Apologies for messing up the italics tags in the middle part of that.)
The cult of Heracles is one, the cult of Demeter, of Dionysus, also the god Prometheus . . . . See also posts here on Riley’s work.
Paul’s writings appeared before the Gospel of Mark. And the prophecies uttered by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark inform the reader that Jesus will emerge victorious, and the ending is just as detailed in this respect as are the myths of Heracles and Romulus with their “resurrections”. Bodies were not found but the message of victory was clear. We only get messages of a post-resurrection appearance or a missing body there, too. The Gospel of Mark is no different. The message of the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus has divine power and will return again to judge all. The message of Paul is that Jesus is already ruling and driving back the demons.
That the Christian message is about a failure is only brought out against mythicists, I think. Ask any Christian what the story of Jesus is about — both today and in the earliest literature — and it’s about Jesus’ victory over death! Why leave out the most important part of the myth when trying to disprove mythicism? No Christian believes that. No scholar of Christianity believes the message was about a failed saviour, either.
I don’t see how this supports the argument for historicity. If Jesus was crucified and no-one would accept that a crucified man was the messiah then surely that makes “historicism” an unlikely explanation.
So how did the story of a crucified messiah begin? What would lead Jews to a crucified man was the messiah? Surely your argument counts against historicity. It is a most unlikely explanation, is it not? No matter how impressive a man might have been while alive, would Jews really have started to think he was the very messiah if he had been crucified?
I referred to scholarly explorations of the origin of the crucified martyr with atoning blood myth in an earlier comment. It was a Jewish idea pieced together via reflections on OT passages. And especially in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem with its accompanying thousands of crucified Jews, I can imagine that idea taking hold and forming a new version of old stories for the new situation post 70 CE.
If you dismiss the scholarly research with your own uninformed musings to the contrary then we have nothing to talk about. Perhaps you are just too clever for the scholars whose detailed work impresses me.
Why not read the scholarship and learn what Jews of the time would have thought? Have you heard of the Maccabean martyrs? Have you heard of midrash and how it worked? Have you read about the origin of Daniel’s Son of Man figure?
By the way, in some early Jewish writings Jesus is a lamb whose throat is cut; in others it appears that his death is not of any significance at all.
So such a figure is not likely going to be believed in as a messiah, is he, — not even “gradually over time” among Jews — if he was historical and real people were coping with his death.
But if a story of a martyred saviour is one that can be imagined through reinterpretation of scriptures passages (as other new stories were imagined by scriptural reflection) then we have an explanation for the myth. There is no need to add a historical figure to the explanation because that only adds complication. Occam, as you mentioned earlier.
Exactly. Especially if it is trying to turn a historical man into a divine saviour. But in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE, with literally thousands of crucified victims along the highways etc, one can easily imagine a new story emerging of a new Israel, a new Moses, a new Temple, a new Torah, all embodied in a crucified personification of Israel/Temple/Torah, and one who offers atonement and salvation in a new spiritual realm.
Okay, so we can have martyrs dying by all sorts of means who are seen to be in the line of Isaac and his (would-be) sacrifice but you can’t accept that any sacrificed martyr could have any atoning power unless he died by having his throat cut? I think the Jewish scholars who concur with Levenson’s idea and others like it would think such an objection is being a little over-literal.
I don’t know why you sound so sure that the idea is “strained” and “vastly improbable” when it does seem evident that you have not read very much of the scholarship on the question — both Christian and Jewish. The idea may seem strained to us, but it was obviously acceptable to Second Temple Jews. That the Son of Man in the Book of Enoch has a “vastly improbable” connection to the Son of Man in Daniel, and that the Son of Man in Daniel has a “vastly improbable” connection with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, and that the death by hanging on a tree has a “vastly improbable” connection with Isaac carrying the wood for his altar of sacrifice … all of these “vastly improbable” ideas to us were not at all “vastly improbable” in Second Temple Jewish thinking.
Jewish thinking was focused on the fact of shed blood — not the means by which it had been shed. That’s the message all through the Pentateuch – the fact of the blood being shed. That is what the discussions were about — the shed blood. It was the shed blood that had the atoning power, whether an animal sacrifice or a human martyr, in Jewish thinking. Not the “cutting of the throat”.
It is a pity that too many biblical scholars are too quick to attack mythicism and in the process keep their readers in ignorance of the scholarship in their field that undermines their protests.
I posted on this question not long ago. Scholarship informs us — and so does a simple reading of some of the Greek literature — that people then were quite capable of believing the gods had appeared in their own generation, in their own life-times — with witnesses. They were not necessarily or all confined to the misty distant past.
And besides, Jewish myths were generally in the form of a type of “historical fiction” — with the focus on relatively recent history.
You are quite correct. There is no gospel like text with all the parallels of the gospel narratives, with plot and narrative and character parallels, until the gospels themselves. But there is an abundance of literature, Jewish and Greco-Roman, that have all the features of the gospels, including historical characters even though they are fiction. Authors are capable of creating new stories by combining the techniques etc of the known literature of the time. That happens all the time.
Again, no Christian believes this (that Jesus didn’t “actually defeat the bad guys”), not today and not among the earliest Christian writers. They all declare that Jesus has indeed conquered the power of death and the powers of evil. It’s all there in the Bible. That’s the whole story. An explanation for Christian origins has to account for the whole story. The same story says he lived before he appeared on earth and returned to his heavenly origin and in the process conquered all principalities and powers — by means of his atoning martyrdom, just like Isaac and other martyrs of the past.
Jesus did indeed bring about the hoped for deliverance. Either here and now in the spirit dimension, or proleptically.
The other historical anecdotes about living messiahs in the middle ages or more recently only demonstrate how unlike them the story of Jesus really is.
The issue isn’t whether people would accept it (clearly people did), but whether people would think of it. People tend to default to the images and connections they’re used to. If you’re from a culture where ‘sin sacrifice’ has always meant throat-cutting, then throat-cutting is going to be what comes to your mind when you think of sin sacrifice. So, if someone from that culture has come up with the idea that the Messiah has to die as a sin sacrifice, then the image that comes to their mind is almost certainly going to be the Messiah having his throat cut and his blood spilled; not because that’s theologically necessary to their new theory, but because it’s what they’re used to picturing when they think of sin sacrifice. So it’s very unlikely that someone working that way round – starting with the concept of a sacrificed Messiah, coming up with the mode of death from that concept – is going to picture crucifixion, which has nothing in common with the existing and well-established method of sin sacrifice.
And that’s one of our questions; is this particular story one that can be imagined through reinterpretation of scriptural passages? Martyred Messiah, yes; saviour through martyrdom, maybe… but crucifixion as the method? There’s nothing in the scriptural passages that points towards that. Sacrifice of the Messiah as the only way to save humans from doom? Again, that’s a new one as far as Judaism is concerned. That makes it much more likely that those parts of the theology came from sources other than the scriptures. So, we’re still left with the question of where they came from.
Neil, I know that midrash involved linking widely different verses from different passages on tenuous connections in order to come up with new meanings; but why would it involve linking a verse from a legalistic tract about hanged people generally, with a verse about a patriarch being sacrificed, just to give a completely different image of how the ultimate sacrifice could be made, when every Jew grew up in a society where sacrifice was made by cutting the throat of a perfect and unblemished animal? Why would anyone be looking for a completely different way for a sacrifice to be made? What evidence do you have that makes you so convinced that this would be ‘not at all “vastly improbable”’ in the thinking of the time?
No, but the reason for that is because they redefined who the ‘bad guys’ were. Jews were expecting a Messiah who’d defeat Israel’s enemies, which, in this case, would have meant kicking out the Romans. As you pointed out, Christianity redefines the Messiah’s job description to defeating death and the powers of evil instead, with a plan to defeat the physical earthly enemies at some undefined future date. Under mythicism, why would the early church members have invented stories of a life on earth for a Messiah whose purpose was to get crucified? It makes sense if they were trying to retcon the life of a human who had lived on earth; why would they do this for a Messiah whose life and death they’d imagined?
If you are interested in the debate then why not read what the other side has already been pointing out. Jews were also expecting a messiah who would be defeated, killed, and raised again. Besides, there claim that “Jews – speaking generally – were expecting a conquering messiah” is hotly contested. It is not an undisputed fact at all despite all the times you will read it over and over again. Look for the evidence. Ask why they interpret certain evidence the way they do.
If you want to discuss the historicity of Jesus then let’s discuss the actual evidence.
Midrash was not derived from one verse alone. As for coming back again to this notion that a sacrifice was only a valid sacrifice if it had the throat cut — something not spelled out anywhere in the Bible as far as I am aware — the fact is that human sacrifices, and atoning human sacrifices for the sins of the people, happened in all sorts of horrible ways and tortures. See Maccabees.
Before coming up with myriads of “whatabout” and “whywould” questions, check out the actual history of the ideas of the time. You’ll find many of those questions no longer arise.
Dr Sarah, how of grace can you say that the belief that X was the Messiah implies that X was a historical person ?
Please read this:
Melchizedek as a Messiah at Qumran
Sorry, could you clarify? Can you think of any plausible way in which multiple people from that culture could come to believe that a Messiah had recently existed on earth without this being linked to a historical person?
I’m afraid I can’t read that paper without paying for it, and I’m not interested enough to pay $19 for one paper, but, from what I can see, it seems to be about a prophecy rather than about a belief in a figure that’s recently been on earth. I can just about see someone believing that the Messiah would be, say, an angel, though it’s a bit of a stretch. I can’t see multiple people then coming up with stories about how this mythical being had recently been living a human life on earth.
It is sufficient, for mythicism, that an a-historical entity, such Melkizedek, was adored as celestial Messiah by marginal Jews, to confute your point that any entity adored as Messiah has to be historical.
But you are correct in a particular sense: when it became more and more urgent that the concept of Messiah implied a belief in a figure who’s recently been on earth – i.e. when Josephus refers about the “ambiguous” oracle in Bellum 6.312–13, by then, and only by then, i.e. after the 70 CE, they invented the Gospel Jesus. What was perceived as missing, it was invented.
From that very fragmentary translation, I can’t see any evidence either that Melchizedek was thought to be the Messiah, or that anyone was trying to write detailed stories claiming he’d lived on earth.
Why do you feel a need for a Messiah would have taken the form of claiming one had recently lived when that wasn’t the case? I can see such a need expressing itself in ever-more-imaginative claims about what the Messiah was going to be like, or in fixing on an existing person and believing that person to be the Messiah, or possibly even in a general belief that the Messiah had come and gone and everyone had missed him. But coming up with a detailed fantasy about a Messiah who was said to have recently done all sorts of things during an earthly existence, all made up out of whole cloth? That, I can’t see.
At contrary, it is the best mythicist paradigm that supposes two steps: before, a cult of a vague Messiah called Joshua (the Pauline epistles); after, an entire ‘life’ on earth for such Messiah (the Earliest Written Gospel).
The desire of an earthly life was a post-70 need. Josephus was the first who introduced in the Roman world the meme (true or false it doesn’t matter) that the Jews expected ONLY a Messiah lived in the RECENT past. So, if “Mark” (author) had to convert Roman proselites in Rome, then he had to satisfy the meme diffused in Rome by Josephus (and Suetonius and Tacitus): that the Jewish Messiah had to be lived on earth “in the last times”. The earthly Gospel Jesus was invented to romanize the original Celestial Jewish Jedus Christ.
Is that a general perception you have from reading Josephus’ texts or does it come from specific passages? If specific passages, can you give which ones?
Another thing that would be good to clarify is, if Josephus was conveying a real perception, which Jews might have expected a messiah and when was this expectation? Before, during, or after the 66_73 war?
Part 4 of reply:
How do you feel that gMark portrays Jesus as ‘the messenger to Jews and gentiles alike’ , and how do you feel it logically follows from this that both were to be made responsible for his death?
All four of the gospels present a group of Jews as plotting to have Jesus killed (in the synoptics this is described as the scribes and Pharisees’; in gJohn simply as ‘the Jews). This is the sort of thing that, in practice, the gospel writers would have been unlikely to have had inner knowledge about, and thus is more likely to be a detail added for dramatic effect.
All four tell the story of Pilate giving a crowd of Jews the opportunity to have Jesus released and thus save him, only to have the Jews refuse this and insist on having a different prisoner released instead, thus removing the last chance of saving Jesus and demonstrating their preference for a criminal (in three of the gospels, a murderer and insurrectionist). Given the improbability of this story (which involves a supposed custom of the Roman officials releasing one prisoner at the Jews’ request) it’s also generally considered to be fictional.
All four describe Pilate as making efforts to persuade the crowd of Jews that Jesus has done nothing wrong and should be freed, only for the Jews to keep shouting for his death until Pilate is worn down and reluctantly accedes. This is… possible, but is not thought to fit very well with Josephus’s description of Pilate or with Jesus’s supposed previous popularity, so there’s a fair chance this part is also fictional. In Matthew, this part of the story is embroidered with the detail of Pilate symbolically washing his hands to absolve himself of blame (unlikely) and the crowd shouting back ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ (no, let’s face it, a crowd did not shout that).
The three synoptics also include a story about the full Sanhedrin trying and condemning Jesus in a poorly-run trial aimed at unfairly seeking his execution. For various reasons to do with what we know about Jewish law, this story is also generally thought to be fictional, or at least grossly exaggerated (it’s possible that the Johannine version, in which Jesus faces an unofficial hearing before first the former and then the current High Priest, is accurate and that the synoptics embroidered this story into a full Sanhedrin trial).
Now, that’s quite a few features of the story that are likely to have been invented by the evangelists (or, to be fair, their predecessors in an oral chain), and all of them share the theme of Jewish culpability in Jesus’s death. The ones that mention Pilate share the theme of him trying hard to save Jesus before reluctantly acceding to Jewish pressure. I don’t see why it’s ‘circular reasoning’ to conclude from all this that the evangelists were trying to deflect blame from the Romans to the Jews. (This is especially the case when you consider that that’s exactly what, in practice, happened; on the basis of the gospel stories, the Jews were vilified as Christ-killers for centuries, while a couple of the early churches actually canonised Pilate.)
I’m not sure I understand your question. The commentaries and other works analysing the Gospel of Mark widely agree on Mark’s Jesus preaching to Jews (on “this side” of the “sea” of Galilee) and gentiles (on “that side”). The narrative takes Jesus into different geographical areas. The basic Christian message was that Jesus was the saviour of Jews and gentiles; all were sinners and Jesus died for them all.
On the point about comparative responsibility for Jews and Romans being responsible for his death, yes, certainly the gospels tell us that the Son of God “came to his own” and his own rejected him; that is all according to the prophetic message in Paul and Acts — to the Jews first, then because of their rejection, to the gentiles. The first to confess Jesus was the son of God after his crucifixion was a Roman at the cross.
A gospel that wanted to exonerate the Romans entirely would leave the Romans out of the crucifixion entirely and have the Jewish king Herod with his Jewish guard entirely responsible for the crucifixion — as we read in the Gospel of Peter.
That Pilate washed his hands (hypocritically) and yielded to the Jewish demands hardly paints him in just or righteous light. The evangelists are not honouring Rome in depicting their governor that way. Pilate is the equivalent of the party at a Nuremberg trial pleading “I was only following orders” — except that he is the commander following the orders of his subordinates.
Just as the crucifixion of Jesus was based on a Roman triumph, making the crucifixion a mock triumph (but a real one for those “in the know), the depiction of the great Roman governor as a spineless weakling going against what he knows is right is a mockery of Roman power. The whole scene is a mockery. Jesus is a mock king with a mock crown. Pilate becomes a mockery of Roman imperial power.
Part 5 of reply:
[In response to my statement that Jesus is portrayed as an enemy of the Pharisees]
Thinking about it now, ‘enemy’ probably is a stronger term than I needed and ‘opponent’ would have been better. As to the reasons for concluding that any of the evangelists sought to portray Jesus and the Pharisees as opponents:
In Mark it’s relatively mild, but we see the Pharisees object to Jesus’s Sabbath healing and are told that their immediate reaction was to discuss ‘how to destroy him’ (3:6) and later, an interaction where the Pharisees ask Jesus a question is described as them being sent ‘to trap him in his talk’ (12:13) and Jesus’s reaction is described as ‘knowing their hypocrisy’ (v15).
Matthew dials this up to eleven. When he describes the above interaction, the phrase ‘trap him in his talk’ is replaced with a stronger ‘plotted how to entangle him in his words’ and Jesus’s response is described as ‘But Jesus, aware of their malice, said “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?[…]”’ (Mt 22:15 and 18). Elsewhere in the gospel, we see him address a group of Pharisees and Sadducees with “You brood of vipers!” (3:7), the Pharisees accuse him of getting his demon-controlling powers from ‘the prince of demons’ (9:34), and Jesus rant against the Pharisees at great length (the “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” speech in 23:1 – 36).
Luke is notably less aggressive about this than Matthew, but we still get the “You brood of vipers!” line and the line ‘Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy’. And, as with the other two Synoptics, we get the Pharisees disapproving of Jesus’s Sabbath healing, though Luke does at least tone down the reaction a bit; rather than the Pharisees plotting to ‘destroy’ Jesus, we get a vaguer ‘discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus’ (6:11). However, they are nevertheless described as ‘filled with fury’ in reaction to Jesus healing on the Sabbath.
In John we hear a lot less about it. However, we do still get scenes in which Pharisees disagree with his action in healing someone on the Sabbath (although this is at least presented as a disagreement among the Pharisees with only some of them objecting), and in which they join forces with the High Priest to have him arrested.
Yes to all (yes, Maccoby has been a significant influence on my thinking; yes, his views are controversial; yes, he has an unfortunate tendency to blur the line between claims he can substantiate and claims that are just his opinion, which makes it important to be careful to look at what actually can and can’t be substantiated in his work).
However, I’m not sure why you’re bringing this up in the context of querying my claim that the gospels portray Jesus as in opposition to the Pharisees, as I’d say that’s one of Maccoby’s statements that’s not controversial at all. (There’s certainly controversy about whether Jesus actually was in opposition to the Pharisees, but I can’t see any about whether he was portrayed that way.) If you meant my statement about Jesus’s views on Sabbath healing being in line with Pharisee teachings as later portrayed in the Talmud, then yes, I did get that from Maccoby (well spotted!). The reason I accept it as correct is partly because Jewish law was actually Maccoby’s field of expertise, partly because I’ve also read about Jewish law elsewhere and the information I got matches, and partly because I checked the references Maccoby cited regarding similar Talmudic teachings and they checked out.
I do not dispute Jesus often opposed the Pharisees in the gospels but he was also a friend of some of them.
My point was directed at the argument that we would not expect Jesus to be made to have any teachings in common with the Pharisees.
It’s not just that Jesus is portrayed as having teachings in common with the Pharisees, but that this includes the very points on which he’s supposedly clashing with them. We see scenes in which the Pharisees are presented as holding a position the opposite of the one they held, while Jesus is portrayed as opposing them by holding the position that we know to be, in fact, the one they held. It’s plausible that these could be rewritten stories of debates that actually took place, in which the Pharisees were cast in the ‘bad guy’ role in order for the Jesus-movement to distance itself from them; but, if those stories are invented from scratch, why invent Jesus as holding the beliefs that, in reality, are exactly the ones with which his supposed opponents in these scenes would have sympathised?
Have you not answered your question in the first part of that same sentence? But if this is a question you wish to explore further it would help me know how to respond if you give one or more specific examples of “the problem” from the gospels.
Perhaps more to the point: . . .
One does not have to be a mythicist to dispute the historicity of many of those exchanges of Jesus with the Pharisees. You will find rejections of their historicity among critical scholars who otherwise believe there was a historical Jesus. So it is not a secure basis to argue for Jesus historicity — pointing to a passage that can have any number of different sources, rationales, provenances, and over which scholars disagree.
Part 6 of reply (several short replies to different sections here, which I’ll combine in one comment):
Curious as to what examples you were thinking of? I can’t remember anything that would fit, but it’s a long while since I read the OT and there were parts I never completed, so I could well be forgetting something.
blockquote>[me] And thirdly, above all; there is absolutely no way anyone of that time would have thought that inventing a character who was supposed to be the Messiah but had been executed by the Romans would have worked well to sell their religion.
[Neil] “Absolutely no way,” tells us that no doubts can be legitimately held. Yet scholars surely know that in their field there are other scholars who seriously have written much about how Jews came to imagine such a messianic figure. Clearly, Jews did imagine a messiah who was executed by the Romans.
Neil, I think you might not quite have read what I was saying correctly. I wasn’t saying there was no way Jews could have imagined this; I was saying there was absolutely no way that it would have been considered a good selling point. (If you look back at the original post, you can see that this was in reply to a suggestion by the original poster that the crucifixion story might have been invented because the founders of the religion thought it would work well to persuade people; therefore, that was the specific point I was refuting.)
[In response to a paragraph I wrote about beliefs in a military Messiah, with links]
I’m not sure what you mean by ‘such figures’, plural; as far as I can see, bar Kochba is the only specific figure named in those links. I think you’re correct in saying that it was too much of an assumption to state that he was considered a possible Messiah when we don’t have specific evidence for that. As you know, after you pointed that out I edited the post to put in a footnote correcting my mistake there.
Other than that, I think you misunderstood the point I was trying to make in this paragraph. I’ve clarified this at https://freethoughtblogs.com/geekyhumanist/2020/11/07/another-jesus-mythicism-discussion/#comment-4484.
Fair point. I think I could have better phrased this as something like ‘Even allowing for inevitable exaggeration by the gospel writers/their predecessors, it certainly seems that Jesus had quite a lot of followers and that many of them believed him to be the Messiah, which typically indicated a belief in a king who’d kick out their oppressors (i.e. the Romans) and become their new ruler.’ I think that does still provide a perfectly good answer to the point I was answering at the time, which was the question of why the Romans would have cared enough about Jesus to have him executed.
Moses is a classic case. He performs miracles at will when the plot calls for them but when the plot calls for him to be in fear of his life from his own people then he is powerless and has to beg God for death as the only way out. Elijah. Elisha. Murderous miracles when it suits, but run like hell when that suits.
I don’t understand why we appear to think of somehow inventing a religion that is going to market well. That’s not how serious religions emerge. People don’t sit down and call in PR experts to devise “good selling points” for a new religion they want to “sell”.
But I take your point that I was reading your comment out of context.
I am sorry if I misread you or overlooked qualifiers you made.
Bar Kochba may have been seen as a messianic hopeful but I understand that the evidence is not the most robust from what I know of it. The other figures I had in mind were those bandits and would-be kings mentioned by Josephus prior to the fall of Jerusalem. It seems to me that scholars who have focussed most on messianism in the Second Temple era and in the following decades are not being heard by other scholars who make comments about messianic movements and ideas from what they have long been taught in the past.
But if I have misread anything then I’m willing to backtrack. The discussion is long enough without going down wrong pathways! 😉
So says the gospel narrative when that was necessary for the plot. During Jesus’ ministry we read that the crowds had no idea who he was: was he a prophet? someone resurrected from the dead? Elijah? etc But the plot calls for them not to know he is the messiah. Then at Jerusalem he is at one time hailed as the messiah — without any explanation for their change of mind — while at another time he is wanted for execution. This sort of thing is typical of novelistic plots in Greco-Roman literature. Crowds are depicted as mindless, fickle — without any sense of historical realism.
A problem serious for some scholars is trying to explain why Jesus would have been executed as a messianic pretender while his followers were allowed to go free. That was not the Roman way. Explanations in the literature usually come down to rationalizing the gospel narrative of an innocent Pilate who knew Jesus was not dangerous but had him killed anyway. This explanation is getting well away from Occam’s razor and leaving the sources and evidence far behind. Imagining alternative scenarios to what we read in the sources is one way to create an alternative history. But it does not do justice to the sources we have.
Part 7 of reply (nearly finished, in case you were wondering; just one more to go after this and it should be done):
It’s also misleading to leave out the fact that, after you originally pointed this out, I edited my post to put in a footnote clarifying that I was wrong about this and that, according to his ‘About’ page, he is not a historian.
By the way, he’s also not a Biblical scholar, so I’m not sure why you’re using this as an example to illustrate the tendency of Biblical scholars to go beyond their expertise (unless that bit was accidentally left over from the Sara Parks misunderstanding and was meant to refer to me, but of course in that case it’s still inaccurate).
His ‘About’ page states that he studied English and History at university. This fact has since been pointed out to you in a comment on my page to which you have responded, so I know that you have definitely seen it. May I trust that it is a mere oversight that you have not edited your error here and that you will do so forthwith?
Since O’Neill makes this exact point in the post to which I linked in the portion you quoted, I’m a little puzzled as to why you seem to be giving this as an example of his ‘lack of understanding of basic historical methods’. Maybe you didn’t mean that as the example, but it does come across as sounding that way.
Wow. Neil, I find it quite… let us go with ‘astonishing’… that you, as a non-historian, are making this sort of blanket statement about how historians ‘ought’ to hold a particular viewpoint regarding what evidence we would expect for Jesus. Nearly all historians are not Jesus mythicists, so, even allowing for what is probably a large number who don’t have an opinion on the subject either way, that still seems to leave a lot of historians out there who don’t agree with your claim about what we would expect by way of historical reports on Jesus. By all means disagree with them, but this idea that you think historians in general ought to think the same way about it is… you know, I don’t know how I can even finish that without potentially being interpreted as rude. Wow.
“Nearly all historians” have not studied the question of Jesus or his historicity. They speak of him as having existed as part of our cultural knowledge – as I also do.
Not even biblical scholars have “studied” the question of the historicity of Jesus from what I have seen in their publications, and from what even Bart Ehrman himself says. Jesus’ historical existence is assumed. The gospels are assumed to be sourced from oral traditions and based on historical events. It is all assumption. Question that assumption and many biblical scholars retort by proof-texting from sources (ignoring the contexts of their sources) and making blatantly false claims about having to reject many other historical persons if we reject Jesus.
I have read what historians say about evidence and interpretations of sources, in particular ancient sources, and make my comment on the basis of what they have written and published.
Biblical scholars of the historical Jesus do not do history, do not work with sources, the way other historians work with their sources. The difference is as stark as day from night.
I do not argue that Jesus did not exist. I try to approach the sources the way historians generally approach sources and seek the most economical explanation for what produced them. I believe they can best be explained without reference to a certain historicity behind the gospel narrative.
My “ought” is not rude. It follows from the basic principles of historical inquiry into sources. Certain methods are clear and justified that historians “ought” to follow.
Part 8 of reply (final part):
Ah, sorry, that was unintentionally ambiguous; by ‘contemporary’, I meant ‘written during the person’s lifetime’, as this is a criterion that often gets brought up by people disparaging the existing non-biblical writings about Jesus.
Hey, hang on. Weren’t you just telling me earlier in this same post that we shouldn’t take the story of the crowds at face value as the authors were aiming for a theological message rather than historical accuracy? I agree with that; while Jesus clearly made some kind of a stir, we can’t make assumptions that details like this weren’t exaggerated.
Why should we assume that ‘started a small offshoot religious movement’ would be something that historians of the time would necessarily take enough note of to write about?
You lost me. Why do you think this is a confusion or that it matters to the point I was making?
I have absolutely no idea why you think this section came from O’Neill. (Oh, wait; just remembered I did link to a post from him as I’d mentioned the TF and wanted a link to a post about the uncertainties over it, so… did you see the link and think that whole paragraph came from him, or something?)
Apart from the whole ‘nothing to do with O’Neill’ thing, I also have no idea why you think I should have included those two figures. I mean, I wasn’t trying for a comprehensive list of comparable figures in Jesus; I was trying to illustrate the point that there was nothing unusual about someone of that time being arrested and executed by the Romans yet having very few surviving documents about them.
Again, I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say. Which particular two passages? Did you mean the two in Josephus? The TF certainly has significant difficulties associated with it, which was why I used the word ‘possibly’ about it and put in that link to the post going into more detail about the problems. The ‘brother of Jesus called Christ’ is accepted as genuine by very nearly all historians. Did you mean a different two passages?
Do you feel I have put forward misinformation about those passages in this post? If so, what?
I am responding to the argument that asserts that from the gospels themselves Jesus was not famous and therefore we should not expect him to be found in the historical record outside the gospels. My point is that from the gospels themselves this claim about limited fame is not true.
Because we find that social movements making a ripple in the landscape were noted in our sources.
Historians or biblical scholars? I think of historians as those who belong to history and classics faculties. Most biblical scholars who work on the historical Jesus do not follow the methods used by those historians. They have created their own unique set of rules and processes, often misquoting and misinterpreting the disciplines they claim to be working from. One biblical scholar even claimed that biblical scholars are possible “leaders” in the field of historical research with their innovative methods.
that list is sufficient to raise the doubt about your granitical certainty that the crucifixion of Jesus had to be necessarily a Roman crucifixion, in Paul.
The only way to think that in Paul there is a Roman crucifixion a priori is the dating of Paul after the 70 CE, when the Roman ‘crucifixion’ of an entire people would make sense as idealized symbol.
But if you place Paul before the 70 CE, then I don’t see how can you insist that no Messiah could be crucified, when even the Messiah Cyrus died crucified (in real past or in tradition).