Tag Archives: Historicity of Jesus

“Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many”

It is S.G.F. Brandon’s fault. At least he shares much of the blame. Way back in 1967, the year of the Six Day War and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his book Jesus and the Zealots was published. Ever since then it has been de rigueur for scholars to locate the historical Jesus in a Palestine strewn willy nilly with roaming bandits, rebels and apocalyptic prophets.

In vain have I posted here and on other online discussion groups my complaint that there is simply no evidence for any of these figures in the time of Jesus, but that the only reason it is believed that such movements dotted the landscape in his time is by inferring that the zealots and prophets who appeared later (or in one case a generation earlier) were indicative of what must have being happening around the 20s and 30s CE — despite the silence in the record.

But yesterday I discovered a friend who will back me up. I don’t know him personally but I know him through his 1975 article in the journal New Testament Studies. He is Paul W. Barnett, a fellow Australian, who belonged to the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney. (He’s also a bishop, sorry.) The article he had published, and the reason I like him so much, is:

Barnett, P. W. 1975. “‘Under Tiberius All Was Quiet.’” New Testament Studies 21 (04): 564. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688500010043.

Here is his argument. From the outset he points out that

Careful analysis of the incidence of unrest and disturbance suggests that ‘revolutionary’ activity began in earnest during the Second Procuratorial period (A.D. 44-66).

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly what I have been trying to say.

What changed to bring on instability from that time on?

  • The unexpected and premature death of Agrippa and the evident paganism and philo-Romanism of his son must have dashed to the ground any hopes for a deliverer from the Hasmonean line.
  • Claudius’ initial policy was not unkind to Judaeans though this hardly compensated for the crises of the forties — the barely averted desecration of the Temple4 (A.D. 40), the death of Agrippa and the return to Roman rule which now extended to Galilee5 (A.D. 44), and the severe famine (A.D. 46-8).
  • However, the appointment as Procurator in A.D. 52 of Pallas’ brother Felixat the behest of ex-High Priest Jonathan was to prove disastrous in Jewish history. Under the procuratorship of Felix (A.D. 52-60) the terrorist activities of the Sicarii began, the prophetic movement waxed strong, whilst Graeco-Jewish relationships in Caesarea were allowed to reach a critical point.

(p. 565. My formatting in all quotations)

There was more. read more »

There are two types of Jesus mythicism. Here’s how to tell them apart.


Type 1: Scholarly
The authors engage with not only the source documents of early Christianity but they also address the scholarship that has been written about those documents. The arguments are structured around engagement with the scholarship of biblical studies, ancient history (including judaica), the classics and other related fields such as archaeology, religion, anthropology, historiography, mythology. They apply the norms of the scientific method (e.g. evidence-based, falsifiability). e.g. Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, Robert Price.

Type 2: Pseudo-Scholarly
The authors engage with the source documents but disregard the bulk of related scholarly discussion and focus primarily on interpreting them tendentiously through a conspiracy theory or other unfalsifiable pseudo-historical theory. That is, their arguments are based on an assumption (that is, there is no unambiguous evidence in support) that there are behind-the-scenes powerful and complex forces and actors manipulating or producing the evidence. The emphasis is on arguing for the “missing link” in explaining Christianity and little to no attention is given to addressing alternative explanations in the scholarship for the evidence used. e.g. Christianity as an invention by Roman imperial powers; a strain of astrotheological beliefs dominated secret mystery religions and morphed into Christianity; Christian teachings began and were preserved in some form though centuries, even millennia, before being re-written in the gospels.

What do you think? Do those two “definitions” cover it? I’m sure the wording can be tidied.


Response #2 to the Non Sequitur program: “Not even the gospels say Jesus was famous outside Galilee”

From Wikiwand

For the previous response and a link to the Non Sequitur video see Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES.

At about the 49th minute of the Non Sequitur program Tim O’Neill makes the following claim:

Even if you look at what the gospels say about Jesus — and these are the gospels, by the way, that are trying to boost how significant and important he was — when we look at what they say about Jesus, they’re not actually making terribly big claims. The Gospel of Mark, for example, says he became really famous, he was doing these miracles, he became really famous, he was famous throughout the whole of… Galilee! You can walk across Galilee in a day in a nice afternoon at a brisk pace. So he became really famous across the whole of Galilee. It’s a bit like saying he became famous across the next six city blocks. So they’re not actually making a big claim for him to be famous at all. The Gospel of Matthew takes that bit (and he’s using the Gospel of Mark as his source) so the writer of Matthew tries to pump it up a bit and says he was also famous in Judea and Transjordan and the ten cities of the Decapolis and throughout the whole of Syria. So he’s trying to pump it up. But even in the gospels they don’t depict him as being terribly famous outside his back yard, and Galilee was a backwater even by Jewish standards, and Judea, generally, was a backwater by Greek and Roman standards. So even the gospels don’t make him out to be terribly famous. And remember I just mentioned about Theudas and the Egyptian prophet needing to have their followers dispersed by large bodies of Roman troops. Even the gospels make it clear that in their version of the story that Jesus was arrested by a handful of temple guards; there was a bit of a scuffle and not much happened. Even the gospels aren’t making him out to be terribly famous. So, do we have evidence that this guy was famous even in the Christian material? The answer is ‘no’.

Here is the Gospel of Matthew’s “pumped up” claim since the Gospel of Mark limited Jesus’ fame to Galilee:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. — Matthew 4:23-25

Here is how the Gospel of Mark, according to Tim, limited Jesus’ fame to “the six blocks” of Galilee:

And Jesus with his disciples withdrew to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and from Judaea, and from Jerusalem and from Idumaea, and beyond the Jordan, and about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, hearing [a]what great things he did, came unto him. — Mark 3:7-8

Jesus mistakenly thought he could hide if he left Galilee but Mark says he was wrong: read more »

Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES

Last weekend I watched Tim O’Neill present his arguments against the idea that there was no historical Jesus. I said I would respond in a post to his points and expected to cover it all in one or two sessions. But time is getting away from me this evening so here I will address just one point, Tim’s opening claims.

Tim begins by arguing that mythicism is appealing because it pulls the rug out from Christianity.

My response:

I am not interested in and do not refer in my comments to conspiracy theorists and cult-like following of a certain kind of mythicism that I equate more with interest in aliens, UFOs, Holy Grail, type theories. I am referring to the serious scholarly stuff led by the likes of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie and Carrier who ground their research and arguments in the publication of biblical and other recognized scholars.
  • I don’t know of any evidence to support that claim, the claim that, in general, people who are attracted to the mythicist viewpoint do so because they are motivated by some anti-Christian animus. No doubt. In fact, the evidence that I have been able to collate suggests that this is not true.  Some mythicist authors have in fact expressed the deepest respect for Christianity (e.g. Francesco Carotta, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Hermann Detering, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Tom Harpur, Edward van der Kaaij, Robert M. Price).
  • Some mythicists have even remained Christians after embracing mythicism and it is through acknowledgement of Jesus as a “mythical” creation they find deeper meaning in their faith (e.g. Thomas Brodie, Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).
  • I do not recall reading a single scholarly mythicist work that attacks Christianity as a faith. One of the most prominent warriors against Christianity is John Loftus and he has said that arguing mythicism would be the worst way to try to turn someone away from Christianity. I have posted the same thoughts here. Tim O’Neill tells us that Richard Carrier has said the same. So I don’t know if anyone is seriously attempting to attack Christianity by means of arguing that Jesus did not even exist. (No doubt there are some less well informed people who do this sort of thing, or I assume there must be in a universe as vast as ours, but I am speaking throughout of those who are focused on the scholarly arguments for mythicism by such authors as Brodie, Carrier, Doherty, RM Price and RG Price, Detering, Lataster, Fitzgerald, Ellegard, Wells, Parvus, Onfray and such.)
  • Further, if many who are attracted to mythicism are already atheists, then it hardly seems likely that they are motivated by a desire to find pretexts to undermine Christianity. I suppose some atheists are on a vendetta against Christianity, but not even the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens used mythicism as a deadly cudgel. They did nothing more than refer to its possibility in passing and with some diffidence. They certainly held back from using it as serious weapon.

read more »

A constructive exchange with Tim O’Neill on the question of the historicity of Jesus

Tim O’Neill has given up much of his time to write a detailed post (over 8,700 words) as a guide for non-historians to find their way through the mass of nonsense on the web about Jesus never having existed.

Tim is responding to posts by biologist PZ Myers who is asking questions of a “professional historian” (with a degree from Cambridge, Tim stresses), Eddie Marcus. In this post I address his references to historical methods and to the question of the power (or not) of Christian bias. (Maybe another day when I am at a loose end and looking for another idle time-filler I’ll address the second part of Tim’s post.)

Do ancient historians rely upon late sources?

Early in his post Tim laments the way some listeners of Eddie Marcus’s discussion seemed to pre-judge what he was saying and miss his point. (As with my previous post I will try to replace the original unhelpful language with more neutral or constructive phrasing — italics and square brackets.)

One [commenter], “weylguy”, [wrote] “I stopped watching the video around the 3:00 mark, when the ‘historian’ claimed that the New Testament is “wonderful evidence.’” If “weylguy” had [listened] a few seconds more, he would have heard Marcus explain that the gospels are great evidence for what the communities of believers they were written for believed about Jesus, not [that] they were necessarily evidence about the historical figure of Jesus.

I think Tim is being overly generous to Eddie here and that weylguy’s comment was not so far removed from Eddie’s meaning.

Eddie Marcus is stating over and over how he would love to have such evidence for the subjects he studies and he is not talking about the study of an obscure community of Christians around 100 CE. He is obviously talking about the evidence we have for the study of Jesus Christ as a historical person. He explains that the beliefs of that late community are “best explained” by the “fact” of the historicity of Jesus and clearly wants listeners to believe that those gospels are indeed therefore “very good” evidence, even “enviable evidence”, for Jesus’ existence. (Mythicists themselves say the gospels are “good evidence” for what the later communities believed. But we find here another assumption creeping in and determining the argument’s conclusion: the Jesus and other characters in the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, are so “unrealistic” and evidently very often theological ciphers that we cannot presume their original readers understood them as historical anyway.)

Listen to the video around that 3 minute mark to check this out for yourself.

Further, I know of no study of ancient history that does not stress the absolute importance of contemporary sources (not ones a generation or more later). Yes, many of our surviving historical documents are from much later times but the sources the historians rely upon are those in which they can find a reliance upon sources, usually identified and testable in some way, that do go back to the times being narrated. See, for example, Comparing Sources for Alexander and Jesus; also The evidence of ancient historians.

Little informed discussion of how historical method works

Tim continues: read more »

The Phlogiston Jesus

Fourcroy (Wikipedia): “There are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.”

PZ Myers: A consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 200 years ago there was a consensus phlogiston existed. The key thing is: show me the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this.

(From video discussion with Eddie Marcus; see also transcript/paraphrase.)


Tim O’Neill: If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like Maurice Casey, Zeba Crook, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Funk, Jeffrey Gibson, Michael Goulder, Amy Jill Levine, Gerd Ludemann, Jack Miles, Christina Petterson, Alan Segal and Geza Vermes. None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have most of these scholars ever published or publicly stated a view about mythicism, either for or against. Nor have they all even published a perspective on the historical Jesus, either. It is probably fair to say, however, that in their writings they all have, when and where relevant, embraced the assumption of a historical Jesus.

And to [suggest] that these scholars are simply too unimaginative or too timid to examine and accept the idea that there was no Jesus at all is [without foundation]. [Some of these names are] the leading proponents of conceptions about Jesus and the origins of Christianity that are so much at odds with orthodox Christian ideas that conservative Christian apologists write whole books warning their faithful to beware of their supposedly wild and radical theories. . . . So if [some] leading non-Christian scholars are so shackled to the Christian idea of a historical Jesus because of the vast influence on them of Christian culture, [we need to explain why] this highly Christian influence [appears to be] so narrowly focused and selective. Why is it only on the question of Jesus’ existence that this supposedly pervasive Christian orthodoxy has such influence on these non-Christian scholars, but not any other ideas? How is it that this supposed Christian control only works on the historicity of Jesus, but somehow fails completely on topics such as the rejection of Jesus as

  • a Jewish apocalypticist,
  • or the promotion of the Farrer Thesis over the Two Source Hypothesis
  • or conservative views on the dates and authorship of the gospels
  • or any of the dozens of other issues on which the scholarship is sharply divided between non-Christians and orthodox Christian scholars?

Why can and do these scholars present Jesus as

  • a Jewish preacher,
  • a charismatic hasid
  • or a Cynic-style sage

– all ideas substantially at odds with Christian orthodoxy – yet baulk at the idea that he did not exist? . . . It makes no sense that this supposedly powerful cultural bias would only affect non-Christian scholars on historicity and not across a much wider range of disputed topics.

(From O’Neill, Tim. 2018. “PZ Myers and ‘Jesus Agnosticism.’” History for Atheists (blog). September 29, 2018. https://historyforatheists.com/2018/09/pz-myers-and-jesus-agnosticism/.)

I have replaced words in Tim’s original post that I believe are not in the best interests of a sober discussion (some contain rhetorical flourishes laced with unprofessional attitudes; some are sweeping, misleading or incorrect statements) with my own hopefully more neutral words in square brackets and italics. The bolded highlighting and dot-formatting is my own.

Tim’s question is clearly intended to be rhetorical but actually a little reflection on PZ Myers’ reference to the scientific consensus on phlogiston will suggest a ready answer. read more »

Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it

I’ve been thinking through how best to complete the second part of my post, Atheists Do Not Understand Religion, trying to figure out the clearest way to present the results of the anthropological research which means trying to get them ever more clear in my own mind first. At the same time I have found myself attempting to apply these particular ways humans work to understanding the answer to the question of why some atheists are so hostile towards Jesus mythicism.

I was working towards an understanding back in March this year but what I have read again in Boyer’s book I think has helped crystallize my understanding with a theoretical or research backing.

We “essentialize” things. Or the words used by Boyer are “essentialist” thinking and “essences”. So in many cultures there is something about, say, blacksmiths that makes them essentially different from “respectable society”. There is some indefinable internal quality about blacksmiths that make them different from everyone else, that makes it unthinkable that your daughter would ever marry one (unless you yourself are a blacksmith). Boyer speaks of an “essentialist inference system” that applies to the way we recognized different classes of objects and even groups of people.

One of the “essences” that many atheists see characterizes their “group identity” as atheists is a sense that they are smarter, more intelligent, more reasonable, than other groups of people who believe in angels and miracles. One essential difference perceived between the two is that the atheist sees himself accepting of the world’s scientific heritage while others either reject much of it outright (young earth creationists) or at least accept it only with qualifications (evolution but with God’s guiding finger).

Other groups that contain the same essential quality of rejecting established scientific and scholarly wisdom are holocaust deniers, flat-earthers, moon-landing deniers, anti-vaccers.

What they all have in common, or the “essential” difference between them all and the atheist, is that they all reject some plank of the scholarly wisdom as established in the trusted centers of learning, public universities and research centres.

One constant that has come through loud and clear from atheists who scoff at the very idea that anyone would claim Jesus did not exist is their pointing to “what the scholars say”. They appeal, always, to the mainstream intellectual academy, and its “consensus”. That appeal, I think, is a constant. We even see some biblical scholar comparing the rejection of the beliefs marking their field of study with the rejection of evolution among biologists or paleontologists.

I think what is happening when certain atheists ridicule or deplore Jesus mythicists is they are intuitively “essentializing” them with the same classes of people who reject the mainstream scholarly institutions in favour of their own idiosyncratic views about the shape of the earth or how old it is and how life got here.

We know they do equate mythicists with such people because they say so openly. But I think many others of us have never understood quite why they do and we have tended to think that if only they heard the arguments they would see things our way. But it doesn’t work like that, does it.

We know they will sometimes listen to the arguments but then reject them outright, often misrepresenting some of them in return. What is going on here?

Boyer also speaks of “coalitional” intuitions. We seek out coalitions that bring likely reward and reduce likely costs in our lives. And sometimes this means that we have to rationalize away certain assumptions about our “essentialist” thinking with other groups:

Now Fang lineages span territories so huge that everybody has lineage “cousins” they seldom interact with. In these rare cases, essentialist understandings of lineage would suggest that you can trust them anyway (these people are the same substance as you are, you know their personality type and therefore their reactions) whereas coalitional intuitions would recommend caution (since this is a first-time interaction and will probably remain a one-time event, why should they do you any favors?). People in such cases generally follow their coalitional intuitions but then reconcile this with their essentialist concepts by saying that they are not in fact certain that these people really belong to their lineage.

(Boyer, Religion Explained, p. 289)

We find ad hoc reasons to reject evidence that contradicts our interests. Atheists who see themselves as “bright” or at least intelligent enough to know God is not real and that genuine knowledge is found in the halls of academic and research institutions will as a rule side with those institutions to maintain their self-image or identity. Evidence that would otherwise lead them to challenge such a position is rationalized away.

Yet there are indeed a good many academics themselves who do indeed question the historical existence of Jesus, or are at least open to the possibility that there was no such figure. We have seen most recently PZ Myers “come out” here; others we know of are Jerry Coyne, Hector Avalos, Philip R. Davies, Paul Hopper, Burton Mack, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greta Christina, Michel Onfrey, Thomas Brodie, Kurt Knoll, Arthur Droge…. and others. I believe what is happening here is that a good number of people long embedded within the institutions of academe know full well just how flakey some scholarship can be and they do not hold the same unqualified reverence for all its branches and persons as many outsiders do.


The more things change . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of page 38 is mere wild assertion. . . .
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Neil the Pettifogger?

This morning I was slightly surprised by a criticism of my posts, in particular with reference to PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods, that I make sophistic distinctions and nuances, or that I quibble over precise meanings for the sake attacking an otherwise very evidently sound and sensible argument. I know Tim O’Neill has indicated that he certainly thinks that is what I do with his posts, but I was a little surprised that someone else should make the same charge.

Godfrey is okay sometimes, but he seems to pettifog too much and comes across as uncharitable. Reading his articles is sometimes a chore. I didn’t read the whole thing, I stopped after I became annoyed. Example:

. . . .

Second example soon after:

//No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works…[more words]//

Ok, clearly Tim means that they are assuming Jesus to be/depicting Jesus as if he were a real human being who lived in the past, i.e., a historical figure, despite whatever theological interpretive overlay, legendary embellishments, etc., they spun on their ideas about Jesus.

I responded that I did not see my point as pettifogging but as a concern to ensure the discussion is governed by clear thinking. But I did wonder. Obviously some readers do see me as a nitpicker. And it’s not only Tim.

In the example I have cited I can well understand the critic’s point of view. Yes, certainly, the evangelists did place Jesus in a historical setting and gave him a historical biography. In hindsight I see that I would have been smarter to have made it known that I clearly understood that point before hitting the point of disagreement.

My disagreement was with the way Tim’s point was expressed. The problem as I see it is that to say “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin (of Christianity)” is a subtle question-begging interpretation of the sources and not a strictly correct or objective way to portray the gospels. That’s why I saw the point as a problem of unclear thinking. We need to sift out question-begging and casual conventional assumptions (even if they are common among biblical scholars themselves) and set them aside whenever we are addressing the actual data before us.

I suspect that my critic is so very entrenched in the conventional assumptions about the gospels that it is very difficult for him to see that they are indeed a question-begging interpretation that should be examined and tested, not casually repeated as if fact.

The data itself is a set of narratives in a historical setting and with historical biographical trappings about a character who is very obviously mythical. I mean Jesus is mythical as he is portrayed in the gospels: he talks to spirit beings and they to him, he does all sorts of miracles, returns from the dead. I’m not saying that that means there was no historical figure of Jesus behind the stories. As I pointed out in my original post the only way to find a historical figure from the gospels is to do exactly what scholarship does: make inferences about the origins and sources of the narratives and hypothesize about such a figure through those inferences. That approach, of course, has led to myriads of different historical Jesuses.

Probably at least some of the gospel authors did believe the Jesus they were depicting was historical but that is hardly a point in favour of historicity and is no grounds for saying that they explain Christianity began with a historical figure — unless we are also prepared to say that the cults of Dionysus and Heracles are portrayed as having historical founders (Dionysus and Heracles) and to say that as if we have grounds for a prima facie case that they were truly historical.

Maybe it’s a finer distinction than we might all grasp quickly. I should try to remember to clarify points of agreement and acknowledging where I understand the grounds for the view I am challenging. But at the same time I wish my posts were shorter, not longer. C’est la vie.

Okay, I skipped the first example my critic gave. Lest I be charged with self-serving misrepresentation let me address that one now, too. read more »

Enticed by a great quote & surprised by an unexpected “mythicist”

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

Yesterday I completed reading a most unexpected argument (an argument that led to the conclusion that Christianity did not originate with a historical Jesus) in a book I borrowed on the understanding it would do nothing more for me than clarify a few textual details about our early accounts of the Last Supper. I was following up sources associated with my earlier post, The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death.

I see now that if I had paid more attention to a few bibliographies of mythicists here and there on the web and to Klaus Schilling’s summaries/translations (here and here) I might have been forewarned. But I came to the name Jean Magne and some of his works in mainstream scholarly literature and had no forewarning.

The book I am talking about is From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Its Introduction arrests us with

The following pages set out the results of my investigations which started in 1945 soon after my return from captivity in Germany.

From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity (1993) consists of a partial translation of Logique des Sacrements (1989) and the complete translated text of Logique des Dogmes (1989). Anyone even slightly aware of prominent names in biblical scholarship could not fail to be somewhat impressed by the mention of Neusner in the same Introduction:

I would like to reiterate . . . my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Jacob Neusner who prompted this publication, writing to me on February 19, 1990: “I found your thesis entirely plausible. If you can get the book translated into English, I can get it published in a series I edit”, and again on April 23: “I thought your book showed how first-rate scholarship could produce a compelling and important thesis. This is why I wanted it in English”.

Earlier I had attempted to work my way through the original French text of Jean Magne’s “Les Paroles Sur La Coupe” [literally “the words on the (eucharist) cup”] and found the French very difficult indeed, so I was somewhat sympathetic to several of the infelicities in the English translation of Magne’s book in English.

The method

The first part of the book, “From Christianity to Gnosis”, focuses on the textual evidence we have (canonical gospels, Paul’s letters, the Didache) for the origins of the current ritual of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Mass. What particularly struck as I read was the author’s method. This could be epitomized by the epigraph at the beginning of Magne’s second chapter:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

My search for the author of that epigraph eventually led me to the following explanation.

Dom Maerten’s criticism highlighted the difference which exists between the historical method based on authentic, dated documents and the critical method which, like an archeologist when he excavates, has to distinguish between the various redactional layers in biblical or liturgical documents. Errors of syntax are one of the means of reconstructing the prehistory of a text in order to attain History. The historian’s shortcoming lies in his frequent inability to distinguish between two literary genres : works that have an author and works of living literature where each generation has added its contribution.

Now that little point suddenly reminded me of another work I read and wrote about last year: Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”. Revelation among many learned Judeans was not considered sealed up in a single book, but was always open to new understandings so that works in the names of certain authors multiplied. Adding to an existing text is not the same thing but it is similar. Did not the author of Revelation address this very practice when he pronounced a curse on anyone who would tamper with what he had just written — which ironically looks like something written over and around another earlier (non-Christian) text!

I cannot agree more with the first quote that speaks of the need to “reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts”. But when it comes to the particular method of reasoning as set out in the second quotation I have some niggling doubts.

So when Jean Magne showed how textual inconsistencies in the various sources appeared very much to be resolved by fitting Jesus words that he would not drink the cup again until in the kingdom back into the gathering at Bethany and not on the Passover itself just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, I was fascinated. The Last Supper ritual of the Passover evening when Jesus declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, etc. was a later addition to the Gospel of Mark. An earlier version of that gospel placed the arrest of Jesus immediately after his anointing for burial at Bethany.

I found the argument intriguing (and still do) but at the same time, and especially after many more such arguments relating to the various gospels and epistles, one is left with a very neat and very new picture of the evidence. It’s like the way the archaeologists found scattered pieces of an inscription at Tel Dan and studied to see the way they best fit together to make the most sense. Except with the texts we begin with texts that are already in one piece, only with lots of curious inconsistencies or non sequiturs in them that years of familiarity has very often hidden from us.

The point I am getting to is that after finding such nice fits by sifting out earlier from later strata one is left wishing one could find some additional independent source to test the new reconstructions. Have we built a new house of cards?

So I remain intrigued by Jean Magne’s arguments but I am also held in suspense, waiting for “the proof” to come along to confirm or demolish them. What I really would need to do, pending that moment, would be to devote considerable time and energy to a detailed study of Magne’s arguments and not simply rely upon a single reading of his book.

The overall argument

The general case Magne presents is that although our surviving gnostic texts (Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, Testament of Truth) are comparatively late, he finds that earlier Jewish and Christian texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) are best explained in places as attempts to refute the arguments that are often found in those later gnostic writings, or sometimes even advance them. The surviving forms of the gnostic works have themselves introduced efforts to rebut those earlier rebuttals. The Pseudo-Clementine writings about the contest between Simon Magus and Simon Peter may well attest to the real debates that were extant much earlier at the time of Paul and the authors of the gospels. (We know, of course, of the arguments from Roger Parvus, Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price that identify Paul with Simon Magus.)

Crucified in heaven

Before I fully grasped the extent of this argument I was struck by a passing comment on 1 Cor. 2:8 that I had posted about at length. read more »

PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods

PZ Myers has responded to some points by Tim O’Neill about the question of the historicity of Jesus and historical methods — Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment — and I cannot help but adding my own sideline remarks here. Perhaps it’s because I have only just a few hours ago completed a fascinating book by a French scholar that I did not know when I started reading would come to the conclusion that Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus. But most interestingly his argument for Christian origins was commended as worthy of study by none other than Jacob Neusner. (I will be posting about his work soon.) I have not read Tim O’Neil’s post, only PZ’s, so it’s only a few points raised by the latter that I cover here.

PZ quotes and discusses the following passage from Tim’s post:

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.

This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.

On the first paragraph, I am not sure that it is correct to charge that “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” Several mythicists authors I have cited certainly came to that conclusion through an analysis of the evidence but I don’t know which mythicist authors Tim has in mind whom he believes “base their supposition” on the existence of a form of early Christianity that lacked an idea of a historical Jesus.

The second paragraph, however, is indeed problematic and points to some confusion about the nature of many mythicist arguments and methods.

No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works.

Even most of the letters of Paul posit a Jesus and crucifixion as theological (not historical) constructs. Paul never attempts to “prove historically” that Jesus existed or was crucified. There is a passage (said to be partly inauthentic by some researchers) where he attempts to prove the resurrection by naming persons the readers are supposed to recognize as eyewitnesses. But only apologists would take his testimony as serious historical evidence for the resurrection. Others have argued that there is some kernel of truth behind Paul’s claims about the witnesses to the resurrection in that disciples had visions or became inwardly convicted, etc. But you see the problem for the historian here — we are moving away from the evidence and changing it to say something it doesn’t actually say so that it fits our preconceived model of Christian origins.

So we are reminded of a point that several ancient historians have made when addressing sound methods and that I narrowed down to just one quotation in a post a few months ago. Philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker was addressing the question of whether or not something (in this case a miracle) in the gospels really happened. He explains:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, p. 99

And that hits the nail squarely on the head.

Tim O’Neill appears to be repeating the argument for the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars that is based on a naive reading of the sources: that we should assume they are just as they appear — “biographies”, however exaggerated, of a historical figure. But Tucker is saying that this approach begs the questions. The historian’s first task is to understand why the gospel narratives were written. It is a mistake to simply assume that though they are about a mythical or theological figure and persons who behave most unlike real persons we know from history (even Pilate is depicted as very unlike his portrayal elsewhere) they must nonetheless have originated in history and transmitted through oral retellings until set down by the evangelists. To make that assumption is to sweep aside much scholarship that has indeed suggested other sources for many of the narratives in those gospels, and to sweep aside critical scholarship that has indeed questioned the biographical nature of the gospels. (And there remains the question of how ancient biographies worked anyway since not all of them, despite appearances, are really about historical figures.)

One prominent Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, Philip R. Davies, who was a pioneer of what became known derogatorily as “minimalism” in Old Testament studies — a movement that has continued to gain momentum since the 1990s and many of whose views are now mainstream — wrote the following in one of his last publications:

I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .

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.

The ‘minimalist’ approach he was referring to is nothing other than the way ancient historians (at least the scholarly reputable ones such as Moses I. Finley) work with evidence in fields other than biblical studies. I outlined his starting assumptions and questions on a webpage, In Search of Ancient Israel. I copied the main points of his discussion about faulty assumptions we bring to our reading of the biblical narratives in a blog post, too. Essentially, Davies and those who approached the history of “biblical Israel” in the same way argued that the biblical narratives must not be assumed to be based on historical events, but that such an assumption needs to be tested against other independent data. Archaeological data is not going to help us settle the question of the historicity of Jesus but one can compare other independent texts. Such a comparison will not exclude a comparison with other Greco-Roman literature in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the nature and potential purposes of the gospels. Some biblical scholars have ventured into such comparisons but some have also done so tendentiously. That’s another question that biblical scholars themselves are debating and that needs another post for a thorough treatment.

Here’s how another scholar put it:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

That’s just another way of saying what Aviezer Tucker said:

But this [did this story happen?] is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

And when a scholar sees that the evidence points to the gospels not being more widely known until well into the second century, and that by that time they had been heavily redacted, and that their narratives are clearly influenced by comparable stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and that at key points in their narratives they even appear to be deliberately targeting pre-existing beliefs that their narrative is not grounded in historical memory at all, then that scholar has a challenge ahead.

One more point. I have been attempting to get some handle on the nature of religion itself according to current anthropological and related studies. It has been a fascinating study. One point that has stood out for me is that models of how new religions start or how sects break off from mainstream religions to promote their own rituals and identities is just how infrequently such developments can be attributed simply to the appearance of a charismatic stand-alone figure who becomes the object of worship and co-creator of the universe, and how unreliable mythical explanations for the origins of their rituals and practices ever are.

As PZ Myers rightly points out, it means nothing to an atheist whether or not Jesus existed historically. (Unless the atheist is one of those idiots who likes to just pose nonsense criticisms for the sake of mocking alone.) But grappling with the evidence itself and attempting to assess it with clear-eyed and sound methods is a fascinating exploration.


Davies, Philip R. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible and Interpretation. August 2012. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml.

Davies, Philip R. 1992. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Finley, M. I. 1999. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project.

Kosso, Peter. 2001. Knowing the Past: Philosophical Issues of History and Archaeology. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Magne, Jean. 1993. From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Pr.

Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press.

See also posts archived under Ancient Historiography and Greco-Roman Biography


A scholarly hankering….

Michael Goulder

Scholars who have assumed a position over many years do not quickly recant it and publicly admit their error; nor can a novel hypothesis expect to carry the day at once in a conservative profession. It may be particularly difficult to shift opinion over texts which are fundamental to the faith of the critic. With time scholars came to treat sympathetically my arguments for the evangelists’ creativity: their freedom to create Nativity stories out of Old Testament types, and their ability to create or develop parables in line with their own stylistic and doctrinal concerns. They have been less willing to accept Matthew and Luke as embroiderers of earlier Gospel traditions, because there is a hankering after putative lost sources and oral traditions which would take us back to the historical Jesus.

And then there’s the suspicion that a challenge to fundamentals implies a questioning of scholarly integrity:

The Q hypothesis has been part of the ‘assured results of scholarship’ for more than a century, and despite my aggressive campaigning against it, it is still the standard teaching in most universities. I have over the years proposed two potent arguments in favour of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew, neither of which has been adequately criticized by defenders of Q . . . . . The puzzle to me has been why such arguments, which seem so conclusive, have failed to convince my leading opponents. I once had an uncomfortable conversation with Christopher Tuckett, with whom I have had a slightly uneasy friendship over twenty-five years. He asked me two disturbing questions: first, ‘Do you really not believe in Q, Michael?’ and second, ‘Do you think I am honest?’ as though he thought that one or other of us must be playing games, rather than seriously pursuing the truth.

Once committed….

I do think that Christopher is honest, but I am unable to understand how, after years of discussion orally and in print, he still finds the evidence I have produced so unconvincing. It was reassuring to be told by Francis Watson, when he was Professor at Aberdeen, that I had persuaded him about Q; but I think it is probably asking too much to expect those like Neirynck and Tuckett, who have nailed their colours to another mast, to be able to consider with the necessary open-mindedness a view which so undercuts their own position.

Goulder, M. D. 2009. Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. p. 134

A Bedrock Assumption in Historical Jesus Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Meyer, p. 81, my bolded emphasis)

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

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

(Meyer, p. 94, my bolding)

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

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

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

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

PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism

PZ Myers of Pharyngula has posted an interview with a historian in order to discuss The ontology of historical figures — with a particular view to the question of this historicity of Jesus.

I intend to post a critical commentary on the remarks by the historian, Eddie Marcus (I think that was the name but correct me if I misheard). Marcus may be a specialist in Australian history (again, correct me if I misheard — I will need to listen a second time as I do my review posts) and was clearly out of his depth when it came to knowledge of the breadth and depth of scholarship relating to Christian origins. Most frustrating for me was his failure to clearly conceptualize the questions, regularly slipping in and out of references to “evidence” and the assumption that the narrative characters had a historical origin == question begging in other words.

One detail I will mention here before I start …..

PZ Myers asks the very valid question: how do historians deal with now-lost oral traditions? And right there, at the very start, we are faced with the depth in which our cultural assumptions and the question itself are so difficult to view at arms length. The very idea that there were oral traditions containing variants of the gospel narratives preceding our canonical gospels is itself based on an assumption that the narratives in those gospels is “true” to some extent. The idea is that from Jesus or some sort of “easter event” stories arose that were later put down in gospels. A significant section of biblical scholarship is constantly showing the evidence that much of what we read in the gospels is not from oral tradition at all but from literary borrowings and artisanship. I have posted on some of the New Testament publications addressing the unsupported assumptions of oral tradition on this blog several times and will create easy to find archival lists of those posts as I discuss Eddie Marcus’s discussion.

Meanwhile, I left the following on PZ’s blog:

The historian being interviewed clearly has only a shallow or popular notion of New Testament scholars’ arguments about earliest Christianity and the nature of the evidence — he even admits he prefers to read the trade books by Bart Ehrman than check out the “serious research” being done. His statements about the NT evidence were grounded in assumptions and hypotheses that are simply not facts at all (as any serious look into NT studies will soon show) and his understanding of the very question appeared clouded in circular reasoning. I was reminded of many of Tim O’Neill’s straw man arguments and misrepresentations.

For what it’s worth I will be posting a series on my own blog dissecting key statements by the historian in the interview. I have often posted on this very topic, addressing the methods used by ancient historians to establish historicity, and will critique this fellow’s statements against the actual works of ancient historians themselves, and against what NT scholars themselves actually say about their evidence.

PZ — you have had discussions with Tim O’Neill. I have several times now offered to debate Tim O’Neill in any online forum on one condition: that he refrain from personal insult and innuendo in his discussions. He has declined till now. If you were to be a mediator of such a debate I would welcome the opportunity.

See also youtube: