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Tall tales do not mean we doubt the historicity of Davy Crockett; why should we therefore doubt Jesus?

It is Sunday morning and I beg to be allowed a lazy post for once. Let me copy here a comment I left on PZ’s site and that I originally made in reply to a visitor to Vridar.

Someone on my blog asked a vital question. . . . The question (after addressing the legends about Davy Crockett)

Perhaps the question we should be asking about Jesus, is not if the surviving texts about him are purely mythical or if they represent the honest to god unquestionable truth, but if they are hagiography and whitewashing, and if anything historical can be extracted from them.

That’s an excellent question and one I have written about many times here, often discussing the works of classicists and ancient historians as they themselves inform us how they address that type of question. The second post in this series contains links to some of those posts:

Some of those articles:

— As for figures about whom we have contradictory records, such as Socrates, we have seen whether and on what grounds his status is determined in Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed.

— As for the status of mythical persons such as Gyges we have seen How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical. (In this case the myth is determined to have a historical core.)

— As for reports of miracles, we see how historians work with the evidence in Even a Bayesian Historian Can Slip Up! (once).

— On vague rumours, such as stories about the Celts ritually killing their kings, we have considered how historians work at Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings?

— When it comes to fictional accounts of something like the Exodus we have critically reviewed one work at Can we extract history from fiction?

— Or when our only written reports are by enemies, we have seen a historian at work in Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed?

We have also looked at general comments about methods by the renowned ancient historian M.I. Finley in An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

But to answer your question directly:

Many ancient historical figures are said by ancient sources to have become gods or were sons of gods, and to have performed miracles, and to have done things that were very like what the myths said gods had once done. How do we know they were real?

Example: emperors became gods at death, some were said to be gods with divine ancestry while on earth, one Roman emperor healed a blind man in a manner that strikingly resembles a healing by Jesus; Hadrian dressed and acted like Hercules, Alexander the Great followed in the footsteps of Dionysus in conquering the east, etc.

But in every single case of those historians deem to be historical we have evidence that exists about those persons independently of the myths and legends surrounding them. Further, we can trace the origins and reasons for those myths by comparing them with what we know independently of the real historical figure.

The ancient authors whom we rely upon know they are writing about historical figures and their works are indeed forms of ancient history or biography. Those authors do know the difference between normal human characteristics and those of the gods and myths, and when they tell us about the mythical tales or comparisons associated with their historical subjects they nearly always either give their sources for the information or express some sympathy with their readers who may be reluctant to believe the tales. In other words, they do not tell the stories as tall tales because they want to inspire credibility in their accounts.

On the other hand we have other stories about ancient persons (some of these tales actually include genuine historical characters as part of the plot) that are told for entertainment or to convey moral or philosophical lessons and historians always call the main characters of these stories fictional. They do so because they are told just like the novellas or short stories of the day: none of the cautions and trappings of reliability of account as for the historical persons are to be found in these narratives. They are told as if the reader is expected to suspend all critical imagination and just accept or even believe their stories of miracles and nymphs and talking with gods, etc.

If we strip away the mythical trappings of Alexander and Plato and Pythagoras and Davy Crockett, we still find a real person there.
If we strip away the mythical trappings of stories of Achilles and Adam and Jesus we are left with no body to examine at all.

You might also like to consider the following posts addressing the methods of ancient historians:

Can we extract history from fiction?

and The Bible: History or Story?

See also How a Historian Establishes “What Happened” when “we only have the words of the text”

Just a small point

Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch’s theology was the subject of B. A. Gerrich’s chapter (pp 230-247).

Finally I have been able to catch up with the answer to one particular small question that arose for me when I first read Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. In the first pages of his review Gullotta directs readers to numerous works that are said to offer a detailed history of mythicism or a detailed list of serious engagements with past mythicist ideas. For example, on page one he writes:

For an in-depth review of mythicism up until Arthur Drews, see

Shirley Jackson Case, ‘The Historicity of Jesus: An Estimate of a Negative Argument’, The American Journal of Theology 15.1 (1911), pp. 20–42;

Maurice Goguel, ‘Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ’, Harvard Theological Review 19.2 (1926), pp. 115–142;

Walter P. Weaver, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900–1950 (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999), pp. 45–71;

B.A. Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on Reformation Heritage (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 230–247.

(Gullotta, p. 311 – my layout)

The first three works I was somewhat familiar with (and I might have reason to question their portrayal as “in-depth reviews of mythicism up until Arthur Drews” although I can understand why Gullotta thought they might be) but the fourth, the one by Gerrish, was new to me. Only in recent days have I been able to read it.

Here is the full extent of the “in-depth review of mythicism up until Arthur Drews” given by Gerrish:

The problem of the historical Jesus was scarcely a new one. It had been one of the persistent motifs of nineteenth-century German theology, thanks largely to D. F. Strauss and his critique of Schleiermacher’s christology, and in the work of Bruno Bauer it had already issued in doubt whether Jesus ever existed. But it can hardly be claimed that Bauer had greatly shaken the world of German Protestantism. Towards the end of the century, shortly after the death of Albrecht Ritschl, a new phase of the discussion had begun, for which the year 1892 may stand as a convenient marker since it witnessed publication of the notable studies by Kaehler and Weiss. However, renewed discussion had remained the relatively genteel preserve of professional historians and theologians. Arthur Drews’s book, by contrast, became a cause célèbre because he enlisted historical skepticism into a vigorous public campaign on behalf of a post-Christian religious philosophy, which called for abandonment of faith in Jesus.

(Gerrish, pp. 230f)

That’s it. The remainder of the chapter is an in-depth critical review of how one particular theologian addressed the ways in which belief that Jesus had a historical existence was necessary for the faith of the Christian. It is not about mythicism, certainly not about the history of mythicism, but entirely about theological debates over whether Christianity was more about meaningful symbols, community interactions, than it was about the existence of a historical Jesus. Such debates arose in response to the possibility raised by Arthur Drews of even considering the question: How important is it for Christianity that Jesus did exist?

As I read the chapter I came to see more clearly how some few Christians today appear to have reconciled their Christian faith with the idea that Jesus was a metaphor, a symbol, an idea, and not historical. See the posts on Thomas Brodie for an example of how a Roman Catholic priest came to believe Jesus had no historical existence yet still finds deep meaning in the Christian faith.

If there’s a lesson to this post it is by no means a new one. It is one I have experienced many, many times over. And the example I have given above is far from being the only instance in Gullotta’s review. The lesson is: never blindly trust footnotes even in the most scholarly-looking articles, especially in the field of biblical studies at any rate. Always check them for yourself before running with the claim that they say or are what the author has written about them.


Gerrish, B. A. 2004. “Jesus , Myth, and History: Troeltsch’s Stand in the ‘Christ-Myth’ Debate.” In The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage, 230–47. London; New York: T & T Clark International.

Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (2–3): 310–46.

Is this really true?

Tom Holland is currently preparing a new book in which he fleshes out what he says in this video. Is Paul really like a “depth charge” in history, ultimately responsible for ripples that brought about the Enlightenment itself?

If one says that one’s inheritance is Christian what do we mean by Christian? Has not Christianity itself (including its use of Paul) been shaped according to shifting circumstances and ideologies through the ages?

Origins of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas Tales

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, dated to around the mid to later second century, strings together a series of pious and often shocking stories of the childhood of Jesus. He strikes teachers dead, brings to life clay birds, petulantly raises the dead to redeem his honour, and so forth. I have read here and there how some of these stories are taken from those of pagan gods but have not yet come across anything that addresses their origins or similarities to other stories in depth.

I did recently come across this passage:

Usually, apparent analogies in Indian childhood stories about Krishna and Buddha have been adduced. Scholars have also opted for Egyptian roots interpreting episodes in IGT as allegories of the Horus myth.3

3. Conrady, Ludwig. “Das Thomasevangelium: Ein wissenschaftlicher kritischer Versuch.” TSK 76 (1903) 377–459.

Aasgaard, Childhood of Jesus, p.87

I have since seen the same Conrady citation in a couple of other works, too.

I don’t read German but I have learned to extract information I want by various manuevers with online translators and dictionaries. So all I had to do was to find an online copy of Conrady’s article, no doubt sitting in the Internet Archive given that it goes back to 1903. And I was in luck. I found it there. But then my luck ran out. The text is that Gothic or Blackletter script. That means I cannot run it through any optical character recognition (OCR) tool available to me — which I need to be able to do in order to create a text that machine translators can read.

If anyone passing by does have a similar interest in what has been written about the origins of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and also has the means/equipment to be able to convert Gothic text into more “normal” text they can download the Conrady article that I have extracted from Internet Archive ( and enabled it to be shared via Google Drive: Conrady, Das Thomasevangelium. It’s a file of approx 3 MB. The article is nearly 90 pages.

Anyone who does manage to convert it to a normal text file is very welcome to send me a copy in the meantime.

Many thanks.


Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price

René Salm has so far compiled 26 web pages addressing Hermann Detering’s “new” argument for Christian origins involving influences from the East:

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.

I have not caught up with all of these yet but look forward to doing so.


And I see that the prolific Robert M. Price has a new book out:

Bart Ehrman interpreted : how one radical New Testament scholar understands another

I bought the kindle edition and, as usual with a RMP book, found it very easy to read. I think many would be eager to see Ehrman respond in some detail but I suspect anything from that quarter will fall short of engagement in debate.



Various “Thou Shalt Nots”

The Crude

As someone who has spent the last ten plus years working to facilitate open access of reading I had to pause and laugh at the blunt reality of this sign when recently wandering through the Chinatown area of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


The Sophisticated

When I returned home I visited once again the Queensland State Library and this time paused to examine a display cabinet near the entrance of the third floor’s “study and research” spaces. I expected to see some precious historical artefacts but instead saw it housing items that most libraries forbid in their reading areas, along with “preserved” mice and other beasties attracted by them. They were, of course, accompanied by information cards explaining the damage they each inflict on the collection.


The Mythical

Back to Kuala Lumpur for this one. In the old historic part of the city is a scenic spot with a flowing river and signage to alert visitors they were in the presence of the River of Life. There is an old mosque there and other interesting buildings and various signs to remind Westerners of the “thou shalt nots” that once accompanied their Edenic Tree of Life.



I don’t know what that empty circle with the “Forbidden” line through it is warning against (top row, third from the right). “No [fill in blank]”? — to cover those moments they catch you doing something they had forgotten to list?

I love the ban on romantic kissing sign. Much more discreet than our western images of naked Adam and Eve.

I see technology is introduced to help God keep a better eye on what’s going on nowadays.


Scholarly Snobbery and Wikipedia (again)

The corrected article

I trust most readers here would patiently attempt to point out to intellectual snobs who look down with scorn and mockery on those less well educated that their privileged status obligates them to act with responsibility and do what they can to broaden a community’s education.

One of the more insufferable intellectual snobs on the internet poured scorn on the public in general when he wrote

Wikipedia’s Editors Are Imbeciles

Wikipedia’s editors are, of course, the general public. The scholar who went on to call them dullards and add labels to his post that included disdain, scorn, stupidity, could have deigned to dirty his hands and correct the article himself. That’s how Wikipedia works. Anyone who sees a mistake can correct it. Some scholars would seem to prefer to sit back and laugh at lesser mortals than actually go to the trouble of sharing their knowledge and better informing them.

I am reminded of a 2005 study. If there is anything comparable that is more recent do let me know. I wrote some time ago the following about it:

Research that was published in Nature in 2005 showed that it is comparable in accuracy and thoroughness with Encyclopedia Britannica. There were round about the same number of mistakes in each. Wikipedia responded by correcting its mistakes. EB, on the other hand, responded with a furious rebuttal and even threatened to sue Nature or the authors of the research. But Nature published a pretty strong rebuttal.

Anyone interested who missed this study can follow it up: (and see related links)

I notice that the wikipedia entry has since corrected the photo in the article that made the scholar feel so so superior to the less well informed.

I do have to confess that this time I have not followed my own advice and attempted to point out to our gentleman scholar that he not only has the freedom and invitation to make a correction himself in the democratic encyclopedia, but some would even think he has a responsibility to do so. Previous attempts to engage the gentleman scholar have unfortunately resulted in him responding with vile insults. But don’t let my negative experiences stop you.  (I have at times gently pointed out to the occasional person who mocks wikipedia out of ignorance that they themselves are free and encouraged to make corrections themselves.)

I should add that Wikipedia is far from perfect. There are indeed a few articles that seem to have been taken over by dedicated persons determined to undo any editing that does not agree with their own biases. I understand that there are ways to respond to those sorts of situations, but then one has to decide on priorities and time against the an every painful awareness of the shortness of life.

“I believe because it is absurd” – and the irony of believing a rational person said that

There’s an interesting article discussing the origin of our belief that Tertullian wrote, “I believe because it is absurd”, at,

‘I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme

by Sam Dresser.

The article is another warning not to thoughtlessly take on board popular “knowledge” that “everyone knows to be true”.

I learned of it through another discussion, one on the Westar Institute site, clarifying the diverse meanings of the word “faith” by Bernard Brandon Scott, The Trouble with Faith.

On the “No Contemporary References to Jesus” Controversy

A few weeks ago I was asked to comment on Tim O’Neill’s post, Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus”. I think that was the one. So I caught up with it on my return from Thailand last night so I can respond at last. (If there is another one I was asked to respond to then feel free to advise me.)

My first point is that I don’t think I have ever taken a lot of time to look into who of the authors of the first century c.e. said nothing about Jesus and why this should be surprising if Jesus existed. As I understand it, such lists of names of “who at the time should have mentioned Jesus but didn’t” are presented as part of an argument to prove that Jesus did not exist. I have no problem with people wanting to take that line of argument and try to make their case but it is not where I am at and it is not a line of argument I have tried to follow.

My interest has been to try to explain the evidence for Christian origins according to the standard and best methods followed by historians of ancient history and so far it appears to me that that evidence is best explained by hypotheses that have no place for a historical Jesus. In other words, I do not see any evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus. That is not the same as saying I believe we can prove that Jesus did not exist. I don’t recall ever trying to “prove” that Jesus did not exist. I have often attempted to set out arguments, generally based on either or both serious biblical scholarship and the sound methodologies of ancient history, that demonstrate how the gospels and letters of Paul can well be explained without any need for reaching back to a historical Jesus.

So back to the lists of “who’s who among those who did not mention Jesus”. Here is how I see the best way to approach such lists. I have not done this exercise myself so present it here as what I think I would do if I had the time and interest to take it up.

I would take the arguments of both sides, of those who set out all the reasons such authors should have mentioned Jesus and of those who set out all the reasons we should not expect to see references to Jesus in them. And then I’d try to do my own homework on each of the authors to learn what I can about his background, interests, and what some of the scholars have to say about his work, etc.

Maybe some of you are twigging to where I am leading. In other words I am setting up the two hypotheses and then getting background information. If that reminds you of a Bayesian approach you are right with me.

I’d take each author in turn and ask how expected is the absence of a reference to Jesus in our manuscripts given all that we know about each author and 1) the non-existence of Jesus; and then 2) Jesus failing to attract the attention and interest of the author; and then compare the results.

In other words, I would not take up each argument, the one for and against, and tackle it on its own, either looking to poke holes in it or finding ways to buttress it. Forget the argument and trying to pick winners. Do serious historical research and thinking about the evidence in the light of both hypotheses and background information. Be prepared for the final balance to be tilted either way.

At the end of the day I do not see what difference the result would make to my historical interests in Christian origins. It might make a difference to those attempting to either prove or disprove the existence of Jesus. But as I have said several times now, that’s not a question I want to venture into. To me, the historical question is how to explain the evidence for Christian origins. If we need a historical Jesus to explain it then so be it; if a simpler hypothesis does not require such a figure then so be it.

The key point for me is the absence of known contemporary references to “the historical Jesus”. That brings us back to the methods set out by various ancient historians themselves, such as Moses Finley, which are in sync with the methodological principles set out by the so-called “minimalists” such as Philip R. Davies. I would love to set up an annotated archive page of all the posts I have done on that topic for easy reference.

Oh, and one more detail —

I explicitly mentioned background information in relation to each of the authors. But implicit in what I said is another spectrum of background information, too, and that’s what we mean by a “historical Jesus” figure. Do not rely on what anyone else says a source says, but do your own checking. For example, Tim O’Neill says that according to the Gospel of Mark Jesus there is no indication that Jesus was known beyond Galilee and refers to Mk 1:27-28 and 6:14. But more careful investigators will not overlook Mk 3:8 that also has his reputation extending as far as Jerusalem, beyond Jordan and up into Tyre and Sidon. And then one will have to ask the extent to which such a description is based on a need to emulate and transcend the following of Moses given the larger “midrashic” suggestions in that section of Mark. And do we take as historical the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that implies people knew about him before he came on the scene, etc etc etc.

But if Jesus was a nobody who did not even have a widespread reputation for healing (and despite Tim O’Neill’s attempt to suggest the contrary, even sceptical or critical scholars who accept the historicity of Jesus as a relative “nobody” generally acknowledge he had a significant reputation as a healer) then we need to have a good hypothesis to explain how the early converts were made to “Christianity” from the basis of such a figure in the first place.

In other words, it is going to be difficult to come up with a way to assess the rightful expectations of mention of such a figure in our extant writings. Perhaps we need to work with several hypotheses: no Jesus; minimal Jesus; a medium Jesus (as per a critical scholar’s construct); a max Jesus (as per an apologist view).


What is a scholar to do when there is no agreement on the basics?

“[342] By “fictive,” I mean that the narratives, even quite likely derived from historical events, are now cast in terms which render it impossible to create any more than the vaguest semblance of modern history from the ancient New Testament texts. By “fictional,” I mean that the narratives have their origin entirely within human and community imagination and have no historical origin.”

Over time, as my own studies in Luke-Acts matured, I came to see that most of the New Testament narratives were — by modern standards — at least fictive, if not entirely fictional.[342]  Although my convictions about the fictive nature of most New Testament narratives have often rendered me a bewildered spectator to scholarly debates about the “history” of early Christianity, my skepticism about the wisdom of deriving modern historical claims from the New Testament narratives seldom impacted my own scholarly work. Even while chairing the section on Acts at the Society of Biblical Literature, I silently excused myself from discussions which presumed the historicity of Acts, and I confined my own work to other areas of inquiry.

Phillips, Thomas E. 2016. “‘When Did Paul Become a Christian?’” In Christian Origins and the New Testament in the Greco-Roman Context: Essays in Honor of Dennis R. MacDonald, edited by Margaret Froelich, Michael Kochenash, Thomas E. Phillips, and Ilseo Park, 163–82. Claremont, Calif: Claremont School of Theology Press.

I have to ask. Is this experience unique to the study of Christian origins? Surely not. I would appreciate being informed of comparable examples in other historical fields.



Amazing that this is possible – recovery of ancient music

H/T The Conversation via Ancient Origins

The Foreseeable End of Organized Human Life – while Nero performs

No doubt many of you have seen or read this interview so I add a link to it here for latecomers. It pretty well sums up the most critical moment in the past few thousand years of human history.

That Name Above All Names

Still stranded here at Kuala Lumpur airport (though I’ve had a few opportunities to escape and check out the city itself) and now late at night checking up on mail, blog comments, etc, and I see again various views (see the comments on The First Gospel: History or Apocalyptic Drama) on what might be the “name above all names” that we read about in Philippians 2:9-10

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . .

Is that name “Jesus”? Is it “Lord”? Is it “YHWH”? Is it …. Jason/Jesus?

Have a close look at the classicist John Moles’ articles on the significance of the Greek name Jason (cum Jesus). I think he may have been on to something:


Right now I’m in transit between Australia and Thailand and as much as I hate flying I do love the experience of exploring new places — like today’s walks around the historical area of Kuala Lumpur, the national mosque, and seeing for the first time truly appropriate signage on those pull-push doors. For about the first time I can remember I had no trepidation over the embarrassment of getting the two mixed up as I approached.

Around this time last year I was in the UK and one place I could not pass up was Liverpool. I was 50+ years too late, though, so the stars were fossilized in bronze…

Rory Storm
You know who

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