2021-05-07

Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #3

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by Neil Godfrey

The “again” in the title harks back to another time I responded point by point to Tim O’Neill’s erroneous declarations: Bad History for Atheists #1, #2, #3, #4

Continuing here to respond to the youtube presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_hD3xK4hRY — previous posts: #1 (wrongly saying it pays academics to find “different” and “new” or “contrarian” arguments), and #2 (wrongly saying historians can do nothing more than assess probabilities, not determine facts, about the ancient past)

After further saying that non-Christian (including “Jewish”) and Christian scholars have very different ideas about the historical Jesus (which is simply flat wrong, as I might show in a later post) in order to supposedly demonstrate that Christian influence is not a factor (again, which is flat wrong as can be easily demonstrated – but for a later post), and after conditioning the listener to think of “mythicists” as following attractive bait in defiance of common sense (ad hominem, well-poisoning), O’Neill says,

To begin with, all accounts or references to the origins of Christianity both Christian and non-Christian, say it began with him. And none of them describe him as anything other than a historical human being even if some of them — the Christian ones most obviously — say he was much more than just a human.

Here are a good number of those ancient accounts and references with the ones saying he is “anything other than” a historical human being:

Account or reference Saying Jesus was nothing more than a historical human
New Testament letters (Paul, pseudo-Paul, Catholic, Pastoral and Johannine) nil
Extra canonical letters (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp) nil
New Testament Gospels and Acts nil
Extra canonical Gospels and Acts (Thomas, Peter, Paul….) nil
Revelation and other apocalypses nil
Josephus nil (but many, not all, scholars hypothesize that Josephus did say he was only a man; arguments against authenticity)
Tacitus (late evidence reporting what was learned from early Christians — not used by historical Jesus scholars because “too late”; arguments against authenticity)
Pliny the Younger nil (not used by HJ scholars; says christ was worshiped as a god; several arguments against authenticity)

O’Neill argues that some of the above do present an entirely human Jesus behind the myth and I will respond to his claims as we come to them.

O’Neill says:

The mythicist . . . has to explain why they all depict him as historical and human with no traces of any earlier alternatives which have him as, say, purely mythic, allegorical or celestial.

Interesting. I am still waiting to hear O’Neill indicate which ones he means among the “all depict Jesus as historical and human with no traces of earlier … myth…”

O’Neill underscores his point:

there are elements in the early christian accounts of him that strongly indicate a historical person — that are very difficult to interpret any other way.

My curiosity is being whetted. Can’t wait to hear which sources these are “very difficult” to interpret as a merely human Jesus.

Before answering, O’Neill offers an interesting justification for using the Biblical gospels and letters:

The historian can and should examine them in the way that they examine any other source relevant to the question at hand in the examination of ancient history.

One thing other historians have noted, and that I certainly have commented on often enough here, is that biblical scholars only rarely study the gospels “in the way that ‘they’ examine any other source”. The narratives in the gospels are assumed — without confirmation of independent external confirmation — to be based on a real biography. The sources are assumed to have been primarily oral tradition. The authors are assumed to have been interested in telling the truth as they understood it about Jesus, diligently incorporating genuine “historical” material as they could. As far as I have been aware over many years of wide reading and study, I don’t know of any relevant scholarly study of ancient documents (or medieval or modern ones) that begins and ends with such uncritical assumptions.

But I want to keep these posts brief. Like small modules addressing each point. So next post addresses O’Neill’s claims about the evidence in Paul for the historicity of Jesus. Go to Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4

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