Tag Archives: Tim O’Neill

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

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

The second is

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The setting for the popular welcome of an apocalyptic prophet 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Sarah finds the first option the more simple one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated post

I have updated the post discussing Tim O’Neill’s Non Sequitur discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah.

Response #3: Non Sequitur’s Tim O’Neill presentation, The Ascension of Isaiah


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point 2:

Point 3:

Response #3: Non Sequitur’s Tim O’Neill presentation, The Ascension of Isaiah

This is why people like me when you read Carrier’s book you think, What the f*ck are you talking about? — Tim O’Neill
Response #1: Motives
Response #2: No fame outside Galilee

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 [AoI].

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 AoI 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 AoI that Carrier himself quoted and discussed in his book. One did not have to turn from Carrier’s book to check the AoI 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.


From Evan T, On the Way to Ithaca

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:

I’m responding to the presentation between 53:00 – 59:00 of the Non Sequitur video.


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 AoI says and one will not know of the “incriminating” passage unless one “went to” the AoI itself. Contrary to this clear inference, Carrier in fact informs readers by quoting and discussing that same passage.

But what the farnarkling is he talking about?

read more »

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 »

On mythicism, creationism and the wrath of ancient kings

Someone asked me who among atheists were critical of Jesus mythicism when I posted Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it and a number have questioned my own view of why they do, or at least have offered alternative viewpoints. All fair enough. Meanwhile, someone on Facebook chided me for not having read Tim O’Neill’s article addressing PZ Myers’ “historical Jesus agnosticism” and attempting to explain how the relevant historical analysis works. So today I did finally at least skim quickly through O’Neill’s PZ Myers and “Jesus Agnosticism”, Eddie Marcus’s explanations, and a few of the comments. And whaddyaknow — there I read more of the exact criticisms I had been addressing in my earlier post about “atheist hostility to Jesus mythicism”. They once again demonstrate, to me at least, that the primary objection to mythicism is that it sets itself apart from mainstream scholarship and for that reason is seen as “essentially” one with creationism and holocaust denial.

There was something unexpected, though. What I found especially intriguing was Tim O’Neill’s admonition to his readers to not even read arguments that had been posted against his own views! Recall Niels Peter Lemche’s point about how conservative scholarship has worked to steer scholars away from radical criticism: The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche). Tim certainly goes overboard to smear me every time he seems obliged to mention me at all. He certainly is doing all he can to turn readers off anything coming from this quarter. That’s not so bad in itself, except that he seems incapable of doing so with dispassionate reasoned argument. Ancient kings (and more recent totalitarian regimes) who were obsessed with erasing all memory of opponents and/or cursing them to the limit would be most impressed.

From Tim’s page — with my highlighting of the key points:

Biosaber says:

Similar in their rhetoric and explaining-away of evidence. And are just as impervious to reason. Mythicism is to history what YEC is to science. But ok, they’re Atheism’s halocaust deniers

Then analogy is not to the degree or nature of the evidence. It’s the lack of understanding of the material and the arrogance of assuming they know more than the consensus of experts that is analogous. So the analogy is completely apt thanks.

One more:

Tim O’Neill says:

“I could provide examples of where the consensus of experts has been wrong (you know like some of science!) so that in and by itself is not disqualifying.”

Everyone knows it is not necessarily disqualifying. But most of the time the experts know better than some online nobody who’s watched a couple of YouTube videos.And even the cases when the maverick contrarians have been right and the consensus has been wrong are well known because they are so rare. Yet, like the Creationists, these twerps think they are the smart ones.

So there you have it. The sin of mythicism is that it disputes the conventional wisdom of the academy of biblical studies. And we even have the biblical imputation of motive for that sin — pride, arrogance. Can anyone with such a mindset help themselves from reading any mythicist arguments with hostile intent?


Here’s the surprising bit. Tim added an addendum to his post that had been written after PZ Myers responded to it (and after I had made my own comments on PZ’s response).

P.S. I would suggest you avoid reading the comments from the Mythicist true believers on Myers’ articles – most of them are so dumb they will make you lose the will to live.

And to reinforce the point, when one commenter asked

Biosaber says:

Hey Tim have you seen PZ’s post about this post, “The Tim O’Neill Treatment” (and Neil Godfrey’s post about it)?

Tim replied

Tim O’Neill says:

Yes. Note my addendum to my article above, which addresses Myers’ response. I pay no attention to Ol’Grandpa Godfrey though – he and the other jabbering boneheaded contrarians who gather in his little Treehouse Club for fringe weirdos are not worth the time.


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 »

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