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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8 thoughts on “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #3”

  1. Hi Neil, I’ve been reading and learning from you for many years for free, so it is only fair that I repay you somehow. Thus, I want to comment on this: #2 (O’Neill) wrongly saying historians can do nothing more than assess probabilities, not determine facts, about the ancient past. (I realize is a previous post, but the succinct way you put it here is helpful).
    I want to make two points here:
    1) I think is unfair and distortive of the main point to focus on O’Neill, as many more qualified and recognizable people defend similar views, including Carrier, Ehrman, Dennett (extrapolating here, but feel confident about it), etc. You did mention something of this in your previous post, but I don’t think it suffices. It is fair to criticize this view, I don’t think it is to make it about O’Neill.
    2) More importantly, you’re wrong (this said with an estimated confidence of ~90%, but more qualified people has higher estimates). You can show disdain, distaste, denialism, but in the end a probability number is just information processing in explicit way. We all do it implicitly and what you say in words reflects that. Of course, in history you can make a case that is better to keep it that way, but you can’t do that in principle. You can say you can’t be bother, it isn’t helpful (being explicit), etc. But you can’t say you aren’t doing it, you are, but don’t want/like to admit it.
    As aside, I just finished Jesus from Outer Space and I can tell some of it you didn’t like. Would you comment on the rest? I’d like to read about it.

    1. Can you give some examples of what you consider historians can only offer with varying degrees of probability? I think if you do we can begin to see the point I am trying to make and that historians themselves make (as I quoted).

      As I said in the post to which you refer, most history is narrative history. Historians work with facts, with information that they can confidently determine is factual. They use those facts to weave stories and propose explanations for what happened. Those arguments about why such and such happened are advanced as probabilities of varying degrees.

      Historical Jesus scholars do not explore and assess the evidence for the existence of Jesus in order to determine if he existed. They simply don’t. They take it for granted as a given fact. From that starting point they propose theories about what he was like, and each of those theories could be said to have different levels of probability.

      What Carrier was doing in investigating the existence of Jesus was a kind of history that I never see among historical Jesus scholars. Carrier is assessing the probability for the existence of Jesus.

      Ehrman said he was the first, as far as he was aware, to undertake the same investigation as Carrier into whether or not Jesus existed. In other words, he acknowledged that biblical scholars have generally assumed Jesus is as much a fact of history as Julius Caesar.

      Facts are determined by evidence that is independently verified. Information on a birth certificate supported by evidence that the certificate is official tells me that it is a fact that a particular person was born. We can say that there is a probability that the birth certificate is forged or contains mistakes but as a rule those things are not true of birth certificates. Of course, if we have evidence that the certificate was forged then that would be a very different story. Obviously, then it is not evidence that such and such a person existed.

      But in normal experience and belief the birth certificate is proof of that such and such a person existed. Their existence is therefore a fact. It is more than just “probable”. Those are the sorts of facts historians deal with. And that is the status of fact with which historians work to create their narratives and propose their hypotheses that may be more or less probable.

      I believe that a mathematician working with probability will never assign a probability of 1 to anything otherwise the equations will not work. There always has to be some doubt — but that is all theoretical (mathematical) and not how historians or “the rest of us” think: e.g. there is no chance that a giant Buddha is suddenly going to appear in the sky over us and start squashing us each with his thumb — except for a probability theorist who has to give it at least a zillionth probability.

      1. My interest from the perspective of historical inquiry is to understand the best explanation for the sources we have for Christian origins. If the evidence indicates they can best be explained without any reference to “a historical core” of the gospel narrative then so be it. That leaves the question of Jesus’ existence untouched.

    2. re (1), “many more qualified and recognizable people defend similar views, including Carrier, Ehrman, Dennett.” What ‘views’ are you referring to? the use of probability?
      re (2), “in the end a probability number is just information processing in explicit way.”
      Yes. But one expects ‘the probability number’ to be backed up by making the information processing explicit ie. laid out. That is not something O’Neill has done, afaik. Carrier has: in his book, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. AFAIK, Ehrman has not laid out a probability argument either (I’m not sure about Dennett). In fact Ehrman’s recent arguments about the evidence seem to be or even are contrary to some of his early-to-mid-career ones.

      It’s otherwise very hard to know what you’re complaining about. but I’ll say this: O’Neill’s references to probability are superficial, as are his references to—and use of—the historical method. He never fully lays it out, despite his 10,000+ word blog-posts.

      Another example is his claim that. ” “mythers” say there are no contemporaneous reference to Jesus therefore he didn’t exist.” That is a misrepresentation of what many of not most “mythers” say (often to O’Neill). What they actually often say or mean (to O’Neill, among others) is: one cannot be as sure of Jesus’ historicity as O’Neill (and others) without good contemporaneous sources.

      Neil Godfrey is right to point out specifics of the deficiencies of O’Neill’s talking points. It is only by looking at and digesting all the approaches to this issue that one can fully discern it, especially in the face of a lack of good facts about the issue.

    3. I think is unfair and distortive of the main point to focus on O’Neill, as many more qualified and recognizable people defend similar views, including Carrier, Ehrman, Dennett (extrapolating here, but feel confident about it), etc.

      I trust my posts are seen to be clearly focusing on the arguments and the claims and not the person. The reason I am focusing on the arguments and not the person is because biblical scholars (plural) have pointed to O’Neill’s work as a “very good” expression of their own methods, views, arguments.

      Can you direct me to the source of your point about Dennett, please? Many thanks. (I like a confidence level that is “certain” and “100%” when it comes to factual claims such as what so and so said about such and such. 🙂 )

  2. Paradoxically, there may be the “coincidence” that just the Risen Jesus (sic) may be described as a mere historical human. So my finding (see the entire thread):


    If I am on the right track, this “coincidence” may place Paul himself among the Christians warned by “Mark” in 13:5-6. While the contrary (“Mark” was deceived by the false chronology “under Pilate”) was true.

    In addition, there would be no need of assuming the presence of 500 witnesses, apart Josephus, at the ‘miraculous’ survival of Jesus b. Sapphat from the cross: these ‘witnesses’ had witnessed already the anastasis in the form of an insurrection.


  3. Hi

    Although I haven’t fully read or understood all of your posts (my previous religion wasn’t Christianity), I do want to say “thank you” for criticising Tim O’Neill.

    I only interacted with him once when I disagreed with the term “new atheists” and found him to be very unnecessarily rude and sarcastic. He seems fixated on attacking Dawkins, Sam Harris etc. for “bad science history” and for criticising religion, yet he gives a pass to Tom Holland – by his own logic, a popular history writer (who isn’t even a historian!!) should be especially held to scrutiny, but instead he promotes him and his pro-Christian biases.

    Seeing you go into depth on how Tim misquotes others while claiming to educate people on history is very insightful, though it also makes one wonder if only certain people take him very seriously as a scholar. He seems more interested in straw-manning his chosen targets and being a douche, than he is in ever admitting when he gets information wrong.

    1. I shall have to catch up with what Tim O’Neill has been up to lately. It’s been a while since I visited his site. But what keeps jarring in my mind is the very title, History for Atheists. Who is that audience, exactly? There are informed atheists and less well informed atheists, just as there are well informed believers in a god and less well informed believers. I am an atheist but for the life of me I cannot see myself as part of any “community” because of that fact. Atheists are as diverse as the rest of the population. Their “identity” of atheists wouldn’t seem to count for anything except on how they fill out census forms.

      I do recall, though, Tim once expressing embarrassment at the idea that others might think of atheists as “ignorant” about x, y or z. As for me, if others brand “atheists” as ignorant on anything then all it tells me is how ignorant those accusers are of atheists and atheism. Who cares about them? They don’t embarrass me any more than a believer who might suggest that I am a baby-eating satanist. If a fellow atheist is poor at maths and another is good at it, or is knowledgeable in history or less so, that’s nothing to do with atheism. It’s a matter of general education that applies to atheists and theists alike.

      I imagine Tim would also be quite at home working for the John Templeton Foundation. I’d rather skip the Catholic and other apologists like James Hannan and (in his more recent work) Tom Holland and focus on less ideologically driven research.

      Added later…..

      By the way, I recall there is some atheist forum based in Australia where Tim O’Neil seems to have some presence — I did visit it once to address a particular point (the Nazareth question) only to discover that it is filled with obnoxious crude foul-mouthed ignoramuses — as if “atheism” is all about a community that meets all the expectations of devout Baptists — you know, baby eaters, no morals, total libertines, etc. Tim O’Neill later laughed that in his view I “lost” there because those sorts of people “laughed me out” of the forum. That’s Tim’s atheism, for you? Somewhat immature, some might think.

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