Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Scholarship and “Mythicism”: When the Guilty Verdict is more important than the Evidence or Argument

I recently wrote in a blog post:

Roger Pearse, for instance, goes even further and without any suggestion that he is aware of Doherty’s arguments says they are “all nonsense, of course.”

A theme I come back to from time to time is the gulf between many biblical scholars and scholars of early Christianity. We saw what happened when Earl Doherty made his first “public appearance” online on the Crosstalk forum, a meeting place for scholarly discussion. A good number of the professional scholar in that forum reacted with outright disdain and insult. They did not “need” to hear or engage with Doherty’s arguments to “know” they were “rubbish”. The mere suggestion that their entire working hypothesis for Christian origins — a Jesus figure emerging and winning some small following at a time of messianic hopes, followed by the confused and evolving responses of some of his followers to his crucifixion as a political rebel — the mere suggestion that the foundations of their studies rested on questionable assumptions and that it should be an outsider who cries out that the emperor might be naked was too much for some.

Jim West’s response was typical of much of the tone:

It is utterly UN-reasonable to suggest that Jesus did not exist. Such silliness has no place on an academic list. Perhaps discussions of the non-existence of Jesus belong on the same lists as discussions of UFO abductions, alien autopsies, and the like. . . . 

The net is filled with crackpots, loons, and various shades of insane folk who spout their views and expect people to take them seriously. And when they dont get taken seriously they get mad.

. . . . Bill and his “voice behind the curtain” have simply repeated old junk which has been dealt with in the history of scholarship already. Why must we reinvent the wheel every time someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.

Did Jim West look at the arguments behind the claims? Yes, he could confidently declare that indeed he had:

(oh yes, I have visited the web page advertised— very pretty- yet filled with nonsensical non sequiters). Life is too short to rehash garbage.

And that settled it. Such “nonsense” had been more than adequately dealt with long ago — if pressed he may have mentioned the names of Maurice Goguel and Shirley Jackson Case — but if indeed the arguments had been dealt with Jim does not explain his hostile tone. Why not, like a sophisticated scholar, a tutor, or even a reference librarian, simply direct people such as Doherty and those who read his books to the sources that they have presumably missed? Who is it who is “getting mad” because they don’t think they are being taken seriously?

There is a contradiction there. It’s kettle logic. On the one hand we are informed that the Doherty’s and their arguments have been seriously addressed; but then on the other we are told that the Doherty’s get made because their arguments are not taken any more seriously than claims of UFO abductions and alien autopsies.

No, no-one expects a scholar to reinvent the wheel “every time someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.” So why the hostility? Why not simply refer Bill to the works that clearly establish the foundations of the scholarly enterprise and leave no room for a resurgence of what had long been dealt with professionally.

Jim covers himself to the extent that he says he did “visit” Doherty’s arguments and could most assuredly say that they were filled with “nonsensical” non sequiturs. No specifics, but no references to the earlier works that had settled all the questions, either.

I can go to any sizeable general bookshop and find books written by scientists and science reporters addressing the flaws in young-earth creationist literature. It is not hard to find. Some scientists clearly find time to address the fallacies and falsehoods of creationists to the extent that any serious enquirer can be assured they have all the essential data and all the basic arguments before them. I do not expect to find in such books sweeping assertions that creationist literature is filled with falsehoods and non sequiturs. I expect to find, and do find, examples of the flaws and clear discussions about them.

However, happily there are a few biblical scholars who are serious enough to make the time and effort to offer serious, scholarly rebuttals of some of this new material. Or are there? read more »

Blog Subject Matter for 2019


Just briefly, here are some things that I (and probably Neil, as well) intend to write about in the coming months.

  • How do historians treat possibly legendary or semilegendary figures other than Jesus?
    • The search for a common methodology of historicity. How do historians weigh the evidence surrounding characters such as King Arthur and Robin Hood? What steps do we take to evaluate literary evidence?
    • Processes historians follow to assess historical authenticity. How do they do it? Spoiler alert: We need contemporary, verifiable, independent corroboration.
    • The often quite strong and surprisingly predictable backlash against the suggestion that people’s beloved heroes may never existed. “You’re taking away our history/heritage!”
  • Is determining historical existence categorically different from the search for probably authentic deeds and sayings? If so, how does that difference affect our methods and the ways we analyze evidence?
  • Is Carrier’s reference class model useful for determining historicity?
    • Is it circular?
    • What parts of his method can we salvage?
  • The perils of amalgamating different, often contradictory stories into a single narrative legend.
  • The Memory Mavens: More stuff about ritual memory vs. shared stories.
  • William Wrede: His contributions to methodology (now generally unknown and ignored).

Happy Belated New Year!

Scholarly Consensus: Some Questions Are More Important Than Others

A few years ago, I was visiting a customer site in Denver, Colorado. Early one morning, while sitting in a cold conference room, I overheard a conversation about a guy who had recently quit. Apparently, he was the lone subject matter expert on an important project.

A: I hope he documented what he was doing. 

B: He’s pretty good about it.

A: You know what they say . . .

B: “In case you get hit by a bus”?

A: Heh-heh. Yeah.

C: We had a guy just this past year who got hit by a bus. Literally, hit by a bus.

B: He died?

C: Yeah. 

A: Oh, man.

C: You know how they tell you to look both ways, especially to the right, when you’re in India?

B: So he stepped out and didn’t see it.

C: Yeah.

B: Damn.

Double-Decker Bus

I can remember being warned about looking in the correct direction back in the military. When we sent people TDY to England, we reminded them to look both ways. If you grew up in a country where people drive on the right, you instinctively check to the left just before you step off the curb. It’s the opposite for people who grew up in left-side countries. In the split second you spend looking in the wrong direction, a vehicle can suddenly come around the corner and kill you.

This story reminds us that some decisions have more consequence than others, and some problems require an immediate decision. If you’re deciding on the color of the curtains in your living room, you may regret your choice, but it probably won’t kill you. You might even delay your choice to the point where you never get around to changing the draperies before you sell the house.

On the other hand, some questions are more pressing. Even not making a decision is still a decision. When I think of life-or-death decisions that demand a choice, I can’t help but recall the series Danger UXB. Imagine the stress of needing to make the right decision as the seconds tick away. Which wire? How does this work? Can I stop it?

I would argue that global climate disruption has become that kind of problem. Unfortunately, it stands at the convergence of science, politics, sociology, and religion. Something needs to be done immediately, the wrong choices will be deadly, and not deciding what to do about it is in itself a decision.

Some problems demand an immediate response. However, other questions — e.g.: Did Jesus exist as a historical figure? Did Josiah suppress the original Israelite pantheon, which included a mother goddess? Did the Jews of the Second Temple period ever conceive of a dying, suffering, sacrificial messiah? — do not.

A Vridar reader, Gary, commented recently: read more »

An Interesting Discovery to Start the New Year

While sorting through some papers that have been stored away in a shed for many years I came across a reminder of something I heard long ago and really liked at the time, and still do. It was a forum post to the Crosstalk2 list, a forum scholars discussing the historical Jesus and Christian origins (my bolded emphasis).

Vernon K. Robbins

From: “Vernon K. Robbins” <relvkr@L…>
Date: Mon Feb 24, 2003 10:58 am
Subject: We Sea Voyages—Troas to Rome

February 23, 2003

Dear XTalkers,

I have become aware that there is a divide in the audience of XTalkers between people interested in learning new things about the relation of early Christian texts to the world of antiquity and people whose primary interest and love is debate. Both kinds of interests are, of course, unending for those who have them. Most of you will know that my interests focus on learning new things. I have no illusion that my interests will satisfy the goals of debaters. I presume that the goal of debaters is to debate. My primary goal is not to debate but to learn new things. Or to put it another way. I am interested in debate only when it is a medium for learning new things. For me, debate is not so much a manner of “persuasion” as it is a matter of “finding” things we, have not seen before. Debate is truly interesting when all parties are “looking at the data together.” In all of this, I am deeply informed by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which explains how people following one “paradigm” of inquiry often wiil “totally” discount the primary evidence of people following another paradigm of inquiry.

. . . . . .

Vernon K. Robbins, Emory University

Happy New Year to all Vridarians! May we continue to debate in the spirit of Vernon K. Robbins.

Once more: My Position on the Jesus Mythicism Question

I have been asked once again to explain concisely why I believe Jesus is a myth.

My initial response to that question is “Who doesn’t believe Jesus was a myth?” There is no dispute among biblical scholars, or at least among critical biblical scholars (let’s leave aside the apologists) that the Jesus of our canonical gospels is mythical. No-one believes Jesus really walked on water or literally raised the dead.

Critical biblical scholars, for various reasons, believe that “the historical Jesus” (the Jesus who is not a myth) lies hidden behind those gospel narratives and that with appropriate tools like criteria of authenticity or some adaptation of memory theory they can catch glimpses of what that historical Jesus may have been like in the eyes of his contemporaries.

As for Paul, there is no question that his Jesus, and especially his crucifixion, is a theological construct. Critical scholars generally tell us that Paul had no interest in the historical Jesus but only in a heavenly one, that is, in a mythical one. Jesus’ death was a theological event with power similar to that of Isaac’s blood to atone for sins. (Simon Gathercole in his article I recently addressed reminded me that Dale Allison said scholars have in recent times come to accept the authenticity of one passage in 1 Thessalonians that is considered evidence of Paul’s belief in a historical man and I am in the process of tracking down and studying those references.)

I believe in the Jesus of the gospels and of Paul’s letters: that is, I believe the Jesus of the gospels and Paul is a literary, mythical or theological figure. I don’t know of any critical scholar who would seriously suggest otherwise.

So the question I am sometimes asked is more meaningfully re-worded: “Why do you believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings of the gospels and Paul?”

My only reply can be: I don’t “believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings….” To believe that something is or is not so requires a level of evidence that is generally not found when it comes to many biblical stories or characters, or even many classical narratives of very early history among the ancient Greek and Roman historians. I have posted several times now on the clearly stated methods used by the leading historians of ancient history and shown that none of them uses the tools of biblical scholars to discover some past historical figure behind our histories and biographies. None. Yet it is not hard at all to find even biblical scholars themselves addressing the inability of those tools to provide a valid result.

I think the irrational character at the heart of many peoples’ beliefs in the historical Jesus is discerned when they cast aside calm, rational discussion of the evidence and react with hostility, ad hominem, misrepresentation. We can understand such reactions coming from people who feel threatened in some way. (I should add that there are a good number of Jesus mythicists who are just as guilty of personal insult in preference to well-reasoned and evidence-based argument. Most of those, at least in my experience, belong to the “Type 2” mythicists.)

I have posted many times why historians of ancient history can legitimately believe in a historical Julius Caesar or a historical Socrates (even though they may not be able to tell you with confidence exactly what such ancient persons were really like) and I have also made it clear that our level of evidence for such persons (even for “nobodies” like the historicity of Cicero’s slave Tiro and a stammering rival rhetorician to Seneca) is qualitatively far richer than the evidence we have for a historical Jesus behind our mythical or theological documents.

I don’t think there is much room for argument about that difference in the qualitative character of the evidence. Perhaps that’s why some people are not interested in serious discussion about historical methods that might expose the nakedness of certain biblical scholarship, and why they so often prefer instead to stay and fight or disappear in flight.

Was there a historical Jesus? I don’t know. I can’t say. Can the evidence we have be explained without appealing to a historical Jesus? Yes, I tend to think it can. (Despite the gross misrepresentations of the arguments of those who demonstrate this fact.)

What methods do I apply to our evidence?  I try to apply the methods that one very distinguished biblical scholar said should be applied to the study of Jesus. The methods Philip Davies spoke of are no longer relegated to fringe extremism in the studies of “biblical Israel”. (I think it was Thomas L. Thompson, a scholar in the same “school” as Davies, who said that we must first tend to the Jesus we do know about and have before us: that is the literary figure. I believe we need to apply the normative methods of historians (not speaking of New Testament historians) to explain that Jesus.)

Philip Davies

[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. — Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012

I can see little fundamental difference between the methods of which Philip Davies spoke and the methods of his peers in classical and ancient history departments, or in just about any other history department I know of. I am slowly working on collating my various posts on historical methods that I hope can be a ready reference in future whenever I am asked the question again.



Addressing S. Gathercole’s Case for Jesus’ “Humanity” continued: Misrepresentations (#4)

Image from Valley News – Shawn Braley

A frequent line of argument by scholars and others attempting to “prove” the historicity of a Jesus behind the gospel narratives is to focus on biblical passages pointing to the “humanity” of Jesus, and sometimes his geographical and temporal location. It often appears that such people assume that a figure who is human and said to appear in Palestine in the early first century is clearly historical. Of course only a moment’s thought should dispel a necessary connection between “human” and “genuinely historical.” Would it even be possible for anyone to finish counting the number of fictional “human” characters in stories, ancient and modern, in the world? If we confine ourselves to biblical and ancient Jewish stories that look like history, I suspect the number of fictional “humans” would still outnumber those who we can be sure were historical.

But all of that is just an aside. Let’s continue with Earl Doherty’s discussion of the “born of a woman” expression in Galatians 4:4. So far we have the following:

And we have linked to Earl Doherty’s old website in which he sets out an earlier version of the chapter we are addressing: Supplementary Article No. 15 – “Born of a Woman”? Reexamining Galatians 4:4.

Recall that the reason we are delving into Doherty’s discussion of the Galatians passage in such detail is to demonstrate the extent of the failure of scholars, in this case Simon Gathercole, to even characterize a mythicist argument correctly, let alone engage with it, and to show just how wrong it is to assume that a mythicist argument must rely on some cheap interpolation card to deny the “natural meaning” of a text. One does have to wonder how many critics (Bart Ehrman included) have actually taken the trouble to read Doherty’s work in full. We will see in the following post how Gathercole has likewise demonstrated his failure to read anything but a few excerpts of the hypothesis he is opposing. Until scholars do really read a book before opposing it I suggest that they will only ever be addressing their own closed circle and supporters while complaining about the unwashed general public being so benighted as to too often sympathize with “mythicism”.

So let’s continue:

As noted by Edward D. Burton in the International Critical Commentary series (1924), the two qualifying phrases, “born of woman, born under the Law” (genomenon ek gunaikos, genomenon hupo nomon) are descriptive of the Son, but not specifically tied to the ‘sending.’ Burton says [Galatians, p.218-19]:

The employment of the aorist [a past tense participle] presents the birth and the subjection to law as in each case a simple fact, and leaves the temporal relation to exapesteilen [“sent”] to be inferred solely from the nature of the facts referred to….But the phrases are best accounted for as intended not so much to express the accompaniments of the sending as directly to characterize the Son, describing the relation to humanity and the law in which he performed his mission.

For those phrases, Burton is not ruling out an understanding of an intended temporal relationship to the verb, but he is saying that it is not grammatically present (such a thing would normally be done by using the present participle). Yet if “born of woman, born under the Law” can be seen as not necessarily qualifying the sending itself, this further frees that ‘sent’ thought in verse 4 from having to be a reference to the arrival in the world of the incarnated Christ in a human body.

At the same time, we might suggest that this absence of a linkage between verb and participles would more likely be the product of an interpolator than Paul himself who, if he intended the phrases to qualify the “sent” idea, would normally have put the participles in the present tense rather than the aorist. An interpolator, on the other hand, would have been focused on the “fact” of these ‘born’ phrases to serve his own purposes, as we shall see. (Doherty, 204)

The lay public interested in these questions are on the whole educated enough to take an interest in such grammatical arguments. They would love nothing more than to see mainstream scholars engage with them for their benefit. When the question of interpolation is raised it is done so with sound contextual and grammatical justification.

Another look at that word translated “born”

read more »

Addressing S. Gathercole’s Case: “Born from a Woman” (#3)

In the previous post we concluded with Earl Doherty stressing what he sees as the importance of keeping in mind the distinction between

  • Christ’s sacrifice (the time and place of this are never specified – a point that is argued elsewhere) that enabled freedom from the law (Galatians 3:13)


  • the application of that freedom that comes subsequently by the act of God who revealed the gospel and the acts of apostles in preaching and hearers believing.

This is the manner in which the epistles describe the salvation workings of the present time. It is all God’s work, revealing Christ his Son and making available the benefits of his sacrifice. It is why the epistles are so unexpectedly theocentric and scripture oriented, with no role in the present spelled out for Jesus except to have himself “manifested” and enter into Paul and his converts (“Christ in you”). It is why his acts are never introduced as part of the current scene. (Doherty, 200)

Diagram (open to correction) of how I understand Earl Doherty’s explanation of Genesis 3:19-4:7. I suspect there is room here for an earthly crucifixion as distinct from heavenly, but of course a mere setting on earth does not necessarily imply genuinely historical.

Galatians 4:

Then in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the Law,

5 in order that he might purchase freedom for the subjects of the Law, so that we might attain the status of sons.

6 And because you are sons, God (has) sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son, crying ‘Father!‘

7 You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then also by God’s act an heir.

Notice it is God’s act, God’s work, (not that of Jesus) that does what is required to change believers from bondage to freedom. Galatians 4:7

You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then also by God’s act an heir.

It has not been the death and resurrection which are the immediate cause of that freedom, and so the “God sent his Son” in verse 4 should imply no reference to a life which contained such events. (Otherwise, why did Paul not introduce them?) Rather, God is drawing on those acts to put the available freedom into effect by revealing the Son and what he had done. This was a revelation achieved through a new reading of scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (201)

In this way Doherty reasons the two sendings in Galatians 4 are “two aspects of the same process, the second an extension of the first.” By God’s act Jesus’ sacrifice is applied to believers who from the time of revelation and the preaching of the apostles enter into a family relationship with God.

But what of “born of woman, born under the Law”?

You will recall that Earl Doherty’s method was to set aside the problematic verses in order to focus on the thought flow of the passage in which those verses sat. And that is where we are at now, with Paul referencing the acts of God involving revelation, sending his son and son’s spirit, and purchasing from the law those who believed the revelation and preaching of the apostles.

Now you are quite free to disagree with Doherty’s method and analysis. (I find myself parting company with him at times.) read more »

Addressing S. Gathercole’s Case for Jesus’ Humanity: “Born from a Woman” (#2)

‘Mortal man, born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.’ (Job 14.1)

We introduced this series in the previous post. Simon Gathercole begins his case with Galatians 4:4 where we read that God sent his Son, “born of a woman, born under the law”. To Gathercole, the meaning of the verse is obvious:

In Galatians 4, Paul says that God sent his son, ‘born from a woman’ (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, 4.4). It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of Jesus’ humanity. This phrase, and others very like it, are commonly used as synonyms for ‘human being’. (186)

To drive the point home he cites “poetic parallels” in the Book of Job and Sirach.

‘But man (ἄνθρωπος) vainly buoys himself up with words; a mortal born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός) like an ass in the desert.’ (Job 11.12)

‘Mortal man, born of woman (βροτὸς γὰρ γεννητὸς γυναικός), is of few days and full of trouble.’ (Job 14.1)

‘What is mortal man (βροτός), that he could be pure, or one born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός), that he could be righteous?’ (Job 15.14)

‘How then can a mortal (βροτός) be righteous before God?
How can one born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός) be pure?’ (Job 25.4)

‘Pride was not created for human beings (ἀνθρώποις), or violent anger for those born of women (γεννήμασιν γυναικῶν).’ (Sir. 10.18)

I have highlighted the instances of “born” and the Greek original in each case for reasons that will become clear.

Gathercole cites another instance of the idiom in the apocryphal literature:

A variation on the idiom also appears in the Life of Adam and Eve, or Apocalypse of Moses. Here Eve has a vision of heaven and looks at what is impossible for ‘anyone born from a womb’ (τινα γεννηθέντα ἀπὸ κοιλίας) to see (Ap. Mos. 33.2).

Though we have here a “variation” in the form of the verb gennao we should at the same time note that it is a form of the same verb used, gennao. 

And then we have the expression in the gospels of Matthew and Luke:

In the New Testament, the phrase appears in Matthew-Luke parallel material. In Luke’s version, Jesus says: ‘I tell you, among those born of women (ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν) there is no one greater than John.’ (Lk. 7.28). The same phrase ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν also appears in Matthew (11.11). The Synoptic formulation here is the same as LXX Job’s except that Job’s are all singular, and Matthew and Luke have the plural.18

Footnote #18 directs readers to Daniel Gullotta’s list of non-Greek and later uses of the expression, so it is appropriate that at this point for me to direct readers to my own analysis of Gullotta’s specific claims: 10. Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s argument #2: relating to Jesus’ birth and humanity.

Gathercole underscores the relevance and force of this expression “born of a woman” (my bolding):

It can hardly be doubted, however, that Paul makes here an indisputable claim about Jesus’ human birth. The only real solution for the mythicist is to regard ‘born from a woman’ as an interpolation.19


19  Thus, Doherty, Jesus – Neither God nor Man, pp. 795–798 (epub edition).

The “historicist” side of the debate will surely have more chance of persuading non-specialists if its specialist scholars take the time to read and engage with the arguments that seem to be increasingly persuading the public. Simply dismissing arguments with what are clear mischaracterizations can only reassure those who have no interest in informing themselves of the points that are being presented in favour of mythicism. We saw the same flaws in Daniel Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s book. What eventually led me to lean towards the mythicist side of the debate was the failure of the mainstream scholars to engage with the actual arguments that challenge the conventional wisdom.

That reference to Earl Doherty, implying he could only “get around” the clear meaning of this verse was to declare the passage to be an interpolation, was not how I remembered reading Doherty’s argument at all. After re-reading the relevant chapter I have to say that Gathercole has somehow inadvertently misrepresented Doherty’s argument. In fairness to Doherty I think we should take a little time to set out what he does in fact say on pages 197 to 212 (hard copy edition) of Jesus, Neither God Nor Man, chapter 15.


Not only has Doherty’s discussion been misrepresented by such a dismissal but its main pillars have been entirely swept out of sight. Gathercole explains that he is presenting a “thought experiment” by focusing on what we can learn from Paul’s letters alone, but in doing so he has entirely overlooked the most significant parts of Paul’s letters that are addressed by mythicists. Recall Mark Goodacre’s observation of this method the context of another debate:

To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence. — Mark Goodacre, 2002 (82)

I don’t think Gathercole is deliberately suppressing Doherty’s argument; I think, rather, that he can see only those passages in Paul that he finds supportive of his own larger understanding, and that perhaps he finds it difficult to really focus and concentrate when his eyes hit pages presenting a quite different perspective undermining what he and his peers have always accepted. Roger Pearse, for instance, goes even further and without any suggestion that he is aware of Doherty’s arguments says they are “all nonsense, of course.”

I will attempt to present Doherty’s key points in précis or note form interspersed with quotations. I trust readers will realize I am compressing much explanation that needs to be read in the book itself. There is still online an earlier version of the published chapter, Supplementary Article No. 15 – “Born of a Woman”? Reexamining Galatians 4:4 so readers who do not have Doherty’s book and who want to look further into some of my summaries will probably find fuller explanations there. I trust at least the summaries I present will be enough to demonstrate the failure of yet one more reviewer to engage with mythicist arguments, instead dismissing them with misleading comments.

Here is how Earl Doherty opens his discussion headed “Born of Woman”? read more »

Addressing Simon Gathercole’s “Historical and Human Existence of Jesus” (#1)

To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence.Mark Goodacre, 2002 (82)
Simon Gathercole

Simon Gathercole has had an article published behind the paywall of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus opposing the idea that the Jesus figure of the New Testament originated as a theological and literary concept and in favour of the idea that he had a historical existence. Gathercole is addressing the evidence in the Pauline corpus, being titled, “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.”

Gathercole opens with a statement that seems to run against certain claims of others (viz Ehrman, Hurtado, McGrath et al) who have argued against mythicism:

“Mythicism”, the view that there never was a Jesus of history, has in recent years attracted increasing interest from scholars. This interest is a positive development, not only because of the increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship, but even more importantly because of growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public.

There has been an “increasing interest from scholars”? There have been “increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship”? There has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public”? Outright denial of the first two statements has at times been used by scholars and their public backers as a reason to dismiss the questions raised by mythicist arguments. Perhaps Gathercole is thinking of critics of mythicism in his first claim such as James McGrath, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, Daniel Gullotta. But it is unusual to hear from a critic that mythicists are making “increasing attempts to engage with scholarship”. In fact, mythicist arguments that have most impressed me are those that have engaged with mainstream historical Jesus scholarship from the outset: e.g. works of Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, R. M. Price. As for the final point, that “more importantly” there has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public” one does have to wonder why current scholarly publications addressing such a “problem” are not made freely available to the public.

Simon Gathercole’s abstract to his article contains the following:

Attention to the language of the birth, ancestry and coming of Jesus demonstrates the historicity and human bodily existence of Jesus. There is also information about his ministry, disciples, teaching and character in the epistles which has been neglected. Paul’s letters, even taken alone, also show the Herodian timeframe of Jesus’ ministry.

And that’s where my opening quotation from Mark Goodacre (made in the context of the Q debate) enters the picture. Gathercole unfortunately does not address the core arguments of mythicists (from Drews to Couchoud to Wells to Doherty to Price) that argue for Paul’s view of an ahistorical figure of Jesus. He does partially address one idiosyncratic suggestion by a more recent scholarly mythicist which we will address later. Gathercole’s essay focuses almost exclusively on an expansion of the passages used by scholars to argue against mythicism (let’s for convenience call them “historicists” in this post) but without addressing the primary arguments of mythicists to the contrary, and therefore without anticipating what mythicists might say in reply to his expansions of the historicists’ position.

It may help if I set out my own cards on the table for all to see before we start.  read more »

The Criterion of Embarrassment: Origins and Emendations

A Long-standing Tool

While searching for other things, I stumbled upon this paragraph in a Wikipedia entry.

The criterion of embarrassment is a long-standing tool of New Testament research. The phrase was used by John P. Meier in his book A Marginal Jew; he attributed it to Edward Schillebeeckx, who does not appear to have actually used the term. The earliest usage of the approach was possibly by Paul Wilhelm Schmiedel in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1899).* (Wikipedia: Criterion of embarrassment, emphasis mine)

* Stanley E. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (Continuum, 2004) pages 106-7.

Having read Schillebeeckx, I was taken aback. Didn’t he mention the term “embarrassment” in Jesus: An Experiment in Christology? In a post from 2013, we quoted him:

Each of these gospels has its own theological viewpoint, revealed by structural analysis no less than by disentangling of redaction and tradition. Via their respective eschatological, Christological or ecclesiastical perceptions they give away their theological standpoint through the selection they make of stories reporting the sayings and acts of Jesus, as also in the way they order and present the material. Consequently, whenever they hand on material not markedly in accord with their own theological view of things, we may take this to be a sign of deference in the face of some revered tradition. (Schillebeeckx 1981, p. 91, emphasis mine)

Hey, Porter!

Perhaps I had a false memory. It wouldn’t be the first time. Could he have discussed the mechanics of the criterion without ever using the word itself? I turned to Porter, who in a footnote wrote the following:  read more »

Summing Up a Case for Pre-Christian Exegesis of Dying and Suffering Messiahs by J. Jeremias (8)

To sum up:

(1) messianic interpretation of the Deutero-Isaianic servant in Palestinian Judaism was limited to Isa. 42.1 ff.,332 43.10;333 49.1 f., 6 f.,334 and 52.13 ff.,335; with this New Testament data agree.336

(2) For Isa. 42.1 ff. and 52.13 ff. messianic interpretation is constant from pre-Christian times. Isa. 52.13 ff. is in this connexion regarded as a last judgement scene.337

(3) As far as the messianic interpretation of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53.1-12 is concerned, this can again be traced back with great probability to pre-Christian times.338 Here the suffering of the Messiah is thought of without exception up to the talmudic period as taking place before the final victorious establishment of his rule.339 When the meaning of messianic suffering is considered, the answer is that the Messiah suffers vicariously to expiate the sins of Israel.340

(pp. 77-78, my line breaks)

I have converted the footnote references to the relevant blog post below:


Isaiah 42.1 ff.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
    he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
    In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”




Only in the Targ. ad loc. See

(Messianic exegesis of Isa. 43:10 is not found in the N.T.)

Isaiah 43:10

“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
    “and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
    nor will there be one after me.




For pre-Christian messianic interpretations of Isa.49 see Posts:

Isaiah 49:1f, 6f

Listen to me, you islands;
    hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
    from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
    and concealed me in his quiver. [or, “hid me in the shadow of his hand”] 

. . . . . 

he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

This is what the Lord says—
    the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—
to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation,
    to the servant of rulers:
“Kings will see you and stand up,
    princes will see and bow down,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

read more »

The 10th Testimony for a Dying Messiah Before Christianity (7)

Deaths of all but the Servant in Isa 53 were deemed to have some atoning power in the first millennium of rabbinical exegesis

This post cites the tenth and final witness called by Joachim Jeremias in a 1957 book, The Servant of God. Thanks to helpful comments left by some readers I can say that the testimony of this particular #10 witness is disputed by scholars who argue that the rabbis of “Late Antiquity” responsible for interpreting Isaiah 53 were not influenced by any sort of anti-Christian bias. Maybe those critics are right. I hope to address in detail their arguments, either for or against, before the end of January 2019. Jeremias has been numbering his witnesses by the Greek alphabet and this final one therefore is the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet, kappa, or κ.

(κ) From the second century A.D. the history of Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53 is shaped increasingly by the opposition to Christianity.325

325 The rich material concerning the anti-Christian apologetic and polemic of Judaism in the first centuries has not yet been exhaustively dealt with.

In other studies of Jewish writings among biblical scholars (especially since 1967) there appears to have been a trend to undo negative perceptions of the Jewish past (the “rehabilitation of Judas” being one of the more distinctive examples) so I wonder if the “anti-Christian apologetic and polemic of Judaism” in the past has ever been “exhaustively dealt with”. If readers know what I don’t then I trust someone will inform me.

Jeremias outlines what he saw as Jewish efforts to remove earlier messianic associations from Isaiah 53:

This process begins by the avoidance of the description of the Messiah as ‘servant of God’ and ‘the chosen’, which the pseudepigraphic writers had used without embarrassment (cf. p. 50 and n. 262), and also of the title ‘son of man’,326 and ‘Jesus’, which had become a nomen odiosum (cf. TWNT, III, 287,20 ff.). From the end of the second century the apologetic method of changing the text327 and of tendentious interpretation was seized upon in translating Isa. 53, in order to dispose of passages which were of use to Christians in their text proofs. This polemical method is used especially in Targ. Isa. 53 (cf. pp. 66 ff.).

326 As distinct from Eth. En. it is lacking in Slav, and Heb. En. and in the whole of rabbinic literature (S.-B., I, 959; there is also the apparent exception J. Taan. 2, 1 [65b], 60).

327 For an example of the change in the Greek text see p. 65 and for an example of the change of the Aramaic text see n. 296; by the change of יפסיק (Targ. Isa. 53.3) into יפסוק , a statement about suffering is transformed into one about glory.

328 Fischel, 66, n. 67: *Probably the not very frequent use of 42.1 ff.; 50.4 ff., and 52.13 ff. in the Midrash is occasioned by the great significance of these texts in Christian exegesis.’

A similar mode of apologetic is used by R. Simlai (circa A.D. 250), who applies Isa. 53.12 to Moses (see n. 329). As far as possible, however, Isa. 42.1 ff. and 53 are not used at all.328 Indeed, it seems that messianic interpretations of Isa. 53 were excised whenever occasion served; in several instances there is at least a suspicion of this sort (cf. n. 313). These observations are very important for our judgement of late Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53. The widespread conclusion, that the relative infrequency of messianic interpretations of Isa. 53 in late Judaism shows that the latter was not acquainted with the idea of the suffering Messiah, does not do justice to the sources; for it ignores the great part which — very understandably — the debate with Christianity played in this question.

There is a certain silence in the rabbinic literature that Jeremais finds especially telling. In all biblical references to death — whether of an executed criminal, a high priest, the martyrs, the righteous, even children — rabbinic literature in the first thousand years finds a space to associate the death with an atoning power; there is only one exception, Jeremias claims, and that is the death of the servant in Isaiah 53. Such special treatment of Isa. 53 (in contrast to other atoning death interpretations)  appears to suggest an effort to suppress or deny earlier understandings that may have been partly responsible for Christian views.  read more »

Rabbinic Traditions that the Messiah was to Suffer? (6)

Image of cover of Barry Holtz’s historical survey of Rabbi Akiba

Before addressing some of the modern criticisms of Joachin Jeremias’s arguments we are attempting to set out JJ’s case as fairly as possible.

In this post we look at Jeremias’s case for an early rabbinic preservation and development of the tradition of interpreting the suffering passages Isaiah 53 as applying to the messiah.

Before we start with the new we must recap the previous posts. The witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah that we have heard from so far:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.
  4. the Peshitta
    • A pre-Christian translation portraying Isaiah’s Servant chapters as references to the messiah.
  5. the Gospel of Luke
    • The mocking expression “the chosen one” most probably derives from pre-Christian
  6. Aquila’s leprous messiah translation of the OT
    • the messianic servant bore our sicknesses, that is, became a leper
  7. Theodotion’s second century translation
    • to counter Christianity he translated Isaiah 53 as a judgmental messiah
  8. Aramaic translation of Isaiah
    • evidence of the suffering messianic exegesis goes back to pre-rabbinic times

Here we look at Joachim Jeremias’s ninth witness for a pre-Christian Jewish teaching about a suffering servant messiah: the Rabbinical tradition that Isaiah 53 was interpreted messianically.

Only two passages in Isaiah (more specifically, Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55) have been consistently interpreted messianically in early rabbinic literature. These are Isa. 42.1 ff. and Isa. 52.13 ff. 

The Isaiah 42 passage:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.
He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.
He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.
Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein:
I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;
To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house. 

The other passage, Isaiah 52-53 contains passages of suffering:

13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
14 As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:
15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

53:1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

In Jeremias’s words,

On the part of the Rabbis, likewise, only two Deut. Isa. servant passages have been understood in a messianic sense: Isa. 42.1 ff. and Isa. 52.13 ff.305 These are in fact the two passages which, so far, we have constantly found to be interpreted messianically. As for Isa. 42.1 ff, it is essential to note that only the messianic interpretation306 is found in rabbinic literature. The messianic interpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 by the Rabbis307 concerns both the passages of exaltation and the passages about suffering.308 In particular the reference of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53 to the Messiah emerges very early with the Rabbis, and simultaneously at several points.

R. Jose the Galilean

Jeremias on the testimony of Raymond Martini:

The context discusses the fact that Adam’s transgression caused countless sentences of death and puts the question: ‘What measure is the greater, that of mercy or that of punitive justice? Answer: the measure of goodness is the greater (here begins the addition of Raymundus Martini) and that of punitive justice is the smaller. How much more then will the king, the Messiah, who suffers and is in agony for the godless, justify all mankind, as it is written: “But he was wounded for our transgressions” (Isa. 53.5). The same is meant by Isa. 53.6: “But the Lord hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all”.’ (p. 72)

The first witness Jeremias calls in this particular context is Rabbi Jose the Galilean who wrote prior to A.D. 135 and the second Jewish war with Rome. His testimony is not secure, however, since it comes to us from the thirteenth century Raymond Martini and our surviving copies of the source lack the passage Raymond Martini claimed he saw in the late 1200s. The passage that is said to have existed at that time in the Siphre Leviticus 12.10 and 5.17 recorded a saying by R. Jose the Galilean that a King-Messiah would justify all peoples by means of his own pains, suffering and sorrows.

So what happened? Did the passage really exist and was it deleted after it came to the wider attention of the Christian world? Jeremias suspects that possibility on the basis of the “sharpness with which Judaism opposed the Christian exegesis of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53 . . . especially as elsewhere messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 seems to have been excised.” (p. 72)

This assumption gains a high degree of probability from the fact that similar statements have come down to us from a scholar closely connected with R. Jose, likewise a pupil of R. Akiba and, together with R. Jose, a teacher in Jabne and then in Lydda: R. Tarphon (Tryphon).

(pp. 72f)

read more »

Jewish Pre-Christian Prophecies of Suffering Servant Messiah (5)

So far we have presented the following seven witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.
  4. the Peshitta
    • A pre-Christian translation portraying Isaiah’s Servant chapters as references to the messiah.
  5. the Gospel of Luke
    • The mocking expression “the chosen one” most probably derives from pre-Christian
  6. Aquila’s leprous messiah translation of the OT
    • the messianic servant bore our sicknesses, that is, became a leper
  7. Theodotion’s second century translation
    • to counter Christianity he translated Isaiah 53 as a judgmental messiah

The eighth piece of evidence is the Aramaic translation of Isaiah per the Targum on Isaiah. I quote Jeremias in full.

(θ) The Aramaic translation of Isaiah must be considered here from a chronological point of view, although the Targ. on Isaiah289 in its present form is not older than the fifth century A.D., for the text was fixed much earlier. The history of the oral tradition of translation, the result of which the Targ, represents, goes back to pre-Christian times.290 In particular it can be shown that the messianic exegesis of the servant texts Isa. 42.1 and Isa. 52.13 in the Targ, Isa. is old. Of the nineteen servant passages in the Heb. text (cf. p. 50) only three are messianically interpreted in the Targ, Isa.: 42.1; 43.10; 52.13;291 in all three texts the Heb. עבדי is rendered עבדי משיחא by the Targ.292 Our conclusions so far make it certain that the messianic interpretation of Isa. 42.1 and 52.13 rests upon ancient tradition (cf. pp. 57 ff.).293 The observation that the description of the Messiah as servant of God is to be found only in the pre-rabbinic layer of late Jewish literature (II Esd. [IV Ezra], Syr. Bar., cf. p. 49) but nowhere in rabbinic literature outside the Targ. (cf. p. 50), points to the same conclusion. Above all, the ancient date of the messianic exegesis of Isa. 52.13 in the Targ. is clear from the fact that Targ. Isa. explains the whole context Isa. 52.13-53.12 uniformly in a messianic sense; for the messianic interpretation of 53.1-12 cannot, as we saw (p. 64), have first arisen in the Christian era.

The Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 runs:

(52.13) ‘Behold my servant, the Messiah, will have success, will become exalted, great and strong.’

(14) ‘As the house of Israel have hoped in him many days when their appearance was overcast in the midst of the peoples and their brightness less than that of the sons of men;’

(15) ‘so will he scatter many peoples; for his sake kings will be silent, will lay their hand on their mouth; for they see what they had never been told and perceive what they had never heard of.’

(53.1) ‘Who hath believed this our message ? and to whom hath the strength of the mighty arm of the Lord thus294 been revealed ?’

(2) ‘And the righteous295 shall be great before him, yea, as sprouting branches and as a tree which sends out its roots beside water brooks, so will the holy generations increase in the land which was in need of him. His appearance is not like that of worldly things and the fear which he inspires is not an ordinary fear, but his brightness will be holy so that all who see him will gaze (fascinated) upon him.’

(3) ‘Then (he) will be despised and will (make to) cease the glory of all kingdoms.296 They will become weak and pitiable—behold, like a man of sorrows and as one destined to ills and as if the shekina had turned its face from us—despised and disregarded’.

(4) ‘Then he will make intercession for our transgressions and for his sake our iniquities shall be forgiven, though we were accounted bruised, smitten by Yahweh and afflicted.’

(5) ‘But he will build up the sanctuary which was desecrated because of our transgressions and surrendered because of our iniquities, and by his teaching his peace297 will be richly upon us, and when we gather to listen to him our transgressions will be forgiven us.’

(6) ‘We were all scattered as sheep, each one had gone his own way into exile; but it was Yahweh’s will to forgive the transgressions of us all for his sake.’

(7) ‘When he prays he receives an answer and hardly does he open his mouth, but he finds a hearing. He will deliver the strong from among the peoples to be slaughtered as a lamb, and as a ewe that is dumb before its shearers, and no one will (dare) to open his mouth and plead.’

(8) ‘He will bring our exiles home from their suffering and chastisement. Who can tell the wonders which will come upon us in his days? For he will remove the dominion298of the peoples from the land of Israel; he will lay to their charge299 the sins of which my people were guilty.’

(9) ‘And he will deliver over to hell the godless and those who have enriched themselves by robbery unto the death of (eternal) destruction, so that they who commit sin may not be preserved and may no longer speak cunningly with their mouth.’

(10) ‘And it pleases Yahweh to refine and purify the remnant of his people in order to cleanse their soul from transgressions. They shall see the kingdom of their Messiah; they will have many sons and daughters;300 they will live long, and those who fulfil the law of Yahweh will by his good pleasure have success.’

(11) ‘From subjugation by the peoples he will deliver their soul; they will see the punishment of them that hate them; they will be satiated by the plunder of their kings. By his wisdom he will acquit the innocent to make many servants of the law. And he will make intercession for their transgressions.’

(12) ‘Hereafter will I apportion to him the plunder of many peoples and he will distribute strong towns as booty, because he surrendered301 himself to death and brought the rebels under the yoke of the law. And he will make intercession for many transgressions and for his sake the rebellious will be forgiven.

It can be seen how, step by step, in Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 is depicted the glorious establishment of the messianic kingdom over Israel. The statements about the passion of the servant have been so radically and consistently removed by artificial contrivances that faint traces remain only in two places.302 Even allowing for the targumic translation technique, the section Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 stands out by the unusual freedom of its paraphrase in the context of Targ. Isa. 40-66,303 which elsewhere keeps more closely to the Heb. text. For this violent reinterpretation of the text there is only one possible explanation: we have here a piece of anti-Christian polemic.304 From the second century at the latest, Judaism was concerned in various ways to wrest Isa. 53 from its use by Christians as a christological scriptural text proof (cf. p. 75). The curious form of Isa. 53 in the Targ. shows to what extremes this attempt was carried through. The whole section was indeed messianically explained because the messianic interpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 was so firmly rooted that Targ. Isa. could not escape it, but the passages about suffering, in brusque contradiction to the original, are replaced by the current view of the Messiah. The fact that this thoroughgoing process of reinterpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 was applied to both the Greek (see pp. 65 ff.) and the Aramaic texts of Isa. 53 shows how firmly rooted in Palestinian Judaism was the messianic exegesis.

(pp. 66-71)

I would very much love to locate scholarly publications addressing Jeremias’s presentations, not only for, but especially against the thrust of his interpretation of the evidence. Any reader who can direct me in this quest please do so. read more »