The Importance of Actual Data in the Did Jesus Exist Debate

Here are two posts of Larry Hurtado in response to the mythicists. See what you think.


On Competence, Scholarly Authority, and Open Discussion
by larryhurtado

In the furore of recent days after my postings about some recent contenders that Jesus never lived, I’ve derived a few observations.

Advocates of the so-called “mythicist” position (a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, never lived) who have commented on this site have rather consistently either offered putative bases that turn out to be readily corrected mis-construals and/or mis-citations of texts, or, when confronted with the inferences most scholars in the field make about the data, have simply urged that there just might be some other way of seeing things if your really put your mind to it. Well, yes, if your really want to prefer a particular possibility over what most scholars judge a far more reasonable and likely one, well, OK.
Then, when confronted with the lack of support among scholars for the “mythicist” position, there comes the accusation of “naked appeals to authority” and “intellectual bullying” and such. And when it is pointed out that, after all, we are talking about texts written in Koine Greek (and so the language ability is pretty important), and that these are texts with a transmission history (and so some ability in textual criticism of these texts would be important in assessing questions of textual reliability), and that the many Jewish texts and the evidence of the larger Roman-era environment requires a lot of study, all this if one wishes to make some kind of soundly-based judgement of matters, one gets complaints about elitism, etc.
And the same sort of accusations come when one asks that advocates of the “mythicist” position dare to submit their work to refereed assessment, present it at scholarly conferences, etc. You know, the sort of ways that scholars in any field actually submit and have their work tested by scholarly peers. This is tiresome, and begins to sound a bit like special pleading, even whining. Here’s the deal: If you want an idea or claim to be engaged and considered seriously by scholars in a given field, then it should be prepared and submitted for such consideration in the way that any idea or claim is considered, to scholarly conferences, peer-reviewed journals, etc. And it’s no good claiming some kind of cabal preventing anything getting through. Scholarly in Christian origins is fairly seething with controversies, proposals, etc., and lots of people would jump at any opportunity to put across a cogent new idea. It happens all the time. So, it’s no special or unreasonable demand to ask for “mythicist” advocates to do this.
I’m still waiting for someone to point to some data, you know, data, that justifies the claims of the so-called “mythicist” advocates. Seems reasonable to me. But then I’m one of those mean old scholars in the field who make such demands . . . of ourselves as much as anyone else.

A little over two weeks ago, I naively posted on reports of re-emergence of the early 20th-century claims (back then made by a few journalists and writers, none of them competent in the fields involved) that “Jesus” was an entirely mythical/legendary figure, and that no “Jesus of Nazareth” ever lived. Along with the view of pretty near all scholars in the field, I expressed surprise and a certain weariness that a claim rather effectively considered and refuted many decades ago was making the rounds again as if it were new and had any strong merit. Immediately, there were urgent comments from supporters of the so-called “mythicist” Jesus line, some of them in reasonable tones, many of them scurrilous, angry, haughty, disdainful, and most of these latter types I simply deleted. Those who made assertions that could be engaged, however, I have typically responded to, trying as patiently as I could to explain briefly what scholars tend to hold, with selected illustrative data that they draw upon (but I have to say that patience is a virtue that I have to work at).

Some of those who have commented seem to be preoccupied with this issue, and it appears that there are a few blog sites out there pretty much devoted to the matter (especially, it seems, devoted to promoting/defending the “mythicist” point of view), and trying to question the basis of dominant scholarly views. But, after two weeks of to-and-fro on the issue, I think it’s time to move on. I say this for two main reasons.

First, in the two weeks of comments/responses to my postings, I’ve seen nothing cited by way of new evidence or analysis of known evidence that comprises a new and sufficient basis to treat the latest re-assertion of the “mythicist” Jesus claim as any more credible than the earlier versions refuted decades ago. I’ve asked for such, but I don’t see any. Some have claimed that the current wave of popular-oriented books offer such, but in spite of repeated invitations to point out briefly and specifically the supposed evidence and new reasons, I don’t recall any forthcoming.

Instead, what we have are many unsupported assertions (e.g., about Paul, early Christianity, ancient Judaism, Pharisees, etc.), put forth often with surprising confidence, but for which there is scant support in relevant scholarly circles, often out-dated generalizations, and distortions (albeit perhaps unintentional) of evidence. I’ve taken the trouble repeatedly to point out these errors in responses to comments, although it’s not clear that it’s had any effect on those who asserted the errors in question.

So, for example, a few have challenged whether the early Jesus-movement was really a Jesus-movement after all, proposing that it may have been simply a (vaguely alleged) eschatological sect that later came to adopt a Jesus-figure (of imagination) as its iconic centre. Having devototed a good many years, and resulting pages, to the matter of how Jesus featured in earliest Christianity, with pretty much every other scholar who has considered the question, I have to say that doesn’t fly. For the fuller reasons and argument behind this view of things, you’ll have to read some books, among them my own: esp. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003), and How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (2005). (I hasten to add that, unlike the works cited by “mythicist” advocates, these and the other books to which I have referred are the sort that have been widely reviewed by other scholars in various countries and from various perspectives, and have been subjected to the most detailed attention in scholarly conferences and symposia. They haven’t necessarily survived without criticism on some points, as you’d expect, but they’ve certainly been examined in detail, and were published precisely to invite such critical analysis.)

Others have noted rightly that some matters widely held by scholars are inferences drawn from evidence, and have urged that it is possible to imagine some other inference here and there. To these I’ve tried to indicate briefly why it is that scholars tend to prefer certain inferences as more likely than others. It’s been disappointing that sometimes the response has been an unfair accusation that I haven’t given a basis for scholarly views. I have, and repeatedly, but necessarily in abbreviated form, and I have urged seriously interested people to work through the scholarly studies where the fuller analysis and arguments are presented.

Part of the problem may be an insufficient acquaintance with how historians work with the limited data available. Let me illustrate this by analogous examples. To someone with limited acquaintance with ancient historical matters, it may seem impressive, for example, to learn that no writing by Jesus survives, or that a contemporary Jew such as Philo of Alexandria doesn’t mention him. So, one might buy the accusation that people posit a historical figure named Jesus without any (or adequate) basis and out of insufficiently examined bias. But, actually, the situation isn’t really so unique.

For a “pagan” example, take Apollonius of Tyana, for knowledge of whom we have almost exclusively a “Life” of the figure written by Philostratus, completed sometime in the early 3rd century CE. Per Philostratus, Apollonius lived in the early-mid first century CE, which means that our earliest text about him was composed some 150+ years after the putative date of his death. Yet, although there are many questions about exactly what he was and did, most scholars readily accept that there was such a figure. Philostratus’ “Life” is full of miraculous accounts that generate some doubts about them, and Apollonius is presented as a divine-like figure, but behind the account most scholars think there was a historical Apollonius, and that he likely had some following.

To point to Jewish examples, let’s consider Akiva, the great early rabbinic figure typically thought to have been active in the time of the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE). Our earliest texts mentioning him are rabbinic writings, the earliest layer of which (Mishnah) may have been composed ca. 200 CE(?). We have anecdotes about Akiva, but large gaps in biographical information. Nevertheless, I think pretty much every scholar who has considered the matter judges that he’s a real historical figure and was of some significance.

As yet another example, let’s take Hillel, typically posited as living sometime first century BCE. He left no writings, and no contemporary mentions him (no reference in Philo, or Josephus, for example), and our earliest texts mentioning him are, again, rabbinic material, from sometime after ca. 200 CE, well over 200 years after his death. But Hillel is pretty important in Jewish tradition, and scholars (whatever their religious stance) tend to think that he lived and obviously made an impact sufficient to generate traditions about him.

You see? In positing a Jesus of Nazareth, there’s no funny business, no special pleading, no unique moves going on. It’s pretty much the same sort of historical reasoning that we have in these and other cases of ancient figures, particularly those of major significance. So, when scholars don’t react excitedly to people noting, for example, that the earliest extant narrative accounts of Jesus were written ca. 40-50 years after his death, it’s essentially because this isn’t unique. In fact, the date of the gospel accounts in relationship to the time of Jesus is comparatively pretty close. And when we note the abundant references to Jesus in Paul’s letters, dated ca. 50-60 CE (specifically, references to Jesus as born a Jew and ministering among Jews, crucified, examples of his teaching), we have even stronger basis for thinking that Jesus wasn’t some legend composed wholecloth by the gospel writers.

In the discussion I several times asked that proponents of a “mythicist” Jesus view provide the detailed analysis of the evidence that scholars are required to produce to make any impact. I may not have made myself clear, and one or two respondents seem to have thought what I wanted was the sort of lengthy (inadequately supported and ill-informed) blog-comment they sent. But serious scholarly work won’t get done in blog-comments. The way things work is that those who seek to influence scholarly/informed opinion (1) do the hard work involved in mastering the evidence and scholarly procedures, (2) produce sufficiently informed and well-argued cases that are directed to those competent to judge matters, (3) these are reviewed and assessed by fellow scholars (and, as anyone who has been so assessed can vouch, it isn’t an easy ride), and (4) if found persuasive, or at least a cogent alternative view, the work gets recognized and its views treated as worth the time of scholars.

From a recent blog comment, it appears that Thomas Brodie (a NT scholar based in Ireland) has forthcoming a book in which he presents his own distinctive proposal that the gospel accounts of Jesus are heavily shaped by narratives of OT figures, and the “Jesus” of the gospels is, thus, essentially a literary figure. Here’s the URL on the book:

When Brodie’s book appears, it should receive close scholarly attention and review, and we’ll see what is made of it by other scholars with sufficient expertise to assess it. But nothing of any weight has been produced in the last two weeks of discussion here to call into question the dominant judgement of scholars that “Jesus of Nazareth” is a real figure of history who generated a following during his own lifetime, and was executed by crucifixion. So, for now, let’s move on, and await whatever future scholarly discussion produces.

The second reason for doing so is that I’ve got a lot of other things to do besides try repeatedly to explain scholarly views and correct mis-understandings of them and the evidence on this matter. For example, I still haven’t finished that essay on early Christian apocrypha that I had started on two weeks ago!

So, best wishes to all those who read and interacted with me on the matter, and let’s see where things go in scholarly debate hereafter.

  • RickC

    Really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    Now, what was that comment by Solomon? Oh yes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” A modern day critic (myself) would also add, “they have just changed the packaging and ribbon.” Amazing (not really) to what lengths UNBELIEF will go to prove something false. Even Paul states, “they suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

  • peicurmudgeon

    I try to follow the arguments for and against the historicity of jesus. I do not begin to pretend to understand the accuracy of either side, as I do not read the ancient languages, and even if I did, I do not have access to the texts. However, there are people such as Richard Carrier who are scholars and seem to come to the opposite conclusions. I remain neutral.

    However, it does seem to me that proof of existence is not proof of divinity.

  • Archena

    Carrier is not without his own critics – quite a few, actually. Proof of existence is necessary for the case for divinity – but no one claims it as proof itself. That’s a silly objection. Almost as silly as the idea that 2000 years worth of varying degrees of scholastic and critical evaluation which accepts Christ’s existence must be wrong because didn’t get around to mentioning Him in something that still exists…

    The Christ myth concept is attractive to skeptics because it relieves them of any need to examine the evidence regarding Christ Himself – no need if He didn’t actually exist. I have no issue with examining evidence that might indicate such – but when it’s merely rehash upon rehash of refuted material its time for rational people to move on and leave the children to their toys.

  • Tim Ellison

    “Proofs weary the truth”
    Georges Braques