Tag Archives: Christ Myth Hypothesis

“Why Did The Washington Post Tweet A Debunked Hit Piece On Jesus?”

Scandalous. And it’s probably all Donald Trump’s fault! (Seriously…. that’s what the article does suggest)

“Given that the article has been widely debunked, what would lead the Washington Post to tweet it out, essentially rerunning it? . . . .

As with so much news coverage these days, the answer to why this essay ran may well boil down to two words: Donald Trump. . . .

It is perfectly acceptable to explore the historic nature of Jesus. It happens in colleges across the world every day. But it should be done in a way that is respectful and balanced. The Washington Post article is neither. . . . .

The protection of minority religious views that media has extended to Islam and Judaism must now be offered to Christianity, as well. Attacks on Christian belief are no longer a redress of historical inequality, they are now simply bigoted. And they need to stop.”

The cause of the alarm at such dire threats to the foundations of our society . . . .
read more »

James McGrath and I Finally Agree on Mythicism

A week ago James McGrath posted Earl Doherty as Christian Reformer in which he expressed a point I have been making for some years now and especially since Thomas Brodie “came out” as not believing that there was a historical Jesus. Approvingly citing Matthew Green, McGrath writes

if mythicism did turn out to be true, all that would likely happen would be a shift to focusing on learning what the celestial Jesus rather than the historical one taught. Indeed, for many Christians Jesus is a celestial figure who still speaks to them in the present day. For atheists to try to use mythicism as though it were an argument against Christianity makes no sense.

Exactly! And the point has been most clearly demonstrated by Thomas Brodie who has continued to be a Christian believer. See posts #22, 23 and 24 linked in Vridar’s Brodie Files for Brodie’s explanation of why he believes the Christ Myth theory is not incompatible with Christianity.

I have for some years even been quoting Albert Schweitzer who indicated a very similar possibility when he wrote that Christians needed to get away from their focus on the historical Jesus:

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

Schweitzer was not a Jesus mythicist and that is all the more reason Christians ought to seriously think about what he said here (from pages 401f in The Quest of the Historical Jesus).


Part of the problem in some circles seems to be a fear or ignorance of atheists and atheism. There seems to be an assumption among some believers that atheists are programmed to seek to attack and destroy Christianity.

McGrath is by no means the only one to dismiss “mythicists” because they are atheists and therefore have a motive to find Jesus did not exist. The point is thought to be to undermine Christianity.

That is nonsense. No doubt some atheists somewhere do scoff at Christianity and claim they don’t believe Jesus existed anyway. But at least among the serious writings I have read arguing for a mythical origin of Jesus not a single one has expressed a hostile or subversive Christian agenda.

Indeed, atheist John Loftus (of Debunking Christianity) made the point I myself had also expressed: the worst possible way to undermine Christianity and turn people away from being believers is to try to say Jesus did not exist. See Is the Christ Myth a Threat to the Christian Faith? (If not, what is?)

But atheists also believe

I have posted about several Christ Myth advocates from past years who have even been very pro-Christian, expressing admiration for the faith, despite not being Christians themselves. Paul-Louis Couchoud was one, if memory serves.

Today there are a number of mythicists who are also favourably disposed towards Christianity. Consult the Who’s Who table for details.

I can see no reason why an atheist would “want” to believe Jesus did not exist. The Jesus atheists believe existed was just another Jewish prophet or miracle worker or whatever. The only reason I could imagine an atheist might want to believe that there was no Jess is if he or she thought Jesus really was god, too. But that makes no sense!

So I am very mystified to learn that another atheist would write the following in her review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:

What did surprise me was Carrier’s claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his professed lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism . . . . 

Yet I am assured today that the reviewer, Christina Petterson, is indeed an atheist. That makes no sense to me, either.


Gullotta’s Review of Carrier’s OHJ: A Brief Comment

Before I address specific points of Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus here is my overall assessment.

Despite having the appearance of a comprehensive review of the primary argument of OHJ (37 pages that includes a detailed background discussion on “who Carrier is” certainly has all the appearance of being comprehensive) Gullotta has failed to convey Carrier’s method of evaluating the evidence for and against the historicity of Jesus.

On the contrary, Gullotta’s discussion of selected arguments in OHJ turns out to be misleading because of what it fails to observe.

For example, although Gullotta criticizes some aspects of Carrier’s analysis of the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19, he fails to point out that in the final analysis that Carrier weights the evidence of that verse in favour of historicity! Carrier is arguing his mythicist case a fortiori so that although he personally argues for broad contextual and stylistic reasons that that the appellation does not supports the historicity of Jesus, he acknowledges the historical Jesus viewpoint and weights that phrase as being 100% what would be expected if Jesus were indeed historical.

That is, Carrier concedes in the final weighting of the evidence that Galatians 1:19 favours the case for the historical Jesus.

So how can Carrier still argue mythicism?

The answer to that question is unfortunately where Gullotta’s review fails its readers.

All Bayesian analysis does is provide a symbolic mnemonic to help one (1) be sure nothing is overlooked in assessing all the available evidence that relates to a particular historical question and (2) keep in mind the need to carefully evaluate each piece of that evidence. It serves as a mnemonic to help one guard against tunnel-vision solutions or what I call simplistic “proof-texting” in historical inquiry.

I recently quoted the historian G.R. Elton’s warning about the nature of responsible historical inquiry:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

Bayesian formula represent what we know of relevant background information and all the contextual factors, for and against, relating to a particular hypothesis. They are nothing but a set of tools to help lead us away from the pitfalls of “confirmation bias” and otherwise failing to give due weight to how the evidence stacks up both for and against one’s hypothesis.

On the Historicity of Jesus is not just another series of arguments for the mythicist Jesus. It is an attempt to set out all of the evidence both for and against the hypothesis and to find a way to validly weight the many variables before coming to a tentative and probabilistic conclusion.

Leave the proof-texting level of argument to the apologists. A professional historical inquiry follows Elton’s advice. There is indeed some evidence that even an “anti-mythicist” recognizes as problematic for the simplistic proof-texting use of Galatians 1:19 to settle the question. (See my post on A.D. Howell Smith’s discussion from his book Jesus Not a Myth.)

Perhaps Carrier has worked “too hard” to be “too comprehensive” in OHJ and by adding too much of his own arguments for or against particular interpretations of certain passages in the New Testament epistles he has exposed himself to criticisms that in fact deflect from the main argument. Some of his “newer”(?) interpretations might have been better tested (and potentially refined over the long term) by being published in journals prior to their appearing “raw” in the book.

I also have my disagreements with several of Carrier’s arguments and interpretations. (I have posted some of those on this blog.) At the same time, any criticism of Carrier’s overall thesis, in order to be valid, does need to do more than argue against any of those specific arguments.

A critical review of Carrier’s work needs to acknowledge the a fortiori approach of Carrier’s method (giving as much weight as reasonably possible to the historical Jesus case — even to granting Galatians 1:19 is exactly consistent with the historical Jesus case!) and to address the totality of the evidence and background information that needs to be brought to the table in a historical investigation that would rise to the standards of a G.R. Elton.


Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

Having just read Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I expect to be posting over the coming weeks a series of analytical responses. In the meantime, some overview thoughts.

Firstly, the choice of journal for this review, The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. One of the editors of JSHJ effectively declared that the editorial board is hostile to the very idea of Jesus mythicism. In December 2014 an article by Michael Bird was published in On Line Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate, and a month later on his college’s website, that stated the following:

The Jesus mythicists are a group of enthusiastic atheists who through websites and self-published books try to prove the equivalent of a flat earth. I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.

That gives you at least some idea what to expect of any discussion of mythicism that is published in JSHJ. (Daniel Gullotta, a doctoral student, surely knew the bias of JSHJ before he submitted it for their consideration.) Unfortunately, Gullotta’s concluding paragraph does not belie expectations, and ironically declares that a shortfall in “academic detachment” is the problem of the mythicists:

Scholars, however, may rightly question whether Carrier’s work and those who evangelize it exhibit the necessary level of academic detachment.130 If David L. Barrett was right, ‘That every generation discovers the historical Jesus that it needs’, then it is not surprising that a group with a passionate dislike for Jesus (and his ancient and modern associates) has found what they were looking for: a Jesus who conveniently does them the favor of not existing anywhere except in the imagination of deluded fundamentalists in the past and present.131 Whereas mythicists will accuse scholars of the historical Jesus of being apologists for the theology of historic Christianity, mythicists may in turn be accused of being apologists for a kind of dogmatic atheism. But while some have no doubt found their champion in Richard Carrier and his version of mythicism, like others before him, his quest has been in vain. Despite their hopes, the historical Jesus lives on.


130 A concern shared by Bart D. Ehrman, Maurice Casey, and also Carrier. See Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 334-339; Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, p. viii; Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 14.

131 Quoted from David L. Barrett, The Historical Jesus and the Life of Faith’, in The Christian Century 109 (May 6,1992), pp. 489-493.

(the bolding is mine)

A passionate dislike for Jesus? Dogmatic atheism? That would be a huge surprise to the mythicists Thomas Brodie, Robert M. Price, Herman Detering, Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Francesco Carotta, René Salm, G.A. Wells, P.L. Couchoud (and a good number of other Christ Myth authors of yesteryear), certainly myself, not to mention others who are fence-sitters on the question such as Hector Avalos, Arthur Droge and Kurt Noll.

Nor, quite frankly, do I detect even in Richard Carrier’s atheistic writings a “passionate dislike for Jesus” nor an endorsement for New Atheism. (I substitute New Atheism for Dogmatic Atheism because I am not quite sure what Dogmatic Atheism is supposed to mean. I am certainly an atheist and by no means a fence-sitter on that question, but I do deplore the rise of what was for a few years labelled the New Atheism, a movement that I think would have been better labelled Anti-Theistic rather than Atheist.)

For the record, I cannot see that it makes the slightest bit of difference to any atheist whether Jesus was a historical person or not. The simple fact that atheists also populate the pro-historical Jesus biblical studies academic guild as well as being found among the ranks of mythicists ought to testify soundly enough to that point. Jesus is a cultural icon. He has served many causes to which atheists and any number of other religionists have associated themselves.

Anyway, back to the substance of Gullotta’s review. It is thirty-seven A4 pages long (310-346) so don’t expect a comprehensive critical review soon or in a single post. Gullotta’s review is packed with footnotes and the time gap separating my responses will largely depend upon how accessible I find most of those citations. (Yes, I’m one of those who does read all the fine print and follows up as many footnotes as possible.) read more »

Another summary of discussions with McGrath and Hurtado

Nicholas Covington of Hume’s Apprentice has collated lowlights of his discussions about Jesus mythicism with James McGrath and Larry Hurtado. He includes references to posts on the same topic by Jonathan Bernier, too.

Nicholas identifies the same circularities of argument and the same logical fallacies that characterize their points as I have also found in the past.

His conclusion:

It’s funny how anti-mythicists nowadays spend more of their time wading into personal attacks on mythicists, extensive psychological speculations about why they hold the beliefs they do, non-stop reminders that all the “real scholars” believe it, but ancient evidence and its interpretation is practically an afterthought. Moreover, this whole accusation is largely false, I personally do not use this as an argument against Christianity: I have debated the resurrection without suggesting Jesus was mythical and written a chapter in my book Atheism and Naturalism refuting common apologetical arguments without once mentioning the Christ myth theory except to make clear that my arguments did not assume it was true. neither do any of the more prominent scholarly mythicists. Thomas Brodie sure doesn’t, neither does Robert M. Price (“There could be a god but no Jesus or a Jesus but no God” and sees his own views on the mythological origins of Christianity as a “working hypothesis” or a “speculation,” with the qualification that “it’s all speculation,” in other words: he’s saying his thesis is at worst no more speculative than anyone else’s). Carrier himself routinely assumes Jesus was a historical figure when debating Christian apologists.


The Hurtado-Carrier debate has become unpleasant

There is no justification for public intellectuals, for trained leaders in public opinion and attitudes, for any kind of professional, to publish the following:

Earlier posts in this series: Reply to Larry Hurtado; On Larry Hurtado’s response; Focus – but not blinkered, and others addressing Jesus mythicism and historical methods more generally.

Gee, Dr. Carrier, You’re Really Upset!

Carrier and the mythicists are unhinged nutbags and Maurice Casey proved it years ago in his last book.

Larry Hurtado vs. the Jesus Mythicists

All power to Larry Hurtado, he kicked the beehive of crazy, amateur, angry conspiracy theorists who deny that the historical Jesus existed. Read his blog posts here and here, and the comments show just how inane, vapid, and vacuous Jesus mythicism is.

Gee, Dr. Carrier, You’re Really Upset!

If you want to read a blogger going ape-shit, troll through Richard Carrier’s recent belligerent, intemperate response (here) to my posting in which I showed that his three claims that supposedly corroborate his “mythical Jesus” view are all incorrect.  It’s really quite amusing, or maybe sad. . . .

Richard Carrier as False Prophet

Calling Carrier a False Prophet is Too Complimentary. The Truth is, He’s an Absurdity

All the above are the “Christian” scholars who claim the moral high ground over Richard Carrier’s known penchant for calling certain others “liars” and “lazy” and “bizarre”. You will say I am biased, but I honestly could not see most of what I read of Carrier’s posts as “intemperate”, “ape-shit” “rants”. I was reminded how easy it is to approach the work of a person we don’t like and imaginatively read into it a hostile tone that a more neutral person would simply fail to see. If you think I am bound to defend Carrier, then understand (1) that Carrier and I disagree on a number of points of argument, and (2) that I do feel uncomfortable with Carrier’s accusations of lying and other “language” against some of his critics.

I wish he would write the same way he talks in live debates in front of audiences.

In the past I know I have come to the brink of the same kind of accusation (of lying and blatant dishonesty) against one or two others. I wish I had the grace and skill of a Michael Goulder who could use humour to undercut the unprofessional responses of some of his critics, or of an Earl Doherty who could respond with a light-hearted fun-yet-serious article against bitter sarcasm that had been aimed at him.

The unfortunate reality is that once a person who is not in a position of power accuses another of lying then they put themselves on the defensive, no matter how powerful they momentarily feel for making the accusation. They become all-too-easy targets of those in power who feel no need to defend themselves.

Besides, even the worst of us rarely believe they are lying; or if deep-down they do, then they believe it is justifiable for the greater good.

I have come to think that it is better to do all one can in order to stick to a calm, reasoned, analytical response and let the readers draw their own conclusions, if necessary, about professional dishonesty. Let the facts speak for themselves, in other words.

I’d love Carrier and his supporters to take a step back and focus on regaining the moral high ground, the genuinely scholarly tone, even under the extreme provocations of unprofessional, childish, bitter, fearful and outrageously false attacks.

The scholars we recall with most admiration, often enough, are those who do manage to maintain their cool and respond professionally, even with humour, under extreme provocation.

I have no hope for the likes of the scholars I cited at the opening of this post. They evidently have most to lose and are reacting like fearful children. The onus is on the outsider to expose their unprofessionalism by example and humility.



Follow up questions to my post on not seeing myself as a “Jesus mythicist”

Posting here a few more of my responses to questions that were raised on the BC&H forum about my stance on the Jesus mythicism question. (The first post in this series is Why I don’t see myself as a Christ Mythicist)

On making reasonable assumptions and seeing where they take us

Is it reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark was received as about an actual person? Is it reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark as written around the 70s or 80s CE, in your mind? What makes an assumption reasonable when it comes to the Gospel of Mark?

That’s not how valid historical inquiry works. Such a method can only produce speculative results. Not historical reconstruction.

According to the normative methods of dating documents the gospel of Mark could have been produced anywhere between 70 and 140 or even later CE. The only reason scholars prefer the earlier date is because of that mother of all assumptions, the presumption that the gospel’s narrative derives from a historical Jesus or events and they need/want the text to be as close as possible to that event so a proposed oral tradition chain does not lose too much in the process. And so the circle turns.

And that’s not even addressing the clear evidence that our form of the gospel is not what it was in the beginning.

What other historical inquiry works with “assumptions” that can never be corroborated from which they build their entire historical reconstruction? I suggest any that do are invalid.

Can you clarify your argument?

Is your argument that although 1st century CE Christians believed in a recently executed historical Jesus, we cannot tell if this Jesus really existed or not ? Or is your argument that we cannot tell whether 1st century CE Christians believed in a historical Jesus or not ?

I don’t argue for either. I leave behind any questions that arise directly or indirectly from the assumption that the fundamental plots of the gospel narratives or any of their narrative details are derived from real historical events. Such an assumption I find unsupportable given the absence of independent corroboration.

I think some biblical scholars work on the same principle: they study the Jesus in the gospels as a literary and theological figure. The question of historicity or otherwise simply does not arise. It is not a question that the sources enable us to explore.

Further, the question assumes the existence of a certain group (“Christians”) at a certain time (1st century CE) that I suggest are derived from the assumption of a historical background to the gospel narratives. What are “Christians” in the question? How are they defined? What is the evidence for them and for existing in the 1st century CE? I am not denying that there are reasonable answers to such questions. Just seeking my own clarification.

(Even if we are relying upon Paul’s letters, I am not sure that even those support the assumption that Paul and his followers belonged to a separate “Christian” group distinct from “Judaism”.)

The best I think we can say is that we have narratives about an executed Jesus (whether “recent” from the time of writing we cannot say with any confidence) and the historian needs to work with these, seeking to understand the nature of these narratives and explanations for their origins and the functions and influences they served. As for what certain people at certain times “believed”, that sounds to me like a very thorny question that will require a reliance upon more than the narratives themselves.

The letters of Paul are another set of documents that give rise to their own questions. The important thing, to me, is to study these questions without introducing traditional assumptions.

Is Matthew trying to squash rumours about the empty tomb?

Do you think Matthew 28:13-15 (if written in 1st CE) could be a actual response against the Jews of 1st CE who believed Jesus body was taken by his disciples after being crucified and thus evidence of historicity?

“Matthew” is writing a story. It’s a story. It could also be an actual response to Jews of the first century etc, but we would need to have independent evidence to support that interpretation. I don’t know how we can say that such a view (that it is an actual real-life response etc) is part of a historical record.

It is dangerous to use the Matthew narrative as evidence that Jews at the time were saying that Jesus’ body had been stolen. In fact, I don’t see how it can be justified by valid historical methods. Of itself, the story reads just like the ending of a Hans Christian Anderson tale that assures children that the shoes or some trinket can be found “to this very day” beneath a certain tree in a certain forest. It adds a teasing touch of verisimilitude.

(As a commenter wrote on my blog just a few hours ago, Matthew also seems to be teasing readers with a call for them to go and speak to witnesses of all the dead who rose out of their graves at the time Jesus died.)

It is just as reasonable to explain Matthew’s story of the bribery of soldiers as an attempt to tidy up a loose end in Mark’s narrative. And a far more parsimonious explanation that postulating all the variables that need to be introduced to support historicity.

Besides, what if the gospel were not even written until the mid-second century? Would there be such a concern for explaining away a historical event a century earlier? We simply don’t know when Matthew was written.

So am I a Jesus Mythicist?

My answer to that question is that I see no evidence comparable to the evidence we have for other known historical persons so as far as I am concerned the question is irrelevant. We cannot assume that he did exist. And I don’t assume he existed. If I were to think there was such a historical person then I would need to be shown clear evidence comparable to the evidence we have for other known historical persons.

For an example of what I mean by a proof-text argument and why I believe it is worthless see Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19.

Merely trying to argue a point by apologetic proof-texting is not going to cut it. Historians don’t do simplistic proof-texting; at least not “real historians”. They evaluate the evidence, its provenance, its context, its agenda, before they draw conclusions from it.

We can only work with the evidence we have, and if the ultimate goal of New Testament studies is to understand the origins of Christianity, then the literary Jesus is all we have and the only one we can work with.

(The epithet “mythicist” has become too emotionally charged. Academically, though, there is no need. Many critical scholars acknowledge that the Jesus of the gospels is surely literary and mythical. More biblical scholars are doing a new type of literary analysis on the gospels. It ought to be quite possible, at least in theory, for believers in a historical Jesus and for those who don’t believe there was a historical Jesus to discuss, argue, debate, explore and research the evidence together — as long as all are agreed that the evidence is the written documents we have and not some imaginary constructs that see the figures of the narrative take on a life of their own independent of those texts.)


Why I don’t see myself as a Christ Mythicist

Sometimes someone seems to expect me to argue a mythicist case, or accuses me of somehow hypocritically hiding my mythicist views. So let me make my view on the historicity of Jesus question clear.

If we approach the question of Christian origins the same way a historian would be expected to approach any other question, I believe we will begin with no a priori reason for working with the idea of the Jesus figure as historical.

After all, a number of biblical scholars see everything in the gospels as “mythical” and even the crucifixion as a heavily theological narrative that can have no historical reliability. They are not called “mythicists”.

Critical scholars who do not believe Moses existed are not called Moses Mythicists.

How many William Tell Mythicists have you heard of?

The gospels are of unknown provenance, authorship and date. Moreover, their narratives have no independent support for historicity. They are accordingly worthless as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

They might be based ultimately on a historical person but if so we cannot know anything about that so we simply cannot use them as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

Without the gospels the contents of Paul’s letters are equally or even more problematic as sources for the historicity of Jesus.

The “secondary” (late) evidence is also seriously problematic for various reasons.

There is simply nothing to reliably point to a historical Jesus.

Contrast Julius Caesar or Socrates or any other person of some significance in ancient history. The evidence for such people is independently corroborated at some significant level, generally of known provenance, etc.

There is indeed much in ancient history that we cannot know for sure, that is not independently corroborated and that only comes to us through late sources, and I am on the side of ancient historians like M.I. Finley who do state that we simply cannot know about those times, persons, events as historians. Some historians ignore Finley’s advice but what they produce is a rewriting of ancient myths, one might say. It is not serious history.

A historian needs to start with sources that can be independently corroborated, tested and evaluated for their provenance, date, authorship. To the extent that is not possible with some questions the entire enterprise is compromised to a lesser or greater degree.

In other words, I see no reason a priori to think of the figure of Jesus as having a historical existence because all our earliest sources about him talk about a theological figure and are unable to be corroborated independently for historicity.

There might have been some David or Moses figure in the past but if so quite unlike the one we read about in the Bible. Scholars who do not accept the historicity of these figures are not called David or Moses mythicists and I see no reason to treat Jesus any differently.

We work with what we have, a theological and literary figure.

It’s not about negotiating a mass of detailed arguments over a handful of (problematic) passages in Romans or Galatians or Josephus, etc…. The question simply never gets off the starting block.

After writing the above on another forum I added the following.

The Mother of All Assumptions

The Mother of All Assumptions is that the gospels contain some historical nuggets or are gateways to discovering historical nuggets. That is nothing but an assumption without any sound methodological thinking or analysis to support it.

From that assumption we generate theories of oral traditions as sources; we generate all sorts of scenarios about what the historical Jesus thought or did or said; we rely fundamentally upon the myth of the gospel-Acts narrative of Christian origins. Most of what we do is tweak and have fun with variants of that myth.

Sound historical method opens up entirely different questions and pathways to explore.

Someone replied that surely the letters of Paul, Acts and Josephus are evidence, and another asked if I considered the gospels as evidence for Jesus being non-historical or mythical. I responded as follows.

Evidence of what?

Evidence of what? How can anything “serve as evidence” if it lacks independent corroboration and if we cannot know its original form?

Josephus is only evidence for what a text dated over a generation after the supposed event says. By normative standards of historical research that is not evidence for anything that happened 60 years earlier.

Are the gospels evidence that Jesus was mythical?

The question does not arise. There may have been a historical figure of Jesus behind the gospels but that’s beside the point because we can know nothing about him.

I think many scholars (certainly the more critical ones) see the gospel Jesus as “mythical” or certainly theological. He is obviously literary — that’s a tautology! That’s the only Jesus we have in the gospels. We have no other. Work with what we have. This has nothing to do with whether Jesus was historical or mythical. In the gospels he is evidently a literary character and we can do no better than work with that Jesus and attempt to understand the gospel origins and character — and the origins and character of that literary Jesus.

Anything else is simply chasing questions that are not historical in nature. The Pentateuch is not evidence of a mythical Moses or Balaam’s ass. Nor is 1 Kings evidence of a mythical Solomon or Elijah. The question simply does not arise in critical scholarship.



Focus, Focus, Focus — but Not Blinkered

Larry Hurtado’s ongoing attempts to defend the reasons biblical scholars opt to ignore the arguments of the Christ Myth theory reinforce fundamental points in my original post, Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars”. Hurtado’s latest response is Focus, Focus, Focus. Some excerpts and my comments:

The question is whether the Gospels are best accounted for as literary productions that incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth, and on that question scholars over 250 years have broadly agreed that they do.  The earmarks of the traditions are there all over their texts.  The Gospel writers weren’t inventing a human figure, but composing biographical narratives of a figure who had been central from the beginning of the Jesus-movement.  The Gospels mark a development in the literary history of the first-century Jesus movement, appropriating the emergent biographical genre.  But they were essentially placing Jesus-tradition in this literary form.

That the gospels are “biographies” is not a fact but an interpretation, based most often on Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? A number of scholars have found reasons to be critical of Burridge’s arguments, however, as have I. Both Tim and I have discussed Burridge’s book and some of the scholarly criticisms several times now as well as having written more studies on gospel genre generally, introducing a range of scholarly inputs on that question. But let’s stay focused. A “biographical” genre by itself does not mean that the person written about was historical. The ancient times saw a number of “biographies” written about persons we know to have been fictitious, even though the tone and style indicate to a less informed reader that they are about a “true” person. I have discussed several of these in the links above.

Scholars who pay attention to literary studies of the ancient world also know that ancient writers were trained to create details of verisimilitude to make their compositions (letters, novellas, speeches, poems) sound authentic or plausible.

Further, the claim that the gospels “incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth” is, in fact, an assumption that is generally “supported” by appeals to details in the text of the gospels that too often are in fact circular. The process is very often an exercise in the fallacy of confirmation bias. The assumption that oral tradition is behind the gospel narratives is the eyepiece through which the gospels are read, and lo and behold, the evidence expected is indeed found to be there. The method has too rarely been checked by controls. A few scholars have applied controls to these arguments, however, and have found that in several cases the evidence that was claimed to be support for oral tradition is, in fact, more directly found to be a sign of literary borrowing. Take, for example, the “rule of three”. Words, motifs, incidents in folktales are often repeated three times and this is said to be an aid to memory. Fine. But what is overlooked is that we find the “rule of three” also liberally populating very literary works with other literary influences.

Yes, I am very aware of studies on oral traditions in the Balkans and Africa and have addressed several of these in posts on this blog. Unfortunately, I have also found that in too many cases a scholar has quote-mined such a study and misapplied its statements to support an otherwise gratuitous claim about gospel origins.

The applicability of those oral tradition studies have been found by a number of scholars not to be applicable to the data we find in our canonical gospels. Again, see some of the posts on Vridar for references to some of the scholarly works addressing this question. I will be posting more in future.

Hurtado continues:

Another reader seems greatly exercised over how much of the Jesus-tradition Paul recounts in his letters, and how much Paul may have known.  Scholars have probed these questions, too, for a loooong time.  E.g., David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).  But, in any case, this isn’t the issue of my posting, or even essential to the “mythical Jesus” question.

Yes, and indeed it is “many scholars” who also write in their publications of Paul’s virtually complete lack of interest or even knowledge of the human Jesus. Unfortunately, Hurtado appears to have chosen not to even consider or read any of the criticisms of those arguments that bypass certain critical problems with those common assumptions about Paul’s supposed references to the “historical Jesus”. Again, the works available, by both mainstream scholars and Christ Myth theorists, are abundant and discussed in past posts.

The Pauline question is whether his letters treat Jesus as a real historical figure, indeed a near contemporary, and the answer is actually rather clear, as indicated in my posting.  Paul ascribes to Jesus a human birth, a ministry among fellow Jews, an execution specifically by Roman crucifixion, named/known siblings, and other named individuals who were Jesus’ original companions (e.g., Kephas/Peter, John Zebedee).  Indeed, in Paul’s view, it was essential that Jesus is a real human, for the resurrected Jesus is Paul’s model and proto-type of the final redemption that Paul believes God will bestow on all who align themselves with Jesus.  In Paul’s view, what God did to/for Jesus is what God will do for Paul and others who respond to the gospel.

Here Hurtado is glossing over a number of peer-reviewed scholarly studies that contradict some of his points. That conservative scholars choose to ignore these studies does not change the fact that they exist and stand as challenges to the claims by Hurtado here. See, for example, posts discussing the scholarly debate over a passage in 1 Thessalonians that speaks of Jews in Judea being responsible for Jesus’ death, discussions on the passage in Galatians that speaks of Jesus being “born of a woman”, and even my most recent summary of some (only some) of the points relating to the question of James being a “brother of the Lord”.

Hurtado’s assertions are not facts; they are interpretations that are indeed debated in the scholarly literature. Yes, conservative scholarship might dominate the guild today, and minority views might be ignored. But they do exist and ought to be considered fairly.

Of course, with the Jesus movement of his time more widely, Paul also ascribed to Jesus a post-resurrection heavenly status and regal role as God’s plenipotentiary, and likewise (and on the basis of Jesus’ heavenly exaltation) a “pre-existence”.  But for Paul and earliest believers it wasn’t a “zero-sum game,” in which Jesus could only be either a human/historical figure or a heavenly king.  For them, the one didn’t cancel out the other.

Hurtado here conflates “human” with “historical”. I suggest the equation is not necessarily valid given that the world has seen perhaps as many fictitious humans in its cultural history as non-human ones. Some Christ Myth theorists propose that Jesus was always entirely non-human. My own interests are in a different area, but as far as I understand, it makes no difference to the historicity question if Jesus was thought to appear as a human for a few hours, days, or even years, or even having “slipped through” the womb of Mary in order to be “human”. Let’s stay focused.

The earliest circles of the Jesus movement ransacked their scriptures to try to understand the events of Jesus, especially his execution and (in their conviction) his resurrection.  But it was these historical events that drove the process.

Again, this is mere assertion, an assumption, for which there is no independent evidence. The justifications for the claim derive from circular reasoning, I suggest. Or at least they are simply begging the question of the existence of Jesus. The evidence that is before us allows for quite another interpretation: that the early Christians derived their knowledge of Jesus from revelation, including the revelation of scriptures. Again, such viewpoints have been discussed at length many times on this blog.

Finally, this discussion is about history, not theology or faith.  What you make of early Christian claims about Jesus’ significance, how you view traditional Christian faith, etc., are all quite separate matters from the historical judgement that Jesus of Nazareth was a real early first-century Jew from Galilee.

Oh that that were true! The Christian faith, it must be kept in mind, is faith that a certain event in the past was more than just theological; it was historical. Faith in the historicity of the event is what Christianity is all about for most conservative Christians.

A handful of Christians I know of have found a way to move beyond such an earthly bound faith (as Schweitzer himself believers them to do) and have found a way to remain Christian even without belief in a historical Jesus. (Not that Schweitzer did not believe in a historical Jesus; he did. But that was not his spiritual message. See Schweitzer in context)

So, let’s stay focused, folks.

Indeed. Focused, but not blinkered.


I’m not alone

I’m not the only one to have been deplored by Larry Hurtado’s recent unfortunate posts: Nicholas Covington of Hume’s Apprentice has also responded at length. Some might consider his language and tone to be more honest than mine.



On Larry Hurtado’s Response

Professor Hurtado has followed up with another post (“Mythical Jesus”: The Fatal Flaws) that was prompted by my earlier criticism of what I considered his flawed, even unprofessional, treatment of Carrier’s arguments in particular and the arguments of the Christ Myth hypothesis more generally.

In his reply Hurtado accused me of “dismissing” and “impugning” a huge body of scholarship as “gullible or prejudiced”. That is simply false. I have never “dismissed” any critical scholarship that I am aware of. I have learned much from — and greatly appreciate — that “huge body of scholarship” as the many, many posts on this blog amply testify. He further implied that I think there is some “conspiracy” involved and that scholars are “gullible and lazy”. What rot. Authors like Carrier and Doherty and Price and Brodie, in fact, engage critically with the “huge body of scholarship” and by no means suggest it is “gullible” or “conspiratorial”. That’s a farcical accusation.

Larry Hurtado, please indicate a few scholars that you believe I or Christ myth advocates have “impugned” or “dismissed” as “gullible or prejudiced”.

I can only surmise that Hurtado superficially skimmed my post with hostile intent and read into what is simply not there.

I have criticized certain arguments of certain scholars, and my recent post was to criticize Hurtado’s treatment of a view that he finds “tedious” to engage with and that he appears not to have bothered to investigate beyond a very sketchy glance at a few web articles. His treatment of those articles, and even of my own post, indicates that he has read them impatiently to the point of misconstruing or failing to grasp critical details that belied several of his claims. (For example, with respect to my own post, in another comment Hurtado said I misrepresented his post by failing to recognize that he was addressing only scholars in certain relevant fields. In fact I explicitly addressed his very words and claim about scholars in those said relevant fields. And if he seriously read my post he could never have claimed that I was “impugning” or “dismissing” scholarship, etc.)

Hurtado in his new post simply underscores his earlier claims and insists everything he wrote was fair and accurate — including his “three strikes” against Carrier’s argument.

In doing so he has failed to defend his remarks against specific criticisms. He refuses to even read the arguments of mythicists apart from summary short articles online. In other words, he refuses to take the argument seriously (which is fair enough, since he hasn’t read it and clearly remains uninformed of its main substance) and has no desire to even attempt to do so. The very thought appears to be tedious to him. That’s fine. I don’t bother to look into things that don’t interest me, either. But I don’t claim to know all I need to know about those things or bother writing criticisms of them. That would indeed be tedious and worse.

Recently I thought I read that Hurtado boasts that he regularly presents both sides of an argument on his blog. That claim is true, I think, of only a handful of viewpoints that he addresses. My early encounters with Hurtado were actually to challenge him to present alternative views to the one he argued in a post (and no, the topic had nothing to do with “mythicism) and that was published by his scholarly peers.

I don’t understand why Hurtado wrote his second post with reference to me since he does not engage with my primary concerns and criticisms. He simply repeats his unprofessional personal accusations and the same criticisms that I attempted to demonstrate were ill-informed and adds a few more remarks that fall somewhat short of total accuracy.

Hurtado concludes:

So, ignoring the various red-herrings and distortions of the “mythicist” advocates, the claims proffered as “corroborating” their view have been shown to be erroneous. And this is why the view has no traction among scholars. There’s no conspiracy. It’s not because scholars are gullible or lazy. The view just doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny.

And that about sums it up. Hurtado has very little knowledge of the mythicist arguments, refuses to read the books, contents himself to skim reading (if not skim reading then reading with hostile intent) and distorting what is found on a couple of websites, and then claiming that the arguments have been subjected to “critical scrutiny” and “shown to be erroneous” and that’s why “the view has no traction among scholars”.

Hurtado’s recent posts have demonstrated in fact that that’s not the reason the view has no traction among scholars. There is evidently something else involved and the hostile, less than professional attitudes and accusations from Hurtado surely are the symptoms of that “something else”.




Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars”

One of the purposes of Vridar is to share what its authors have found of interest in biblical scholarship that unfortunately tends not to be easily accessible to the wider lay public. (Of course, our interests extend into political, science and other topics, too. For further background see the authors’ profiles and the explanations linked at the what is vridar page.)

Some people describe Vridar as “a mythicist blog” despite the fact that one of its authors, Tim, is an agnostic on the question and yours truly regularly points out that the evidence available to historians combined with valid historical methodology (as practised in history departments that have nothing to do with biblical studies) may not even allow us to address the question. The best the historian can do is seek to account for the evidence we do have for earliest Christianity.

There are some exceptional works, however, that do follow sound methods and draw upon an in-depth knowledge of the sources and the wider scholarship to argue strong cases that Christian origins are best explained with a Jesus figure who had little grounding in history, and this blog has been a vehicle to share some of those arguments, usually by means of guest-posts. If a hypothesized historical Jesus turns out to be the most economical explanation for that evidence, then that’s fine. We are atheists but neither of us has any hostility to religion per se (we respect the beliefs and journeys of others) and I don’t see what difference it makes to any atheist whether Jesus existed or not.

Unfortunately, in some of our discussions of biblical scholarship both Tim and I have found what we believe are serious flaws in logic of argument and even a misuse or misleading “quote-mining” of sources. In response, a number of biblical scholars have expressed a less than professional response towards this blog’s authors and what they wrote. Some years back, in heated discussions, I myself occasionally responded in kind but I apologized and those days are now all long-gone history. Fortunately, a number of respected scholars have contacted us to express appreciation for what we are trying to do here at Vridar and that has been very encouraging.

(For what it’s worth, this blog has also often been the target of very hostile attacks from some of the supporters of less-than-scholarly arguments for a “mythical Jesus”.)

So with that little bit of background behind us, I now have the opportunity to address Larry Hurtado’s blog post, Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars.

Fallacy of the prevalent proof

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form — deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.  — David Hacket Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies. See earlier post for details.

Hurtado begins:

The overwhelming body of scholars, in New Testament, Christian Origins, Ancient History, Ancient Judaism, Roman-era Religion, Archaeology/History of Roman Judea, and a good many related fields as well, hold that there was a first-century Jewish man known as Jesus of Nazareth, that he engaged in an itinerant preaching/prophetic activity in Galilee, that he drew to himself a band of close followers, and that he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

That is a sweeping statement and I believe it to be misleading for the following reasons.

I doubt that the “overwhelming body of scholars” in any of the fields listed, apart from New Testament and Christian Origins, has ever addressed the question of the historicity of Jesus. Certainly, I can accept that probably most people in the West, not only scholars, who have discussed ancient times have at some time heard or made mention of Jesus as a “historical marker”. The life of Jesus is public knowledge, after all. And public knowledge is culturally (not “academically”) transmitted. I suspect that “the overwhelming body of scholars” in all fields who have ever mentioned Jesus in some context have never investigated the academic or scholarly arguments for his existence. That doesn’t make them unscholarly. It simply puts them within their cultural context. I also suspect that for “the overwhelming” majority of those scholars, the question of the historicity of Jesus made no meaningful difference to the point they were expressing.

Hurtado in his opening statement is appealing to what historian David Hackett Fisher labelled the fallacy of the prevalent proof.

These same scholars typically recognize also that very quickly after Jesus’ execution there arose among Jesus’ followers the strong conviction that God (the Jewish deity) had raised Jesus from death (based on claims that some of them had seen the risen Jesus). These followers also claimed that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory as the validated Messiah, the unique “Son of God,” and “Lord” to whom all creation was now to give obeisance.[i] Whatever they make of these claims, scholars tend to grant that they were made, and were the basis for pretty much all else that followed in the origins of what became Christianity.

Here we have a continuation of the above fallacy. Yes, what Hurtado describes is what most people (not only scholars) in the Christian West have probably heard at some time and taken for granted as the “Christian story”. Again, what Hurtado is referring to here is a process of cultural transmission. Very few of “these same scholars” have ever studied the question of historicity. We all repeat cultural “memes” the same way we quote lines of Shakespeare.

After 250 years of critical investigation

The “mythical Jesus” view doesn’t have any traction among the overwhelming number of scholars working in these fields, whether they be declared Christians, Jewish, atheists, or undeclared as to their personal stance. Advocates of the “mythical Jesus” may dismiss this statement, but it ought to count for something if, after some 250 years of critical investigation of the historical figure of Jesus and of Christian Origins, and the due consideration of “mythical Jesus” claims over the last century or more, this spectrum of scholars have judged them unpersuasive (to put it mildly).

This statement is a common but misleading characterization of the history of the debate. I think it is fair to say that in fact scholars have not at all spent the past 250 years investigating the question of the historical existence of Jesus. Their studies have, on the contrary, assumed the existence of Jesus and sought to resolve questions about that historical figure’s nature, career, teachings, thoughts, impact, etc. Forty years ago the academic Dennis Nineham even described the importance of the historical foundations of the story of Jesus to meet the needs of theological and biblical scholars. (See earlier posts on his book, The Use and Abuse of History.)

The number of biblical scholars who have published works dedicated to a refutation of the “Christ Myth” theory are very few and, though often cited, appear to have been little read. According to Larry Hurtado’s own discussions, it appears that he has only read one such work, one dated 1938, that I think few others have ever heard of. See “It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist. (He may have read other such criticisms, and more recent and thorough ones, of which I am unaware.)

The fact is that the few scholars who have historically “come out” to argue that Jesus did not have a historical existence, beginning with Bruno Bauer, have been ostracized and soon ignored by the fields of theology and biblical studies.

In normal academic debate an author is given a right to a reply to criticisms of his work. I have yet to see a mainstream biblical scholar actually address (as distinct from ridicule or insult) any of the responses of Christ myth supporters to those works that are supposed to have debunked mythicism, such as those of Shirley Jackson Case, Maurice Goguel and now Bart Ehrman. One gets the impression that many scholars are content to accept that scholars like Ehrman have “taken care” of the arguments and the matter can be safely left at that. In fact, most replies to the works of Case, Ehrman and others are demonstrations that they have failed to address the core arguments despite their claims to the contrary.

Sometimes an offensive manner is used as an excuse to avoid engaging in serious debate or responses to criticisms, which is a shame because I have seen rudeness and other lapses in professionalism on both sides. Mainstream scholars would, I think, be more persuasive among their target audience if they took the initiative in seizing the high ground of a civil tone and academic rigour in all related discussions. Unfortunately, several academics are even on record as saying that they fear to show normal standards of respect and courtesy with mythicist arguments for fear that they would be interpreted as giving the view a “respectability it does not deserve.” That sounds to me like a reliance upon attempted persuasion by means of condescension, abuse and bullying.

The reasons are . . . 

read more »

Saul’s Folly: The King Can’t Be a Jack of All Trades

King Saul

Brooding King Saul, detail from Ernst Josephson’s “David och Saul”

While thumbing through Cristiano Grottanelli’s Kings and Prophets: Monarchic Power, Inspired Leadership, and Sacred Text in Biblical Narrative, I remember now why I snatched it up a couple of years ago. For some time now, I’ve been working on a simple thesis that would explain the silence regarding Jesus’ actual teaching in the epistles (of Paul, pseudo-Paul, and others).

The Threefold Office

Simply put, I suggest that the root of the issue arises from the earliest Christians’ conception of the messiah and to which office or offices he belonged. We see for example, in Paul’s discussion of the lineage of David, the concept of a kingly messiah. On the other hand, we see in the book of Hebrews a detailed conception of the messiah as priest.

However, in the earliest texts we see practically no hint of Jesus as prophet. Not until the gospels, written decades later, do we find concrete evidence — the strongest, of course, coming from Jesus himself. First in Mark:

But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. (6:4, KJV)

Copied in Matthew:

And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. (13:57, KJV)

Edited in Luke:

And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country. (4:24, KJV)

And referred to in John:

For Jesus himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country. (4:44, KJV)

These statements are obviously late and apologetic in character. They seek to explain why Jesus’ own family, village and nation rejected him. But they also point to a seismic shift in the conception of Jesus and which category (or categories) he belongs to. The identity of Jesus is bound up in Christians’ conception of him as king, priest, and (lastly) prophet.

These categories, by the way, would be further crystalized by later church writers such as Eusebius (Church History, Book I, 3:8) —  read more »

The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult — Hermann Detering

Hermann Detering has a new essay (70 pages in PDF format) that will be of interest to many Vridar readers — at least for those of you who can read German. In English the title is The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult. 

See his RadikalKritik blog:


The work begins with reference to Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the Exodus and concludes with references to Buddhism. . . .

5 Zusammenfassung

Ausgehend von der gnostischen Interpretation des Exodus-Motivs und der Frage ihrer religionsgeschichtlichen Herkunft stießen wir auf die zentrale Bedeutung des als Transzendenzmetapher gebrauchten Bildes vom „anderen Ufer“, das in der indischen/buddhistischen Spiritualität eine erhebliche Rolle spielt. Die Frage, wo die beiden Linien, jüdische Tradition und hebräische Bibel einerseits, buddhistische bzw. indische Spiritualität andererseits, konvergieren, führte uns zu den Therapeuten, über die Philo von Alexandrien in seiner Schrift De Vita Contemplativa berichtet.

Nachdem die buddhistische Herkunft der Therapeuten plausibel gemacht wurde, konnte gezeigt werden, dass ihrem zentralen Mysterium eine auf buddhistische Quellen zurückgehende Deutung des Exodusmotivs zugrundeliegt. Diese Deutung enthält zugleich den Keim für das christliche Taufsakrament. Frühe christliche Gnostiker wie Peraten und Naassener übertrugen auf den Nachfolger des Mose, Josua, was bei den stärker in der jüdischen Tradition verwurzelten Therapeuten Mose vorbehalten blieb. Der alte Mosaismus sollte durch den neuen, gnostisch-christlichen Josuanismus überboten werden. Jesus/Josua wurde zum Gegenbild des Mose.

Der christliche Erlöser Josua/Jesus ist so gesehen nichts anderes als – ein Ergebnis der jüdisch-buddhistischen Exegese des Alten Testaments! Der „geschichtliche“ Jesus, d.h. Jesus von Nazaret, wurde im Laufe des 2. Jahrhunderts aus dem Bild des alttestamentlichen Josua heraushypostasiert. 

Translators . . . . Where are you? We need you now!