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/.
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