The “again” in the title harks back to another time I responded point by point to Tim O’Neill’s erroneous declarations: Bad History for Atheists#1, #2, #3, #4
Continuing here to respond to the youtube presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_hD3xK4hRY — previous posts: #1 (wrongly saying it pays academics to find “different” and “new” or “contrarian” arguments), and #2 (wrongly saying historians can do nothing more than assess probabilities, not determine facts, about the ancient past)
After further saying that non-Christian (including “Jewish”) and Christian scholars have very different ideas about the historical Jesus (which is simply flat wrong, as I might show in a later post) in order to supposedly demonstrate that Christian influence is not a factor (again, which is flat wrong as can be easily demonstrated – but for a later post), and after conditioning the listener to think of “mythicists” as following attractive bait in defiance of common sense (ad hominem, well-poisoning), O’Neill says,
To begin with, all accounts or references to the origins of Christianity both Christian and non-Christian, say it began with him. And none of them describe him as anything other than a historical human being even if some of them — the Christian ones most obviously — say he was much more than just a human.
Here are a good number of those ancient accounts and references with the ones saying he is “anything other than” a historical human being:
Account or reference
Saying Jesus was nothing more than a historical human
New Testament letters (Paul, pseudo-Paul, Catholic, Pastoral and Johannine)
Extra canonical letters (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp)
New Testament Gospels and Acts
Extra canonical Gospels and Acts (Thomas, Peter, Paul….)
Revelation and other apocalypses
nil (but many, not all, scholars hypothesize that Josephus did say he was only a man; arguments against authenticity)
(late evidence reporting what was learned from early Christians — not used by historical Jesus scholars because “too late”; arguments against authenticity)
Pliny the Younger
nil (not used by HJ scholars; says christ was worshiped as a god; several arguments against authenticity)
O’Neill argues that some of the above do present an entirely human Jesus behind the myth and I will respond to his claims as we come to them.
The mythicist . . . has to explain why they all depict him as historical and human with no traces of any earlier alternatives which have him as, say, purely mythic, allegorical or celestial.
Interesting. I am still waiting to hear O’Neill indicate which ones he means among the “all depict Jesus as historical and human with no traces of earlier … myth…”
O’Neill underscores his point:
there are elements in the early christian accounts of him that strongly indicate a historical person — that are very difficult to interpret any other way.
My curiosity is being whetted. Can’t wait to hear which sources these are “very difficult” to interpret as a merely human Jesus.
Before answering, O’Neill offers an interesting justification for using the Biblical gospels and letters:
The historian can and should examine them in the way that they examine any other source relevant to the question at hand in the examination of ancient history.
One thing otherhistorians have noted, and that I certainly have commented on often enough here, is that biblical scholars only rarely study the gospels “in the way that ‘they’ examine any other source”. The narratives in the gospels are assumed — without confirmation of independent external confirmation — to be based on a real biography. The sources are assumed to have been primarily oral tradition. The authors are assumed to have been interested in telling the truth as they understood it about Jesus, diligently incorporating genuine “historical” material as they could. As far as I have been aware over many years of wide reading and study, I don’t know of any relevant scholarly study of ancient documents (or medieval or modern ones) that begins and ends with such uncritical assumptions.
This post is an important and necessary follow up to my previous one about the falsehoods of O’Neill’s attacks on Salm’s work. Any readers with a serious interest in the dating of Nazareth and the seriousness of René Salm’s study of the archaeological record should be aware of the evidence that demonstrates how carelessly false Tim O’Neill’s public statements about his work really are.
Contrary to O’Neill’s assertions Salm did not mistranslate [my previous post demonstrated this by showing the locations of sites Kuhnen listed] or misinterpret Kuhnen as Kuhnen himself affirms in the following email exchange between Salm and Kuhnen and that I copy here with permission.
This first extract Kuhnen wrote initially to a third party but then copied to Salm himself. Bracketed clarifications are by Salm and the bolded highlighting is by me:
In my answer to Mr. Salm’s interesting question I referred to my Ph.D. thesis of 1982, published 1989 under the title “Studien zur Chronologie und Siedlungsarchäologie des Karmel (Israel) zwischen Hellenismus und Spätantike. Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients B 72 . Wiesbaden 1989. On pages 49 – 72 of this book you’ll find a chronological analysis of Hellenistic – Roman tombs excavated up to then in Palestine. My chronology is based primarily on internal evidence, i. e. the combination of finds, a method common in European prehistory, but up to now not yet introduced in Palestinian archaeology. My “comparing [comparison—RS] table of datable tombs” (Kombinationstabelle der Funde aus Gräbern”. Beilage 3) clearly proves that all kokim tombs of my “phase I”* (2nd [cent. BCE]- early 1st century AD) are concentrated in the Judean hills around Jerusalem. The earliest kokim tombs of Galilee appear in my “phase II”, starting around the middle of the 1st century AD. Therefore, from the evidence published up to the 1990s, Mr. Salm is right that there is no clear evidence of tombs of the period of Jesus in Nazareth. … I definitely share your scepticism about the historicity of the New Testament. Last year I held a seminar and an excursion at the Institute of Biblical Archaeology of Mainz University on Holy places on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, which showed clearly that the localization of New Testament sites in Galilee is the work of Byzantine historiographers and not of the writers of the New Testament.
* “Kombinationstabelle der Funde aus Gräbern” is the heading of Appendix 3 (“Beilage 3”) of Kuhnen’s PhD thesis. The heading literally means “Combination table of finds from tombs.” That’s of course quite different from Kuhnen’s translation. The word “Kombination” in German has inferences that the English “combination” lacks, including “comparison” (hence my bracketed clarification). The German “Tabelle” variously can mean many things: “table, list, chart, index, schedule, synopsis, summary” (from my large Cassell’s English & German dictionary). I ILL’ed Kuhnen’s thesis years ago and don’t have it at hand, but if … memory serves, the appendix in question is in the form of a list. So, I would translate the entire phrase as “Comparison list of finds from tombs”, or “Master list of finds from tombs”, or even “Master summary of finds from tombs.” Of course, we’re not talking about Nazareth finds here, but those in the vicinity of Mt. Carmel in Lower Galilee, about 30 km WNW of Nazareth. — RS.
So , from an archaeological point of view, Salm’s arguments about a completely Judean “theatre” of NT history cannot be disregarded, but it seems to me that discussion will go on for a long time. [Jan . 4, 2010]
Here are a couple of further snippets from Kuhnen’s emails to Salm. They demonstrate that there has been no daylight (“misunderstanding”) between Kuhnen and Salm on tomb dating. Kuhnen even states that he considers Salm’s study sufficiently worthy to be included in his curriculum. (Unfortunately not every email has the date stamp preserved.) In the posts directly to Salm himself Kuhnen wrote in German but Salm has added translations:
– Kuhnen writes: “Hinsichtlich der Datierung der bekannten Gräber haben Sie sicher recht.” (“Regarding the dating of the known tombs [in Nazareth] you are certainly correct.” (Dated May 15, 2009)
– “Ihre Überlegungen sind sehr anregend, besonders Ihre Hauptthese, dass die Evangelien im wesentlichen die Realität nach dem Jahr 70 n. Chr. beschreiben. Auch Ihrer Einschätzung von Bagatti stimme ich zu. Er und einige andere seiner Kollegen (de Vaux, Humbert) sind meines Erachtens typische Vertreter einer kirchlichen Archäologie, die in der Archäologie das bestätigt sieht, was sie schon vorher wusste.” (“Your reflections are very exciting, particularly your main thesis that the gospels essentially describe the post-70 CE reality. I also agree with your estimation of Bagatti. He and some of his other colleagues (de Vaux, Humbert) are, in my opinion, typical apologists for an ecclesiastical archeology that simply confirms what it already knows.”
– “Insgesamt finde ich, wie gesagt , Ihre überlegungen sehr interessant, und habe darüber auch schon den Studenten in meinem derzeitigen Seminar an der Uni Mainz berichtet. Im nächsten Semester möchte ich an der Uni Mainz ein kritisches Seminar zum Thema “Archäologie und Neues Testament” anbieten. Dabei werden wir sicher auch Ihr Buch behandeln.” (Translation: “In all, I find your reflections very interesting, as mentioned above. I have already communicated your views to students in my current Seminar at the Univ. of Mainz. Next summer I would like to offer a critical seminar on the Archaeology of the New Testament. In it we will certainly discuss your book.” (Second half of May 2009.)
I said in my previous post that contrary to the impression created by O’Neill Salm has engaged with Kuhnen’s work in considerable depth and most certainly was not “quote mining” a single sentence. Here is a list of all of Kuhnen’s works consulted by Salm from the bibliography of his second book, NazarethGate:
1986. Nordwest-Palästina in hellenistisch-römischer Zeit. Bauten und Gräber im Karmelgebiet. Weinheim: VCH Verlag.
1989. Studien zur Chronologie und Siedlungsarchäologie des Karmel (Israel)
zwischen Hellenismus und Spätantike. (Tübinger Atlas zum Vorderen Orient. Beiheft B 72.) Wiesbaden.
1990. Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit. (Handbuch der Archäologie. Vorderasien II,2.) München: C. H. Beck.
1994. Mit Thora und Todesmut: Judäa im Widerstand gegen die Römer von
Herodes bis Bar Kochba. (Führer und Bestandskataloge III.) Stuttgart: Württ. Landesmuseum .
2002. “Bestattungswesen Palästinas im Hellenismus.” In: Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Göttingen), pp. 211 f.
2007. “Grabbau und Bestattungssitten in Palästina zwischen Herodes und den Severern.” In: A. Faber, P. Fasold, M. Struck, M. Witteyer (Eds.), Körpergräber des 1.–3. Jh. in der römischen Welt. Kolloquium Frankfurt am Main 2004. Frankfurt: Schriften des Archäologischen Museums Frankfurt am Main, 57–76.
2009. (with W. Zwickel): Archäologie und Politik im Land der Bibel: 60 Jahre Gründung des Staates Israel. (Kleine Arbeiten zum Alten und Neuen Testament). Mainz: Spenner.
Having finally caught up with Tim O’Neill’s October 2019 post on his History for Atheists blog, JESUS MYTHICISM 5: THE NAZARETH “MYTH”, I have decided to address a new point he makes since I last responded to his Nazareth assertions. Most of his October post is a rehash of what I demonstrated was erroneous in More Nazareth Nonsense from Tim O’Neill. But he has added a new point in an apparent attempt to refute at least one key part of my original criticism and it is that new point that I address here.
I have invited Tim O’Neill to discuss his criticisms on condition that he refrain from abuse and insult. He has responded by declaring I am not worth engaging with because I resort to “nitpicking”, otherwise known as “fact-checking”. Perhaps he will see this post as another example of “nitpicking”, this time in response to his claim that René Salm has based a key part of his argument on a mistranslation of a single sentence in Hans-Peter Kuhnen’s Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit.
What is the relevance of all this to the Nazareth debate?
Salm argues that there is no secure archaeological evidence published in the scholarly literature that enables us to date a settlement in Nazareth at the time of Jesus. The evidence for a settlement in Roman times only begins to appear from the mid or late first century CE. If the kokh tombs around Nazareth could be dated to the early first century then there would be a reasonable case for Nazareth being occupied at that time.
Kokh tombs were known around the Jerusalem region long before and during the time of Christ but Salm insists that they did not appear in Galilee until towards the end of the first century.
Salm has used Kuhnen’s work to argue that it is a mistake to use the dates of Jerusalem sites for the Galilee region. The kokh tombs appeared in Galilee much later than they did around Jerusalem, he says.
What is a kokh tomb?
O’Neill’s new point
Here is the section of Tim O’Neill’s rebuttal of René Salm’s argument that I want to address.
Kokhim of this kind date from as early as 200 BC, but Salm insists that while they were used this early elsewhere in Palestine, they only came to be used in Galilee much later. For this he depends heavily on a single quote from German archaeologist Hans-Peter Kuhnen in his Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit (München: C.H. Beck, 1990). There Kuhnen discusses the origin and spread of kokhim in Palestine, appearing under the Hasmoneans and coming to dominate the style of tombs around Jerusalem by the time of Herod. He goes on to say (in Salm’s translation):
Apparently only later, from approximately the middle of the first century after Christ, did people begin to build kokh tombs in other upland regions of Palestine, as seen in Galilee at Huqoq, Meron, H. Serna and H. Usa. (Kuhnen, p. 254, in Salm, p.159)
Salm concludes from this that “kokh tomb use spreads to Galilee only after c. 50 CE” (p. 159), which he feels pushes the dates of the tombs in the Nazareth valley safely away from the period his theory needs to avoid.
But Kuhnen does not say that they did not reach Galilee until around the mid century: he specifies the “mountain regions of Palestine” (“Bergregionen Palästinas” in Kuhnen’s original German) and then gives examples of sites from the very north of Upper Galilee, in the mountains close to the modern Lebanon border and far from the lowland region in which Nazareth sits. Salm chooses to ignore where the illustrative examples Kuhnen are, translates “Bergregionen” as “upland” rather than “mountainous regions” or “mountain regions” (because the low-lying Nazareth region is not remotely “mountainous”) and so decides Kuhnen is saying kokhim did not reach Galilee generally – lower or upper – until “c. 50 CE”. Once again, he twists the scholarship and so shapes the evidence to fit his conclusion.
(My bolded highlighting of O’Neill’s words that I will show are “misleading” at best.)
O’Neill has only quoted a snippet of Salm’s relevant text and he has even misrepresented Kuhnen’s original passage. I don’t believe O’Neill did either of these things with deliberate dishonesty. I think he is so convinced that Salm is a fraud for daring to question the mainstream biblical scholars that he has only glanced at both Salm’s and Kuhnen’s words and once he thought he saw enough to “prove” his point he looked no further. It is “human” to see what we expect and want to see. He relies upon Salm’s translation of a critical passage so it appears he has not even consulted Kuhnen’s work for himself.
Response #1 — selective quoting
To his credit Salm quotes the original German of the section he translated so readers can hold him to account. Here is Salm’s complete quotation of Kuhnen:
15 Schiebestollengräber, die unter den Hasmonäern allmählich die älteren Kammergräber ersetzt hatten, beherrschten auch nach der Thronbesteigung des Herodes fast mit Ausschliesslichkeit die Friedhöfe der Stadt… Auch im jüdisch besiedelten Umland Jerusalems entstanden unter Herodes und dessen Erben Gräber des Schiebestollentyps, beispielsweise in Tell en-Nasbe und in el-‘Ezariye (Betanien) … Anscheinend noch später, etwa ab der Mitte des 1.Jh. n.Chr., begann man in den anderen Bergregionen Palästinas Gräber mit Schiebestollen anzulegen, was für Galiläa Huqoq, Meron, H. Sema und H. Usa… belegen.
Somit ist anzunehmen, dass Schiebestollengräber während des 1.Jh. n.Chr. in allen Landesteilen westlich und östlich des Jordan in Mode kamen… (Kuhnen 254–55).
Kokh tombs [Schiebestollengräber], which under the Hasmoneans gradually replaced the older chamber tombs, also dominated the graveyards of [Jerusalem] almost with exclusivity after the accession of Herod… Under Herod and his heirs, the kokhi type of grave also appeared in the Jewish-populated surroundings of Jerusalem, for example, in Tell en-Nasbe and in el-‘Ezriye (Bethany)… Apparently only later, from approximately the middle of the first century after Christ, did people begin to build kokh tombs in other upland regions of Palestine, as seen in Galilee at Huqoq, Meron, H. Sema and H. Usa…
So it is evident that during the first century after Christ kokhim came into fashion in all parts of the land west and east of the Jordan…15
(Salm, 159. My bolded highlighting)
O’Neill failed to quote the last sentence Salm translates from Kuhnen which underscores Salm’s reading of Kuhnen’s point: kokh tombs were not known outside the Jerusalem region [i.e. not only in northern Galilee] until around the middle of the first century CE and not before. O’Neill wrongly claimed Salm said the kokh tombs were used everywhere else in Palestine except Galilee in the early first-century thus making his claim look like special pleading. He stopped short of quoting the sentence that flatly contradicted and exposes his misrepresentation of Salm’s argument.
O’Neill further infers that Kuhnen only points to sites in the “very north of Upper Galilee, in the mountains close to the modern Lebanon” that were the late borrowers of kokh tombs. That is flat wrong as we see in Response #2.
Response #2 — ignorance of geography
The four sites listed by Kuhnen are not, contrary to O’Neill’s assertion, “in the mountains close to the modern Lebanon border”. Two of them are; the other two are further south and on lower ground even than Nazareth.
Huqoq — not far from the “Sea” of Galilee, ca 30 metres above sea level
Meron — mountainous region in the far north, ca 600 meters above sea level
Khirbet Sema — mountainous region in the far north, ca 600 meters above sea level
Horvat Usä — further south, approx 8 kilometres east of Acre, about 30 meters above sea level
How “mountainous” is Nazareth by comparison? It is approx 350 meters above sea level.
But O’Neill has apparently not taken the time to consult Kuhnen’s book as Salm obviously did. Salm appears to have absorbed and incorporated Kuhnen’s intent from his larger argument as we shall see.
Response #3 — not only Galilee
We now enter some serious “nitpicking” (“fact-checking”) with a look at the intent and thrust of Kuhnen’s discussion. Salm only quoted the first half of examples Kuhnen provided to illustrate his point about the apparent delay in the spread of kokhim tombs. The other half listed sites south of Galilee — in the region of Samaria.
= was für Galiläa Huqöq, Merön, H. Sema und H. Usä, für Samarien Samaria-Sebaste, ‘Ar’ara, Sīlet ed-Dahr und Wädi Bedän belegen. (Kuhnen, 255)
[only later. . . as seen in] Galilee Huqöq, Merön, H. Sema and H. Usä, for Samaria Samaria-Sebaste, ‘Ar’ara, Sīlet ed-Dahr and Wädi Bedän.
So Kuhnen is saying that the spread of the kokhim tombs spread not only to northern Galilee but to Samaria as well quite some time after they became common around Jerusalem. (For the sake of completeness of comparisons I have added the elevations.)
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.
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. . . .
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. Continue reading “Final (#3) post responding to O’Neill’s 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: Continue reading “Response #2 to History for Atheists’ “JESUS THE 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.
An attentive reading of the nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew will even demonstrate that the author of that gospel wrote on the assumption that there were no popular messianic hopes in the time of Jesus but that knowledge of such ideas could only be found among the scribal elites.
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.
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?
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.)
Tim spoke those words seconds before leading listeners to infer that he had checked the ancient text that Carrier was misrepresenting, the Ascension of Isaiah [Asc. Isa.].
Listeners were led to understand that only readers with superior knowledge of the texts would know Carrier was giving them false information.
So to prove that Carrier did not know what he was talking about, that the Asc. Isa. said the very opposite of what Carrier claimed, Tim quoted a passage from it.
What Tim failed to tell his viewers, and perhaps what Tim himself over time has forgotten, was that he was actually reading the same passage in the Asc. Isa. that Carrier himself quoted and discussed in his book. One did not have to turn from Carrier’s book to check the Asc. Isa. for oneself — as Tim clearly implies — but one simply had to read the so-called damning passage in Carrier’s text itself.
Tim’s claim that “only knowledgeable readers would know Carrier had no idea what he was talking about” makes no sense if Tim was alerted to the existence of the passage by Carrier himself. Tim did not draw upon his specialist background knowledge to expose Carrier’s “misinformation”. He simply read a translation of the very same text Carrier himself was quoting and discussing.
Tim O’Neill informs us that Richard Carrier “tries to get around the lack of evidence” for mythicism by (in part) appealing to the Ascension of Isaiah. He begins giving some explanatory background to this text:
It’s a fairly obscure text and we’ve got it in fairly fragmentary form … an Ethiopian translation … in Slavonic … in Latin… So it’s quite hard for us to piece together exactly what it would have said originally, because originally it would have been written in Greek.
What Tim does not make clear to his listeners is that those translations, and even different manuscript versions in the same language, contain very different contents in places. It is not just that we have different translations of a lost Greek version that causes difficulties. The difficulties arise because of the significantly varying content in the different versions. That’s an important point that we will see Tim appears not to recognize. Tim continues:
But we can work out that it was probably written maybe in the late first century, possibly early second century. . . . That puts it around the same time the gospels were being written. . . . It’s a Christian text and it describes a vision supposedly seen by the prophet Isaiah . . . . But in this text, Isaiah sees a vision, and he sees Jesus descending from the upper heavens, from the seventh heaven, down through the various heavens, and sees him crucified, and then sees him ascend when he rises from the dead back up through the heavens. And the whole point of this text is that no-one knows that it’s Jesus because he takes on a different form as he moves through these different heavens, and then it’s not until he rises from the dead and that he ascends back up through the heavens that he reveals himself to be the messiah and in some sense divine. And so the whole point of the text is that they thought they killed him but he fooled them and as he ascends back up through the seven heavens to take his place with the throne of God again he demonstrates who he really was.
If Carrier is right, then there’s your evidence
Now what Carrier argues is that this is the smoking gun. So he argues that this is a text that as I said did not exist, which is supposedly a text that has Jesus coming from the upper heavens, descending not to earth but to the lower heavens, so to what’s called the firmament, and he gets crucified there, not on earth, and then he rises from the dead there and then he ascends back into the heavens. He gets crucified there, by demons, not on earth by human beings.
Now if Carrier is right, then there’s your evidence. There’s the evidence that there actually was a belief in a Jesus who was purely celestial and not historical; purely heavenly, and died in the heavens, not earthly, and died on earth.
I do find myself wearying of this false dichotomy between celestial and historical. Literature is crammed full of nonhistorical figures who “lived” on earth. I suspect there are many times more earthly human form mythical figures in literature than there are celestial ones.
But there’s a problem. And the problem is that actually if you’re familiar with the text — this is why people like me when you read Carrier’s book you think, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ If you actually read Carrier’s book, he says, ‘Well, he descended just to the firmament and nowhere else, and he gets crucified on a tree that’s not a real tree, it’s a kind of celestial version of a tree, and he’s never depicted as going to earth.’
The only problem is that if you actually turn to the Ascension of Isaiah you read this:
And I saw one like the son of man (that’s Jesus, the messiah) dwelling with men and in the world and they did not recognize him.
It also says that an angel talks to Isaiah saying Jesus … taking on your form; in your form, human form.
So, the text does actually have Jesus coming to earth, it actually does have Jesus dwelling among men.
Tim could not be clearer. Tim is saying that we read one thing in Carrier’s book and quite something else if we turn to the Ascension of Isaiah itself. The clear suggestion is that Carrier does not know what the Asc. Isa. says and one will not know of the “incriminating” passage unless one “went to” the Asc. Isa.I itself. Contrary to this clear inference, Carrier in fact informs readers by quoting and discussing that same passage.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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. Continue reading “The Phlogiston Jesus”