Category Archives: Religion

Crucified on Earth? — What Did the “Ascension of Isaiah” Originally Say?

This post is long and technical and only for those who are serious about what we can learn from the Ascension of Isaiah about early beliefs about Jesus. Richard Carrier and before him Earl Doherty drew upon scholarship about the different manuscripts to conclude that the original text had Jesus crucified in the lower heaven by demons. Roger Parvus, however, has argued a different interpretation from what we can glean from the different manuscript traditions (in particular the Ethiopic with its lengthy account beginning with Jesus’ birth to Mary and the second Latin, L2, with its “absurdly brief” account of Jesus dwelling with men, full stop) and I have copied his argument below. For the original posts in context see parts 7 and 8 at Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity.

As for my own views, I am withholding judgement until I collect a few more publications, in particular the ten articles or essays that Enrico Norelli published as “addendums” to his commentary: Norelli, Enrico. 1995. Ascensio Isaiae: commentarius. Turnhout: Brepols. (If anyone can help me gain access to those ten essays – I understand they are all in Italian – please please do contact me!)

What follows are copies of one small section of A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 7: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel and the full text of A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 8: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel (continued) — all written by Roger Parvus, not me.



But where, according to the Vision, did the hanging upon a tree occur? The Son will “descend into the world” (according to 9:13, in some versions of E) and “will be in the world” (per 10:7, in L2), but in no uncontroversial section of the extant text does it explicitly say which part of the world. I am inclined to think the location was understood to be on earth, not in its sublunary heaven. For one thing, 9:13 goes on to say that the Son “will become like you [Isaiah] in form, and they will think he is flesh and a man.” Earth is the home of men of flesh and so it is presumably there that the Son could expect to fool the rulers of the world into thinking he was a man.

King Manasseh doing the bidding of Beliar

I realize one could object that the Son’s persecutors appear to be the spirit rulers of the world and that their home was thought to be in the firmament. But it was also commonly accepted that their rule extended to earth and below it, and that they could exercise their power through human instruments. That is what we see right in the Martyrdom of Isaiah. Beliar kills Isaiah through King Manasseh:

Because of these visions, therefore, Beliar was angry with Isaiah, and he dwelt in the heart of Manasseh, and he cut Isaiah in half with a saw… Beliar did this to Isaiah through Belkira and through Manasseh, for Sammael was very angry with Isaiah from the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, because of the things he had seen concerning the Beloved, and because of the destruction of Sammael which he had seen through the Lord, while Hezekiah his father was king. And he did as Satan wished. (Asc. Is. 5:1 & 15-16)

True, as already mentioned, parts of the Martyrdom were written after the Vision. But it is nevertheless still a quite early writing, likely dating to the end of the first century. It does not quote or allude to any New Testament writings. But it does clearly allude to the Vision and so may provide us with an indication of how that writing was understood by at least one first century Christian community. If the Martyrdom portrays the rulers of the world attacking Isaiah through a human instrument, this may very well have been the way the prophesied attack on the Son of the Vision was understood too, for he was to become like Isaiah in form (Asc. Is. 9:13) and trick them into thinking he was flesh and a man.

Another consideration that leads me to think the Son’s death in the Vision occurred on earth is the way Irenaeus speaks of Simon of Samaria. One would think, based on what Irenaeus says, that Simon knew the Vision of Isaiah and claimed to be the Son described in it. And in his account the location of the Son’s death is specified as Judaea:

For since the angels ruled the world ill because each one of them coveted the principal power for himself, he [Simon] had come to amend matters, and had descended, transformed and made like the powers and authorities and angels, so that among men he appeared as a man, though he was not a man, and he seemed to suffer in Judaea, though he did not suffer (Against Heresies, 1, 23, my bolding).

In the Panarion of Epiphanius the reason why Simon made himself like the powers is spelled out. Simon is quoted as saying:

In each heaven I changed my form, in order that I might not be perceived by my angelic powers… (2, 2)

It seems to me that in the first passage Irenaeus is relaying an early claim made by Simon, and he is relaying it in the words that Simon or his followers used, not those of Irenaeus. The one “who suffered in Judaea” is not an expression that Irenaeus uses anywhere else to describe Christ. And the claims attributed to Simon in the passage look primitive.

  • He doesn’t claim to be the Son who taught and preached in Galilee and Judaea;
  • or who worked great signs and wonders among the Jews;
  • or who gathered together a band of disciples.
  • He doesn’t say he was the Christ who came to lay down his life to atone for the sins of mankind.

The limited claims attributed to him in the passage are reminiscent of the information about the Son in the Vision of Isaiah. Assuming that was Simon’s source, the place where the Son’s suffering was believed to have occurred is specified as Judaea.


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Rome’s and Israel’s Ancestor Traditions: How Do We Explain the Similarities?


Russell Gmikin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible led me to another work, one cited by Gmirkin,

Weinfeld, Moshe. 1993. The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The opening pages describe a typological comparison of the roles of the ancestors of Rome and Israel. I have tried to capture the main outline.


1. A Man Leaving a Great Civilization and Charged with a Universal Mission

A man escapes the land of a famous civilization and departs with his wife and his father … in order to establish a new nation and a new culture. — Weinfeld (6)
  • Aeneas leaves the famous city of Troy
    • leaves with wife Creusa
      • (who died on the way),
    • father Anchises,
    • and son Ascanius
  • Abraham leaves the famous city of Ur of the Chaldees
    • leaves with wife Sarah,
      • (cf Rachel’s death on the journey)
    • father Terah
  • and stays for a while in Carthage which later becomes Rome’s enemy;
  • and pauses for a time in Aram (Syria) which later becomes Israel’s enemy,
  • Eventually his son Ascanius reaches Lavinium (south of the future Rome), and later reaches Alba Longa, closer still. His descendants reach Rome
  • and reaches Canaan,
  • which is destined to rule the world.
  • the Land of promise and from which his descendants will rule other peoples.

In both cases:

  • an ethnic tradition later developed into an imperial ideology
  • a divine promise to a father of a nation who later becomes a messenger for a world mission


2. Gap Between Migration of the Ancestor and the Actual Foundation

The lengthy interval between the stories about the first heroes and the real foundation of the oikist existed in both cultures. — Weinfeld (6)
  • Jupiter prophesies to Aeneas that 333 years will pass before the birth of the twins and founding of Rome
  • God promised Abraham that 400 or 430 years would pass before his descendants inherited the land.

In both cases:

  • two founding legends were combined (one of the actual foundation or conquest and another of an earlier tradition)
  • the gap of centuries between the two stories was joined by a long line of descendants, a long Trojan dynasty on the one hand, ten generations between Ephraim and Joshua on the other (1 Chron 7:25-27). Inconsistencies are extant in both accounts of the number of generations.


3. Promise at Stake

The promise is seen, then, in Israel, as well as in the Roman epic, as something that could not be taken back: a divine commitment not to be violated. — Weinfeld (9)
  • When Aeneas is threatened by the storm at sea his mother goddess Venus prays to Jupiter:

“O you . . . who rule the world of men and gods, what crime  . . . could my Aeneas have done. . . . Surely it was your promise . . . that from them the Romans were to rise . . . rulers to hold the sea and all lands beneath their sway, what thought . . . has turned you?”

  • When Jacob is threatened by Esau’s approaching army, he prays:

“Save me from my brother Esau; else I fear he may come and strike me down . . . yet, you have said . . . I will make your offspring as the sand of the sea”

  • As Aeneas and his men sat at the sacrificial table in honour of Jupiter, Harpies descended and contaminated the food. Aeneas and his men drive them away with their swords. —
    • The event was interpreted by the prophet Calaens as a prediction of famine before the promise is fulfilled.
  • As Abraham is cutting the pieces of the sacrificial animals of the covenant birds of prey descend upon the carcasses. Abraham drives them away. —
    • The event is followed by God declaring that Abraham’s descendants will be enslaved in Egypt before the promise is fulfilled.

In both cases:

  • The deity cannot violate his promise
  • omens presage difficulties before the fulfillment of the promise.

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“Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many”

It is S.G.F. Brandon’s fault. At least he shares much of the blame. Way back in 1967, the year of the Six Day War and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his book Jesus and the Zealots was published. Ever since then it has been de rigueur for scholars to locate the historical Jesus in a Palestine strewn willy nilly with roaming bandits, rebels and apocalyptic prophets.

In vain have I posted here and on other online discussion groups my complaint that there is simply no evidence for any of these figures in the time of Jesus, but that the only reason it is believed that such movements dotted the landscape in his time is by inferring that the zealots and prophets who appeared later (or in one case a generation earlier) were indicative of what must have being happening around the 20s and 30s CE — despite the silence in the record.

But yesterday I discovered a friend who will back me up. I don’t know him personally but I know him through his 1975 article in the journal New Testament Studies. He is Paul W. Barnett, a fellow Australian, who belonged to the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney. (He’s also a bishop, sorry.) The article he had published, and the reason I like him so much, is:

Barnett, P. W. 1975. “‘Under Tiberius All Was Quiet.’” New Testament Studies 21 (04): 564.

Here is his argument. From the outset he points out that

Careful analysis of the incidence of unrest and disturbance suggests that ‘revolutionary’ activity began in earnest during the Second Procuratorial period (A.D. 44-66).

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly what I have been trying to say.

What changed to bring on instability from that time on?

  • The unexpected and premature death of Agrippa and the evident paganism and philo-Romanism of his son must have dashed to the ground any hopes for a deliverer from the Hasmonean line.
  • Claudius’ initial policy was not unkind to Judaeans though this hardly compensated for the crises of the forties — the barely averted desecration of the Temple4 (A.D. 40), the death of Agrippa and the return to Roman rule which now extended to Galilee5 (A.D. 44), and the severe famine (A.D. 46-8).
  • However, the appointment as Procurator in A.D. 52 of Pallas’ brother Felixat the behest of ex-High Priest Jonathan was to prove disastrous in Jewish history. Under the procuratorship of Felix (A.D. 52-60) the terrorist activities of the Sicarii began, the prophetic movement waxed strong, whilst Graeco-Jewish relationships in Caesarea were allowed to reach a critical point.

(p. 565. My formatting in all quotations)

There was more. read more »

There are two types of Jesus mythicism. Here’s how to tell them apart.


Type 1: Scholarly
The authors engage with not only the source documents of early Christianity but they also address the scholarship that has been written about those documents. The arguments are structured around engagement with the scholarship of biblical studies, ancient history (including judaica), the classics and other related fields such as archaeology, religion, anthropology, historiography, mythology. They apply the norms of the scientific method (e.g. evidence-based, falsifiability). e.g. Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, Robert Price.

Type 2: Pseudo-Scholarly
The authors engage with the source documents but disregard the bulk of related scholarly discussion and focus primarily on interpreting them tendentiously through a conspiracy theory or other unfalsifiable pseudo-historical theory. That is, their arguments are based on an assumption (that is, there is no unambiguous evidence in support) that there are behind-the-scenes powerful and complex forces and actors manipulating or producing the evidence. The emphasis is on arguing for the “missing link” in explaining Christianity and little to no attention is given to addressing alternative explanations in the scholarship for the evidence used. e.g. Christianity as an invention by Roman imperial powers; a strain of astrotheological beliefs dominated secret mystery religions and morphed into Christianity; Christian teachings began and were preserved in some form though centuries, even millennia, before being re-written in the gospels.

What do you think? Do those two “definitions” cover it? I’m sure the wording can be tidied.


Response #3: Non Sequitur’s Tim O’Neill presentation, The Ascension of Isaiah

This is why people like me when you read Carrier’s book you think, What the f*ck are you talking about? — Tim O’Neill
Response #1: Motives
Response #2: No fame outside Galilee

Tim spoke those words seconds before leading listeners to infer that he had checked the ancient text that Carrier was misrepresenting, the Ascension of Isaiah [AoI].

Listeners were led to understand that only readers with superior knowledge of the texts would know Carrier was giving them false information.

So to prove that Carrier did not know what he was talking about, that the AoI said the very opposite of what Carrier claimed, Tim quoted a passage from it.

What Tim failed to tell his viewers, and perhaps what Tim himself over time has forgotten, was that he was actually reading the same passage in the AoI that Carrier himself quoted and discussed in his book. One did not have to turn from Carrier’s book to check the AoI for oneself — as Tim clearly implies — but one simply had to read the so-called damning passage in Carrier’s text itself.

Tim’s claim that “only knowledgeable readers would know Carrier had no idea what he was talking about” makes no sense if Tim was alerted to the existence of the passage by Carrier himself. Tim did not draw upon his specialist background knowledge to expose Carrier’s “misinformation”. He simply read a translation of the very same text Carrier himself was quoting and discussing.


From Evan T, On the Way to Ithaca

Tim O’Neill informs us that Richard Carrier “tries to get around the lack of evidence” for mythicism by (in part) appealing to the Ascension of Isaiah. He begins giving some explanatory background to this text:

I’m responding to the presentation between 53:00 – 59:00 of the Non Sequitur video.


It’s a fairly obscure text and we’ve got it in fairly fragmentary form … an Ethiopian translation … in Slavonic … in Latin… So it’s quite hard for us to piece together exactly what it would have said originally, because originally it would have been written in Greek.

What Tim does not make clear to his listeners is that those translations, and even different manuscript versions in the same language, contain very different contents in places. It is not just that we have different translations of a lost Greek version that causes difficulties. The difficulties arise because of the significantly varying content in the different versions. That’s an important point that we will see Tim appears not to recognize. Tim continues:

But we can work out that it was probably written maybe in the late first century, possibly early second century. . . . That puts it around the same time the gospels were being written. . . . It’s a Christian text and it describes a vision supposedly seen by the prophet Isaiah . . . . But in this text, Isaiah sees a vision, and he sees Jesus descending from the upper heavens, from the seventh heaven, down through the various heavens, and sees him crucified, and then sees him ascend when he rises from the dead back up through the heavens. And the whole point of this text is that no-one knows that it’s Jesus because he takes on a different form as he moves through these different heavens, and then it’s not until he rises from the dead and that he ascends back up through the heavens that he reveals himself to be the messiah and in some sense divine. And so the whole point of the text is that they thought they killed him but he fooled them and as he ascends back up through the seven heavens to take his place with the throne of God again he demonstrates who he really was.

If Carrier is right, then there’s your evidence

Now what Carrier argues is that this is the smoking gun. So he argues that this is a text that as I said did not exist, which is supposedly a text that has Jesus coming from the upper heavens, descending not to earth but to the lower heavens, so to what’s called the firmament, and he gets crucified there, not on earth, and then he rises from the dead there and then he ascends back into the heavens. He gets crucified there, by demons, not on earth by human beings.

Now if Carrier is right, then there’s your evidence. There’s the evidence that there actually was a belief in a Jesus who was purely celestial and not historical; purely heavenly, and died in the heavens, not earthly, and died on earth.

I do find myself wearying of this false dichotomy between celestial and historical. Literature is crammed full of nonhistorical figures who “lived” on earth. I suspect there are many times more earthly human form mythical figures in literature than there are celestial ones.

But there’s a problem. And the problem is that actually if you’re familiar with the text — this is why people like me when you read Carrier’s book you think, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ If you actually read Carrier’s book, he says, ‘Well, he descended just to the firmament and nowhere else, and he gets crucified on a tree that’s not a real tree, it’s a kind of celestial version of a tree, and he’s never depicted as going to earth.’

The only problem is that if you actually turn to the Ascension of Isaiah you read this:

And I saw one like the son of man (that’s Jesus, the messiah) dwelling with men and in the world and they did not recognize him.

It also says that an angel talks to Isaiah saying Jesus … taking on your form; in your form, human form.

So, the text does actually have Jesus coming to earth, it actually does have Jesus dwelling among men.

Tim could not be clearer. Tim is saying that we read one thing in Carrier’s book and quite something else if we turn to the Ascension of Isaiah itself. The clear suggestion is that Carrier does not know what the AoI says and one will not know of the “incriminating” passage unless one “went to” the AoI itself. Contrary to this clear inference, Carrier in fact informs readers by quoting and discussing that same passage.

But what the farnarkling is he talking about?

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The Phlogiston Jesus

Fourcroy (Wikipedia): “There are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.”

PZ Myers: A consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 200 years ago there was a consensus phlogiston existed. The key thing is: show me the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this.

(From video discussion with Eddie Marcus; see also transcript/paraphrase.)


Tim O’Neill: If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like Maurice Casey, Zeba Crook, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Funk, Jeffrey Gibson, Michael Goulder, Amy Jill Levine, Gerd Ludemann, Jack Miles, Christina Petterson, Alan Segal and Geza Vermes. None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have most of these scholars ever published or publicly stated a view about mythicism, either for or against. Nor have they all even published a perspective on the historical Jesus, either. It is probably fair to say, however, that in their writings they all have, when and where relevant, embraced the assumption of a historical Jesus.

And to [suggest] that these scholars are simply too unimaginative or too timid to examine and accept the idea that there was no Jesus at all is [without foundation]. [Some of these names are] the leading proponents of conceptions about Jesus and the origins of Christianity that are so much at odds with orthodox Christian ideas that conservative Christian apologists write whole books warning their faithful to beware of their supposedly wild and radical theories. . . . So if [some] leading non-Christian scholars are so shackled to the Christian idea of a historical Jesus because of the vast influence on them of Christian culture, [we need to explain why] this highly Christian influence [appears to be] so narrowly focused and selective. Why is it only on the question of Jesus’ existence that this supposedly pervasive Christian orthodoxy has such influence on these non-Christian scholars, but not any other ideas? How is it that this supposed Christian control only works on the historicity of Jesus, but somehow fails completely on topics such as the rejection of Jesus as

  • a Jewish apocalypticist,
  • or the promotion of the Farrer Thesis over the Two Source Hypothesis
  • or conservative views on the dates and authorship of the gospels
  • or any of the dozens of other issues on which the scholarship is sharply divided between non-Christians and orthodox Christian scholars?

Why can and do these scholars present Jesus as

  • a Jewish preacher,
  • a charismatic hasid
  • or a Cynic-style sage

– all ideas substantially at odds with Christian orthodoxy – yet baulk at the idea that he did not exist? . . . It makes no sense that this supposedly powerful cultural bias would only affect non-Christian scholars on historicity and not across a much wider range of disputed topics.

(From O’Neill, Tim. 2018. “PZ Myers and ‘Jesus Agnosticism.’” History for Atheists (blog). September 29, 2018.

I have replaced words in Tim’s original post that I believe are not in the best interests of a sober discussion (some contain rhetorical flourishes laced with unprofessional attitudes; some are sweeping, misleading or incorrect statements) with my own hopefully more neutral words in square brackets and italics. The bolded highlighting and dot-formatting is my own.

Tim’s question is clearly intended to be rhetorical but actually a little reflection on PZ Myers’ reference to the scientific consensus on phlogiston will suggest a ready answer. read more »

The Detering Commentaries: Christian Origins, Joshua, Gnosticism and Buddhism

René Salm has concluded his series of Hermann Detering Commentaries:

Dr. Hermann Detering

“The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus and the Beginning of the Joshua/Jesus Cult” (2018)

Commentary by René Salm

This extensive series of posts explores literary, religious, and historical links between Buddhism and Christian origins.

It argues that Christianity emerged from a gnostic substratum,
and that the figure Jesus of Nazareth and the New Testament gospels
are second century CE developments.


René Salm quotes Hermann Detering’s overall conclusion:

Beginning with the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus motif and the question of its origin, we have arrived at an element of critical importance: the metaphor of transcendence, expressed figuratively as [reaching] the “other shore”—which plays a central role in Indian/Buddhist spirituality. The question of where the two trajectories intersect—Jewish tradition/Hebrew Bible on the one hand, and Buddhist/Indian spirituality on the other—led us to the Therapeutae, about whom Philo of Alexandria reports in his De Vita Contemplativa.

Once the Buddhist origin of the Therapeutae is seen as plausible, it can be shown that their central mystery consisted of an interpretation of the Exodus, an interpretation based upon Buddhist sources. This interpretation, in turn, was the seed of the Christian sacrament of baptism. Early Christian gnostics, such as the Peratae and the Naassenes, transferred to Moses’ successor Joshua what the Therapeutae (more strongly rooted in Jewish tradition) maintained for Moses. The old cult of Moses would be surpassed by the new, Gnostic-Christian cult of Joshua. The counterpart of Moses became Jesus/Joshua.

Seen in this light, the “historical” Jesus, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, was hypostatized in the second century of our era out of the Old Testament Joshua. The Christian savior Joshua/Jesus is nothing other than the result of Jewish-Buddhist exegesis of the Old Testament.

I have read in translation much of Hermann Detering’s article. I look forward to being able to devote the time and energy that a proper assessment of his argument requires.

Jesus, from a corpse hung on a tree to a man slain on a cross

Stéphane, Marc. 1959. La Passion de Jésus : Fait d’histoire Ou Objet de Croyance. Dervy-livres Besançon, impr. Jacques et Demontrond.

The French historian Marc Stéphane took up the question of the existence of Jesus and after engaging with the critical scholarship of his day, in particular that of “anti-mythicists” Alfred Loisy and Charles Guignebert, as well as mythicist Prosper Alfaric, and after delicately warning devout believers that he was not seeking to undermine their faith but was endeavouring to write an argument from a point of view that believers were free to ignore, wrote his own perspective on the question.

In brief, and to zero in on points I think are of more interest to many today, Stéphane

  1. Argued that the Gospel of Mark was the first to create a narrative of Jesus in a historical setting, drawing upon other writings such as the Jewish scriptures and the letters of Paul; fleshing out various images in these writings into narrative form;
  2. This gospel was probably written around the turn of the century, between 95 and 100 CE;
  3. Before the gospel was written, the view of the death of Jesus that was set out in 1 Cor 2:8 aligned with the same narrative we read in the Ascension of Isaiah: the Prince of this world, Satan and his archangels, killed the Lord of Glory and hung him up on a cross;
  4. The Ascension of Isaiah, in a Latin manuscript, conforms with the standard Jewish law that an executed criminal’s body would be hung on a tree as a public warning; that is, the hanging of a body on the tree an act that followed the execution; this was the standard Jewish understanding of what it meant for a body to be cursed by hanging on a tree;
  5. In one manuscript line of the Gospel of Mark Jesus is said to have called out at his moment of death, “My God, my God, why have you cursed me?” — thus adhering to what Paul wrote about the fate of the Son of God;
  6. The author of the Gospel of Mark had no historical material to shape into a narrative; there are many indications of this in the gospel itself (in addition to the evidence of source material from the Jewish scriptures and Paul’s letters): the lack of background and explanatory setting, characters and crowds just come and go as needed for each piece of story, the story is written in the style of a master narrator, breathlessly bringing his audience along with him “immediately” scene by vivid scene; the stylized structuring of three-fold sections throughout the narrative, especially with the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the Passion; and also the many anachronistic and unrealistic details of the narrative itself (e.g. Pharisees are portrayed unlike the sect they really were, and Pilate is also depicted most unlike his actual self);
  7. The author was writing for a Roman audience and decided to change the Jewish custom of hanging the body on a tree after death and place the crucifixion in a Roman setting: this further involved the need to have a Roman magistrate issue the final order for the crucifixion, and the name Pontius Pilate was well enough known and came conveniently to hand;

Seven points. I’ll stop there. Why spoil God’s design!


Enticed by a great quote & surprised by a unexpected “mythicist”

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

Yesterday I completed reading a most unexpected argument (an argument that led to the conclusion that Christianity did not originate with a historical Jesus) in a book I borrowed on the understanding it would do nothing more for me than clarify a few textual details about our early accounts of the Last Supper. I was following up sources associated with my earlier post, The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death.

I see now that if I had paid more attention to a few bibliographies of mythicists here and there on the web and to Klaus Schilling’s summaries/translations (here and here) I might have been forewarned. But I came to the name Jean Magne and some of his works in mainstream scholarly literature and had no forewarning.

The book I am talking about is From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Its Introduction arrests us with

The following pages set out the results of my investigations which started in 1945 soon after my return from captivity in Germany.

From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity (1993) consists of a partial translation of Logique des Sacrements (1989) and the complete translated text of Logique des Dogmes (1989). Anyone even slightly aware of prominent names in biblical scholarship could not fail to be somewhat impressed by the mention of Neusner in the same Introduction:

I would like to reiterate . . . my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Jacob Neusner who prompted this publication, writing to me on February 19, 1990: “I found your thesis entirely plausible. If you can get the book translated into English, I can get it published in a series I edit”, and again on April 23: “I thought your book showed how first-rate scholarship could produce a compelling and important thesis. This is why I wanted it in English”.

Earlier I had attempted to work my way through the original French text of Jean Magne’s “Les Paroles Sur La Coupe” [literally “the words on the (eucharist) cup”] and found the French very difficult indeed, so I was somewhat sympathetic to several of the infelicities in the English translation of Magne’s book in English.

The method

The first part of the book, “From Christianity to Gnosis”, focuses on the textual evidence we have (canonical gospels, Paul’s letters, the Didache) for the origins of the current ritual of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Mass. What particularly struck as I read was the author’s method. This could be epitomized by the epigraph at the beginning of Magne’s second chapter:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

My search for the author of that epigraph eventually led me to the following explanation.

Dom Maerten’s criticism highlighted the difference which exists between the historical method based on authentic, dated documents and the critical method which, like an archeologist when he excavates, has to distinguish between the various redactional layers in biblical or liturgical documents. Errors of syntax are one of the means of reconstructing the prehistory of a text in order to attain History. The historian’s shortcoming lies in his frequent inability to distinguish between two literary genres : works that have an author and works of living literature where each generation has added its contribution.

Now that little point suddenly reminded me of another work I read and wrote about last year: Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”. Revelation among many learned Judeans was not considered sealed up in a single book, but was always open to new understandings so that works in the names of certain authors multiplied. Adding to an existing text is not the same thing but it is similar. Did not the author of Revelation address this very practice when he pronounced a curse on anyone who would tamper with what he had just written — which ironically looks like something written over and around another earlier (non-Christian) text!

I cannot agree more with the first quote that speaks of the need to “reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts”. But when it comes to the particular method of reasoning as set out in the second quotation I have some niggling doubts.

So when Jean Magne showed how textual inconsistencies in the various sources appeared very much to be resolved by fitting Jesus words that he would not drink the cup again until in the kingdom back into the gathering at Bethany and not on the Passover itself just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, I was fascinated. The Last Supper ritual of the Passover evening when Jesus declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, etc. was a later addition to the Gospel of Mark. An earlier version of that gospel placed the arrest of Jesus immediately after his anointing for burial at Bethany.

I found the argument intriguing (and still do) but at the same time, and especially after many more such arguments relating to the various gospels and epistles, one is left with a very neat and very new picture of the evidence. It’s like the way the archaeologists found scattered pieces of an inscription at Tel Dan and studied to see the way they best fit together to make the most sense. Except with the texts we begin with texts that are already in one piece, only with lots of curious inconsistencies or non sequiturs in them that years of familiarity has very often hidden from us.

The point I am getting to is that after finding such nice fits by sifting out earlier from later strata one is left wishing one could find some additional independent source to test the new reconstructions. Have we built a new house of cards?

So I remain intrigued by Jean Magne’s arguments but I am also held in suspense, waiting for “the proof” to come along to confirm or demolish them. What I really would need to do, pending that moment, would be to devote considerable time and energy to a detailed study of Magne’s arguments and not simply rely upon a single reading of his book.

The overall argument

The general case Magne presents is that although our surviving gnostic texts (Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, Testament of Truth) are comparatively late, he finds that earlier Jewish and Christian texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) are best explained in places as attempts to refute the arguments that are often found in those later gnostic writings, or sometimes even advance them. The surviving forms of the gnostic works have themselves introduced efforts to rebut those earlier rebuttals. The Pseudo-Clementine writings about the contest between Simon Magus and Simon Peter may well attest to the real debates that were extant much earlier at the time of Paul and the authors of the gospels. (We know, of course, of the arguments from Roger Parvus, Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price that identify Paul with Simon Magus.)

Crucified in heaven

Before I fully grasped the extent of this argument I was struck by a passing comment on 1 Cor. 2:8 that I had posted about at length. read more »

PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods

PZ Myers has responded to some points by Tim O’Neill about the question of the historicity of Jesus and historical methods — Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment — and I cannot help but adding my own sideline remarks here. Perhaps it’s because I have only just a few hours ago completed a fascinating book by a French scholar that I did not know when I started reading would come to the conclusion that Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus. But most interestingly his argument for Christian origins was commended as worthy of study by none other than Jacob Neusner. (I will be posting about his work soon.) I have not read Tim O’Neil’s post, only PZ’s, so it’s only a few points raised by the latter that I cover here.

PZ quotes and discusses the following passage from Tim’s post:

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.

This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.

On the first paragraph, I am not sure that it is correct to charge that “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” Several mythicists authors I have cited certainly came to that conclusion through an analysis of the evidence but I don’t know which mythicist authors Tim has in mind whom he believes “base their supposition” on the existence of a form of early Christianity that lacked an idea of a historical Jesus.

The second paragraph, however, is indeed problematic and points to some confusion about the nature of many mythicist arguments and methods.

No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works.

Even most of the letters of Paul posit a Jesus and crucifixion as theological (not historical) constructs. Paul never attempts to “prove historically” that Jesus existed or was crucified. There is a passage (said to be partly inauthentic by some researchers) where he attempts to prove the resurrection by naming persons the readers are supposed to recognize as eyewitnesses. But only apologists would take his testimony as serious historical evidence for the resurrection. Others have argued that there is some kernel of truth behind Paul’s claims about the witnesses to the resurrection in that disciples had visions or became inwardly convicted, etc. But you see the problem for the historian here — we are moving away from the evidence and changing it to say something it doesn’t actually say so that it fits our preconceived model of Christian origins.

So we are reminded of a point that several ancient historians have made when addressing sound methods and that I narrowed down to just one quotation in a post a few months ago. Philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker was addressing the question of whether or not something (in this case a miracle) in the gospels really happened. He explains:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, p. 99

And that hits the nail squarely on the head.

Tim O’Neill appears to be repeating the argument for the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars that is based on a naive reading of the sources: that we should assume they are just as they appear — “biographies”, however exaggerated, of a historical figure. But Tucker is saying that this approach begs the questions. The historian’s first task is to understand why the gospel narratives were written. It is a mistake to simply assume that though they are about a mythical or theological figure and persons who behave most unlike real persons we know from history (even Pilate is depicted as very unlike his portrayal elsewhere) they must nonetheless have originated in history and transmitted through oral retellings until set down by the evangelists. To make that assumption is to sweep aside much scholarship that has indeed suggested other sources for many of the narratives in those gospels, and to sweep aside critical scholarship that has indeed questioned the biographical nature of the gospels. (And there remains the question of how ancient biographies worked anyway since not all of them, despite appearances, are really about historical figures.)

One prominent Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, Philip R. Davies, who was a pioneer of what became known derogatorily as “minimalism” in Old Testament studies — a movement that has continued to gain momentum since the 1990s and many of whose views are now mainstream — wrote the following in one of his last publications:

I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.

The ‘minimalist’ approach he was referring to is nothing other than the way ancient historians (at least the scholarly reputable ones such as Moses I. Finley) work with evidence in fields other than biblical studies. I outlined his starting assumptions and questions on a webpage, In Search of Ancient Israel. I copied the main points of his discussion about faulty assumptions we bring to our reading of the biblical narratives in a blog post, too. Essentially, Davies and those who approached the history of “biblical Israel” in the same way argued that the biblical narratives must not be assumed to be based on historical events, but that such an assumption needs to be tested against other independent data. Archaeological data is not going to help us settle the question of the historicity of Jesus but one can compare other independent texts. Such a comparison will not exclude a comparison with other Greco-Roman literature in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the nature and potential purposes of the gospels. Some biblical scholars have ventured into such comparisons but some have also done so tendentiously. That’s another question that biblical scholars themselves are debating and that needs another post for a thorough treatment.

Here’s how another scholar put it:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

That’s just another way of saying what Aviezer Tucker said:

But this [did this story happen?] is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

And when a scholar sees that the evidence points to the gospels not being more widely known until well into the second century, and that by that time they had been heavily redacted, and that their narratives are clearly influenced by comparable stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and that at key points in their narratives they even appear to be deliberately targeting pre-existing beliefs that their narrative is not grounded in historical memory at all, then that scholar has a challenge ahead.

One more point. I have been attempting to get some handle on the nature of religion itself according to current anthropological and related studies. It has been a fascinating study. One point that has stood out for me is that models of how new religions start or how sects break off from mainstream religions to promote their own rituals and identities is just how infrequently such developments can be attributed simply to the appearance of a charismatic stand-alone figure who becomes the object of worship and co-creator of the universe, and how unreliable mythical explanations for the origins of their rituals and practices ever are.

As PZ Myers rightly points out, it means nothing to an atheist whether or not Jesus existed historically. (Unless the atheist is one of those idiots who likes to just pose nonsense criticisms for the sake of mocking alone.) But grappling with the evidence itself and attempting to assess it with clear-eyed and sound methods is a fascinating exploration.


Davies, Philip R. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible and Interpretation. August 2012.

Davies, Philip R. 1992. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Finley, M. I. 1999. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project.

Kosso, Peter. 2001. Knowing the Past: Philosophical Issues of History and Archaeology. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Magne, Jean. 1993. From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Pr.

Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press.

See also posts archived under Ancient Historiography and Greco-Roman Biography


Religion Explained – Why Rituals (Explaining the origin of the Lord’s Supper)

Why for that matter do people gather in a special building, listen to accounts of a long-past torture-session and pretend to eat the flesh of a god? (Boyer, p. 262)

As we noted recently, our historian friend Eddie Marcus made the following comment — I paraphrase:

Christians obsessed over the eucharist.

The reason we think it MUST have been Jesus was their obsession over it. ALL faith communities have this in common. . .  — this bread and wine ritual obsession. Something triggered that. Easiest explanation for that ritual is that one person did it.

I don’t think so. I think the explanation that “one person did it” is the most difficult explanation.

Luke 22:14-20
And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I shall not eat it, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: for I say unto you, I shall not drink from henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.

The reason I think it is difficult to imagine one person starting the ritual as per the gospel narratives is that such an explanation fails to take into account the nature of ritual itself. What is the eucharist, or Mass, or Lord’s Supper? Before taking up the question of origins it is surely necessary to first understand what it is that we are seeking to explain.

We know of stories where comrades in arms, after experiencing a traumatic bonding time together, solemnly vow to meet every year to commemorate those who did not survive and renew their friendship. I don’t think we’ve ever heard of any of those gatherings expand to include their children and subsequent generations, certainly not other friends, continuing the anniversary long after the original parties have died.

But you will be quick to say that that is not a fair comparison because there is no divinity involved. I would say that the comparison rather draws our attention to what it is we are seeking to explain. What is a ritual?

Scholars of religion, including anthropologists and psychologists, have identified special characteristics about rituals that are unlike other sorts of behaviour and emotional responses.

One such theme in rituals is

purity, purification, of making sure that participants and various objects are clean, etc.

(Boyer, p. 237)

Paul stressed as much when he wrote:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body. For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep. But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged.

1 Cor 11:27-31

Yes, as Eddie said, the early Christians “obsessed” over the eucharist. But what he failed to appreciate is that most people who observe the ritual today also “obsess” over it. That they did so in Paul’s day is not necessarily a pointer to the historicity of its etiological myth any more than today’s “obsessives” are evidence of the historical truth behind Luke 22:14-20.

But Eddie did come very close to what is actually the defining trait of the ritual when he spoke of obsessive interest. read more »

How a historian approaches the question of the historical Jesus: concluding the PZ and Eddie Marcus discussion

Previous posts:

  1. PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism (2018-09-05)
  2. How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional? (2018-09-06)
  3. How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical? (2018-09-07)

I have as a rule paraphrased main points that each person spoke in their exchange.


PZ: You (Eddie) say it is unlikely that anyone would conspire to create a Jesus myth, but compare Mormonism. Joseph Smith invented this “ridiculous past history for the North American continent”. And people believe this.

Eddie: It’s not a question of what people believe. We have to account for the evidence. History of Mormonism would start with historical techniques. So it would start with a real Joseph Smith. And using the tools of history we can analyse the Book of Mormon itself and identify disparate sources and influences.

Comment: I think Eddie has missed PZ’s point here.


PZ: We can do all of that, yes, but that does not give any credence at all to the mythology that was created and believed.

Eddie: Let’s look at what a historian means by “the historical Jesus”.

— The earliest accounts of Jesus are Paul’s writings. Paul believed “the historical figure of Jesus” becomes Christ, the Messiah, at his death or resurrection.

— Then the gospel writers thought there had to be something more to this Jesus before his death so they created the gospels.

— Mark says it (becomes the Messiah) happened at Jesus’ baptism.

— Then others said it (Messiahship) happened at his virgin birth.

— Then John pushed him right back to the beginning of time/creation.

Such is a linear presentation but in actual fact it would not have been so tidy; rather it would have been different community groups arguing with one another.

The point of this is to split the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ.

So we can account for why we have a virgin birth, using standard historical techniques. It is naive to say that a miracle could not happen so there was no historical person behind the stories. It’s part of an ongoing discussion about at what point Jesus becomes the Messiah.

Comment: Technical point. In Romans 1 Paul writes that Jesus became the son of God at his resurrection, not the messiah or christ then. Same with the gospel writers shifting the moment back further, to baptism, to birth, to the beginning of time. What they were shifting back was when Jesus became the son of God, not messiah.

I take Eddie to be meaning that we can explain why miraculous or mythical stories emerged by means of rival interests and search for deeper meanings etc among the communities following Jesus. He appears to be saying that this is how historians “find” the historical Jesus. They package their historical explanations for the miraculous tales as a narrative and this is the evidence for the historical Jesus. At least this certainly appears to be Eddie’s message later in the discussion.

To say that the narrative itself is “the evidence” sounds a bit like one of the less conservative postmodernist views of what constitutes history. My readings about history and how history is done by historians thankfully assure me that not all historians accept this view.


PZ: So there could probably be a kernel of truth there but the communities were adding layers of myth to the story.

Eddie: The gospel writers added the myths because of what they meant to convey (though they may have also believed they really happened) — e.g. virgin birth. But that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t really born.

PZ: Granted all of that. But where did the mythmaking start and end, and where was the reality? read more »

How an executed war criminal became a mythic national hero

Breaker Morant

Years ago I walked out of a movie theatre enraged. Thousands throughout Australia at that time did the same. People talked about it for months afterwards, asking “How could they do it!” The “they” were the British colonial masters led by Lord Kitchener; the “it” was the execution of two Australian soldiers as scapegoats to protect the international image of Great Britain. The film was Breaker Morant, based on historical persons and events in the Boer War at the turn of the last century. Morant, nicknamed the Breaker, was a national hero few of us at the time had even heard about. The film revived memories from the early twentieth century that the Breaker was very much a national hero and a sacrificial victim to the British overlords.

Morant has gone not so much into history as into legend. He followed the admired track of other Australian folk-heroes — Ned Kelly, Moondyne Joe, Captain Starlight. They were all men against authority; good bad men or bad good men, always with enough human appeal to disguise the fact that they were outside the law, that they robbed and killed and were brought to book. Behind them all are the near-mythic figures of Hereward the Wake and Robin Hood, of William Tell and the outlaws of the Old West. People prefer to think of them all as bold and brave individuals, self-reliant and strong, defiant against great odds. Morant, in the popular mind, has joined their company.

(Denton in Closed File, cited by Walker, pp. 18f )

Here are the facts about Morant according to Shirley Walker’s article ‘A Man Never Knows His Luck in South Africa’: Some Australian Literary Myths from the Boer War. I list them first so you can begin to wonder how such a figure was able to acquire the status of an Australian mythic hero.

  • His name was Edwin Henry Murrant, son of the Master and Matron of the Union Workhouse, Bridgewater, Somerset.
  • He lied about his age to marry Daisy O’Dwyer, soon afterwards deserting her and eventually remarrying as a bigamist
  • “A young English scapegrace consigned to the colonies for some youthful escapade”
  • He had a reputation for defaulting on debts
  • A “womanizer”. His nickname Breaker referred to both his breaking in of horses and his breaking of women’s hearts
  • A horse thief
  • A regular drunkard
  • In the Boer War he shot prisoners, including a number who entered his camp under the white flag.
  • He also had witnesses to these crimes, including a missionary, murdered.
  • On being caught he was tried and executed by firing squad.

There was a positive side:

  • He was “well known throughout Australia (i.e. the colonies) as a rough rider, a polo and steeplechase rider”
  • a bush poet published in the leading magazine, The Bulletin, under the pen-name “The Breaker”

How does one make a Hereward the Wake or Robin Hood type hero out of raw material like that?

First, one needs the right soil for any seed to germinate. Or, to change the metaphor, one needs a mold by means of which to cast the person to become the hero.

In other words, the ideas of the myth are “out there”, in the minds of an audience who are prepared to love the idea of finding exemplars to fit those ideals. read more »

Review of R. G. Price’s book on the Christ Myth theory — and a review of Richard Carrier’s to come

I have posted a review of R. G. Price’s book , Deciphering the Gospels — proves Jesus never existed, arguing for the Jesus of the gospels being an entirely literary invention on Amazon. At the time of this post it has not yet appeared but I expect it will be processed and published soon. I have posted a copy of what I wrote below.

Meanwhile, I have been persuaded I should also do my own review of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus. It’s a big book and the review will be lots of work so it won’t be completed by tomorrow but it is in the “to do” basket.

Here is what I wrote for amazon on Price’s book:

read more »