So true, so true…

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by Neil Godfrey

From Taborblog, by James Tabor:

Two Widely Held Assumptions About Early Christianity that Should Be Questioned

  1. The first assumption is that the essential story line we read about in the New Testament book of Acts is an accurate version of the early years of the Jesus movement following the crucifixion. John Dominic Crossan, properly calls the period from 30 CE when Jesus was executed, to around 50 CE when we get our first letter of Paul, the “Dark Age” of early Christianity. In other words we have almost no surviving texts or evidence from this period.
  2. The second grand assumption about early Christianity is the portrait of its clean break with Judaism and its subsequent harmonious (despite a few evil heretics) unbroken advance into the second and third centuries. This is the tale presented to the world by that undaunted “father” of Church History, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (c. 300 AD).




The more things change . . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

In 1914 a book the renowned biblical scholar Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare addressing the Christ Myth arguments of the day was published:

Conybeare, F. C. (Frederick Cornwallis). 1914. The Historical Christ : Or, An Investigation of the Views of Mr. J. M. Robertson, Dr. A. Drews, and Prof. W. B. Smith. London : Watts.

The following year saw a response by William Benjamin Smith (the last named “mythicist” discussed by Conybeare)

Smith, William Benjamin. 1915. “Conybeare on ‘The Historical Christ.’” The Open Court 3 (4): 27.

How familiar Smith’s comments sound today! He responds to Conybeare’s criticism of Smith’s book, Ecce Deus.

Inasmuch as Conybeare’s “searching criticism,” so far at least as it touches my work (and it would be officious as well as impertinent for me to mingle in his fray with others), concerns itself mainly with details, rarely considering the case on its general merits . . .

Conybeare holds that if Jesus never lived, neither did Solon, nor Epimenides, nor Pythagoras, nor especially Apollonius of Tyana. By what token? The argument is not presented clearly. One cannot infer from the Greek worthies to Jesus, unless there be close parallelism ; that there is really any such, who will seriously affirm? . . .

[Conybeare writes:] “Jesus, our authors affirm, was an astral myth.” But Smith is one of “our authors” and, as Conybeare knows, affirms nothing of the kind. At best, Conybeare’s statement is one-third false. . . .

[Conybeare writes:] “In these earliest documents [Mark] Jesus is presented quite naturally as the son of Joseph and his wife Mary, and we learn quite incidentally the names of his brothers and sisters.” Who by reading this is prepared for the fact that Mark never mentions Joseph, who is named only in Matt. i. and ii., Luke i., ii., iii., (acknowledged late fictions), iv. 22, and John i. 45, vi. 42, also late? Moreover, Mark introduces Jesus without any family reference and only in two passages refers to any “brethren,” in one of which Jesus declares his mother and brethren to be spiritual . . . .

[Conybeare writes that:]W. B. Smith is named among those that “insist on the esoterism and secrecy of the cryptic society which in Jerusalem harbored the cult,” p. 31. W. B. Smith does naught of the kind, has never said aught of any such society in Jerusalem.

Conybeare quotes (p. 32) as a “naive declaration” a statement on page 74 of Ecce Deus; but he fails to hint the reasons there assigned. This misleads the reader, who naturally thinks of naivete as unsupported by reasons.

[Conybeare writes:] “W. B. Smith’s hypothesis of a God Joshua” (p. 35). Conybeare knows I have made no such hypothesis, nor ever used such phrase. He is seeking to identify my views with Mr. Robertson’s, though knowing quite well they are widely distinct. . . .

[Conybeare writes:] “The name Jesus, according to him,means. . . .Healer.” How can Conybeare write thus? Where have I said that Jesus means Healer? . . . .

[Conybeare writes:] “It would appear, then, that Apollos was perfectly acquainted with the personal history of Jesus.” For this important thesis, where does Conybeare offer the faintest semblance of proof ? The word “then” suggests that reasons have been given; but what are even hinted? . . . .

The rest of page 38 is mere wild assertion. . . .
Continue reading “The more things change . . . .”


A Bedrock Assumption in Historical Jesus Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

A few months ago I posted about Michael Zolondek’s claims that historical Jesus scholarship uses the same historical methods as those used by other historians. Michael himself responded and I assured him and others that I would return to his book and compare his claims about his methods with the actual processes found in the book. I am finally getting around to returning to that promise. But first I need to refresh my memory on a few things and catch up with certain details. So those further posts I promised are still a few weeks away.

Till then, however, I can say that I have caught up with one important volume Michael cites (p. xiv) as one of a few “useful discussions by historical Jesus scholars on ‘doing history’:

Meyer, Ben F. 2002. The Aims of Jesus: Reprint edition. San Jose, Calif.: Wipf & Stock.

The book was originally published in 1977 and an introduction in the reprint edition by N.T. Wright indicates that it has been very influential among the “less liberal” historical Jesus scholars.

The first of the two parts of Meyer’s book is about hermeneutics and historical methods. What I was looking for in particular was Meyer’s explanation for how biblical or historical Jesus scholars decide what is historical bedrock in the gospels. There is discussion about various criteria and inference and such. That word “inference”, distinct from “proof” or “fact”, reminded me of an objection PZ Myers’ raised in his discussion with Eddie Marcus. It was encouraging to see Meyers acknowledge the place of inference and its meaning in his discussion.

But then I came to a passage that echoed everything I have been come to see in how historical Jesus scholars work, but here it was stated in black and white.

Control of the data requires insight into how the gospel literature refers to the past of Jesus and this must be brought to bear on a mass of detail, repeatedly answering the question, ‘Is this a potential datum on Jesus?’

(Meyer, p. 81, my bolded emphasis)

Did you see it? The historical Jesus historian is required to have insight into how the gospels refer to the past of Jesus. The gospels are assumed to speak about the past of Jesus without question. Why? Presumably because they are a past tense narrative (notwithstanding Mark’s gospel regularly using the present tense). Presumably because they look like historical accounts (notwithstanding their significant departures from other historical accounts of the era). But let’s leave aside the “presumablies” and see what Meyer himself says. At the end of the chapter he spells it out:

Finally, the motives, values, uses, and ulterior purposes of history, be it ever so critical, are themselves metacritical presuppositions. They are not controlled by method but arise from the historian’s intellectual and moral being, and in the end they account more fundamentally and adequately than anything else for the kind of history he produces. For a history of Jesus what counts is especially the stance toward religion and faith.

(Meyer, p. 94, my bolding)

To me, that sounds like Ben Meyer is saying that a Christian historian will necessarily approach the gospels as if they are “obviously” reports of the “past of Jesus” and the task of the historian is to work out how much those gospel accounts have added to or coloured the actual historical past of Jesus.

The possibility that the gospel accounts are not history or not even based on historical events at all never so much as approaches Ben Meyer’s mental horizon. The model that James McGrath used to describe a historical reading of the gospels is affirmed. The gospels are not read as literature but are read as gateways to imagining what happened independently of the narrative.

The assumption that the gospels are some sort of biographies or historical works is a presupposed “fact”. All the historical method discussion, all the discussion about how to determine a historical probable Jesus, is premised on the gospels being reports that are written in such a way that the researcher can validly “see through” their narrative and language and identify some image of historical persons and events. The narrative is assumed to be based on reports or memories of historical persons and events.

When I read the works of classicists and ancient historians I see the same approach to historical narratives only when that approach has been justified by identifications of authorship and provenance, and by independent contemporary verification and/or by identification of relatively reliable historical sources for that narrative. We see none of those things in the case of the gospels.


Scholarly Snobbery and Wikipedia (again)

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by Neil Godfrey

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:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html (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.


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

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by Neil Godfrey

“[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.




My turn to jump the gun: Bart Ehrman’s courtroom analogy

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by Neil Godfrey

My post of two days ago Once more on that false courtroom analogy jumped the gun. I see now that Bart Ehrman has just today (19th July) posted his extract from his 1999 book on the courtroom analogy to illustrate his method of historical inquiry: An Important Criterion for Establishing What Actually Happened.

Since Ehrman explains in his introduction that

I haven’t changed my views of these matters in all these years!

I would be interested to know if he has previously encountered in any forum the objections to his methods that I have raised here (I cannot believe my criticisms are unique since I have developed them from reading the works of biblical scholars themselves), or if he has anywhere addressed the specific criticisms of his methods that have been raised by not only Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier but even among tenured academics in his own field of interest.

Ehrman writes:

Over the course of the past fifty years, historians have worked hard to develop methods for uncovering historically reliable information about the life of Jesus. I need to say up front that this is a hotly debated area of research, with some very smart and competent historians (and quite a few less than competent ones) expressing divergent views both about what criteria to use and about what conclusions to draw, once they agree on the criteria.

Here I’d like to sketch several of the methodological principles that have emerged from these debates. As you will see, there is a real logic behind each of them, and the logic needs to be understood for the criterion itself not to seem hopelessly arbitrary. In particular, it might help to use an analogy: in many respects, the historian is like a prosecuting attorney. He or she is trying to make a case and is expected to bear the burden of proof.

In fact, part of the “hotly debated” aspects have been the very idea of the “criteria of authenticity” and the logical fallacies behind each one of them, not just some of them. Anyone reading the above words would not be aware of such challenges to not just particular criteria but to the entire exercise of what has been termed “criteriology”. Ehrman did appear to be addressing the new area of memory studies in historical Jesus research — a field that is critical of the “criteriology” approach Ehrman endorses — in his book Jesus Before the Gospels, but as one reviewer noted,

Ehrman engages almost none of the New Testament scholarship concerned with memory.

I am not suggesting that memory theory is “the answer” to the flaws in the “criteria of authenticity”. It is not if only because its application is based on the same groundless assumptions and misguided questions as the criteria approach. The “memory” scholar also needs to be asking the genuine research question: how best to explain the narrative found in the documents, not whether the narrative is at any level true. That question does not exclude historicity but it establishes the answer (whether historical core or something else) on a sound foundation. See the historian Aviezer Tucker’s words in the previous three posts if that sounds wrong.

I have profited immensely from some of Ehrman’s earlier books. What I would like to see is clear evidence that he continues to keep abreast of critics, even if minority voices, among his peers. His blog is meant to engage with lay readers, too, so one might hope that specific critical questions would be raised there as well.



Once more on that false courtroom analogy

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by Neil Godfrey

(Second part to “The Historian’s Wish List” – “clearly” jumping the gun)


Courtroom, lawyer and detective analogies seem to be especially favoured by evangelicals and even mainstream biblical scholars. No doubt the comparison with judges and criminal investigators lends a certain aura of credibility and authority to the methods or arguments that are being buttressed by the analogies, but as we have seen here a number of times before the analogy is very misleading.

Bart Ehrman is currently repeating the courtroom analogy he set out in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999) that seeks to explain how historians of Christian origins work. On pages 89-90 he writes (again my own bolding):

Here I’d like to sketch several of the methodological principles that have emerged from these debates. As you will see, there is a real logic behind each of them, and the logic needs to be understood for the criterion itself not to seem hopelessly arbitrary. In particular, it might help to use an analogy: in many respects, the historian is like a prosecuting attorney. He or she is trying to make a case and is expected to bear the burden of proof. As in a court of law, certain kinds of evidence are acknowledged as admissible, and witnesses must be carefully scrutinized. How, then, can we go about it?

. . . .

In any court trial, it is better to have a number of witnesses who can provide consistent testimony than to have only one, especially if the witnesses can be shown not to have conferred with one another in order to get their story straight. A strong case will be supported by several witnesses who independently agree on a point at issue. So, too, with history. An event mentioned in several independent documents is more likely to be historical than an event mentioned in only one.

But that is not how biblical scholars work and the analogy is seriously misleading. Continue reading “Once more on that false courtroom analogy”


Scholarly Protection of the Uniqueness of Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

John S. Kloppenborg

Thanks to Jim West I was informed of the public availability of a new article by the well-known New Testament scholar John S. Kloppenborg.

Kloppenborg, John S. 2017. “Disciplined Exaggeration: The Heuristics of Comparison in Biblical Studies.” Novum Testamentum 59 (4): 390–414. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685365-12341583.

I think the article should always be cited whenever reference is made to Samuel Sandmel’s 1962 article warning of the flaws of uncontrolled “parallelomania“. Together they warn against either extreme.

Some quotations from Kloppenborg’s article (with the usual notice that formatting and bolding is mine):

By contrast, comparison in the historiography of early Christianity has had a peculiar history: comparisons were often employed either to establish the difference and, indeed, the incommensurability of Christian forms with anything in their environment; or, as Jonathan Z. Smith has observed, comparison was used to create “safe” comparanda such as the construct of “Judaism,” which then served to insulate emerging Christianity from “Hellenistic influence.” . . . .

. . . . comparison in the study of early Christianity has often been used to assert its sui generis and incommensurable character. That is, comparison is invoked to rule out comparison or to limit it so that comparison becomes inconsequential.  (p. 393)

Some readers will be aware of the work of the Jesus Seminar and the publications of John Crossan, Burton Mack and others pointing out similarities to Q and Cynic sayings.

On this hypothesis, the social postures evident in either the Sayings Gospel Q, or (for Crossan) in for the historical Jesus himself could be fruitfully compared with Graeco-Roman Cynicism. There was no claim that Q or Jesus were “influenced” by Cynicism, but instead that the social postures of Q (or Jesus) were “cynic-like,” in the sense that they constituted a radical deconstruction of the prevailing ways in which Galilean society constructed social and economic hierarchies, moral categories, and the very nature of piety. The reaction to this proposal was immediate and visceral. (pp. 394f)

And continues to this day, I notice.

No! No! No! went the reaction. There was no “archaeological evidence” of Cynicism anywhere in Galilee. Recalling the story that the reputed founder of Cynicism, Diogenes, set up his home in a bathtub (some say wine-cask) Kloppenborg wryly comments:

one wonders what could constitute archaeological evidence of Cynicism: bathtubs?

But K more pertinently notes the evidence of the tendentiousness of this reaction: Continue reading “Scholarly Protection of the Uniqueness of Christianity”


Bringing two recent posts together: Philip Davies and Life of Brian

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by Neil Godfrey

Speaking of Jesus and Brian, and with Philip R. Davies still very much in mind, here is a quote from Philip Davies’ contribution to that volume:

This little detail … leads me to ask whether any details of the traditions of Jesus of Nazareth are historically true — bearing in mind that traditions are all we have. . . . .

The modern scholarly Jesus biographer tries to convert traditions like these [e.g. the betrayal by Judas] into historical facts, and theological explanations into historical ones. The outcome is instructive: a plurality of Jesuses, among whom are a charismatic holy man (Vermes), deluded prophet (Schweitzer), Cynic (Crossan), revolutionary (Brandon), incarnate deity (any number, including N. T. Wright). In making these reconstructions the biographer also has to decide whether, as in the case of Q (if there was a Q), anything but the words ascribed to Jesus mattered or, as with Paul, it was really only his death (and you can’t get much more different than that!). The plurality of ancient and modern Jesuses gives Christian believers more choice than they probably want, but in this age of consumer choice we should not expect too much complaint.

Davies, P.R., 2015. “The Gospel of Brian” in: Taylor, J.E. (Ed.), Jesus and Brian Exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Bloomsbury Publishing, London. pp. 87f


Monty Python’s Analysis of Historical Jesus Scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

A funny thing happened this morning on my way through conservative media sites. I had stopped to read something about Monty Python and political correctness when a remark about a “riotous diversity” of schools of thoughts in psychology reminded me of chaotic diversity in historical Jesus and Christian origins studies:

Piccionelli doesn’t in any way dispute that psychology is based on medical and biological truths. But he is saying that the field has been overrun by sectarians, charlatans, and, well, crackpots: “There are something like 300 schools of thought in psychology, from Freudianism to Jungianism to Structuralism to yadda yadda. And now, of course, PC has created a kind of politicized psychology.”

Such a vast variety of thinking isn’t the stuff of science because science is, by definition, rigorous: “By contrast, too much of psychology falls within the realm of personal belief—more like, say, religion.”

If the shoe fits, etc.

Oh the irony, the irony. What other field could produce a volume like . . .



Is this statement about historicity within the Gospel of Mark true?

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by Neil Godfrey

The same can be said of the alleged first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark. The aim was presumably to “prove” that the Gospel is reliable. That’s even more ironic, because no one seriously doubts that the Gospel of Mark was written in the first century, and whether it was or not is independent of questions about the historicity of information in it.

James McGrath, Rumors of First-Century Mark and the Resurrection, on the Religion Prof blog.

Even if the Gospel of Mark were composed in the second century (which “no one seriously” believes) that late date would have no relevance to the historicity of its contents? How can that be?


The Study of the Historical Jesus Depends On . . . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

The study of the historical Jesus depends on reconstructing oral tradition and honoring it with the same dignity we give the text.

That’s from David Galston’s, The 19th Century and Us, on the Westar Institute’s Biblical and Theological Reflections Blog.

Those words point to an even more fundamental dependency: The study of the historical Jesus depends on the assumption of oral tradition being the source of the gospel narratives.

Vridar posts addressing that assumption are archived here.


Philip R. Davies on Jesus mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

I have just been reminded (thank you David Fitzgerald) that Philip R. Davies also was one of the very few mainstream scholars to actually publish the view that the Jesus myth theory ought at least to be taken seriously. Davies himself did not subscribe to it but he did acknowledge its reasonableness.

See his article Did Jesus Exist? published on Bible and Interpretation in 2012. Some quotes (my bolding):

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.

So have I. I regret not ever having the opportunity to discuss the question with Philip Davies personally. In fact my own views on the question of Jesus’ historicity are grounded in the the “minimalist” approach that I first learned through In Search of Ancient Israel (see previous post).

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. In the first place, what does it mean to affirm that ‘Jesus existed’, anyway, when so many different Jesuses are displayed for us by the ancient sources and modern NT scholars? Logically, some of these Jesuses cannot have existed. So in asserting historicity, it is necessary to define which ones (rabbi, prophet, sage, shaman, revolutionary leader, etc.) are being affirmed—and thus which ones deemed unhistorical. In fact, as things stand, what is being affirmed as the Jesus of history is a cipher, not a rounded personality (the same is true of the King David of the Hebrew Bible, as a number of recent ‘biographies’ show).



An Embarrassing Fallacy in Many Historical Jesus Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Recently I was discussing some of the criteria of authenticity that have been used by historical Jesus scholars to supposedly sift the more likely historical events in the gospels from those that are pious fabrications. I was using David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies as my yardstick. One criterion I did not get to then was that of embarrassment. This little rule says that if an event in the gospels would have been embarrassing to the early Christians then they would not have mentioned it — UNLESS it were an event so well known that they simply could not avoid mentioning it: ergo, the event really did happen. Example: the baptism of Jesus.

There are several fallacies in Fischer’s book that apply to this criterion but I’ll concentrate on just one: the fallacy of false dichotomous questions (p. 9).

Implicit in the criterion of embarrassment is the notion that an early Christian author was faced with either:

  • being compelled to write about an embarrassing event he did not really wish to write about;
  • or fabricating an event that was an embarrassment to himself and his readers.

The latter is obviously very unlikely so the first option wins virtually by default.

Of course the question raised by the criterion excludes all but two possibilities: being compelled by the sheer facts to write or making up a story that is counter-productive to one’s interests.

Yet we know that authors — even the evangelists — are quite capable of avoiding details that are well-known to their audiences (e.g. Luke omitted whole swathes of stories in the Gospel of Mark that he was using), and that human experience teaches us that in real life people are often capable of ignoring reality when it suits. We also know that our knowledge of the authorship of the gospels is very limited. What was embarrassing to the author or his audience? Are there other reasons for the creation of the stories?

To approach questions of historical reconstruction with such a blinkered dichotomy is clearly fallacious.

Other fallacies relating to causation and motivation also apply. But I promised to limit myself to just one for this post.