2021-01-02

Jesus Created to Embody Two Peoples in One New Man — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series  . . .

The figure of Jesus Christ is first and foremost the personification of his people

Most of us have little difficulty imagining that the authors of the gospels conceptualized Jesus as a personification of the people of Israel. In Nanine Charbonnel’s words, the gospel narratives are not so much presenting Jesus and Israel as parallels but rather Jesus as a personification, an embodiment, the figure of “a new Israel” itself. Here’s a refresher of the points we all know. The character who is named “YHWH Saves” . . .

° is born through the miraculous intervention of YHWH, as the people of Israel were born from the miraculous fertility of the aged Sarah and Abraham.

° escapes the royal edict to slay all male newborns [my note: Pharaoh ordered all male infants slain in order to keep Israel in subjection to Egypt]

° is called from Egypt as were the people of Israel,

° is baptized, recollecting Israel’s passage through the Red Sea,

° After his baptism he spends forty days in the wilderness as Israel spent forty years in the wilderness,

° he is a target for trials or tests [not “temptations” — I have changed NC’s term] as Israel succumbed to tests in the wilderness

° he explicitly quotes in each of his three responses to these tests verses from Deuteronomy that had been addressed to the people in the wilderness,

° he takes twelve disciples as Israel has twelve tribes, etc.

NC’s list is fine as an overview but leaves questions hanging when one realizes that it is true only of the Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. As we have seen, Jesus in the wilderness in the Gospel of Mark more likely represents the new Adam, not Israel. In this context it is of interest to note that the Gospel of Mark, unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, portrays Jesus as reaching out to gentiles as well as Jews to bring them together “in him” (see the post on the “sea voyages” of Jesus, The Story of Mark, History or Theology?) — so an opening presentation of Jesus as a New Adam is fitting. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke change Mark’s plot so that the gentiles are to be evangelized after the resurrection of Jesus.

So I think Mark’s variation supports NC’s view of Jesus being a literary creation to function as the theological interests of the authors decided. Matthew and Luke created a Jesus who personified the people of Israel. But we will see in the next section that Paul’s concept was closer to Mark’s.

Throughout this series of posts we have referred to NC’s repeated point that the Hebrew Bible so easily portrays entire peoples as individual characters (e.g. the “two nations” in Rebecca’s womb, Jacob and Esau). NC cites David Strauss’s words that neatly encapsulate this sort of personification in Hosea where we read Matthew’s inspiration for how he created his Jesus: the people of Israel are, collectively, the son (singular) of God.

While Herod awaits the return of the magi, Joseph is admonished by an angelic apparition in a dream to flee with the Messianic child and its mother into Egypt for security (v. 13-15). Adopting the evangelist’s point of view, this is not attended with any difficulty ; it is otherwise, however, with the prophecy which the above event is said to fulfil, Hosea xi. 1. In this passage the prophet, speaking in the name of Jehovah, says : When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. We may venture to attribute, even to the most orthodox expositor, enough clear-sightedness to perceive that the subject of the first half of the sentence is also the object of the second, namely the people of Israel, who here, as elsewhere, (e.g. Exod. iv. 22, Sirach xxxvi. 14), are collectively called the Son of God, and whose past deliverance under Moses out of their Egyptian bondage is the fact referred to : that consequently, the prophet was not contemplating either the Messiah or his sojourn in Egypt. Nevertheless, as our evangelist says, v. r5, that the flight of Jesus into Egypt took place expressly that the above words of Hosea might be fulfilled . . .

(Strauss Part 1, Chapter IV §34 – p.167)

Jesus, as the “new Israel”, resists temptations, overcomes trials, unlike the old. NC emphasizes that Jesus does not personify the Christian church but the people of Israel. To half paraphrase and half translate the words of Jean Radermakers whom NC quotes:

What was said about Israel is in the gospels said about Jesus because he is both a son of Israel and one who takes on the totality of the nation in order to bring it to its destined fulfilment. Thus he is the Son called from Egypt (Matt 2:5 = Hos 11:1), the Beloved Son, the one who is the object of divine indulgence (Matt 3:17; 17:5 = Gen 22:2; Ps 2:2; Isa 42:1), and after crossing the Jordan he walks through the Promised Land to Jerusalem. In Matthew Jesus appears in Galilee, noted as being “Galilee of the Nations” (Matt 4:5). In Jesus, therefore, Israel fulfils its calling to be a “people for the nations” according to the promise made to Abraham: In you will all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen 12:3; cf Jer 4:2; Sirach 44:21). In this same way he also fulfils the universal message of the prophets (Matt 4:15-16 = Isa 8:12; 11:5 = Isa. 35:5-6; 61:1), as we read “in his name the Nations will place their hope” (Matt 12:2 = Isa 42:4) (Approximates the words of Jean Radermakers)

In future posts we will see how NC develops the point that Jesus, as the people of Israel, will further be presented as God. If the Jews are understood to be the bearers of the divine presence in their midst we can more easily understand how Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel, can simultaneously be depicted as God. Above we saw that what was said of Israel was said of Jesus; so also what is said of God is likewise said of Jesus. Again, to borrow from Radermakers (p 371):

    • he speaks with authority (Matt 7:28),
    • he commands the sea (Matt 8:26-27)
    • and forgives sins. (Matt 9,:1-8),
    • he summons his people (Matt 16:19)
    • and feeds them in the desert (Matt 14,:15-24 and 15:32-39),
    • he remains in the midst of his own as the very presence of God (Matt 18.20; 28.20; cf 1:1-23) in whom the history of his people converges and is fulfilled.

To expand on NC’s discussion, it is commonplace among biblical scholars to think of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as the “more human” than in the other gospels. They point to episodes where he appears to lose his temper and needs to heal a person in two stages. Yet there are interpreters who have argued that this “very human” Jesus in Mark is misguided. But there is nothing “human” about one who commands the storm (Mark 4:39 = Ps 107:29; 148:8) and walks on water (Mark 6:48-49 = Job 9:8;  Sirach 24:5-6). We have covered in depth how a number of scholars have shown that the supposedly human emotions of Jesus were deemed in ancient times to be divine and/or the noblest of feelings:

Returning to NC: What we see the evangelists doing, and most directly in Matthew, is quoting passages in the Old Testament that refer to the people of Israel and bringing those passages to fulfilment in the person of Jesus, whose name means “YHWH saves”, and who is the personification of those people. The gospel works to bring to pass in the individual “YHWH Saves” what the Scriptures said about the sons of Israel.

Two People in One New Man Continue reading “Jesus Created to Embody Two Peoples in One New Man — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-11

Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (1) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

We now continue our exploration of Nanine Charbonnel’s case for Jesus Christ being a literary-theological creation using the techniques of a “midrashic” re-reading and interpretation of Jewish Scriptures. The full series is archived at https://vridar.org/tag/charbonnel-jesus-christ-sublime-figure-de-papier/

Double Personification

The gospel figure of Jesus Christ was created as a “double personification”:

  • he was created as a personification of a people — both the Jewish people and ultimately as a “new people of God”. Nanine Charbonnel [NC] calls this “horizontal personification”. This is why we so readily see in the Jesus character aspects of the ideal King, the Prophet, the Priest, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, the Messiah, who as a new Adam creates in himself one new people

at the same time,

  • he was created as a personification of the fundamentals of the Jewish religion and its spiritual and heavenly and eternal focus — he is the embodiment of God and God’s presence with his people. As such, he embodies the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Glory and Presence, Glory (Shekinah) of God, the Word of God, the Law, the Name of God through which he saves.

The authors of the gospels were familiar with the Jewish literary technique of creating individual characters to represent collective ethnic groups. Recall, for example, the creation of the Jacob-Esau story which begins with the explanation that the two boys represent “two nations” (Gen 25:23). Recent posts have set out NC’s illustration of this technique with lesser characters. By creating the gospel Jesus figure they were seeking to create a new person who represented both a new people of God and the God who came to dwell with them. NC details the way Jesus was drawn to embody the divine persons and entities. She calls this “vertical personification”. This post and those immediately succeeding it look at how the authors have created a “horizontal” personification of a “new man”.

The New Adam

Before the gospels were penned Christians thought of Jesus as a “new Adam”. Thus Paul in 1 Cor 15:45-49

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. . . .

See also Rom 5:17-18.

This second Adam is created in the same way the first Adam was — as a symbol or representative of mankind. Adam is a literary figure, a single character, but one with whom all of humanity are meant to identify. NC quoted from Paul Ricoeur‘s discussion of the Adam myth:

In Adam we are one and all; the mythical figure of the first man provides a focal point at the beginning of history for man’s unity-in-multiplicity. (244)

Jewish elites have addressed the idea of Adam in Genesis. NC mentions Philo as an example. Philo determined that the Adam created in God’s image was the perfect, heavenly Adam; while the Adam of dust was the corruptible Adam who needed laws to control him from his base tendencies. We will see that the heavenly Adam is also the son of God.

It is “Yahweh who saves” (the Hebrew meaning of the name Jesus) who was imagined as the “new Adam”, the embodiment of (redeemed) humanity.

Another instance not mentioned by NC, but one addressed by many scholars commenting on the Gospel of Mark, is the apparent depiction of Jesus as the New Adam cum Messianic figure in the wilderness where he is “with the wild animals”.

and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:13)

The gospel begins with an echo of the beginning of Genesis (“the beginning of the gospel”) and after the parting of heavens (as per the parting of the waters “at the creation of the cosmos”– Allison, New Moses 200, Thompson, Mythic Past 18 ff, Spong, Liberating the Gospels, 33 ff) and leads to Jesus being tempted by Satan, with the animals and angels, as was Adam in Genesis and Jewish writings of the Second Temple era elaborating on the Adam story. Where Adam failed in his temptation, Jesus succeeded; where Adam once had but then lost his companionship and peace with wild animals Jesus restored harmony with them; where the angels refused to serve Adam they did serve Jesus. Jewish apocrypha also said angels fed Adam for a time. Other scholars prefer to interpret the passage as a proleptic fulfilment of harmony with animals by Isaiah’s messiah; some accept both interpretations together. I will post about this interpretation of Mark 1:13 with reference to Richard Bauckham, Ulrich Mell, Joel Marcus, C.S. Mann, Francis Maloney, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in a future post.)

We saw in a previous post that the place of Christ’s crucifixion was also associated with the place of Adam’s burial. This likelihood is suggestive of Jesus being understood as the new life-giving Adam.

The New Moses

Since the twelve disciples are symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus is the new Moses. The famous transfiguration scene clearly indicates that Jesus is the embodiment of the law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah. Moses was made radiant as was Jesus; both were covered with the cloud of God’s glory; both were ordained by God to be the shepherds and teachers of the twelve tribes/disciples; both perform miraculous signs; and so forth and so forth. NC copies forty points that some Catholic exegetes have seen that demonstrate Jesus as the new Moses:

NC admits that not all of the 40 points listed there are unquestionable. One that springs to notice for me is the point that Jesus left a higher royal court to join his lowly people — as Moses left Pharaoh’s court to join his people — is taken from Philippians 2:5-7; yet this detail is not found in the context of a Moses comparison. There are, nonetheless, reputable scholarly works that make the case for the Gospel of Matthew in particular deliberately building up Jesus on the Moses template. One of the more notable works is The New Moses: A Matthean Typology by Dale C. Allison Jr. I looked at one of Allison’s discussions in the post Additional Sauces for the Feedings of 5000 and 4000. NC does not mention Allison’s book so this is my addition to her discussion and what I think is a more trenchantly argued replacement than the 40 point list. Allison states in his concluding chapter,S

The Moses typology, especially strong in the infancy narrative and the [Sermon on the Mount], definitely shapes all of Matthew 1-7. It is also definitely present in the great thanksgiving of 11:25-30, in the narrative of the transfiguration (17:1-9), and in the concluding verses, 28:16-20.1 am further inclined, but with less faith, to find the typology in the feeding stories (14:13-22; 15:29-39), the entry into Jerusalem (21:1-17), and the last supper (26:17-25). But proposals concerning the missionary discourse, the requests for a sign (12:38; 16:1), the woes of chapter 23, the eschatological discourse, and the crucifixion (27:45-53) are to be rejected or entertained as nothing more than possibilities.

An interesting observation emerges from the foregoing conclusions: the passages in which Moses’ tacit presence is the strongest display an order which mirrors the Pentateuch:

Matthew The Pentateuch
1-2 Exod. 1:1-2:10 infancy narrative
3:13-17 Exod. 14:10-31 crossing of water
4:1-11 Exod. 16:1-17:7 wilderness temptation
5-7 Exod. 19:1-23:33 mountain of lawgiving
11:25-30 Exod. 33:1-23 reciprocal knowledge of God
17:1-9 Exod. 34:29-35 transfiguration
28:16-20 Deut. 31:7-9
Josh. 1:1-9
commissioning of successor

(Allison, 268)

The Gospel of Matthew is not the only one where Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. Compare this snippet from another post about a year ago, OT Sources for the Gospel of Mark, chapters 2 and 3

Mark 3:7-10

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many . . . .

Exodus 12:37-38; 15:22-26
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and childrenMany other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. . . . Then Moses led Israel . . . He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
Mark 3:13-19

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Exodus 19:1-2, 17

On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt . . . and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. . . .

Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.

Exodus 24:1, 4, 8-10

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. . . .

He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. . . .

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.

Many more Moses imitations are cited throughout Isaiah’s New Exodus by Rikki E. Watts. One of many examples in which Watts is outlining the work of another scholar,

Although at first sight Mark appears to make little use of the OT, M. D. Hooker recognises that this is largely because of his distinctive approach. Not only is the opening quotation significant, ‘his story is good news precisely because it is the fulfilment of Scripture‘, but ‘Jesus’ words and activities constantly echo OT scenes and language, until what is “written” of the Son of Man (9:12; 10:21) is finally fulfilled’ (p. 220). . . . 

In the conflict over the Pharisees’ and scribes’ traditions, Mark 7:1-23 shows that while Jesus upholds the Law (vv. 1-13; cf. Nu 30:2; Dt 23:21-23) his authority is even greater than that of the Law (vv. 14-23). The same is borne out in examinations of 12:18ff and 28-34 (p. 224), and several Pentateuchal allusions (2:1-10; 2:23 – 3:6; cf. 1:44). Three other allusions recalling incidents in Moses’ life serve likewise to demonstrate that Jesus is either Moses’ successor (6:34, cf. Nu 27:17) or his superior (9:2-13; cf. Ex 24:15f; Dt 18:15), while 9:38-40 (cf. Nu 11:26-29) shows Jesus acting as did Moses.

(Watts, 24 f)

Scholarly Resistance to Comparisons

Continue reading “Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (1) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-06

“Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited

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by Neil Godfrey

Responses to some points made in a larger argument for the historicity of Jesus, Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion (I posted then soon deleted much of what follows about three weeks ago. My initial post was couched in a misunderstanding about the background to the original post.) I did return to the original site to continue discussion there but when I saw that commenters there are entitled to use insults on the apparent condition that they somehow “justify” them, I decided to have nothing to do with any discussion there.

Josephus and Tacitus say

So here we go. I link to posts where I have set out more detailed arguments for those interested in following up a particular thread:

Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed, . . .

Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate.

In a very loose way of speaking these statements are true. We do read those statements in our widely published texts of Josephus and Tacitus. However, each one is justified in the scholarly literature of which I am aware only by special pleading. Even though everything we know about ancient copying of texts and manuscript transmission warns us against being too ready to accept their contents at face value, scholars with a particular interest in arguing for the historicity of Jesus sometimes dismiss the serious arguments against the authenticity of key contents relating to Christianity. Often we read among works arguing for the historicity of Jesus that the reason Josephus did not mention “messiahs” of his day was that he did not want to upset his Roman audience who supposedly had sore memories of fighting a war supposedly inspired by Jewish messianism. Yet when it comes to finding the word for “messiah” (“Christ”) in Josephus relating to Jesus, suddenly there is no problem with Josephus breaking his supposed rule about not mentioning the word. That one place the word Christ appears is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation, and the second place it is clearly seen to be part of very awkward syntax, does not deter the “believers”. Contrary to what we would expect to find in the record if Josephus had said there was a Jesus known as the Christ “historicists” insist that Josephus must have said something like that anyway. That the second occurrence of the word — that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed — conforms to everything the manuals of textual criticism tell us about scribal glosses makes no difference. Suddenly the instructions in such standard texts are forgotten.

As for the Tacitus reference, see The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

Contortions to Hide a Birth in Nazareth?

Here is another point commonly used to argue for some historicity behind the gospels:

Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seemto be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all?

The first sentence is actually a conclusion that arises from circular reasoning. An interpretation is imposed on selected passages in the gospels and those sections that doe not fit are interpreted as a problem for the evangelist, not for the modern interpreter. How does the scholar know “what the evangelist is trying to tell us”? By setting aside a passage that they believe does not fit their theory. That is, by selecting only those details in the gospel that support the scholar’s theory and declaring the left-over bits as problems — not for the scholar — but for the evangelist.

But we know from countless instances in the ancient records, including the gospels, that if an author found something “embarrassing” or that did not fit a theological agenda, then the solution was simple: leave it out — no matter how well known it was. A classic instance of that is in the Gospel of John. That fourth gospel does not admit or hint that John baptized Jesus. Yet two other gospels clearly said he did; and a third hinted at it, omitting only that it was John himself who did the baptizing of Jesus.

The argument is sometimes called an appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment”. Yet the argument here assumes the historicity of Jesus as its premise. Why is a detail in the gospels a supposed embarrassment to the evangelist? Because we assume the evangelist is writing about not only a historical Jesus but about a Jesus who was also born at Nazareth, and that everyone knew this (even though Nazareth was supposedly so insignificant it would not be widely known at all), and so forth.

But if we make no assumptions at all about the gospel’s narrative having derived ultimately from historical events, then we have a perfectly seamless story with the Bethlehem-Nazareth scenarios posing no difficulties — for either the evangelist or modern reader — at all. It is well known that the title given Jesus of “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” does not derive from the place name of Nazareth (that would mean Jesus was known as “Jesus the Nazarethite”) but was related to an early name for a Christian sect. It is also evident that in the Gospel of Matthew we read a very tortured justification for linking this title to the town of Nazareth. The simplest explanation for the first Bethlehem-Nazareth story is that an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect.

There are other reasons for questioning whether a historical person of any status would ever have been known as “So-and-so of Nazareth”. There would be no point of saying someone was from a place so insignificant few would ever have heard of. Besides, does anyone know of any other case where a religious leader is known by some nondescript suburb or rural town? No, they are known by some label that identifies their teaching or sect. Furthermore, those who have taken the trouble to read either of Rene Salm’s book on the scholarly literature about the archaeology of Nazareth knows that there are good grounds for thinking that Nazareth was not repopulated in Roman times until the latter half of the first century. (Tim O’Neill’s objections are careless misrepresentations).

Even IF Jesus had been known by a reference to a place that most people had never heard of it makes absolutely no sense that his followers would be called by the same epithet. Yet we know that in some quarters early Christians were called “Nazarenes” or “Nazirs”. (I understand the Muslim culture still calls them by such a term.)

Why would anyone….!

Here is a clutch of the more common claims made for the historicity of Jesus — expressed as rhetorical questions:

Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings  as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include thee mbarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Some regular Vridar readers will be familiar with the following warning:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 178)

Rhetorical questions are too often substitutes for reasoned conclusions. They can convey the message, “My conclusion is surely so obvious that it needs no further justification.”

If one is not familiar with the breadth of scholarly literature on the questions raised then one might well feel that “the conclusions are obvious”. No contrary argument would be reasonable, it would seem. Continue reading ““Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited”


2020-11-24

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5

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by Neil Godfrey

I have taken time out to track down and catch up with several of the French works that Charbonnel cites and that has a bit to do with the long time between the last post in this series and this one.

It’s been too long since I visited our French scholars of the Bible so here I continue with part 5 of Nanine Charbonnel’s table setting out the “Old Testament” sources of the Gospel narratives. In Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier Charbonnel is presenting a case for the gospel figure of Jesus Christ being created entirely from a form of “midrashic” type composition in which diverse scriptural texts are woven together into a new story to meet new community needs.

The table below is my own adaptation of Charbonnel’s French-language multi-page table, with a few slight editorial changes and my own translations and summaries.

The work of checking every scriptural reference (they are all hyperlinked for you to check them easily too) has impressed upon me just how totally the gospels are very likely pastiches of Jewish scriptures and some non-canonical writings. There appears to be nothing left over requiring explanation as if from any other source. Jesus walking on water was not an exaggerated retelling of a biographical event where Jesus happened to be walking on a sandbank (as some have said); nor were the healing miracles exaggerations of some real-life psychological power Jesus had over those with ailments. . . . they, everything, was written as a renewal of a sacred saying or scripture. Nor is there anything new about the teaching of Jesus: everything he is narrated as having taught is a re-writing of Scriptural or proverbial teachings of the time of the evangelists.

Jesus is created as a new voice and representative of a new Israel. The kingdom of God has come, the promises have been fulfilled in Jesus. Nations, gentiles and Jews, are now one in Him. The gospels are written, surely, as a new set of scriptures through which the old are to be interpreted anew.

There is no historical person of Jesus behind the narrative. If there had been then there would be some indication of a real person that the narrative had to adapt somehow to scriptures. What we find instead, however, is a figure entirely, entirely, made up of scriptures. Scriptural rewriting is the warp and woof of what he does, what happens to him, and what he says and teaches.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the calling of disciples and sending them out to preach

b. teachings of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

c. miracles of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

d. the fate of John the Baptist and the beginnings of the rejection of Jesus

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5”


2020-11-17

Interlude: Why I Doubt the Historical Existence of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Since recent posts have in some way drawn me into the question of the historicity of Jesus once again let me set out where I stand. There is nothing new here.

I have never, as far as I recall, set out an argument that Jesus did not exist. The reason? I have no interest in doing so. My interest has long been to understand the nature and origins of the biblical texts. And what I have learned so far is that the gospel narratives can most economically and comprehensively be explained as inventions woven from other texts without any need to introduce oral traditions going back to a historical Jesus.

Similarly for the New Testament epistles. We do not need to introduce a historical Jesus to understand their contents.

It’s really as simple as that.

–o0o–

Why don’t I begin with the assumption that the gospels are historical or biographical accounts, even if exaggerated, of a historical Jesus? Because as far as I am aware that’s not how any other historical inquiry works. We need to apply the same methods to the study of Christian origins that we rely on for any other inquiry.

Here’s how valid historical inquiry works across the board, whether studying ancient, medieval, modern, eastern, or any other history. I copy from another page where I have discussed this some time back….

A historian needs to establish some fundamental facts about the sources at hand before he or she starts pulling out data from them to make a historical narrative or argument. Let’s take the gospels as one set of sources to be used in investigating the question of Christian origins. What does any historian need to establish about these — or any — sources?

  • We need to know when they were written.
  • We need to know by whom and why. (“By whom” means more than the name of the person: it refers to where the person is from, to what social or political entity he or she belongs — “Who is this person?” — that is more important than a mere name.)
  • We need to know what they are, what sorts of documents they are. Their genre, if you like. This will include knowledge of how they compare with other literature of their day.
  • We need to know something about their reception at the time they were written and soon after.
  • We need to know something about the world in which they were written — both the political and social history of that world and the wider literary and philosophical cultural world to which they belonged.
  • We need to know a little how the documents came into our possession. Through what authorities or channels were they preserved and what sort of manuscript trail did they leave.

That’s the first step. We can very broadly classify all of this knowledge as the provenance of the documents.

If we draw blanks on any of these questions then we need always to keep those blanks in the foremost of our minds whenever we read and interpret the gospels. Those blanks will help remind us of the provisional nature of anything we draw from the gospels.

So for the first point above, the date of the gospels, we can do no better than accept a range of year in which they were written. A combination of internal evidence and the evidence that they were known by others leads us (well, me at least) to a period between 70 CE and the mid-second century (possibly known to Justin, certainly to Irenaeus).

Those who argue for a date prior to 70 CE fail to take into account the apocalyptic character of the gospels. Apocalyptic literature (e.g. Daniel) is known to be about events in the recent memory of the readers. The pre-70 date also fails to take account of the internal evidence for an audience facing persecution, including persecution from Jews. There is no confirmable evidence for such persecutions of Christians until post 70 CE. If some dispute this and argue for a much earlier date then I’m happy to address those arguments, too; I would be willing to change my view if they proved to be plausible and if the scare Caligula gave with his threat to install a statue in the Temple was the best explanation for other features in the Synoptics.

The question of who wrote the documents is of primary importance. Just saying the author was a Christian is way too broad and tells us nothing except the obvious. It’s no more useful than saying a work of history was written by a Greek historian. So what? We need to know what sort of Christian, where, when and why — whom was he writing for? why? Since we know none of these things — speculations and educated guesses change with the tides of fashion — we are at an enormous disadvantage in knowing how to interpret or understand the gospels.

Is what we read a composite document composed over several editorial hands? That, too, is a most important question to answer. Again we are at a real disadvantage here.

The above gaps in our knowledge of the gospels ought to pull up every historian short and make them wonder if it is worth even continuing to work with these documents. Certainly any historian worth his or her salt will always be tentative about any conclusions and data taken from them.

The second step. Continue reading “Interlude: Why I Doubt the Historical Existence of Jesus”


2020-11-16

Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters

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by Neil Godfrey

Dnipropetrovsk special psychiatric hospital

This is the final post covering my response to Tim O’Neill’s interview on MythVision. For other posts, parts one, two, three.

In 1959 Khrushchev declared that there were no political prisoners in the USSR, only mentally ill people (Bukovsky).

Arrests and trials became their last resort . . . . The authorities preferred other means, from psychiatric confinement and defamatory campaigns . . . .

Publicly branding dissidents as having some psychological issue had the desired effect:

I remember how, emerging from the psychiatric hospital in 1965, I suddenly discovered that all my “thaw-time” friends had disappeared somewhere, as if they had melted away. When we met by chance in the street, they would hurry away, clutching folders or briefcases or, even better, wheeling a pram. Sorry, old man, they would mutter without stopping, eyes lowered, I have to defend my diploma, dissertation, get my candidate’s application approved. Or I need to raise my children first. Then they would speed off, looking neither left nor right.  . . . 

(Bukovsky, Judgment in Moscow)

In the US, by contrast, political power is not necessary. The mainstream merely needs to publicly shame dissidents in the free press:

In this respect, America is an amazing country. On the one hand, publishing slander is recognized as the sacred right of the press, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA. On the other hand, America is a country of extreme conformists, where any criticism in the press, even if it is genuinely slanderous, renders a person unacceptable . . . . Note that it is the victim of slander who becomes “controversial and not the slanderer

(ibid)

From Wikimedia Commons

Recall from the previous post one biblical scholar’s observation of the conservative mainstream in his field of study:

There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . . 

What is the aim of this labeling? . . . The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you

For original citation references see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

One biblical scholar who was viscerally hostile against Christ mythicists, Maurice Casey, was very willing to employ the above tactics to discredit anyone who dared disagree with his views or those of his doctoral student and partner at the time. I responded to Casey’s assertions with the Who’s Who page of anyone identifying with or merely open-minded towards the Christ myth theory in order to demonstrate that his accusations were without foundation. His psychological analyses of mythicists — they were by and large disturbed ex-fundamentalists — was baseless slander.

Tim O’Neill in his MythVision interview resorted once more to the same tawdry psychoanalysis of mythicists (he allowed for a “few” exceptions). In his online statements he has added outright character defamation and some of the ugliest humiliation to his characterization of Christ mythicists. I have invited O’Neill several times to engage with my criticisms of his work but only on condition that he refrain from verbal abuse and he has declined. Rather, he has written that he finds my criticisms too petty to bother with. That’s another way of telling his followers to stay clear of my responses to his posts or to read them with a condescension that guarantees they will be dismissed from the outset.

Psychoanalyzing and humiliating mythicists 

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters”


2020-11-15

Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults

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by Neil Godfrey

At about 57 mins of the MythVision podcast O’Neill underscores the importance of Paul’s claim to have met James the “brother of the Lord”. Not only is Paul’s claim from a contemporary of Jesus but it is even from one who is opposed to his source:  Paul is saying, says O’Neill, “Yeh, I have met the brother of Jesus and he’s a dick.” Now evidence from contemporaries, especially contemporary adversaries, is certainly strong evidence for historicity, but at this point, O’Neill tosses aside and out of sight the most fundamental principle he said was the basis of all good historical inquiry: a need to acknowledge ambiguity in the evidence. O’Neill’s first task, therefore, is to characterize any interpretation that allows for ambiguity to be outright nonsense.

Basic historical methods applied to Paul meeting “the brother of the Lord”

Writing against Christ Mythicists, A. D. Howell Smith in Jesus Not a Myth: “There is a critical case of some slight cogency against the authenticity of Gal. i, 18, 19, which was absent from Marcion’s Apostolicon; the word “again” in Gal. ii, 1, which presupposes the earlier passage, seems to have been interpolated as it is absent from Irenaeus’s full and accurate citation of this section of the Epistle to the Galatians in his treatise against Heretics.” (p. 76)

Yet there is an even more fundamental rule for any historian examining sources that O’Neill never mentions: study the context of the source and the information in it!  It’s this simple:

  1. Acknowledge the fact that that “met James the brother of the Lord” phrase is unknown to Church Fathers who would dearly have loved to have known it to win their theological debates against “heretics” (– I was first informed of this fact by an honest author who was arguing against the Christ myth theory);
  2. Stop and think how bizarre it is that there are no other early Christian accounts that record that one of the leaders of the Christian church at Jerusalem was the very brother of Jesus! Is it really plausible that this one passing reference in a letter of Paul, a letter that was the focus of so much controversy in the early church, should be the only evidence we have from the early days of the church that Jesus’ brother became the new leader alongside Peter? Not even the Book of Acts, which portrays James as a noble head of the Jerusalem church, leads anyone to suspect that that James was a brother of Jesus.

For further details discussing the above context of this passage see

O’Neill emphasizes that a historian must be open to ambiguity when studying the sources. Indeed. There are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the passage in which Paul says he met the “brother of the Lord” was added some time in the second century in order to better assist “orthodox” Christians argue against their theological opponents. Further, fundamental questions arise when we try to understand how a brother of Jesus could have become the church’s leader without any other contemporary or near contemporary indication that anyone knew about it.

It is “bad history” to take a passage as testimony to a “historical fact” without first testing the authenticity of that evidence.

Basic historical method guards against circular reasoning

David Hackett Fischer

O’Neill next engages in a very common failing of many historical Jesus scholars: circular reasoning. That failing is not unique to biblical scholars, though, since it is one of the fallacies pointed out in a famous book from 1970 by historian David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.

The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. A hypothetical example might help to clarify the point. A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :

Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes?
Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes.
(Tacit Assumption ) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen.
Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Absurd as this fallacy may appear in a hypothetical way, it is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship.

(Fischer, 49)

petitio principii : a fallacy in which a conclusion is taken for granted in the premises; begging the question.

Dietary laws

One of several examples of this fallacy that O’Neill offers (paraphrasing):

In the Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus addresses the Jewish dietary laws. This makes sense if there was a historical Jesus who was saying those things about the dietary laws that the church (at the time the gospel was written) no longer followed. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if Jesus didn’t exist.

O’Neill here is uncritically repeating an argument found among some mainstream biblical scholars. It makes just as much sense on the assumption that the Jesus of the gospels was a literary figure created to express the view of the church.

Clark Kent to Superman

By excising all evidence to the contrary some exegetes conclude that the Jesus behind Mark’s gospel was mundanely human.

At this point the host, Derek Lambert, interjects with another piece of circularity common among too many mainstream biblical scholars (again, my paraphrase):

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus appears like a Clark Kent but by the time of the Gospel of John he is Superman. The evidence is so easily explained if there was an original guy who wanted the temple brought down, and then that happened, but because it didn’t get rebuilt, the Christians had to change the prophecy of Jesus into one where he claimed to be speaking about the temple of his body.

Yes, if we assume that there was a historical Jesus at the start, then we can indeed say that the subsequent evidence can be explained by that same historical Jesus. That’s circularity. The same logic can be used to say that if we assume that the gospel authors portrayed a Jesus who fitted the time of those writers, then we can explain the later changes to the gospels as the result of adapting to changing circumstances and beliefs. Question begging works any way you want to use it.

Besides, O’Neill ought to have picked Derek Lambert up on his factual error (another one common among many biblical scholars) that the Gospel of Mark portrays a relatively ungodly “merely human” Jesus. A man who walks on water and commands the storms to cease just like the Yahweh in the Psalms is not a “merely human” figure. Nor is the range of emotion imputed to Mark’s Jesus “merely human”: anger, for instance, is a very common godly emotion. For further details see

From Nazareth or Bethlehem?

Another very common instance of circularity appears in discussions about the birth narratives. The assumption is that there was a historical Jesus who was born in Nazareth, and since everyone supposedly knew he came from this tiny village “no-one had ever heard of”, the gospel authors tied themselves in knots trying to explain how he was really born, according to the messianic prophecy, in Bethlehem.

About the 1 hour and 10 minute mark O’Neill says, quite rightly, that later (noncanonical) gospels sometimes harmonize the earlier gospels. Matthew and Luke offer contradictory, even incompatible, nativity stories. This makes sense, he rightly says, if we assume that the authors were each independently struggling to work out their own narrative to explain how Jesus came to be known to be “from Nazareth” even though he was born in Bethlehem. I say “rightly” because yes, it does make sense if we assume the premise we are trying to prove is true from the outset.

It makes just as much sense to say that the authors of both Matthew and Luke were trying to establish a legend that Jesus was born at Bethlehem (according to the messianic prophecy) while at the same time attempting to remove an embarrassing epithet by which the earliest sects of Jesus worship were known, the “nazoreans” or “nazarenes”. (The Arab and Muslim world still today refer to Christians by a cognate of that same term.) The Gospel of Matthew at 2:23 bizarrely twists a scripture and grammatical Greek to make it give that title a new meaning.

Thus the evidence of Matthew is that the early evangelists were struggling with a title they no longer felt comfortable with and decided to hide its original meaning by re-interpreting it as meaning “from Nazareth”. Luke most likely re-wrote Matthew to give a better narrative account.

By setting aside the fallacy of assuming a historical Jesus at the outset we open ourselves to a much richer scenario in accordance with all of the evidence.

Nazareth did not exist — “a stupid idea”?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults”


2020-11-14

Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints

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by Neil Godfrey

I do care about bad history. — O’Neill (13 min 50 sec)

Bad history is carelessly getting basic facts wrong. It is also failing to acknowledge and engage honestly with other points of view concerning the sources.

Two instances of “bad history”

At about 27 minutes we are told that “mythers” say there is no contemporary reference to Jesus therefore he didn’t exist. That, we are told, is “a terrible argument” because, even if the historical Jesus really walked on water etc, etc, the gospels say that he was famous only in the back sticks of Galilee.  That’s like being famous in the “north-east corner of Kentucky”. That’s “not famous”. So why would anyone in Rome or Athens or Alexandria write about “a dirty peasant” teaching “Jewish crap to peasants”! Also, when we look at other figures like Jesus, first-century Jewish preachers and prophets, we have NO contemporary references to any of them. We have more references to Jesus than any other analogous figure of the time.

Response 1 — not famous by gospel standards?

No, the gospels say the fame of Jesus brought crowds flocking to him from Syria, Lebanon, south of Judea and Jordan. Mark 3:8 tells us Jesus’ fame was such that people flocked to him from “Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” That’s more than Galilee. Even if, as O’Neill is suggesting, the biblical account of Jesus is historical, then “multitudes” travelling from so far and wide to Galilee would most certainly attract the attention of the upper classes. Herod, we read, was so alarmed and thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead and fearfully went so far to plot to kill him. The first-century Galilean historian of Justus would have had his works preserved for us to read today.

Maps from Hayes and Hanscom, 436 (above); holyland-pilgrimage.org (right)

Response 2 — No contemporary record of any comparable figure?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints”


2020-11-13

Bad History for Atheists (1) — Louis Feldman on Justin’s Trypho and “proving Jesus existed”

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by Neil Godfrey

I took time out last night to follow up a comment left on Vridar and listen to Derek Lambert’s MythVision interview with Tim O’Neill, author of the blog History for Atheists. If one sets aside the revealing psychological portrait that emerges from the  incidental comments O’Neill lets drop about himself throughout the interview and focuses on his message one finds an unfortunate mix of contradictions, logical fallacies and factual errors presented with a confidence that evidently many readers find persuasive. I will attempt to deal with just one or two points per post to illustrate why readers and viewers need to put on their critical hats and examine carefully some of O’Neill’s claims.

Louis Feldman

In this post we look at what O’Neill has to say about the late Josephan specialist Louis Feldman, who came to reject the authenticity of any part of the Testimonium Flavianum (the passage about Jesus in Book 18 of Josephus’s Antiquities), and in particular at what O’Neill has to say about Feldman’s claim that a second century passage in a Dialogue with Trypho points to some debate at the time about the existence of Jesus.

Here is the Trypho passage.

But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .

Justin’s Dialogue (ch.8)

Mythicist Earl Doherty acknowledged the passage’s ambiguity:

As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.

But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.

(Doherty, on Vridar)

But O’Neill does not allow for any reasonable ambiguity and suggests that Feldman has fallen victim to senility for disputing the common interpretation of the passage.

The Intolerability of Ambiguity?

About 20 minutes in O’Neill professes adherence to the truism of the need to be tolerant of ambiguity in the evidence. The claim is made that “mythicism” appeals to people with a certain type of psychology, to those “who don’t like ambiguity”, who “want absolutes”, who “shun ambiguity and shades of grey”. About an hour in, he repeats “I am used to ambiguity”, to evidence that can be “read in different ways”, and that certain others “find ambiguity really weird”.

The sentiment is laudable. But when discussing a particular point of evidence that is clearly ambiguous O’Neill (around the 46-47 minute mark) unfortunately dismisses as blatantly wrong, as “a bad misreading, quite a remarkable, actually, misreading”, the interpretation that draws attention to its ambiguity.

Worse is the ad hominem: O’Neill goes so far as to suggest that the interpreter’s judgment was evidence of senility:

The problem with Feldman switching sides late in his life is … to be honest, I don’t think he was firing on all cylinders, he was in his eighties at that point, and also I think that his premise [is] on the misreading of a text.

Towards the end of the interview O’Neill declares that he believes in the importance of “reading books” and becoming familiar with “critical scholarship”. Again, a laudable sentiment. But had he done so in the case of Feldman’s claim about Trypho he would have known that Feldman did not somehow come to “remarkably misread” the text of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho “late in his life” but had published the exact same point twenty years earlier.

When O’Neill refers to Paget’s criticism of Feldman’s “misreading” of Trypho, all he is doing is pointing to a blunt single sentence that says, without any argument or justification, that Feldman has “misread” the passage:

Feldman’s attempt to argue that Justin, Dial. 8 witnesses to such an argument is a misreading of the passage.

(Paget, 602)

No argument. Just a bald assertion that Feldman is wrong.

Here is what Feldman wrote, the argument he penned (when in his 80s) about the passage: Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (1) — Louis Feldman on Justin’s Trypho and “proving Jesus existed””


2020-08-25

Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall

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by Tim Widowfield

At some point in the not-too-distant future (we hope), you’ll be able to buy a new book, an anthology of papers related to Jesus mythicism. In it, you’ll find essays from the usual suspects, including Neil and me.

While neither of us would characterize himself as a mythicist (I still think of myself as an agnostic on the matter), we still hold that it’s a viable option that needs more research. Further, we’ve both been fairly outspoken on the poor scholarship and bad faith continually demonstrated by many anti-mythicists. Good theologians often make poor historians.

My paper is entitled: “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey.” Just to whet your appetite, here’s a small excerpt.


I would call your attention to perhaps the most common error in NT studies: confirmation bias. Our minds are wired to seek data that proves our arguments, which helps explain why Casey and many other scholars have discovered concepts like high-context culture, but have not followed through with due diligence.

If they had, they would have discovered that modern scholars have called Hall’s framework into question, and for good reason. It turns out that despite widespread approval from armchair sociologists, business gurus, and human resource directors, we lack the sort of research that definitively shows Hall was correct. A closer examination shows that he often relied on intuition and anecdotal evidence. In his writings, he neither described nor mentioned his methodology. Peter Cardon writes:   Continue reading “Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall”


2020-07-02

Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources: Hermann Detering’s Complete Review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

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by Neil Godfrey

I have compiled the three parts into a single file. Make whatever use you want of it. Copy it; share it. I only ask that you acknowledge its source on this blog as per the Creative Commons licence for all works here. Frank Feller was the translator but I refined his work here and there into more fluent English. Find the Download Button beneath the viewing frame.

Download (PDF, 1.09MB)


2020-06-30

Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Hermann Detering (1953-2018)

 

Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2 . . . 

All the same notes apply re my modifications of some sections of the translation, additional notes and hyperlinks.

3. Tacitus and Josephus

The word “Christianos” – with an “e” scraped and replaced with an “I” – as it appears In Madicean II under ultraviolet light. From UU Humanist Skeptic

The information we get from Ehrman about Tacitus and the Testimonium Taciteum, which he highly values, on 2 (two!) pages of the book is not enough to keep skin and bones together. We are only briefly informed about the content and the historical background of this testimony, but about the problems with it Ehrman has almost nothing at all to say. Ehrman speaks of the Roman historian Tacitus and his “famous Annals of Imperial Rome in 115 CE” (p. 54) and the passage that reports on the burning of Rome and the subsequent persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. According to Ehrman, Tacitus is said to have considered Nero the arsonist, but this is not true. If Ehrman had studied the text more thoroughly, he would have noticed that although Tacitus assumes that Nero was interested in the burning of Rome, he leaves the question of guilt in the balance – unlike Suetonius, to which Ehrman presumably refers. In any case, there are mass executions of Christians, here called “Chrestiani“, some of whom are torn apart by wild dogs and others burned alive to illuminate the imperial park at night. In this context, there is now also talk about the author of this name, Christ (the “Chrestus”, as the magnifying glass on the cover of this website shows), who was “put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”

Ehrman sees here a testimony to the historicity of Jesus, even though he admits that the text does not speak of Jesus but of Christ and that it is based on Christian sources. Moreover, Ehrman suggests that some mythicists argue that the Testimonium Taciteum was not written by Tacitus but interpolated “by Christians, who copied them [Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius]” (p. 55).

Unfortunately, however, he keeps the arguments they put forward for this viewpoint to himself – if he knows them at all. Ehrman considers these arguments to be a merely a trick to explain everything that doesn’t fit the bill as a later falsification.

Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it.

However, the radical critics who speak of interpolation will certainly have given reasons. What are they?

Nero’s rebuilt Rome: From brewminate.com

Since Ehrman remains stubbornly silent, let’s name a few. They arise from a (literary-critical) consideration of the context in which the passage of Tacitus is embedded. The 42-43rd chapter was about Nero’s lively building activity. After the fire in Rome, the emperor first used the situation to create new parks and gardens, and then to build houses and apartments according to a new, more spacious design. Chap. 45 continues this theme after the section on the persecution of Christians with an introductory “interea” (meanwhile). Now it is emphasized that the money for the building projects came primarily from the provinces and that even some temples in Rome were robbed of their gold to finance the emperor’s projects.

The text that has been handed down thus offers an extremely strange train of thought: Nero has the Christians burned, the people have pity on them – “meanwhile” (interea) the Roman Empire is being plundered. It is obvious that such a nonsensical train of thought could by no means have been the intention of the narrator. Between chapters 44 and 45 there is no connecting point to which the “interea” could refer. If it is to establish a meaningful connection, it can, in terms of content, only tie up to Ch. 43 but not to 44: Rome is being rebuilt – in the meantime the empire is being plundered for it! Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it. Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus”


2020-06-29

Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 2: Pliny’s Letter

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by Neil Godfrey

Hermann Detering (1953-2018)

Continuing from Part 1. . . 

I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. The original German review is linked at the end of the post. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too. All additional notes in those boxes are mine as are the quotation boxes within the main text.

2. Pliny the Younger

The mountains are in labor, a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.  (Horace, The Art of Poetry)

Ehrman goes to great lengths to introduce us to the sources which, in his opinion, reliably attest to the existence of a historical Jesus. To quote Horace, “Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.” Before the curtain finally opens and reveals a considerable number of Jesus witnesses to the curious gaze of the reader, a series of preliminaries and fundamental methodological considerations must be made. What we learn in the relevant chapters about the value and worthlessness of historical sources is indeed informative, but will have little new to offer to all those who have attended a historical proseminar once in their lives. Be that as it may, Ehrman advocates good and healthy principles, such as that multiple testimonies please the heart of the historian, or that “disinterested” and independent sources deserve preference over others, etc. (p. 41) – one only wished that he himself would also give them due consideration in the later sections. In a section on sources that we do not have, he also admits that we do not have authentic illustrations of Jesus, nor scriptures written by himself, nor eyewitness accounts (p. 49).

[3] Hurtado 2007, pp. 2-3: “If correctly dated to about 200, the Aberkio inscription (found in Hierapolis) remains perhaps our oldest identifiable Christian inscription. Although in some older publications one finds certain references to the catacombs and catacomb art of the second century, it is now generally accepted among experts that these too should probably be dated to sometime in the third century”.

[4] Theißen, Merz 1997, p. 160f. All that can be said about it is that it is possibly the site visited by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria sometime between 381-384 AD, which has been given as the house of Peter since Constantinian times. Everything else is conjecture and belongs at best in a travel guide, but not in a serious scientific work.

Vridar note: see [3] Hurtado 2006 and [4] Theissen & Merz 1998

This is all well and good but could be further elaborated when applied to specific cases, which Ehrman certainly does not feel is necessary. Ehrman could have taken the trouble to make clear to the reader the full extent of the difficulties in which the defenders of Jesus’ historicity find themselves when they refer to external witnesses. For example, it is correct that no authentic images of Jesus have been handed down. But far more interesting is that the type of Jesus in the portraits we possess almost completely resembles the portraits of other late antique healers, so that archaeologists even today find it difficult to distinguish Jesus from, for example, Attis or Orpheus. With regard to the question of possible models for the Christian Saviour, this should not be an unimportant observation. As I already mentioned in my book Falsche Zeugen: Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand (only in German; False Witnesses. Non-Christian Testimonies Tested, 2011 (Alibri)”, I have already shown that from the 1st to the middle of the 2nd century no archaeological evidence for the existence of Christianity can be found at all. For Graydon F. Snyder, the Christian faith as a cultural-historical phenomenon only dates from around 180 AD according to the archaeologists. Even that reference to Roman catacombs and catacomb art, with which one used to love to argue in former times, is no longer possible. The archaeologists, Larry W. Hurtado points out, who formerly dated the whole of Christian catacomb art with confidence to the 2nd century, now suspect it probably only originated in the third century [3]. Speculations about a supposed “House of Peter” are based on dubious speculations and are only significant in so far as they contribute, not significantly, to the revival and promotion of the tourism industry in the “Holy Land”. [4]

John Remsburg

Moreover, it’s a pity that Ehrman goes far too little into detail when asked about the “sources we don’t have”. For example, there is no reference to the so-called Remsburg List, which can impressively demonstrate to anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into the position of the mythicists how ignorance about the man from Nazareth and the Christian community reaches deep into the second century. Even if it can be objected that the ancient sources also keep silent about many other people, it makes a difference about whom they keep silent. After all, according to the Gospels, the effect that Jesus had during his brief activity in Galilee and Jerusalem was so overwhelming that even non-Christian contemporaries who were religiously open-minded, such as Philo or Plutarch, could hardly overlook it. There is constant talk of the “great crowd” that accompanies Jesus in his ministry and witnesses his miracles and healings, whose fame spread throughout Galilee (Mark 1:28) and beyond (Matthew 4:24). The New Testament scholar Gert Theißen reckons with “miracle stories … outside the followers of Jesus” and with “popular shifting and enrichment” of the miracle stories, thus assuming that a special Jesus tradition had formed in the population. Should nothing at all – apart from the Christian tradition itself – have survived?

But Ehrman now thinks that this is not the right way to approach the question. Before one can ask whether Jesus did miracles, one must “decide” whether he existed at all (p. 43).

But how can this question be “decided”? Based on which criteria? The problem is that Jesus is portrayed in all the ancient testimonies as a divine miracle worker or as a (semi-) divine being. That applies – with one exception (Tacitus) – also to the few non-Christian testimonies.

That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.

For the rest, it all depends on what is meant by “miracles”. Those “miracles” to which Jesus owes his fame according to Christian sources, and which are said to have led whole nations to seek him out, are first and foremost healing miracles or healings. Even if we do not know how they came about, we need not question the existence of such a phenomenon any more than we do the existence of other ancient miracle healers. But Ehrman does not even do this much; for example, he states on p. 269 that Jesus “developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons.” Shouldn’t we ask then, why the person responsible for such sensational healings was not given any attention by pagan authors? The question is valid but obviously doesn’t give Ehrman any comfort. That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.

This information seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman is withholding it from us does seem a little manipulative.
Photius records for us what the Galilean historian of the second half of the first century did not mention.

Finally, Ehrman also refers to Justus of Tiberias, although he calls him “Justin of Tiberius” (p. 50), a Jewish historian living and working in the second half of the first century, who, like Josephus, wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century after Christ. Ehrman mentions that his books “did not survive”. Whether this refers to the work of later Christian censors and book burners, he leaves open. However, he fails to address the crucial point. Although the writings of the historian from the immediate neighbourhood of Jesus’ supposed residence have indeed been lost, we know at least from a paper of the Christian Patriarch Photius from Constantinople (9th century) what was not in it: “He does not mention the coming of Christ, nor his deeds, nor the miracles he performed. This information does seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman withholds it from his readers does come across as a little manipulative. Indeed, it would not seem easy for advocates of the existence of a historical Jesus to explain why a first-century Jewish historian from Galilee forgot the famous man from the neighboring city in his writings.

The number of non-Christian witnesses who, according to Ehrman, should prove the existence of Jesus is very small. Usually New Testament scholars cite a canon of six texts at this point:

    1. the twofold testimony of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Ant 20,200 and Ant 18,63-64, so-called Testimonium Flavianum),
    2. the testimony of the Roman historian Tacitus on the burning of Rome and the Neronian persecution of Christians (Ann 15:44;),
    3. the report of the Roman governor Pliny the Younger in a letter to the Emperor Trajan and his reply (ep 10,96-97;)
    4. two passages from the work of the Roman historian Sueton (Suet. Claud. 25,4; Suet. Nero 16,2)
    5. a letter of the Syrian Mara bar Serapion to his son Serapion, which was only recently brought into play, and which is said to have been written sometime after 72 AD,
    6. and an ominous passage from the lost historical work of Thallus (after 50 AD), which has only been preserved in excerpts in Julius Africanus and Georgius Synkellos.

In Ehrman’s case, the already very small number is reduced even further to the four witnesses Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, although only Josephus and Tacitus, and possibly Pliny, are of significance. This decision, which Ehrman does not discuss further, is very wise, since not many can be impressed by the excluded two guarantors anyway because of their questionable dating.

Anyone who thought that Ehrman would enter into a conversation with the radical deniers of a historical Jesus and discuss in detail the handwritten tradition, origin and earliest testimony of his four sources or even shine with new points of view will be disappointed. His statements merely repeat what has been known for decades anyway, and contain nothing that has not long since been considered or refuted by the radical deniers of Jesus since Arthur Drews. The authenticity of the sources is loudly claimed but not proven. What remains is, at least as the testimony of Josephus and Tacitus shows, that Jesus lived and was executed by the Roman governor of Judea. “That, at least, is a start.” (p. 56) Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 2: Pliny’s Letter”


2020-06-28

Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 1 of Hermann Detering’s review

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Hermann Detering (1953-2018)

The following translation of Hermann Detering’s review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been sent to me and I am thrilled to be able to make it available on this blog. It is over 7000 words, too long, I think, for a blog post, so I am posting here just the first part of the review. The rest to follow. I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. I have also replaced the English translation of Detering’s German language quotes of Ehrman’s words with the original English versions. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too.

Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources

1. Bart Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus exist?

The introduction to the book ushers us into the following scene: Bart D. Ehrman, PhD, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, actually wanted to write a completely different, more important work, namely about how a Jewish end-time prophet named Jesus became a divine being or God. But then he was startled by some emails. He suddenly found himself taken up by a scene that was apparently unknown to him until then: Mythicists who appealed to his authority for their claim that there had been no Jesus! Reason enough for a conscientious “New Testament scholar” to take a closer look at the matter.

Although Ehrman had by then read “thousands of books about Jesus in English and other European languages, the New Testament and early Christianity,” he was “like most colleagues completely unaware of the extent of sceptical literature [on the subject]” (p. 2). For a professor of theology and biblical scholar who should be up to date and in daily conversation with his students, this long phase of ignorance is astonishing enough, especially since the question of the historical existence of the man from Nazareth must have occurred again and again in the mass of Jesus literature he read. For example, in The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, often quoted by Ehrman, in which this very subject is dealt with on many hundreds of book pages. This book and others should at least have curbed Ehrman’s boundless surprise and shown him that the question “Did Jesus exist?” is not an entirely fanciful one, and that New Testament research has been periodically occupied with it. Moreover, it is not just since yesterday that the question has been on the agenda of those American “humanists” who read his books and with whom, according to his own statement, he has been in contact for a long time.

However, not everything Ehrman writes should be taken quite so literally. The reader of his book, which is written in a casual conversational tone, has to get used to this and other contradictions. The “casual conversational tone” is not meant as hidden criticism: one should be grateful for the good readability, especially since it saves German readers with “mediocre” English skills a lot of reference work in the dictionary. The fact that the casual presentation and simple language always turns into pure superficiality is, of course, the other side of the coin that we still have to get to grips with.

Instead of immediately shining with new perspectives and objective examination of the mythicists’ theses, Ehrman deals with the mythicists and – again and again with pleasure – with himself. Ehrman about Ehrman – a broad field… The professor strives for clear demarcation:

* see also:

these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion — a breed of human now very much in vogue. Ehrman, Bart D. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” HuffPost (blog). March 20, 2012. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.

Richard Carrier is one of the new breed of mythicists Ehrman, Bart. 2012. “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier.” The Bart Ehrman Blog (blog). April 25, 2012. https://ehrmanblog.org/fuller-reply-to-richard-carrier/.

this rare breed . . . comprises a growing cadre . . . Ehrman, Bart. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist? The Birth of a Divine Man.” The Bart Ehrman Blog (blog). May 11, 2012. https://ehrmanblog.org/did-jesus-exist-the-birth-of-a-divine-man-for-members/.

There — the “breed” (Ehrman in an interview*) of mythicists, a shadowy group that shies away from the light, concocting dark conspiracy theories in the worldwide channels of the network. With a few exceptions, neither academic degrees nor titles legitimize them to make a meaningful contribution to the difficult historical and religious-historical problems with which Professor Ehrman and his peers have struggled for decades at the forefront of science. In addition, loud, brash and aggressive in appearance, enemies of religion, atheists, and thrown from cliff to cliff by half-knowledge, stupidity and error. Avanti Dilettanti!

Here — the “New Testament scholar”, in the full splendour of his academic titles, honours and prizes, among his numerous students, whose questions he answers conscientiously and competently, proven author of numerous non-fiction books, who as such receives tons of e-mails (“Like most authors, I receive tons of e-mail”, p. 94) (apropos, how do you actually weigh e-mails?). A textbook example of biblical scholarship and theology as he is – imbued with his subject matter, which includes reading the Bible by him daily in the original Greek or Hebrew; who has been studying and teaching for over 35 years and “I don’t plan to stop any time soon” (p. 36). Yes, why should he? Does anyone want to stop him? The mythicists for instance?!

And yet no apologist! Ehrman wants to be understood as a pure historian, who is only interested in historical evidence. “I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting any Christian cause or agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings and my life and views would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed… The answer to the question about the historical existence of Jesus will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal” (p. 5f). Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 1 of Hermann Detering’s review”