Tag Archives: Historicity of Jesus

Imagine No Interpolations

What if the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus and his followers, in Antiquities by Josephus was written in full (or maybe with the exception of no more than 3 words) by Josephus? I know that would raise many questions about the nature of the rest of our sources but let’s imagine the authenticity of the passage in isolation from everything else for now.

What if the passage about Christ in Tacitus was indeed written by Tacitus? Ditto about that raising more questions as above, but the same.

What if even the author attribution studies that have demonstrated the very strong likelihood that Pliny’s letter about Christians to Trajan was not written by Pliny were wrong after all?

What if that “pocket gospel” in the early part of chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah were original to the text and not a subsequent addition? (I think that the most recent scholarly commentary by Enrico Norelli on the Ascension of Isaiah does actually suggest that scenario but I have not read any of the justifications if that is the case.)

What if 2 Thessalonians 2:13-16 which has Paul saying the Jews themselves killed Jesus in Judea was indeed written by Paul thus adding one more inconsistency of Paul’s thought to the already high pile?

What if, contrary to what has been argued in a work opposing (sic) the Christ Myth hypothesis, the passage about Paul meeting James the brother of the Lord was originally penned by Paul after all?

Would the above Imagine scenarios collectively remove any reason to question the assertion that Christianity began ultimately with a historical Jesus?

I don’t think so. read more »

What Do We Mean by “Historical Hypothesis”?

Neil has already discussed Jonathan Bernier’s post, “Critical Realism and the New Testament,” here (The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)) and here (Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History), but I’m just now catching up. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride as soon as I found out Dr. McGrath had awarded his seal of approval.

Honestly, my first reaction was my second, as well as my third, reaction: Despair — and not only the despair of realizing how bad things have gotten, but also the grim recognition that we have not yet hit bottom. McGrath writes:

What Bernier writes really is a great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.

Oh, goody. What wonderful things did Bernier write? Well, buckle up. Here we go!

All historical argumentation is probabilistic. This is also to say that any and all historical hypotheses are subject to revision or dispute.

The Polish Cavalry at the Battle of Mokra, 1939

So far, so good. Unfortunately, he has left too much unsaid. He doesn’t give us a working definition of the term historical hypothesis, nor does he explain what sorts of evidence would lead to revisions or disputes of such hypotheses. Given what follows, we have reason to believe Bernier has a peculiar understanding of the term.

Hypotheses subject to revision are hypotheses whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0 that we can treat them as virtually certain.

I must be reading this wrong. In the preceding sentence, Bernier wrote that all hypotheses are subject to revision. But then he implies that the subset of hypotheses that are subject to revision are ones “whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0.” I don’t understand this sentence, but I can set it aside for now — except to say that Bernier doesn’t really explain how and why revision should occur nor how we calculate the probability of a hypothesis. We have everything we need but the what, the how, and the why.

He continues:

Such hypotheses include the hypothesis that Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, or that Jesus of Nazareth existed.

read more »

Scholarship and “Mythicism”: When the Guilty Verdict is more important than the Evidence or Argument

I recently wrote in a blog post:

Roger Pearse, for instance, goes even further and without any suggestion that he is aware of Doherty’s arguments says they are “all nonsense, of course.”

A theme I come back to from time to time is the gulf between many biblical scholars and scholars of early Christianity. We saw what happened when Earl Doherty made his first “public appearance” online on the Crosstalk forum, a meeting place for scholarly discussion. A good number of the professional scholar in that forum reacted with outright disdain and insult. They did not “need” to hear or engage with Doherty’s arguments to “know” they were “rubbish”. The mere suggestion that their entire working hypothesis for Christian origins — a Jesus figure emerging and winning some small following at a time of messianic hopes, followed by the confused and evolving responses of some of his followers to his crucifixion as a political rebel — the mere suggestion that the foundations of their studies rested on questionable assumptions and that it should be an outsider who cries out that the emperor might be naked was too much for some.

Jim West’s response was typical of much of the tone:

It is utterly UN-reasonable to suggest that Jesus did not exist. Such silliness has no place on an academic list. Perhaps discussions of the non-existence of Jesus belong on the same lists as discussions of UFO abductions, alien autopsies, and the like. . . . 

The net is filled with crackpots, loons, and various shades of insane folk who spout their views and expect people to take them seriously. And when they dont get taken seriously they get mad.

. . . . Bill and his “voice behind the curtain” have simply repeated old junk which has been dealt with in the history of scholarship already. Why must we reinvent the wheel every time someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.

Did Jim West look at the arguments behind the claims? Yes, he could confidently declare that indeed he had:

(oh yes, I have visited the web page advertised— very pretty- yet filled with nonsensical non sequiters). Life is too short to rehash garbage.

And that settled it. Such “nonsense” had been more than adequately dealt with long ago — if pressed he may have mentioned the names of Maurice Goguel and Shirley Jackson Case — but if indeed the arguments had been dealt with Jim does not explain his hostile tone. Why not, like a sophisticated scholar, a tutor, or even a reference librarian, simply direct people such as Doherty and those who read his books to the sources that they have presumably missed? Who is it who is “getting mad” because they don’t think they are being taken seriously?

There is a contradiction there. It’s kettle logic. On the one hand we are informed that the Doherty’s and their arguments have been seriously addressed; but then on the other we are told that the Doherty’s get made because their arguments are not taken any more seriously than claims of UFO abductions and alien autopsies.

No, no-one expects a scholar to reinvent the wheel “every time someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.” So why the hostility? Why not simply refer Bill to the works that clearly establish the foundations of the scholarly enterprise and leave no room for a resurgence of what had long been dealt with professionally.

Jim covers himself to the extent that he says he did “visit” Doherty’s arguments and could most assuredly say that they were filled with “nonsensical” non sequiturs. No specifics, but no references to the earlier works that had settled all the questions, either.

I can go to any sizeable general bookshop and find books written by scientists and science reporters addressing the flaws in young-earth creationist literature. It is not hard to find. Some scientists clearly find time to address the fallacies and falsehoods of creationists to the extent that any serious enquirer can be assured they have all the essential data and all the basic arguments before them. I do not expect to find in such books sweeping assertions that creationist literature is filled with falsehoods and non sequiturs. I expect to find, and do find, examples of the flaws and clear discussions about them.

However, happily there are a few biblical scholars who are serious enough to make the time and effort to offer serious, scholarly rebuttals of some of this new material. Or are there? read more »

Once more: My Position on the Jesus Mythicism Question

I have been asked once again to explain concisely why I believe Jesus is a myth.

My initial response to that question is “Who doesn’t believe Jesus was a myth?” There is no dispute among biblical scholars, or at least among critical biblical scholars (let’s leave aside the apologists) that the Jesus of our canonical gospels is mythical. No-one believes Jesus really walked on water or literally raised the dead.

Critical biblical scholars, for various reasons, believe that “the historical Jesus” (the Jesus who is not a myth) lies hidden behind those gospel narratives and that with appropriate tools like criteria of authenticity or some adaptation of memory theory they can catch glimpses of what that historical Jesus may have been like in the eyes of his contemporaries.

As for Paul, there is no question that his Jesus, and especially his crucifixion, is a theological construct. Critical scholars generally tell us that Paul had no interest in the historical Jesus but only in a heavenly one, that is, in a mythical one. Jesus’ death was a theological event with power similar to that of Isaac’s blood to atone for sins. (Simon Gathercole in his article I recently addressed reminded me that Dale Allison said scholars have in recent times come to accept the authenticity of one passage in 1 Thessalonians that is considered evidence of Paul’s belief in a historical man and I am in the process of tracking down and studying those references.)

I believe in the Jesus of the gospels and of Paul’s letters: that is, I believe the Jesus of the gospels and Paul is a literary, mythical or theological figure. I don’t know of any critical scholar who would seriously suggest otherwise.

So the question I am sometimes asked is more meaningfully re-worded: “Why do you believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings of the gospels and Paul?”

My only reply can be: I don’t “believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings….” To believe that something is or is not so requires a level of evidence that is generally not found when it comes to many biblical stories or characters, or even many classical narratives of very early history among the ancient Greek and Roman historians. I have posted several times now on the clearly stated methods used by the leading historians of ancient history and shown that none of them uses the tools of biblical scholars to discover some past historical figure behind our histories and biographies. None. Yet it is not hard at all to find even biblical scholars themselves addressing the inability of those tools to provide a valid result.

I think the irrational character at the heart of many peoples’ beliefs in the historical Jesus is discerned when they cast aside calm, rational discussion of the evidence and react with hostility, ad hominem, misrepresentation. We can understand such reactions coming from people who feel threatened in some way. (I should add that there are a good number of Jesus mythicists who are just as guilty of personal insult in preference to well-reasoned and evidence-based argument. Most of those, at least in my experience, belong to the “Type 2” mythicists.)

I have posted many times why historians of ancient history can legitimately believe in a historical Julius Caesar or a historical Socrates (even though they may not be able to tell you with confidence exactly what such ancient persons were really like) and I have also made it clear that our level of evidence for such persons (even for “nobodies” like the historicity of Cicero’s slave Tiro and a stammering rival rhetorician to Seneca) is qualitatively far richer than the evidence we have for a historical Jesus behind our mythical or theological documents.

I don’t think there is much room for argument about that difference in the qualitative character of the evidence. Perhaps that’s why some people are not interested in serious discussion about historical methods that might expose the nakedness of certain biblical scholarship, and why they so often prefer instead to stay and fight or disappear in flight.

Was there a historical Jesus? I don’t know. I can’t say. Can the evidence we have be explained without appealing to a historical Jesus? Yes, I tend to think it can. (Despite the gross misrepresentations of the arguments of those who demonstrate this fact.)

What methods do I apply to our evidence?  I try to apply the methods that one very distinguished biblical scholar said should be applied to the study of Jesus. The methods Philip Davies spoke of are no longer relegated to fringe extremism in the studies of “biblical Israel”. (I think it was Thomas L. Thompson, a scholar in the same “school” as Davies, who said that we must first tend to the Jesus we do know about and have before us: that is the literary figure. I believe we need to apply the normative methods of historians (not speaking of New Testament historians) to explain that Jesus.)

Philip Davies

[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. — Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012

I can see little fundamental difference between the methods of which Philip Davies spoke and the methods of his peers in classical and ancient history departments, or in just about any other history department I know of. I am slowly working on collating my various posts on historical methods that I hope can be a ready reference in future whenever I am asked the question again.



Simon Gathercole’s Failure to Address Mythicism: (#5)

The abstract to Simon Gathercole’s article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus begins

The present article seeks to show that the case for the mythical Jesus is seriously undermined by the evidence of the undisputed Pauline epistles. By way of a thought experiment, these letters are taken in isolation from other early Christian literature, and are discussed in dialogue with mythicist scholarship. (183, my emphasis)

Unfortunately it has been all too easy for me in the previous posts to demonstrate that Gathercole’s article has failed to engage in dialogue with mythicist scholarship, and that it instead seriously misrepresents the scholarship that it attributes to mythicism. We have seen that two points he claims undermine mythicism are

  • that “born of a woman” is a common expression as seen in the Book of Job and Sirach, an indisputable reference to the historicity of Jesus, and a phrase that can only be dealt with by a “trigger-happy” resort to interpolation;
  • that Paul recognized other apostles who had been preaching the faith of Christ before him, a fact that Doherty did not know.

I have demonstrated from the work of Earl Doherty (the same work that Gathercole cited) that both claims are false. On the contrary, Doherty

  • spoke of Paul’s recognition of other apostles before him preaching the gospel of faith in Christ; and
  • demonstrates that Paul has not used the common term found in the Book of Job or Sirach and has argued his case for mythicism on the understanding that the expression “born of a woman” is authentic to Paul and not an interpolation (Doherty’s argument that the phrase is an interpolation is a speculative “extra”).

One has to wonder how an article by a highly reputable scholar making such false claims could be accepted in a peer-reviewed journal.

When a reviewer of another’s work informs his readers that the work reviewed argues the very opposite of what it really does, then one has to surely question whether or not the reviewer ever read that work with any serious attention and why the reviewer would even bother spending time on such misleading articles.

We saw how Daniel Gullotta committed many similar errors in his review of Carrier’s work, failing to notice that Carrier did not argue what Gullotta claimed he did, and at other times Carrier did indeed say what Gullotta asserted he had not. We have seen similar falsehoods published in books by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. (Again, all erroneous claims have been documented in posts on this blog.) If Simon Gathercole really had read Carrier’s book (I don’t mean just skimmed, pausing at selected pages here and there) then he would have known that Gullotta’s review fell a long way short of being

One of the best recent critiques [noting] some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume. (185)

(Anyone who is interested to know where Gullotta repeatedly failed to understand or even failed to read much of Carrier’s book that he reviewed should see my carefully documented critique.)

One of the main reasons I am writing these posts is to endeavour to point out to those scholars who are genuinely interested in engaging with mythicist arguments that so far they are not engaging with them at all, not even when they write criticisms for peer-reviewed journals, that more often than not they are advertising their ignorance of mythicist arguments even though they claim to have read their books in full. If mainstream scholars want to persuade members of the general public then they cannot rely upon ad hominem or careless misrepresentation. By doing so they are continuing to alienate themselves from those who have serious questions about the historicity of Jesus.

To put the matter beyond any doubt 

After his “born of woman” discussion Gathercole writes read more »

Addressing Simon Gathercole’s “Historical and Human Existence of Jesus” (#1)

To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence.Mark Goodacre, 2002 (82)
Simon Gathercole

Simon Gathercole has had an article published behind the paywall of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus opposing the idea that the Jesus figure of the New Testament originated as a theological and literary concept and in favour of the idea that he had a historical existence. Gathercole is addressing the evidence in the Pauline corpus, being titled, “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.”

Gathercole opens with a statement that seems to run against certain claims of others (viz Ehrman, Hurtado, McGrath et al) who have argued against mythicism:

“Mythicism”, the view that there never was a Jesus of history, has in recent years attracted increasing interest from scholars. This interest is a positive development, not only because of the increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship, but even more importantly because of growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public.

There has been an “increasing interest from scholars”? There have been “increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship”? There has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public”? Outright denial of the first two statements has at times been used by scholars and their public backers as a reason to dismiss the questions raised by mythicist arguments. Perhaps Gathercole is thinking of critics of mythicism in his first claim such as James McGrath, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, Daniel Gullotta. But it is unusual to hear from a critic that mythicists are making “increasing attempts to engage with scholarship”. In fact, mythicist arguments that have most impressed me are those that have engaged with mainstream historical Jesus scholarship from the outset: e.g. works of Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, R. M. Price. As for the final point, that “more importantly” there has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public” one does have to wonder why current scholarly publications addressing such a “problem” are not made freely available to the public.

Simon Gathercole’s abstract to his article contains the following:

Attention to the language of the birth, ancestry and coming of Jesus demonstrates the historicity and human bodily existence of Jesus. There is also information about his ministry, disciples, teaching and character in the epistles which has been neglected. Paul’s letters, even taken alone, also show the Herodian timeframe of Jesus’ ministry.

And that’s where my opening quotation from Mark Goodacre (made in the context of the Q debate) enters the picture. Gathercole unfortunately does not address the core arguments of mythicists (from Drews to Couchoud to Wells to Doherty to Price) that argue for Paul’s view of an ahistorical figure of Jesus. He does partially address one idiosyncratic suggestion by a more recent scholarly mythicist which we will address later. Gathercole’s essay focuses almost exclusively on an expansion of the passages used by scholars to argue against mythicism (let’s for convenience call them “historicists” in this post) but without addressing the primary arguments of mythicists to the contrary, and therefore without anticipating what mythicists might say in reply to his expansions of the historicists’ position.

It may help if I set out my own cards on the table for all to see before we start.  read more »

Final (#3) post responding to O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Three posts will be enough. The first one responding to Tim O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet on his History for Atheists site is

The second is

In the first post we presented a case that there is no evidence to support the common and longstanding claim among scholars of Christian origins that Jews of the Palestinian region, whether Judaea or Galilee, were agonizing for liberation from the Roman yoke and the promise of God’s rule to punish the oppressors and exalt the oppressed and as a result were a ready audience for any apocalyptic prophet who came along to declare such an event was imminent.

In the second post we attempted to argue that it is unsafe for a historian to place strong confidence in one particular interpretation of a disputed Greek term and to take sides in an ongoing debate among theologians.

In this post I want to zero in on the most fundamental flaw that lies at the heart of all attempts to decipher the historical nature of person Jesus through the canonical gospels. They all work from the assumption that the gospels are indebted to oral reports or memories about the historical Jesus, at least to some extent, for their narrative portrayal of Jesus.

At this point we cannot go wrong by turning to the 2012 words in Bible and Interpretation of a renowned “Old Testament” scholar, Philip Davies:

I cannot resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus — these mostly on the internet and blogosphere, and so confined to a few addicts, but the issue has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally. Shortly before his death, Robert Funk had approached me about the possibility of setting up the equivalent of a ‘Jesus Seminar’ for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, perhaps a ‘Moses Seminar’? I couldn’t see any scope for such an exercise (and still can’t), but have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . . 

Philip Davies

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. In the first place, what does it mean to affirm that ‘Jesus existed’, anyway, when so many different Jesuses are displayed for us by the ancient sources and modern NT scholars? Logically, some of these Jesuses cannot have existed. So in asserting historicity, it is necessary to define which ones (rabbi, prophet, sage, shaman, revolutionary leader, etc.) are being affirmed — and thus which ones deemed unhistorical. In fact, as things stand, what is being affirmed as the Jesus of history is a cipher, not a rounded personality (the same is true of the King David of the Hebrew Bible, as a number of recent ‘biographies’ show).

I suggest that another gospel Jesus we can throw on the table for consideration is the only Jesus we have, the literary one created for readers of the very late first century to early and mid second century CE. With that Jesus we can assuredly identify many of the clear literary figures in the Jewish Scriptures as the raw material from which he was shaped. read more »

Response #2 to History for Atheists’ “JESUS THE APOCALYPTIC PROPHET”

The first part of my response to Tim O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet is @ Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet. There we pointed out that there is no support in our historical sources (primarily Josephus) for the common assertion that Judaeans and Galileans in the early first century were pining for an imminent overthrow of Roman rule and the establishment of a liberating Kingdom of God. In other words, the assertion that apocalyptic prophets like our gospel depictions of John the Baptist and Jesus would have been enthusiastically welcomed at that time lacks evidence.

This post addresses one more significant but (as I hope to demonstrate) flawed plank in O’Neill’s argument. I expect to address one more final point in the Apocalyptic Prophet essay in a future post.

Tim O’Neill begins the next step of his argument with the following verse and without identifying the source of his translation: 

“Has come near”, as we shall see, is a disputed translation. But O’Neill is confident that his translation is the correct one, and he even asserts without reference to any evidence that Jesus was speaking of a soon-to-be end of human oppression, not just demonic rule:

The writer of gMark does not depict Jesus explaining what he means and expects his audience to understand – here Jesus is proclaiming that the expected end time had come, that the kingship of God was close and that those who believed this and repented would join the righteous when the imminent apocalypse arrived. Far from being a prophet of doom, Jesus is depicted proclaiming this imminent event as “good news” – the relief from oppression, both human and demonic, was almost here.

Towards the end of his post O’Neill does acknowledge that some scholars do dispute the translation but he sidelines their arguments by characterizing them as “a tactic” that was plotted “in reaction” to threats against conservative doctrines, and he accuses the scholars themselves of unscholarly “wish fullfilment (sic)”, and to cap it all off he infers that Schweitzer’s arguments have so stood the test of time that they are the only ones followed by entirely disinterested scholars: read more »

Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet

On History for Atheists Tim O’Neill has set out the standard reasons for the view that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. He concludes that this particular portrayal of Jesus stands against what conservative and liberal Christians, and even “fringe Jesus Mythicists”, and “many people” generally “would like Jesus to be.” Put that way, one wonders why anyone in a field clearly dominated by academics of some form of Christian faith would find the idea at all respectable. O’Neill, however, assures us that scholars who hold this view are said to be unswayed by “any wish fullfilment (sic)”. Those who disagree are not doing genuine scholarship but looking for ways to rationalize a Jesus who fits their world view.

So Catholic scholars find a Jesus who establishes institutions, iniates (sic) sacraments and sets up an ongoing hierarchy of authority. Liberal Christian scholars find a Jesus who preaches social justice and personal improvement. And anti-theistic Jesus Mythicists find a Jesus who was never there at all.

O’Neill even uses the language of battle to defeat and lay to rest their arguments:

Now, as in Schweitzer’s time, almost all historical Jesus studies is either an endorsement of or a rear-guard action against the unavoidably powerful idea that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. . . . . But Schweitzer laid out the arguments against this tactic back in 1910 and more modern attempts to prop up this idea do not have any more strength than they had a century ago. . . . The liberal Christians of the “Jesus Seminar” have attempted a large-scale assault on the idea of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. . . . Marcus Borg has been at the forefront of these arguments . . . . Despite the rearguard actions of conservative and many progressive Christians . . . .

We are left with the image of the victorious scholar General, unswayed by any confessional or personal “wish fullfilment (sic)”, standing tall with his boot firmly planted on the defeated “wishes” of conservative and liberal Christians and fringe atheists alike.

We will see in coming posts that address O’Neill’s essay that it posits a rather crude and blunt conception of the nature of scholarly bias. Is finding a Jesus who agrees with our own world-view really the only form of bias to be expected in the pursuit of Christian origins? O’Neill’s language of warfare surely suggests it is.

O’Neill’s post is long and I have no intention of discussing every detail of it but I trust a few responses to some of its core ideas will be enough to alert readers to some of its flaws and weaknesses. In this post I want to point to a theme I have posted about many times before but will do so once more, this time with reference to what a specialist in Josephus studies has recently written about conditions in Palestine around the time of Jesus.

The setting for the popular welcome of an apocalyptic prophet 

O’Neill sets out the common view that Galilean peasants at the time of Jesus were seething with longing to be rid of their Roman oppressors and to be ruled once again “in liberty” as per the promises of their Scriptures. Thus an image is established at the outset of a population that was fertile ground for the seeds of the next apocalyptic prophets to appear on the scene, John the Baptist and Jesus. O’Neill even knows what scriptures and verses were subversively preached and emphasized and what was therefore in the minds of a critical mass of devout peasants of the day.

Devout Jews in this period had inherited a theology whereby they were the Chosen People of God who lived in the Promised Land granted to them by him. But by the time Herod Antipas came to rule Galilee, these ideas were difficult to reconcile with the realities of the average Jewish peasant’s existence.

To begin with, life for our peasant was hard. . . . it was difficult enough to scrape a living for them and their family by farming, herding or fishing, but they also had to pay heavy taxes to the Tetrarch Herod, who was the son of the hated King Herod the Great and, like his late father, a puppet ruler for the Roman Empire. This meant our peasant not only had to pay enough tax to keep Herod Antipas in luxury in his newly built capital of Tiberias – which he had named after his Roman patron, the emperor Tiberius – he also had to pay still more tax for Herod to pass on to his Roman masters. . . . . Not surprisingly, these taxes were resented and those who made a living collecting them were despised as corrupt quislings. The burden of heavy taxation meant that an increasing number of peasants had to give up farming their own land . . . . 

. . . . Just as under old Herod the Great, these men held their petty kingdoms as clients of the Roman emperor and were hated for it by most of their subjects. . . . Herod the Great’s sons were well aware of their unpopularity and also inherited their father’s talent for repression – spies were active, uprisings were crushed and troublemakers were dealt with swiftly and painfully.

But our peasant would have known that things had not always been this way. The scriptures he and his neighbours heard read and discussed each sabbath emphasised the ideas already mentioned – that as Jews they were God’s chosen and living in the land he promised to their ancestors. But in the period since the Jewish people had been conquered, dominated and often oppressed by a succession of foreign powers.

Such has been the standard view of Palestine among New Testament scholars for generations. What is the evidence for this scenario? read more »

Earl Doherty’s First Day with Biblical Scholars on Crosstalk Forum

I begin by repeating Earl Doherty’s maiden post to Crosstalk. I have colour coded different discussion threads. Links below are to the archive.org site where Earl’s Jesus Puzzle website is as it existed at the time of the Crosstalk exchange. For the current site see http://www.jesuspuzzle.com/jesuspuzzle/index.htm

I have decided to present this early conversation to allow readers to see the evidence and judge for themselves various claims that are made about the character of those early exchanges.

I was floored. Ridicule, outright insult, rude dismissal . . . all delivered with an air of smug superiority 

5011    The Jesus Puzzle

Earl D

Feb 9, 1999

On the weekend, Bill told me that he had brought the Crosstalk list’s
attention to my web site (Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle) and asked for
opinions. He sent me a selection of postings he had gotten in response. On
Monday morning, I resubscribed myself after an absence of a few months, and
read several more responses to Bill’s queries about my views and those of
other “mythicists”.

I was floored. Ridicule, outright insult, rude dismissal of any counter
argument, all delivered with an air of smug superiority that would do any
fundamentalist proud. Is this the discussion of reasonable and educated men
(I haven’t noticed any women yet), moving in the corridors of open-minded
investigation and an honest search for truth and understanding? Many of the
Crosstalkers identify themselves as members of university faculties, where
one assumes the standard is one of reasoned debate and basically courteous
discussion, even where contentious ideas are involved. Instead, the
reaction to Bill’s queries has been mostly that of snarling dogs incensed at
having their fireside chats disturbed by unorthodox inquiry. The ad hominem
attacks in several of those postings would be flattered by the word

I was floored. Ridicule, outright insult, rude dismissal of any counter
argument, all delivered with an air of smug superiority that would do any
fundamentalist proud. Is this the discussion of reasonable and educated men
(I haven’t noticed any women yet), moving in the corridors of open-minded
investigation and an honest search for truth and understanding? Many of the
Crosstalkers identify themselves as members of university faculties, where
one assumes the standard is one of reasoned debate and basically courteous
discussion, even where contentious ideas are involved. Instead, the
reaction to Bill’s queries has been mostly that of snarling dogs incensed at
having their fireside chats disturbed by unorthodox inquiry. The ad hominem
attacks in several of those postings would be flattered by the word

The theory that no Jesus of Nazareth existed at the beginning of the
Christian movement has been around for two centuries, championed by many
researchers in many countries over the years, some of them respected
scholars, long before Wells or myself. Outright “loony” ideas don’t usually
have that kind of shelf life. The myth theory is there, and refuses to go
away, and the fact that it exists in a charged field like religion does not
justify it being denied the respect it might deserve. After all, we would
surely condemn any physicist, any anthropologist, any linguist, any
mathematician, any scholar of any sort who professes to work in a field that
makes even a partial bow to principles of logic and scientific research who
insisted on ignoring, vilifing, condemning without examination a legitimate,
persistent theory in his or her own discipline. There are tremendous
problems in New Testament scholarship, problems that have been grappled with
for generations and show no sign of getting any closer to solution.
Agreement is lacking on countless topics, and yesterday’s theories are being
continually overturned. Scholarly commentaries are shot through with words
like “riddle”, “puzzling”, “insoluble.” Some documents are said to “lead to

Sorry, I don’t mean to turn this into a lecture, but if any of you would
take an honest and open-minded look at some of my site you might find
material that would at least give some food for thought. Two members of the
Jesus Seminar, Darrell Doughty and Robert Price, were impressed enough with
it that they invited me to write an original article for their Journal of
Higher Criticism (out of Drew University). Both of them have brought up my
name and observations at Jesus Seminar meetings on a couple of occasions.
That Journal article appeared in the Fall 1997 issue, and is now reprinted
on my site. It would be a good intro to the essentials of the Jesus-as-myth
theory, particularly my own arguments for it, which differ substantially
from those of Wells in important respects. I’ll quote the direct URL for it
at the end of this.

I’ll also quote a couple of other articles on the site which I regard as
especially cogent. While I hardly claim to be an expert in every aspect of
biblical research (is there anyone here who would be that presumptuous?), I
would be willing to let a few of the efforts now on my site (my analysis of
Hebrews, for example, or my consideration of contemporary Platonism and
hellenistic mythological thinking (in Article 8) as it may shed light on
what Paul actually believed) stand beside anything produced in these
areas–always allowing for the fact that I’ve aimed partly for the
understanding of the general, uninitiated reader. Those of you who take the
trouble to look at them are certainly free to challenge me, hopefully with a
modicum of professionalism and common human decency.

One of the things that has struck me in reading responses to Bill is the
general lack of understanding even of the basic principles of the
non-existence of Jesus theory. This, of course, is due to the disdainful
and knee-jerk dismissal of the very idea which is commonly accorded it. It
seems to me that if you seriously want to cope with this stubborn theory
which refuses to go away and which is gaining wider currency even in the
general population (if you hadn’t noticed), you owe it to yourselves and
your discipline (I won’t say your confessional beliefs) to investigate the
matter a little more thorougly, so as to offer a more reasoned and effective
response to it.

What also surprised me was the rejection, or ignoring, by many of
well-established views within standard liberal scholarship, such as the
widespread rejection, or at least questioning, of the authenticity of 1
Thessalonians 2:15-16. Labelling this an interpolation is not exactly some
arbitrary crackpot idea of my own. Pearson is ably seconded by such as
Mack, Koester, Meeks and Brandon. One cannot simply ignore a body of voices
like that when seeking to heap scorn on myself. Another case is failing
even to acknowledge the view held by many (such as Norman Perrin, whom I
highly respect and regret the early death of) that Paul’s so-called “words
of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians are not a drawing on any body of Jesus’
earthly teaching in circulation, but are personal communications he believes
he has received from Christ in heaven, something postulated as a common
feature of the early prophetic movement. The same goes for the common
interpretation of 1 Cor. 2:8’s “rulers of this age” as referring to the
demon spirits (which is one of the cornerstones of my argument). Not even
to take such trends within one’s own discipline into account in one’s
arguments (even if you don’t agree with them) is hardly the mark of honest
and up-to-date investigation and debate.

Some of what was written by a couple of people against Bill was
unconscionable in a milieu that professes to be dedicated to reasoned and
scientific discussion of historical questions, and I am reminded of a
comparison I made to the fundamentalist J P Holding who attacked my views.
I called his attention to a short piece of music by the American composer
Charles Ives, called “The Unanswered Question.” Against a quiet orchestral
backdrop, a serene trumpet asks a musical question which a chorus of flutes
at first calmly and confidently answers, but when the questioner continues
to restate his query several times (evidently because the answer is
inadequate) the flute contingent gradually degenerates into nattering,
scoffing, sneering hyenas choking on their own scorn. (I recommend the
Leonard Bernstein performance.) I guess Ives’ flutes can be found just
about anywhere, and their snarling has often managed to drawn out many a
questioning voice.

Before they drown me out, on this listserver anyway, I’ll make a posting
or two in the next couple of days (nothing too long) to respond to a few
points raised by several of you. Jeff Peterson made the sole considered,
reasonable response, I think, and I’ll address him first, then add a few
things raised by others. I’m not overly determined to get into an extended
debate (especially on a daily basis), but if one develops I won’t engage in
anything which isn’t at least moderately polite. That doesn’t mean one
can’t be provocative and challenging, but some base level of decency and
respect can surely be expected and maintained.

And I hope Bill will continue to make his voice heard and give me some
support. It is sometimes an advantage to be outside a discipline and heavy
study in it, and evaluate something simply on the basis of one’s own
reasoning capacity and innate primal instinct.

Earl Doherty

The Jesus Puzzle: <http://www.magi.com/~oblio/jesus.html>
Article for the Journal of Higher Criticism: …/jesus/jhcjp.htm>
Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus? …/jesus/supp03.htm>
Article No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel: …/jesus/supp06.htm>
Article No. 8: Christ as “Man”: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person? …jesus/supp08.htm>

The solution is not necessarily peeling away the onion layers

5012    Re: The Jesus Puzzle

Jack Kilmon

Feb 9, 1999

Earl D wrote:

> The theory that no Jesus of Nazareth existed at the beginning of the
> Christian movement has been around for two centuries, championed by many
> researchers in many countries over the years, some of them respected
> scholars, long before Wells or myself.

Having been pretty busy lately, I have missed this thread and others’responses.
Since I am one of those to whom you refer with:

> It is sometimes an advantage to be outside a discipline and heavy
> study in it, and evaluate something simply on the basis of one’s own
> reasoning capacity and innate primal instinct.

Having reviewed the articles on your site, on the surface, there arethings with
which I disagree but will take the time to study the articles
(which I have printed) and respond on each of the 12 “pieces of the puzzle.”

At the very least, I agree..like most, that the historical Jesus is so
overlain with mythological strata the germinal layer will never be fully
exposed. The solution to this, however, is not necessarily peeling away
all the layers of the onion, leaving nothing.


It is utterly UN-reasonable to suggest that Jesus did not exist.
5013    please….

Jim West

Feb 9, 1999

It is utterly UN-reasonable to suggest that Jesus did not exist. Such
silliness has no place on an academic list. Perhaps discussions of the
non-existence of Jesus belong on the same lists as discussions of UFO
abductions, alien autopsies, and the like. Indeed, a new list should be
started by those interested in such things and it can be called

The net is filled with crackpots, loons, and various shades of insane folk
who spout their views and expect people to take them seriously. And when
they dont get taken seriously they get mad.

Sorry to sound a little irritated- but Bill and his “voice behind the
curtain” have simply repeated old junk which has been dealt with in the
history of scholarship already. Why must we reinvent the wheel every time
someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.

(oh yes, I have visited the web page advertised— very pretty- yet filled
with nonsensical non sequiters). Life is too short to rehash garbage.




Jim West, ThD
Quartz Hill School of Theology

Hmmm…. Now this is bizarre reasoning

read more »

The Day Earl Doherty (author of ‘The Jesus Puzzle’) Personally Entered the Global Forum

Earl Doherty, author the The Jesus Puzzle website, The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus Neither God Nor Man and other books, and contributor to The Journal of Higher Criticism, made his “public appearance” on a biblical scholars forum on Tuesday, the 9th of February, 1999: Crosstalk. In the light of some unfortunate mischaracterizations of the tone of Earl’s engagement with scholars and the wider public I have decided to post the lead up to Earl’s entrance into that web forum and the initial responses of scholars to his presence. This post only looks at the first half of that intention and concludes with the entrance of Earl to Crosstalk. The next post in this series will set out the posts demonstrating the way the different parties responded to his arrival.

Bill2200 started it.

It was a Thursday, 4th February 1999 when he did it. He posted the 4891st post to the Crosstalk forum, a forum for scholarly discussion among biblical scholars. He chose as the title of his post,

A man or a myth?

and this is what he wrote:

Hello. I’m new to Crosstalk and may not stick around long, but am hoping
someone can help me out here. I’m interested in the historical Jesus. Did such
a person actually exist? I’ll refer you to Earl Doherty’s work at:The basic argument, for those unfamiliar with it, is this: The NT epistles,
all the other 1st century non-canonical Christian writings and most of the
writings well into the 2nd century say nothing of an earthly Jesus: no
ministry, miracles, holy places, Mary & Joseph, the trial, the passion, etc.
The most plausible explanation for this is that Jesus started out as an
entirely divine entity, just like all the other gods in all the other
religions of the day. The idea of a historical human founder was a later
development in Christian mythology.So . . . is Doherty onto something here? I’ve read the lengthy rebuttal given
by Christian apologist J. P. Holding (Doherty provides a link), and it’s
rather feeble. I’ve read articles on Josephus and Doherty’s rebuttal. It’s
fairly obvious that the Testimonium Flavianum is a bad joke which offers not
one iota of support for a historical Jesus. The smaller Josephus reference is
better, but a far cry from compelling evidence.Most people posting messages here would seem to agree that the gospels are
loaded with fiction. To argue a mythical Jesus requires assuming the gospels
are ALL fiction—in other words, just like every other story of every
other god in every other religion in all of history. Is there anything
implausible about this?So help me out here! I like Doherty’s arguments, but am not a scholar and
can’t say whether his premises are true or whether he has been misleading or
has omitted significant information. Thanks in advance for any insightful

And that’s who started it. We learn later that his surname is Paulson.

The first response was from Jim West (who still seems to have some difficulty making an informed response)

Jim West

At 10:33 AM 2/4/99 -0500, you wrote:

>Hello. I’m new to Crosstalk and may not stick around long, but am hoping
>someone can help me out here. I’m interested in the historical Jesus. Did such
>a person actually exist?


Yes, Jesus relly existed. Arguments (really pseudo arguments) to the
contrary notwithstanding.




Jim West, ThD
Quartz Hill School of Theology

Next came Antonio:

Antonio Jerez
Feb 4, 1999

No, Doherty is definitely not into something here. And I’m definitely no
Christian apologist, since I’m no Christian – but I still believe that the
mass of data show that a galilean prophet by the name of Jesus was
crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of a roman governor around 30 A.D.
And let’s leave Josephus out of this for a moment. You don’t really need
the Testimonium Flavianum or the notice about James execution to
be practically certain that Jesus really existed and died the way the NT
claims. You just need a little common sense and some knowledge about
the Messianic ideas that were in vogue in Palestine around year 0. There
simply wasn’t any expectations about the coming of a SUFFERING and
CRUCIFIED Messiah. The last thing a jew would have invented if he wanted
to missionize in Palestine around that time was a dead Messiah, specially
one crucified by Israels enemies. The simple fact is that the Jesus movement
one day found itself with a very dead leader. This terrible fact they had to
explain to both themselves and to other Jews. So next they started searching
the Scriptures for clues and “found” them in places like the Servant songs
of Isaiah, Psalm 22 and the Wisdom of Solomon. Also remember that the
ancient Jews read the OT much like many moderns read the prophecies
of Nostradamus – EVERYTHING about the fate of the world, from beginning
to end, can be found there if God opens your eyes to the mysteries.

Best wishes

Antonio Jerez

Next, Stevan Davies

Stevan Davies
Feb 4, 1999

Absolutely. You have Paul testimony from 50 AD that he knows of

Jesus AND, against wierd theories that Paul made him up, Paul’s
testimony about his relationships to James Peter John whom other
sources indicate knew Jesus personally. Not to mention lots of other
Paul references to people who were adherents of Jesus and who were
so prior to meeting Paul. So if Jesus were invented
it wasn’t Paul who invented him but X the unknown who did so
a considerable period before. It’s just silliness.Steve

Tom Simms
Feb 4, 1999

Then Tom Simms

On Thu, 4 Feb 1999 16:45:11 -0400, miser17@… writes:
Right on, Steve,
.. but don’t say God raised him from the dead and turned him into
some kind of a spirit and all that hocus pocus stuff. The
personal appearances recorded were not imagination. You know
how Meso-America works! The appearances’ effect turned a mob
running away afraid of their shadows into a group who knew
something they’d not known before. They didn’t get the
facts straight but they got a great message – and they really
ran with it!

Tom Simms

Followed by Stephen Carlson

Stephen C. Carlson
Feb 4, 1999

At 10:33 AM 2/4/99 EST, Bill2200@… wrote:

>The basic argument, for those unfamiliar with it, is this: The NT epistles,
>all the other 1st century non-canonical Christian writings and most of the
>writings well into the 2nd century say nothing of an earthly Jesus: no
>ministry, miracles, holy places, Mary & Joseph, the trial, the passion, etc.

Why are the gospels excluded from this august list of documents? The basic
argument is circular: there is no earthly Jesus because all of a select
list writings say nothing of an earthly Jesus. What was Doherty’s selection
criterion? Apparently, those documents that do not saying anything about
the earthly Jesus. But then there’s a pesky NT epistle, 1 Thess. 2:14-15,
which states that the Jews killed the Lord Jesus, an earthly event.
Predictably, Doherty dismisses this passage as an “obvious interpolation.”
Doherty can only make his argument from silence work by systematically
ignoring the contrary evidence.

Stephen Carlson

Stephen C. Carlson mailto:scarlson@…
Synoptic Problem Home Page http://www.mindspring.com/~scarlson/synopt/
“Poetry speaks of aspirations, and songs chant the words.” Shujing 2.35

To all of whom Bill replied as follows:


Re: A man or a myth?

Feb 4, 1999

Thanks to everyone who has offered input so far. The responses have been
polite, if unconvincing.First, I apologize if I’m posting messages in an odd or inconvenient manner.
I’ve tried repeatedly for two weeks to post from the web site (click “Post”,
type message, click “Send”). It fails every time. I’ve sent pleas of help to
the egroups folks, who say they’re working on the problem. Meanwhile, I’ve
resorted to “posting” by sending e-mail. (Is this common? Do many others post
this way?)

From Antonio: read more »

A Response to Dr Sarah, Geeky Humanist, on the Jesus Question

Dr Sarah of FreethoughtBlogs.com Geeky Humanist has posted two interesting posts in favour of the historicity of Jesus. It makes a wonderful change to read arguments on this topic that are expressed in a civil and calmly reasoned tone. Her first post is Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: an argument in favour of the latter; her more recent one, Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price. This post gives my take on her earlier essay. (All formatting and bolding in Dr Sarah’s comments is my own.)

If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers.

If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things.

Dr Sarah finds the first option the more simple one.

My first thought is that the two options are embedded in faulty, or at least questionable, assumptions. If the gospel figure of Jesus did indeed reflect the life of an ordinary person then the two horns of the dilemma are both a quandary. If, on the other hand, we pause to reflect that the earliest gospel that we believe to have been written was the Gospel of Mark, then we have quite different options. That’s because in the Gospel of Mark the Jesus figure is most unlike any ordinary human figure in ancient (or modern) literature. He is a human, of course, with brothers and sisters and a mother, and he eats and drinks. But he is unlike any other figure in works that we know to be ancient biographies or histories. He is presented to us “cold”, that is, without us having any knowledge of who the biographer is or why he is even writing about him. Without any explanation of how the author came to know anything about his life, he is depicted as engaging in conversations and activities with spirit beings both in heaven and on earth. He calls and mere mortals drop all their livelihoods in a moment and obey. He reads peoples minds and hearts. He exercises God’s prerogative to forgive sins and rules the physical elements. He talks in mysteries so none can understand, and though he explains all his mysterious messages to his disciples, even they don’t truly believe. Even his disciples are far from genuine human beings: they walk as if mesmerized into obedience to follow him at his call; they are unrealistically stupid in not recognizing his power despite seeing it demonstrated time and again; they, along with the crowds in the narrative, come and go as the author needs them, not as per any realistic plot device. In other words, Jesus is depicted in the earliest gospel as a figure of a human but certainly something trans-human. The story-line is absurd — quite against the grain of the way real people really are and how real people really respond — if read “realistically”. But if read a ciphers, or symbols, or personifications, or mouthpieces for some particular set of beliefs and doctrines, if read as a parable or symbolically, the story makes perfect sense.

We have evidence to encourage us in our view that this earliest gospel’s Jesus and disciples (and even his enemies and other persons that appear in the narrative) are far from realistic or natural. That evidence lies in the way that the subsequent evangelists (“Matthew” and “Luke” — even “John”, some would argue) changed Mark’s Jesus and disciples into somewhat more realistic figures. (“John”, on the other hand, went in the other direction and made him even less human.) “Luke” even reduces Jesus to a martyr in the tradition of the Maccabees.

With that background, the two horns of the dilemma are modified somewhat:

  • If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers.
  • If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as a parabolic or allegorical type of person who walked the face of the earth conversing with humans and spirits and did many inexplicable things and spoke in ways that his hearers did not understand.

Or maybe I should make the dilemma a triceratops with a third horn:

  • If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how two of the three canonical evangelists who followed their earliest predecessor “corrected” his account and made him and his followers a little more realistically human.

Okay, you might think I’m playing with that second option a bit too loosely. But how else might it be worded given what we know about the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus and characters generally?

Dr Sarah proceeds to set out her reasons for embracing the historicity of Jesus in five dot points. I address each one. read more »

Academic Consensus and Jesus Mythicism

I know many readers will be interested in the following.

R. G. Price (whose book I recently wrote about) has posted thoughts on the relationship between academic consensus and the question of the historicity of Jesus: Academic consensus is important, but it’s not always right.

His discussion segues into another related page, On the Origin of Jesus by Means of Mythical Propagation.


Response #4: Non Sequitur’s Tim O’Neill presentation, …. Your turn

Response #1: Motives
Response #2: No fame outside Galilee
Response #3: Ascension of Isaiah

At around 28 mins Tim says those opposed to the consensus are mythicists most of whom are not scholars and least qualified to assess this stuff.

Point 1: Tim is not a scholar either so he presumably includes himself among those who are ‘least qualified to assess this stuff’. Yet he seems to argue against mythicists from the “stuff” with a confidence that suggests he does have a superior quality to “assess this stuff”. He does not make clear why his own competence is more than enough to match those of his non-scholarly peers.

Point 2: Unfortunately I don’t know of many scholars who have actually explicitly addressed the question of the historicity of Jesus. Recall Ehrman’s claim to be the very first to do so in any comprehensive fashion. The mythicists’ complaint is that on the whole the “scholars” do not argue for the historicity of Jesus but work on other questions on the assumption that he existed. When asked to justify that assumption the responses are, too often unfortunately, logically invalid, question begging, divorced from normative scholarly approaches to sources, misrepresenting the questions posed, and…. condescending, abusive. On the principle that all authorities ought to be held to account, such responses deserve to be set aside and the question should be pursued.

About 30 mins Tim says that all of the earliest sources speak of a historical figure of Jesus and none say otherwise, so it’s reasonable to think that they say this because that’s how it started. To say otherwise is to give oneself an uphill battle. All speak of a Jesus ‘on earth’. Ebionites and Docetics.

Point 1: (I’m a bit tired this evening. I can think of three or four quite different fallacies or misconceptions with this argument that I may fill in another day. Meanwhile…. do feel free to comment with your own. Thanks.)

Point 2:

Point 3: