Messiah vs. Myth: Did Jesus Exist? A Response to Tom Verenna

I’ve begun a “bloggersation” with Tom Verenna, on the subject of the existence of Jesus. I hope that in future posts, Tom will call me James. Otherwise, I’ll come back and edit this post and call him something more than simply “Tom”! :-)

In his reply to an earlier post of mine to which I pointed him, to get the conversation started, he objects to my appeal to authority (pointing to the consensus of most historians) and to my pointing out that a particular viewpoint (namely that Jesus did not exist) tends to be characteristic of atheists whose area of expertise is not in the historical study of Jesus, or of early Christianity, or of first century Judaism or some comparably relevant discipline. In response to these points, I will simply state that one has to begin somewhere, and it cannot be expected that in a blog post one will not assume either what others have researched, or what one has said elsewhere on one’s blog or in print. I certainly have no objection to investigating something that is a consensus opinion – I’ve done it myself, and that is how knowledge increases! But at present, I do not feel the need to re-examine the consensus that Jesus in fact existed, and here is why.

I said in the post to which I pointed Tom that the crucifixion provides strong evidence for the existence of Jesus, since being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish nation would have been considered by most to mean automatic disqualification as a candidate for being the Messiah. I stand by that argument, and in response to Tom’s points in his post, I’ll elaborate further.

First, I consider the appeal to Isaiah 52-53 to be rather ironic. While Christians down the ages have pointed to this passage as a prophecy about Jesus, critical scholarship on Isaiah has highlighted that the servant in Deutero-Isaiah is explicitly said to be Israel (Isaiah 44:1), while critical scholarship on the New Testament has highlighted the paucity of evidence for early Christians appealing to this part of Isaiah as a prophecy of the crucifixion. It is, at best, a passage that could be viewed as a prophecy with the benefit of hindsight, but scarcely seems to provide a sufficient basis for someone inventing a crucified Messiah. The only Messiah in Deutero-Isaiah is Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). It may be, as Tom suggests, that the story allowed the Gospel authors to create a passion narrative in the absence of historical witnesses. But that does not negate the argument already presented for there having been a real individual who was crucified about whom the later Gospel author created their (at least partly fictional) stories.

I also wish to make one further point before going to sleep. It seems hard to make sense of the stories about Jesus simply as the work of writers of fiction. This is not to say that there is not indeed fiction in them. But I am persuaded that in those cases it is “historical fiction”, the creation of stories about an actual figure who existed, set in the time in which that person existed (although often inevitably featuring anachronisms reflecting the author’s own time and perspective). Be that as it may, it is unclear what the aim of such an author would be. Is it simply to tell a story of a failed Messiah? The beginning of the Gospel of Mark seems to exclude that option, since it speaks of “good news about Jesus the Messiah”, even as Jesus himself throughout the book tells people not to speak publicly about him as Messiah. The notion of an “anointed one” is firmly rooted in the Jewish hopes for a restoration of the kingship and priesthood. Jesus as depicted in the Gospels does not fulfill what most Jews hoped for from such figures. The question that remains is why someone would invent a story from scratch about a figure, claim that this individual is the Messiah and that the story is good news, and then present the individual as failing to fulfill the expectations of such an anointed one.

It may be that all that needs to happen is for Tom or someone else to present the case to me that has persuaded them, and I will be won over to the logic of that position. In the mean time, I remain persuaded that the Gospels reflect the attempt to make sense of how a real figure Jesus, who had been crucified by the Romans, could still be the Messiah in spite of this fact. This seems to me to make better sense of what they contain, rather than the proposed alternative, which seems to envisage the Gospels inventing a Messiah from scratch who then requires a whole lot of explanation and commentary to justify the claim. Would it not have been much simpler to invent a Messiah who did do the things that were expected of him? Or to simply write a vague work about a human being yet to come, as is done in the Similitudes of Enoch, and then one could identify anyone who lived up to the role as being the fulfillment of what was predicted?

I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things related to the Bible over the years, and there is no reason in principle why I couldn’t change my mind about this. But so far I remain unpersuaded by the evidence and arguments made for the figure of Jesus being a pure invention. And once again, to be clear, this is not to claim that there were not stories invented about Jesus. Clearly there were – outside the canon, I think everyone would agree, even while some would dispute there being such within the New Testament. But the stories were invented about a historical figure, rather than the figure himself having been invented.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17197063345475421424 Sarko Sightings

    One who asks and is granted the will of God does not question its literate existence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    I said in the post to which I pointed Tom that the crucifixion provides strong evidence for the existence of Jesus, since being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish nation would have been considered by most to mean automatic disqualification as a candidate for being the Messiah.I’m very confused by this assertion. Throughout the whole gospel, Jesus alludes to his own death as the means of fulfilling his own destiny. This seems to provide a perfectly plausible explanation for his death.Furthermore, is it not considered good writing to come up with ironic twists to old formulas? Why is it so implausible to suppose that the author of Mark was attempting to write a compelling and shocking story by exploiting one of his audience’s preconceived notions?Finally, who precisely was the audience that would have automatically disqualified Jesus as a Messiah? What is the evidence that this audience wouldn’t accept a Messiah who defeated tradition by doing precisely what ought not be acceptable? This seems an awful lot like an ad hoc explanation unless you have significant documentation of similar rejections by the same kind of audiences.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    First, I consider the appeal to Isaiah 52-53 to be rather ironic. While Christians down the ages have pointed to this passage as a prophecy about Jesus, critical scholarship on Isaiah has highlighted that the servant in Deutero-Isaiah is explicitly said to be Israel (Isaiah 44:1), while critical scholarship on the New Testament has highlighted the paucity of evidence for early Christians appealing to this part of Isaiah as a prophecy of the crucifixion. It is, at best, a passage that could be viewed as a prophecy with the benefit of hindsight, but scarcely seems to provide a sufficient basis for someone inventing a crucified Messiah.I don’t guess I understand why this is relevant. Suppose that Isaiah was referring to Israel. Why should we assume that this literary model is immune from adaptation to new uses? Is it so implausible to think that the author of Mark simply adapted the imagery and symbolism of Isaiah to a story of a man/god?For that matter, why are we not permitted to think that perhaps Jesus is a metaphor for Israel? Was it beyond first century authors to use such metaphors? As I read the old testament, I see themes being reused and adapted all the time. Moses himself seems a pretty good example of the reuse and adaptation of themes. He is a patriarch in the style of Abraham. Exile has been a constant theme since the story of the Garden of Eden. While I’m on the subject of adapted themes, Isaiah himself seems to have gotten the concept of the Son of Man from atonement rituals in Leviticus. In summary, why is it so implausible to think that Mark is simply adapting old models that would be familiar to his audience? Again I must ask, isn’t this just good writing?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    It seems hard to make sense of the stories about Jesus simply as the work of writers of fiction. This is not to say that there is not indeed fiction in them. But I am persuaded that in those cases it is “historical fiction”, the creation of stories about an actual figure who existed, set in the time in which that person existed (although often inevitably featuring anachronisms reflecting the author’s own time and perspective). Be that as it may, it is unclear what the aim of such an author would be. Is it simply to tell a story of a failed Messiah?First, the way I read the story, the Messiah didn’t fail. Two thousand years worth of Christians have been preaching that the crucifixion and resurrection were the greatest triumph in the history of the universe.It seems you have a conundrum on your hands. Did Jesus fail? If so, why all the devotees this long after his failure? Shouldn’t Christians stop worshiping a failure? Did he succeed? Then what’s your point?For the sake of argument, let’s run with your assertion. Jesus was a failure, and Mark wrote a story about it. Is this the only example in the history of god stories in which a god failed? My reading of Greek legends presents many gods for whom things didn’t work out as well as they would have liked. Why, then, does this one story about a failed god stand alone in its implausibility?Finally, you seem to be implying that there are true parts of Mark. Without citing Mark as evidence, what do you claim are the true parts, other than the place names and a few historical names? As I read Homer, there are many real places and names, yet the stories are clearly fabrications. I fail to see any historical evidence that any part of the story in Mark is anything other than fiction.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    The question that remains is why someone would invent a story from scratch about a figure, claim that this individual is the Messiah and that the story is good news, and then present the individual as failing to fulfill the expectations of such an anointed one.I guess I don’t understand this either. Why is it implausible to think that Mark’s message was that the expectations of the anointed one were wrong?It seems to me that as the fate of Israel changed, the interpretation of its traditions would be expected to change. Is not Jesus viable as a reinterpretation of the traditional view of the expected messiah?To put it more clearly, if we are accounting for the inevitable changes in culture as history moves forward, would we not be incredibly surprised if a single idea didn’t change concurrently with the culture? The fact that the Jesus story is a reinterpretation of an old legend seems very logical when we think of it this way.On what basis are you staking your claim that the messiah legend is immune from adaptation, even as Israel was being conquered both from without and within by new cultures and radically new ideas?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    The linchpin for my belief in a historical Jesus is Paul’s reference to “James, the brother of the Lord.” Paul wasn’t writing historical fiction (per se…)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks, Scott! That was going to be my next post! :)Hamby, my point is not that it is impossible that someone could have fabricated a story. My point is that I find that less likely than that someone rewrote and reinterpreted a story about an individual whom they believed was the Messiah in spite of evidence to the contrary.I believe the burden of proof is on you to explain how, within a couple of decades, before the Gospels were written, someone could claim to be the brother of a non-existent person and have even opponents find that claim credible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Agreed, James (the McGrath). The case of James the Just is the one case when the apologists’ “Appeal to Witness Refutation” works. Here is a case where the witnesses that could refute false teachings are available, both geographically and temporally.I think James leadership of the Jerusalem church is a fascinating and, for Christians, challenging fact.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    James, I’m frankly flabbergasted. First, let me address your direct question. Is it difficult for me to imagine a scenario in which Paul would either write about a person he believed to be the brother of Jesus, or that a person would falsely claim relation to a mythical figure with a twenty year gap?In a word, no. I used to know a guy who claimed he operated on John F. Kennedy after he was shot. Obviously he didn’t, but that was a long time ago, and if you had just met him on the street, you might believe him. He knew a lot about the Kennedy’s.Actually, here’s an illustrative story. A couple of years ago, I met a guy who looked just like Todd Rundgren (assuming a couple of tough years, perhaps). He knew just about everything about Todd Rundgren’s career, and told very good stories about his life on the road. He played the piano well, and could sing just about any of Rundgren’s songs you could name.Here’s the thing. I had the internet, and was able to find out that Todd Rundgren was touring with the Cars at the time. It was obviously impossible that this guy was who he claimed to be. Even so, dozens of people around town still claim to know Todd Rundgren. Most of them are not old enough to remember him firsthand in his glory days. For that matter, his glory days certainly didn’t come close to those of The Who or The Rolling Stones. He was a minor star thirty years ago. It was pretty easy for the imposter to fool a lot of people who wanted to believe they knew somebody famous.Is it a stretch to think that before the information age, a person could benefit by claiming to be the relative of someone that might have only been legend?No, but then again, I have no vested interest in believing that Jesus did or did not exist. I am not a Christian, and concrete evidence of Jesus’ existence would not persuade me to become one. It is simply a matter of historical curiosity. To be honest, James, I would no more believe that Jesus walked on water than that a minor chieftain in a backwater medieval tribe had a magical sword or met a scimitar lobbing watery tart.Am I to understand that you’re going to dismiss all of my objections with a wave of your hand and rest your argument on the fact that at least twenty years after the alleged fact, somebody claimed to be the brother of Jesus and some people believed him? It’s not as if they could check his social security card. Myths are already springing up about things that happened twenty years ago, and we live in the information age.Your first argument, namely incredulity at the failed savior, seems shaky. I’m disappointed that you haven’t even attempted to address my questions.It seems you have abandoned your first tact in favor of another argument from incredulity — specifically, that it’s impossible that James was anyone other than who he claimed to be.You claim that I have the burden of proof in this matter, and I am puzzled by that. When we are faced with a story including magic, symbolism, metaphor, and obvious borrowing of older themes, does not the burden of proof fall on the person who claims that it is not, in fact, what it seems to be?James, I’d like to challenge you to directly answer one of my more pointed questions. You claim that Mark is a fictionalized account of the life of a real person. I have asked you to explain which parts are true and which are fictionalized. I have provided a counter-example of the Homeric epics as evidence that the inclusion of place names and historical figures does not a historical document make. I would really like you to address this because your argument as you have presented it seems weak. I’d like to know what evidence you have to back it up.You will notice that I have not yet espoused a belief on either side of the fence. I will go ahead and tell you that I am not locked into either position. I have to tell you, though, that I am not swayed by arguments from incredulity, and I fail to see how you can dismiss other plausible explanations so easily.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Let me begin by pointing out that I am claiming that there is historical material in the Gospels in places, not that the Gospels are entirely historical. If a historian bothers to investigate a claim that someone walked on water, they will notice that the idiom used also meant to walk beside the sea in Greek, and in the Gospel of John we have what may be a less elaborated version in which one could understand that the disciples were nearer to shore than they realized, saw Jesus walking on the shore, and thought they had been brought miraculously to safety. But a historian will, even in the absense of such evidence for an earlier, less miraculous form of the story, rightly set aside stories like this one. It is hard to imagine any amount of historical evidence that would make it more likely that someone walked on water 2,000 years ago in a context in which miracle stories were many, than that the story was invented. But miracle stories were invented about actual historical figures, like Alexander the Great for instance, as well as for figure who may well have been pure literary creations.Historians use the criterion of embarassment as one of their tools. If a piece of information made those telling the story uncomfortable, and yet they included it anyway, the most likely reason is that the details of the story were so well known that one could not simply pretend that the event didn’t happen. A classic example is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. This story made Christians uncomfortable (just look at the changes Matthew, Luke and John make to it, not to mention later extracanonical Gospels). It implied that Jesus was a disciple of John’s, while Christians were interested in avoiding that impression. Most historians thus conclude that the event actually occurred.From the perspective of historical study, the fact that a story of walking on water may have been invented does not lead automatically to the conclusion that every detail in the story was invented. Historians must evaluate each piece of information on its own terms. My point about the failure of Jesus is that he failed to meet the expectations people had in his time about the Messiah. Christians were forced to interpret his death as sacrificial, and claim that he would return to finish the tasks of the Messiah and establish his reign. These beliefs hindered Christians’ attempts to persuade their Jewish contemporaries that Jesus was the Messiah. Why didn’t they just rewrite the story, if it was pure fabrication? Why would they create a Messiah and claim that figure was the Messiah and yet at the same time create problems for themselves by admitting that the individual had not done all the things the Messiah was expected to do? It seems to me, and to most historians, easier to make sense of what early Christians wrote (and fabricated) as an attempt to make sense of awkward facts, rather than the composition from scratch of an awkward story.Does this begin to address some of your substantive points? I apologize for not providing a survey of the relevant primary literature we have about Messianic expectations in Judaism in the period immediately before and around the time of the rise of Christianity. Such information is indeed available in many books as well as online. I hope it won’t be necessary for me to provide all the relevant evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, 1 Enoch, the Psalms of Solomon and other relevant sources of our knowledge of the historical setting for the rise of Christianity. But it may be that unfamiliarity with this historical literature may be one factor in making the “Jesus as myth” claim seem more plausible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    I’m happy to know that you aren’t trying to suggest that a historical Jesus was a miracle worker.But miracle stories were invented about actual historical figures, like Alexander the Great for instance, as well as for figure who may well have been pure literary creations.But aren’t you putting the cart before the horse? We have tons of evidence from all sides placing Alexander the Great as a necessary part of history. That is, he made a real, direct impact on the world, and history just doesn’t make sense if we take him out of it.Aren’t you just arguing in a circle? Jesus existed, so the legendary elements must be exaggerated since he obviously didn’t really walk on water. Why not start without the assumption? All we have — ALL we have is miracle stories and a couple of names of people and places. We don’t have anything contemporary placing Jesus the Normal Human in history.I know it’s fashionable to say that Jesus was a rebellious scribe, or a mystery prophet, or whatever the current fad is, and that it was somehow a momentous event that he got himself killed by the Romans, but in terms of the parsimony of the historical account, I fail to see what evidence we have that at the time of his alleged life, there’s a need for his existence. The impact of Christianity is an ad hoc justification, since Christianity didn’t appear until well after he supposedly lived.I will happily grant you that Christianity — the belief in a historical Jesus, is intrinsic to history, but I can find no such necessity for a historical Jesus himself. That is, I can just as easily imagine him being a legend as a real person, and it doesn’t seem to affect the course of history at all, whereas explaining Alexander the Great as simply a made up story causes far more problems than it solves, if it solves any at all.Historians use the criterion of embarassment as one of their tools. If a piece of information made those telling the story uncomfortable, and yet they included it anyway, the most likely reason is that the details of the story were so well known that one could not simply pretend that the event didn’t happen. A classic example is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. This story made Christians uncomfortable (just look at the changes Matthew, Luke and John make to it, not to mention later extracanonical Gospels). It implied that Jesus was a disciple of John’s, while Christians were interested in avoiding that impression. Most historians thus conclude that the event actually occurred.I fail to see how the discomfort of Christians has any bearing on this since Christianity didn’t exist as a unified religion until well after the fact. Again, we’re talking about what people who lived decades after Jesus purportedly lived believed about a story that already had all the earmarks of legend.Furthermore, why is this so embarrassing? Was not Jesus supposed to be the Son of Man as well as the Son of God? Is it not fitting that he would prove his manhood by submitting to a rite of manhood before proving his divinity by performing miracles? It seems rather logical to me.I asked you in an earlier post to please provide similar examples of contemporary events that were so embarrassing that they had to be recorded exactly as they happened. Perhaps I’m missing something obvious, but I can’t think of another instance of a breech of ritual in a god-man story upsetting the populace to any great degree.Again, why not consider this an interesting twist on an old tradition?From the perspective of historical study, the fact that a story of walking on water may have been invented does not lead automatically to the conclusion that every detail in the story was invented.Neither does the existence of a miracle story about a figure lead automatically to the conclusion that any such figure existed.My point about the failure of Jesus is that he failed to meet the expectations people had in his time about the Messiah. Christians were forced to interpret his death as sacrificial, and claim that he would return to finish the tasks of the Messiah and establish his reign.Again with the Christians’ reactions. Do you mean the Jews toward the end of the first century CE? To my knowledge, there was no such thing as “Christianity” until much later — only a collection of various mystery cults that did not necessarily agree with each other on anything. It is my understanding that even the writings attributed to Paul seem unclear as to whether Jesus was an earthly figure or a heavenly being.I feel like you are making assumptions about the audience which are not necessarily justified. I think I brought up the point — If I did not, I apologize — that the readers of Mark could only have been a very limited number of well educated Jews, who would have been familiar with Greek legends from their considerable educations. Are we to believe that they would have read this as a historical document despite the fact that it has many trappings of Hellenistic legendary literature?These beliefs hindered Christians’ attempts to persuade their Jewish contemporaries that Jesus was the Messiah. Why didn’t they just rewrite the story, if it was pure fabrication?Again, this feels like an ad hoc explanation. By the time “Christians” were trying to convert Jews, decades had passed. It seems equally, if not more plausible to me that by the time Christians got around to forming a religion around the story, it had been retold enough times that they were stuck trying to make a made up story fit their real life religion.I hope it won’t be necessary for me to provide all the relevant evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, 1 Enoch, the Psalms of Solomon and other relevant sources of our knowledge of the historical setting for the rise of Christianity. But it may be that unfamiliarity with this historical literature may be one factor in making the “Jesus as myth” claim seem more plausible.Here’s where my biggest concerns lie. Discounting the significant problems with using Josephus as a credible source, I’m perfectly content to concede the existence of messianic expectations within various elements of Jewish society. What sits very poorly in my brain is the ad hoc rationalization of a particular story as a historical, or even semi-historical account, when the conclusion seems to presuppose the inevitability of the events. Instead of trying to make square pegs fit into round holes, why not assume that it’s just a story, and not meant to start a religion that will conquer half of the world in 2000 years. Isn’t that a bit presumptuous?To put that another way, I smell Christian bias. Supposing that Mark had never been written, history might now be completely ignorant of the legend of Jesus. It might have died out like so many other fads in history. The dogged insistence that Jesus must have lived seems to be an attempt to justify two thousand years of the religion.When I think of Mark as a story written by a man educated in the finest traditions of Greek legend, I don’t have any problems squaring the awkward twists. It’s not easy to adapt so many elements into a cohesive story.Have you read The Lord of the Rings? It’s a very compelling story, but to be honest, some of the plot devices are strained to say the least. There are points at which it becomes easy to believe that Tolkien did his best with what he had and trusted that his readers would still enjoy the story. Why is it so hard to imagine Mark doing the same thing?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    Err… to clarify slightly, I should have said that had Mark not written the legend of Jesus, its component themes and legends would have died out. Sorry for that gaff.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I don’t think that anyone would expect there to be similar sorts of evidence for Alexander of Macedon and Jesus of Nazareth. The latter was clearly not an influential figure in his own time. And certainly it is possible to argue that in the decades between his lifetime and the writing of the Gospels so much that is legendary was told about him that we can no longer get at an underlying historical figure in any detail. That’s a different scenario than saying that someone somewhere made up a story from scratch about a dying and rising Messiah. To claim that requires explaining away the existence within the early church of individuals who claimed to know him and even be related to him, and about whom embarassing stories circulated in connection with him (e.g. Peter being called Satan by Jesus, and later denying him). It seems to me a far more natural interpretation of such evidence to say that there is a historical figure behind the later developments.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    I don’t think that anyone would expect there to be similar sorts of evidence for Alexander of Macedon and Jesus of Nazareth.I guess I don’t understand why you brought him up, then. The two figures don’t seem analogous at all. That’s a different scenario than saying that someone somewhere made up a story from scratch about a dying and rising Messiah.Who said I said it was made up from scratch? I just said it seems made up. To continue the analogy of The Lord of the Rings, there are certainly novel elements in the story, but many, if not most of his inventions have precursors in literary history, as do many of his devices. He certainly wasn’t the first person to write a fictional allegory of the evils of industrialization.To claim that requires explaining away the existence within the early church of individuals who claimed to know him and even be related to himWill you please explain why it isn’t plausible to think that savvy individuals recognized the value of being related to god and claimed to be something they were not?and about whom embarassing stories circulated in connection with him (e.g. Peter being called Satan by Jesus, and later denying him).I honestly don’t get this argument at all. Who was blushing when they read this? If, as I am proposing, it’s just a story, why would anybody get their boxers in a twist? The embarrassment argument seems to only make sense if we assume that Jesus was real and that he was a god.In Lord of the Rings, King Theoden had an embarrassing lapse of judgment that could have led to the enslavement of the entire human race. It makes the story more interesting when there are crises.It seems to me a far more natural interpretation of such evidence to say that there is a historical figure behind the later developments.You keep saying this. I don’t think the weight of repetition is particularly compelling.Honestly, James, and I do mean this in all respect, I feel like you’ve not really answered any of my questions. I’ll be happy to restate them if I have been unclear, but just to sum up, it seems like your entire case rests on the embarrassment of some nebulous group of people decades after the fact and the inclusion of awkward plot details.I submit that first, you have not made a compelling case that “Christians” were the target audience, or even run of the mill Jews. The author of Mark had to have been schooled by the Greeks in Greek traditions. Why would we assume that he would write a story in Greek for illiterate Jewish cultists?Second, I think I’ve presented very reasonable and parsimonious interpretations of the embarrassing elements of the story as well as the changes from messianic expectations. All of this seems very logical in the context of “It’s just a story.” In fact, it only seems to become problematic when we try to make Jesus into a real figure.Finally, I’d like to ask you a pointed question. You mention that Jesus of Nazareth was clearly not influential in his time. In fact, it’s safe to say that he was not influential for several decades after his time. Knowing this, what are we left to believe about a historical Jesus, and why could it possibly be more than a passing trivial point?If the legends aren’t true, and the religion is based on the legends, what is so important about finding some homeless prophet or rogue Jewish cleric? To say that there was some singularly unimportant man at the heart of some miniscule part of a legendary story is hardly a stroke of historical genius. It seems to be elevating a nobody to prominence simply because somebody made up a religion decades later.To put it another way, outside of the curiosity of a few dedicated historians, why is it so important for there to have been a human basis for the Jesus mythology?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I don’t think you’re looking critically at your own claims. First, you ask why is it important whether there was a historical figure? From my perspective, it is important simply because it is important to get our knowledge about history as accurate as possible. I would expect a biologist, if asked why it matters whether evolution happened, to say “because it is important to do as much justice to the evidence as we can”.You seem to be suggesting that Peter was a myth rather than a leader of early Jewish Christianity who might be embarrassed at his failure to acknowledge Jesus, particularly in the context of a developing tradition that claimed denying Jesus before people would result in him denying that person on the day of judgment. You seem to be suggesting as well that the earliest Christians thought of Jesus as God. They didn’t, and the historical evidence regarding that is fairly clear, but is also another subject. I have to leave now, I’m afraid, so apologies that this response is so brief.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    I don’t think you’re looking critically at your own claims. First, you ask why is it important whether there was a historical figure? From my perspective, it is important simply because it is important to get our knowledge about history as accurate as possible. I would expect a biologist, if asked why it matters whether evolution happened, to say “because it is important to do as much justice to the evidence as we can”.I think you misunderstand my question. I am a great advocate of accuracy, and I would prefer to know the true events of history. What I’m getting at is that by your own admission, Jesus, if he existed, was unimportant in his time, and was certainly nothing approaching the figure in the book of Mark or the Pauline epistles.To draw another analogy, I don’t see historians beating each other over the head in scholarly death matches concerning which, if any, historical figure may have been the original inspiration for the Legend of King Arthur.At best, I can’t find any reason that Jesus’ historical existence is anything more than a historical curiosity, since you’ve said that he didn’t do anything of particular importance in his time.Sure, I’d like to know the true answer, but in the broad scope of history, what would the answer change either way? Isn’t it odd that so many people are spending so much time trying to find a homeless guy from 2000 years ago?You seem to be suggesting that Peter was a myth rather than a leader of early Jewish Christianity who might be embarrassed at his failure to acknowledge Jesus, particularly in the context of a developing tradition that claimed denying Jesus before people would result in him denying that person on the day of judgment. You seem to be suggesting as well that the earliest Christians thought of Jesus as God. They didn’t, and the historical evidence regarding that is fairly clear, but is also another subject.Actually, I’m suggesting nothing of the sort. You’ve glossed over one of my major points several times. What is to preclude me from believing that savvy individuals would not claim to be related to, or have known Jesus? Fame is fame, now or two thousand years ago.Personally, if I were to impersonate Peter, I could surely come up with a good story or two to explain the whole denial thing. If nothing else, I’m sure a little false humility at my own human failings would go a long way towards establishing my credibility as a good witness.I have to leave now, I’m afraid, so apologies that this response is so brief.Take your time. I’m here every day.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11134934827966299989 Baconeater

    I find it impossible to believe that Jesus ever existed. Zero contemporary evidence, and there should have been tons.It took over 50 “after the fact” for anyone (Josephus) to even acknowledge Christians. There were Messianic cults throughout the Holy land at the time, it makes sense that one would finally make news.Especially after the Jews were having a crappy time of it while buying into their mean vengeful God who was ambiguous of an afterlife.For the apologists, how can nobody write about the magical man while he was here, yet write about many many years after the fact as if he was the most important person ever?I used to assume Jesus existed, until I started to do a search of what he looked like. This led me where I am now.Jesus was just a usurped story (most Dionysus), and probably invented in a dream (possibly Paul, if he existed, or someone like Paul).I found this article by Bidstrup enlightening btw when I was doing the searches.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    OK, so I’m supposed to believe that Peter and a bunch of other people all claimed to be disciples and relatives and even a parent of a non-existent Jesus, and yet no one realized? And then they made up unfavorable stories about themselves not believing in Jesus, denying him, and doing various other things, in the context of an honor-shame society? And I’m supposed to consider this a more natural reading of the evidence than that there was an actual Jesus of Nazareth?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11134934827966299989 Baconeater

    I believe all his contemporary disciples were fiction.How long did it take James Frey to have a believable story that millions of people bought into?One year, or less.And the story turned out to be a lie.It is much easier to buy into a total myth than a half myth, because nobody is around to refute it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Bacon, do you think that Paul’s letters are fabrications? Or “corrected” by later generations to the plainly point to the existence of Peter, John and James?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11134934827966299989 Baconeater

    If I’m not mistaken the theme of Paul’s letters were just about a vision of Jesus, and it is consistent with my “dream theory”I don’t see them proving any of Jesus’ disciples either.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    You see, this is the problem. Most people are talking about vague notions that they have about what Paul’s letters or the Gospels say. Historians have to be familiar with the evidence in detail, and make a judgment that does justice to it.I am starting to feel like there is a comparison to be made between the “Christ myth” viewpoint and Young Earth Creationism. Both seem satisfied to have only a superficial familiarity with the evidence. And both seem to think that all one has to do is argue “this could have happened” in order to prove their point, rather than having to show why Jesus’ non-existence rather than his existence, or God creating an earth that appears old and organisms that appear related rather than evolution, makes the best sense of the evidence.Both attempt to couch their arguments in scientific or historical sounding language, but don’t seem to really be using the critical methods of the relevant disciplines.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11134934827966299989 Baconeater

    Young earth creationists deny scientific evidence in order to make their bible literal.Lets say that bibles didn’t exist at all and nobody had knowledge of Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, etc.(I’m sure you don’t believe that all three of these individuals were messengers or whatever of God, yet many people believe that one, two or even three were):A science or archaeological or historian team trying to find what happened during their supposed times would not find any evidence for a historical Moses, would not find any for Jesus, and possibly would find some for Mohammed.But when it comes to an ancient earth and evolution, there would be nothing but evidence for both, and nothing that runs contrary to either.Just think about all the similarities between Dionysus and Jesus for example. There is a way higher probability that Jesus was completely fabricated.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Baconeater, your comment illustrates very well that the comparison I made is apt. You clearly have very little knowledge of what the historical evidence is for Moses, Muhammad or Jesus, and to what extent the evidence for each is comparable or different. You also seem not to understand that drawing a parallel between Jesus and Dionysius or Jesus and some other figure is not enough. A historian has to determine (1) was there direct borrowing (there are lots of instances of similar ideas arising in different cultural contexts without direct borrowing, and Sandmel’s classic article on “Parallelomania” addresses important aspects of this issue); and (2) whether a historical figure is being presented as like Dionysius, or a fictional character is being invented who is like Dionysius.In Acts 17, the author of that work echoes the classic depiction of Socrates in describing Paul. This doesn’t prove Paul didn’t exist. What it shows is an author’s desire to depict an individual in relation to another.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11134934827966299989 Baconeater

    James, I suggest you watch The Bible Unearthed video series, regarding the history of Moses.My point is that outside the bibles, there is no evidence that Moses or Jesus existed.As for proving Jesus or Moses didn’t exist, it is impossible to disprove a negative unless more specifics are given. But it is up to the person making the claim that Moses and Jesus existed to provide evidence.And I’m sorry, but I don’t regard the bible as a source for any evidence regarding historical figures whatsoever.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    baconeater, I don’t need to watch the Bible Unearthed video. I’ve read the book, which is much more detailed, and many others. I am well aware that the archaeological evidence strongly counters the Biblical account in Joshua of Israelites coming from elsewhere and conquering the land. My point is that you are not approaching these matters in the way a historian would. The situation is not the same when one has sources written almost a millenium after the events in its pages are supposed to have happened and when the events are supposed to have happened a couple of decades earlier. In the same way, the situation differs when one is dealing with second-hand vs. first-hand sources. Few deny that there was such a historical figure as Paul, because historians judge some of the letters attributed to him in the New Testament as authentic. The “Jesus was a myth” approach treats the various documents in the Bible as though they are all the same, and as though a negative conclusion about one detail or even most details means that the whole thing is mythical. In fact, historians of antiquity have to deal all the time with sources that contain little or much historical data, overlaid with legend, myth and miracle. In historical study, there is no shortcut to an “all or nothing” conclusion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    OK, so I’m supposed to believe that Peter and a bunch of other people all claimed to be disciples and relatives and even a parent of a non-existent Jesus, and yet no one realized? I didn’t ask you to believe it. I asked you if it was implausible. I then offered you modern day anecdotal evidence, of which I’m sure you can find plenty yourself, that even in an information age, with social security cards and digital photos, it’s not particularly hard for someone to fool quite a lot of people, even when he’s pretending to be someone who’s still alive.Do you suggest that it’s completely implausible that a handful of people, decades after an already mythologized potential fact, were not each independently or conspiratorially capable of claiming relation to a man nobody knew for sure had ever lived?And then they made up unfavorable stories about themselves not believing in Jesus, denying him, and doing various other things, in the context of an honor-shame society?What I suggested was that if someone were faced with an already written legend, it would behoove them to embrace the embarrassing parts if they were to claim to be one of the people. It would also give them credibility, particularly when the legend himself was purported to have stressed humility. And I’m supposed to consider this a more natural reading of the evidence than that there was an actual Jesus of Nazareth?If you like. I don’t know if I believe this scenario or not. I’m suggesting that your evidence for a historical Jesus is no more believable than an ad hoc bunch of writers and preachers who decided to use a legend to their advantage.James, I recognize that you have your own responsibilities, and I’m not suggesting that you should devote all your time to me, but I’ve spent several hours of my life composing well thought out questions, and you’ve managed to deflect or ignore virtually all of them and go down a rather pointless path.I’m not here to offer you my scholarly opinion on the origin of the Jesus legend. If you’ll review my posts, you’ll notice that I’ve asked you repeatedly to explain what appear to me to be inconsistencies and logical problems with your position.You’re the one making a claim. I’ve already explained that I have no firm opinion on this matter, but that I find your arguments uncompelling and logically weak. I’ve asked you a number of questions that, if answered, would clarify your position substantially, and perhaps help me to understand the depth of your conviction.As it stands, I am prepared to write your opinion off as religious bias, primarily because you have simply not answered any of my questions.If you would like me to restate my questions in a condensed form, I’ll be happy to do so, but I assume you can simply re-read the blog. I’ve done my best to separate each topic for ease of review.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    If you’re asking whether it is theoretically possible that a bunch of people invented a story and conspired to claim that they were the relatives and/or historical followers of that imaginary figure, then of course it is theoretically possible. It is also possible for Socrates, and even the writings of Josephus could have been in fact written by someone else.Historical study, however, is not content to talk about the possibilities, but is trying to determine which best fits the evidence. That involves a careful analysis of all the relevant data, whether textual or archaeological, as well as the wider historical context and other literature from the time. There is a reason why one more often finds books about the historical Jesus than articles (or blogs for that matter). It takes a lot of detailed research to do justice to the subject.If you are seriously interested in understanding why the vast majority of historians specializing in this time period believe that there was a historical Jesus, it may involve your actually reading books. I certainly don’t think it is reasonable to expect me reproduce all of the arguments, especially when you take the approach of responding to presentations of pieces of the evidence by asking “But isn’t is possible that…?” Sure, lots of things are possible. It is also possible that God made the earth recently with the appearance of age, and made a bunch of organisms as separate creations that appear to be genetically related. What I’m interested in discussing, if you are interested, is what historical explanation best accounts for the evidence we have.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    If you’re asking whether it is theoretically possible that a bunch of people invented a story and conspired to claim that they were the relatives and/or historical followers of that imaginary figure, then of course it is theoretically possible. It is also possible for Socrates, and even the writings of Josephus could have been in fact written by someone else.This seems an odd comparison. To the best of my knowledge, neither Socrates nor Josephus claimed to be related to God or any legendary figures.If you’re saying that Josephus or Socrates might have been pen names for people not named Josephus or Socrates, I’m perfectly happy to accept the comparison. However, if you’re suggesting that Josephus and Socrates were invented mythological figures, or that Josephus was not a historian, I think your comparison will break down rather quickly.Historical study, however, is not content to talk about the possibilities, but is trying to determine which best fits the evidence. That involves a careful analysis of all the relevant data, whether textual or archaeological, as well as the wider historical context and other literature from the time.Right. So would you like to discuss your evidence, or tell me again how strongly you believe it?There is a reason why one more often finds books about the historical Jesus than articles (or blogs for that matter). It takes a lot of detailed research to do justice to the subject.Is this relevant? Are you suggesting that I ought to just take your word for this because um… this is a blog?If you are seriously interested in understanding why the vast majority of historians specializing in this time period believe that there was a historical Jesus, it may involve your actually reading books.I read your post to Rook in which you promised to be polite and try to avoid personal insult. Would you like me to send you a webcam shot of my bookshelf, Doctor?I certainly don’t think it is reasonable to expect me reproduce all of the arguments, especially when you take the approach of responding to presentations of pieces of the evidence by asking “But isn’t is possible that…?”You’re the one making a claim, James. I’m asking you to answer logical objections to that claim. Out of one side of your mouth you’re telling me to shut up and go read a book, and on the other, you’re telling me that I ought to believe your opinion because um… actually, I’m not sure why I’m supposed to believe you. You don’t seem to want to answer any of my questions.Sure, lots of things are possible. It is also possible that God made the earth recently with the appearance of age, and made a bunch of organisms as separate creations that appear to be genetically related. What I’m interested in discussing, if you are interested, is what historical explanation best accounts for the evidence we have.So why don’t you answer my questions? If they’re so naive, they ought to be easy to answer, right?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    OK, can you give me one specific claim of your own, or one specific objection to a claim of mine, that you’d like to focus on? In the mean time, I’ll come back to one of your points that I have not thus far directly addressed. You point out that the early Christians interpreted the crucifixion (often in conjunction with the resurrection) as Jesus’ victory over the powers of darkness, or as a sacrifice for sin, or in some other way as a victory rather than a defeat. What you seem to be ignoring is how odd this early Christian claim was in its historical context. It is hard to understand why you think Christians would have done in their time what would have been the equivalent of, in a modern American context, inventing a story about a president who never gets elected but instead gets executed by lethal injection, and they then proclaim him as the true president who one day will return to take office. The early Christian interpretations of the cross as salvific make perfect sense as an attempt to make sense after the fact of why the individual they believed to be the Messiah had nevertheless been crucified. But it is much less plausible to explain it as something someone simply made up. Again, not impossible, just a far less plausible historical explanation of what we find in these sources.Does this count as me addressing one of your specific points?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    OK, can you give me one specific claim of your own, or one specific objection to a claim of mine, that you’d like to focus on? Yes. For simplicity, I’ll simply repost the one where I asked you to explain your position on the apparent changes in the messiah myths. This also deals directly with your latest response to me:The question that remains is why someone would invent a story from scratch about a figure, claim that this individual is the Messiah and that the story is good news, and then present the individual as failing to fulfill the expectations of such an anointed one.I guess I don’t understand this either. Why is it implausible to think that Mark’s message was that the expectations of the anointed one were wrong?It seems to me that as the fate of Israel changed, the interpretation of its traditions would be expected to change. Is not Jesus viable as a reinterpretation of the traditional view of the expected messiah?To put it more clearly, if we are accounting for the inevitable changes in culture as history moves forward, would we not be incredibly surprised if a single idea didn’t change concurrently with the culture? The fact that the Jesus story is a reinterpretation of an old legend seems very logical when we think of it this way.On what basis are you staking your claim that the messiah legend is immune from adaptation, even as Israel was being conquered both from without and within by new cultures and radically new ideas?Coming back to your current post:It is hard to understand why you think Christians would have done in their time what would have been the equivalent of, in a modern American context, inventing a story about a president who never gets elected but instead gets executed by lethal injection, and they then proclaim him as the true president who one day will return to take office.I hardly see how this is a valid comparison. We’ve had 43 U.S. presidents, and the Constitution is a document of law, not a collection of stories and prophecies.To the best of my knowledge, there had been no saviors of all of Israel prior to the writing of the Gospel of Mark. It seems the author was charting new territory.You continually make a case about Jewish expectations regarding a messiah, but (I see Rook has addressed this point in his blog as well) you have not accounted for either the training and cultural influences on the author of Mark, nor have you reconciled the apparent contradiction in supposing that Mark was writing in Greek, in the style of a legend, for Jews who would not be able to read the book.As Rook has very clearly pointed out, it is a mistake to suggest that the average Jew in the first century CE was culturally equivalent to an average Jew a hundred years earlier. Furthermore, I have still not seen you address the very relevant question of Mark’s target audience when it was written. You keep making generalizations about how Christians felt about it, and that seems somewhat irrelevant, since you are presuming that Mark knew a religion would spring up around his book.The thing is, James, this presupposes the conclusion that this is in any way historical, which is what you are trying to prove.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thank you for such a quick reply. If we were discussing specifically Mark’s portrait of Jesus then we might have to limit our discussions to Mark’s Gospel. It may well be plausible to suggest that Mark was adapting the Christian tradition for a more educated Greco-Roman audience, although his Greek is far less polished than that of Luke or even that of John, which makes your claims about Mark’s education and audience somewhat more problematic.Be that as it may, since we are discussing the historical figure of Jesus, we have to take into account Paul’s letters as well, which were written in the 40s-50s CE. In them we not only learn that Paul himself did not know the historical figure of Jesus, but we learn that the Jerusalem church is under the leadership of individuals such as “James the brother of the Lord”. And so if you are going to talk about the invention of Jesus from scratch, it needs to be in terms of individuals like James and Peter, and not merely in terms of Mark’s Gospel. Mark may indeed have added, changed, developed and elaborated his portrait of Jesus into something different than it had been before, but that is a separate question from the suppose “invention of Jesus”.I was not claiming something about the Constitution, and so your response has me puzzled. My point is that the expectation in Judaism in this time was for a restoration of the kingship and priesthood – the two anointed leaders of ancient Judah, both roles/institutions having been occupied by individuals who were not of the families specified by Jewish law. And so we’re talking about Christians claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of these Messianic expectations, while also claiming that he failed to do the things that were expected.It is certainly possible to imagine the early Christians claiming that the expectations of the majority of their Jewish contemporaries were wrong – indeed, they do precisely that. But you still have not explained why they would have done this by inventing a figure who fails to live up to Jewish Messianic expectations and then claiming he was nonetheless the expected Messiah. If you want to talk about what Mark does to the historical figure of Jesus, we can. But if we are asking about the historical evidence for the figure of Jesus, then we don’t begin with Mark, but with the earliest written sources we have.As for the question of whether the institution of the “Twelve Apostles” may have been a post Easter development, I discuss the possibilities here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I decided to post a video and try to address a number of points through that medium.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    It may well be plausible to suggest that Mark was adapting the Christian tradition for a more educated Greco-Roman audience, although his Greek is far less polished than that of Luke or even that of John, which makes your claims about Mark’s education and audience somewhat more problematic.So you’re saying that Mark wasn’t educated with other Greeks and aware of the Greek tradition of borrowing from older models to create new stories?You’ve not really answered my question. Who was the author’s target audience at the time of its writing?And so if you are going to talk about the invention of Jesus from scratchI’ve yet to suggest the invention of Jesus from scratch. You keep saying I’m saying that.I’m suggesting that the story of Jesus seems like a reinterpretation and amalgamation of older legends.it needs to be in terms of individuals like James and Peter, and not merely in terms of Mark’s Gospel. Mark may indeed have added, changed, developed and elaborated his portrait of Jesus into something different than it had been before, but that is a separate question from the suppose “invention of Jesus”.I guess we should get something out in the open before continuing this line of inquiry. What do you contend are the dates of composition for Mark, the Pauline Epistles, and the letters of Peter and James?I recognize there is some debate on these topics, and I’m not looking for a summary of all the positions. I want to know what you believe.My point is that the expectation in Judaism in this time was for a restoration of the kingship and priesthood – the two anointed leaders of ancient Judah, both roles/institutions having been occupied by individuals who were not of the families specified by Jewish law.To which I’ve already responded. First, if we read the Jesus legend as a story, reinterpreted and amalgamated from previous Jewish and Hellenistic models, we solve a lot of problems. The expectations of run of the mill Jews become singularly unimportant, since they would not have been the target audience for the story. Furthermore, the new “twist” on an old theme would be appealing to audiences familiar with the legends but well inculcated into the new culture, which, as has been previously mentioned, was at least two generations old by the time of Mark.In other words, if we look at the Gospel of Mark as a clever story by a Greek writer writing to educated readers, the problem of messianic expectation disappears.My editing functions are acting glitchy, and I suspect I’m going to have to restart my computer, so I will post this now so as not to lose it, and then continue with my response.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Hopefully this comment will be done before you get back! :)Let me ask for clarification: Are you claiming that the entirety of the Gospel of Mark is pure fiction without in any sense being based on and purporting to describe a figure who actually existed, even if the historical figure in question turns out to have been totally unlike the one described in this piece of literature? I may have misunderstood you on this point.Second, if we are going to approach the figure of Jesus historically, then we must evaluate each piece of evidence on its own terms. Even works of historical fiction may contain details that reflect actual historical events. Even excellent works by excellent historians may contain errors or legends. Each detail must be evaluated separately, and so perhaps we should discuss specific pieces of information about Jesus found in texts like the Gospel of Mark, rather than about Jesus’ existence in general.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    James, I hope you’ll forgive me for not dealing with your video if it was directed at me. I read much faster than you can talk, and I much prefer to have things in print where they’re easier to deal with.Anyway, moving on with your response to me:I was not claiming something about the Constitution, and so your response has me puzzled. My point is that the expectation in Judaism in this time was for a restoration of the kingship and priesthood – the two anointed leaders of ancient Judah, both roles/institutions having been occupied by individuals who were not of the families specified by Jewish law. And so we’re talking about Christians claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of these Messianic expectations, while also claiming that he failed to do the things that were expected.You seemed to imply that Americans’ reaction to a president not being elected would be comparable to the first century Jews’ reaction to a story about a savior who dies and is resurrected.I fail to see the validity of this since presidents have a long history of being sworn in, and we have had 43 of them. As far as I know, there were no saviors of all Israel in either legend or fact before the story of Jesus. As I understand it, there was significant disagreement between the Pharisees and Sadducees over the nature of the coming messiah. This is significant even without addressing the existence of up to 30 individual sects of Judaism at the beginning of the first century CE.Are you suggesting that because Americans would react badly to a story about an executed president, the Jews would react badly to a story of a dying and resurrecting savior and a metaphorical saving of Israel rather than a physical one when there was no cohesive model of the messiah to be found?I’m trying to think of how many ways that’s bad logic, but I’ll stick with false analogy.While we’re on the subject, you’ve apparently ignored Rooks rather compelling contention that using Isaiah as a model (whether it was originally intended to be so or not) is parsimonious. Stories of fulfilled prophecies are interesting, and the author of Mark certainly was aware of Isaiah. It seems absurd to suggest otherwise.Finally, I have mentioned the Hellenization of Jewish culture several times, and you haven’t really addressed it. Considering the rather nomadic and comparatively barbaric history of the Jews, why would it surprise us that having been introduced to classical culture, they would feel less compelled to throw off the shackles of huge libraries, higher education, better sanitation, and more organized society? It seems that a metaphorical savior would fit in rather nicely, all things considered.Robert Wright has written rather extensively on the cycle of barbarism and culture in his book, “Non Zero.” He offers compelling evidence that this cycle is consistent with the mechanisms of evolution and individual selection. In fact, he argues that we cannot but expect any conquered or invading “less civilized” culture to readily adapt to the more advanced culture. You seem to be suggesting that because the messianic expectations had been physical overthrow (at least within some sects) for a long time that they must have continued to be so, and I find this to be a rather myopic view.It is certainly possible to imagine the early Christians claiming that the expectations of the majority of their Jewish contemporaries were wrong – indeed, they do precisely that. But you still have not explained why they would have done this by inventing a figure who fails to live up to Jewish Messianic expectations and then claiming he was nonetheless the expected Messiah.Not so. Rather, you have failed to explain the presupposition that Mark intended to create a religion rather than tell a story.You’re still talking about his Christian audience when clearly, Christianity did not exist as a cohesive entity until well after Mark was written, even if we date it at the farthest end of currently acceptable estimates.Perhaps you are trying to say that Christianity was a cohesive religion sometime in the first century CE. If you’ll pardon a tiny bit of snark, the books I’ve read suggest that this is not a very wise position to take.But if we are asking about the historical evidence for the figure of Jesus, then we don’t begin with Mark, but with the earliest written sources we have.Pardon me for making any assumptions. So far, your evidence for a historical Jesus in this blog has rested on two claims:1) Argument from Embarrassment2) Argument from alleged relatives.You now seem to be saying that there are early sources establishing the historicity of Jesus before any of the gospels were penned. Would you please explain briefly specifically which sources you’re citing and the evidence for the veracity of these sources?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    Let me ask for clarification: Are you claiming that the entirety of the Gospel of Mark is pure fiction without in any sense being based on and purporting to describe a figure who actually existed, even if the historical figure in question turns out to have been totally unlike the one described in this piece of literature? I may have misunderstood you on this point.To be honest, I don’t see a lot of difference between the two positions. Suppose that the Gospel of Mark is 98% fictional, and the historical part is that there was a Jew who pissed of the local Pharisees and got himself crucified.By what logic can we call the Jesus of Mark a historical figure? This would be akin to suggesting that because Wonder Woman was inspired by her creator’s wife (she was) that Wonder Woman is a historical figure.Even works of historical fiction may contain details that reflect actual historical events.I’ve asked you this before: What parts of Mark do you suggest are historical and which are fiction. What criteria did you use to reach this conclusion?Even excellent works by excellent historians may contain errors or legends. I would go so far as to say that history, on the whole, has been dominated by writers out to make themselves and their own sound a lot bigger and better than they really were.Even in this century, I still read history books that are filled with legends as opposed to facts, even when these facts have been well established through modern science.It makes me wonder why you trust the first century writers so much.Each detail must be evaluated separately, and so perhaps we should discuss specific pieces of information about Jesus found in texts like the Gospel of Mark, rather than about Jesus’ existence in general.I have asked repeatedly for you to tell me precisely what you believe the historical Jesus to be, and which parts of any of the gospel or epistles you believe to be historically accurate and why. I’m anxiously awaiting your claims.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    Let me ask for clarification: Are you claiming that the entirety of the Gospel of Mark is pure fiction without in any sense being based on and purporting to describe a figure who actually existed, even if the historical figure in question turns out to have been totally unlike the one described in this piece of literature? I may have misunderstood you on this point.To be honest, I don’t see a lot of difference between the two positions. Suppose that the Gospel of Mark is 98% fictional, and the historical part is that there was a Jew who pissed of the local Pharisees and got himself crucified.By what logic can we call the Jesus of Mark a historical figure? This would be akin to suggesting that because Wonder Woman was inspired by her creator’s wife (she was) that Wonder Woman is a historical figure.Even works of historical fiction may contain details that reflect actual historical events.I’ve asked you this before: What parts of Mark do you suggest are historical and which are fiction. What criteria did you use to reach this conclusion?Even excellent works by excellent historians may contain errors or legends. I would go so far as to say that history, on the whole, has been dominated by writers out to make themselves and their own sound a lot bigger and better than they really were.Even in this century, I still read history books that are filled with legends as opposed to facts, even when these facts have been well established through modern science.It makes me wonder why you trust the first century writers so much.Each detail must be evaluated separately, and so perhaps we should discuss specific pieces of information about Jesus found in texts like the Gospel of Mark, rather than about Jesus’ existence in general.I have asked repeatedly for you to tell me precisely what you believe the historical Jesus to be, and which parts of any of the gospel or epistles you believe to be historically accurate and why. I’m anxiously awaiting your claims.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I cannot seriously believe you are asking me to produce in response to your comments what would in essence be a book, detailing precisely what is and is not likely to be historical in our various sources based on a critical examination of the available evidence. And so I will assume I’ve simply misunderstood.Let me direct you to some online notes from my historical Jesus course, and the countless studies of the historical Jesus by excellent historical scholars: E. P. Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus, John P. Meier’s multi-volume A Marginal Jew, Theissen and Metz’ The Historical Jesus, Fossum and Munoa’s Jesus and the Gospels, and oh so many others. I’m not sure there’s any point in continuing this conversation when it is clear that you are unaware of sources documenting the existence of the Christian movement prior to the time of Mark’s Gospel. It seems an unnecessary drain of my time to reproduce here in detail arguments that anyone who has investigated the historical study of Jesus will have encountered on the first pages of their textbook.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    I cannot seriously believe you are asking me to produce in response to your comments what would in essence be a book, detailing precisely what is and is not likely to be historical in our various sources based on a critical examination of the available evidence. And so I will assume I’ve simply misunderstood.I didn’t ask for a dissertation. I asked you which parts of Mark you believe are historical. There are only 16 chapters, right? Just list the accounts that you believe to be entirely historical, without embellishment. For that matter, if that’s too many, just start with a couple and we’ll go from there.Let me direct you to some online notes from my historical Jesus course, and the countless studies of the historical Jesus by excellent historical scholars: E. P. Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus, John P. Meier’s multi-volume A Marginal Jew, Theissen and Metz’ The Historical Jesus, Fossum and Munoa’s Jesus and the Gospels, and oh so many others. You don’t seem to believe this, but I’m familiar with a good bit of the body of work on this subject.I’m not sure there’s any point in continuing this conversation when it is clear that you are unaware of sources documenting the existence of the Christian movement prior to the time of Mark’s Gospel.It’s interesting that you asked me to give you a specific question. I did, and now you’re just brushing me off without answering the questions at all.Please reread my last post. Did I say there was no Christian movement prior to Mark, or did I say there wasn’t a cohesive movement prior to Mark?Now, would you please answer the simplest of my questions, at least?What do you contend are the dates of composition for Mark, the Pauline epistles, and the letters of Peter and James?Who do you contend was the intended audience for the Gospel of Mark at the time of its writing?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    While I’m on the subject, I’ve noticed that the authors you’ve mentioned are not (at least to my reading) particularly forthcoming about their methodology with regard to the questions I’m asking. I can’t even recall them being addressed in any detail. This is the heart of what I’m asking you. I’ve read the various explanations for Jesus’ historicity, and they all sound rather ad hoc to me.The broad point that I’m trying to make is that I do know something of history as well as several other disciplines which relate directly to the interpretation of it. Your arguments seem to discount several very real historical phenomena which, taken as a whole, lend credence to the notion that the Jesus story is just that — a story.Once again, I will note that you have failed to account for the cultural shift that must be expected as Jews were assimilated into Classical culture, and how this would likely effect the reinterpretation of old mythologies. Surely you are familiar with the preeminent Joseph Campbell’s compelling treatises on the dynamic nature of mythology.Furthermore, I have made frequent mention of the very plausible arguments for willful deception by early writers, and I have not seen you refute that in any way, other than to act flabbergasted that I would suggest you ought to believe it.Doctor McGrath, you’ve certainly written your share of theses. I feel confident that you’ve also written summaries.I would like you to write a summary of the methodology and the evidence you use to reach your conclusions regarding the historicity of Jesus as well as the events related in the gospels and the epistles which are historical beyond a reasonable doubt.I would dearly like to know what, if any, pieces of ancient literature you used for comparison. For instance, is there a dead give-away that the legend of Dionysus is entirely fiction but the legend of Jesus is historical? What methods of textual criticism did you use to reach this conclusion?Do you suppose that Semele might have been based on a real person? Perhaps there was a wandering minstrel with foppish tendencies who was the daughter of a local lord, and somebody made up the legend of Dionysus twenty years later.Do you believe this? If not, what was the methodology you used to reach this conclusion.Since we’re tossing names about, how do you respond to Price, Thompson, and Carrier, who, incidentally, has a PhD in history, if memory serves? These are all scholars working with current information and current science, and they have reached the conclusion that Jesus is a myth.What methodology and evidence do you use to refute their positions, evidence, and methodology?Dr. McGrath, if you want to toss names about, we can toss names about. I’d rather have an intelligent conversation about your beliefs. I begin with a blank slate — that is, I assume the burden of proof to be on the claimant. You claim that despite what appear to be clearly legendary stories based on well known themes, there is a historical figure at the heart of the Jesus story.I want to know, in a nutshell, what scholarly tools you have put to use to reach your conclusion, and how you are able to dismiss other equally plausible (perhaps moreso) scenarios.By the way, I should point out that you have yet to address my question of the Hellenization of the Jews and its impact on the mythology of a savior. Would you care to give me your scholarly take on this virtually certain phenomenon?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    Pardon me if I appear to be trying to monopolize your time. I’m honestly trying to understand your position. To that end, I have questions about your study notes:1) You list five primary criteria for determining that Jesus was a historical figure: Embarrassment, Discontinuity, Multiple Attestation, Coherence, and Rejection and Execution. While discussing each criterion, I notice that you provide arguments against their usefulness. However, you don’t discuss the methodology by which you decide whether to believe the arguments or the counter arguments. What are these methods?2) I notice that your fifth criterion for determining the historicity of Jesus presumes his historicity. To quote you: “Description: This criterion emphasizes that Jesus met a violent death at the hands of Jewish and Roman officials and then asks what historical words or actions of Jesus explain his trial and crucifixion as “King of the Jews.” A Jesus whose words and actions would not alienate people, especially powerful people, is not the historical Jesus crucified by Pontius Pilate. Jesus threatened, disturbed, and infuriated people. Limitations: This criterion might tend to miss sayings and actions of Jesus where he comforted and consoled people. If Jesus was not a revolutionary, and simply misunderstood or was simply a scapegoat, use of this criterion would miss it. “How do you justify a criterion for determining historicity that presupposes the historicity of the person in question?3) I notice in your class notes that the next page after your criteria for determining historicity is a list of certainly true sayings of Jesus. This seems a huge jump, since you never made a methodological argument for how to resolve the dilemmas presented by the counter-arguments to each of your measures. How do you justify this leap without addressing comparative legends and their potential historicity, or spending any time discussing (as I have often mentioned) changing cultural dynamics and their potential impact on each of these criteria? 4) In your analysis of the birth story in Luke, you point out obvious flaws in the chronology as well as problems with the translation of various words and phrases. You conclude by asserting that the only logical conclusion is that this is a real event in history that has been mistranslated. This conclusion does not seem to follow from the arguments. As I read it, the only conclusion available is that the gospels were mistranslated. Mistranslation, as far as I can tell, is neither an argument for or against historicity. How do you justify a conclusion about historicity based on the presence of a mistranslation?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I was not name dropping. I was recommending mainstream scholarship as a source of information. Basically our exchange was the equivalent of me recommending reading E. O. Wilson, S. J. Gould and Richard Dawkins on evolutionary biology, and being told that my dialogue partner has read Bill Bembski and Mike Behe.When you refer to the Hellenization of Jews in the Greco-Roman era, you seem to mean more than that which Hengel surveyed in his classic treatment. Are you intending to suggest that most Jews in this period worshipped Dionysius, or at least had incorporated stories about him into the mainstream of Jewish storytelling and theology?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    When you refer to the Hellenization of Jews in the Greco-Roman era, you seem to mean more than that which Hengel surveyed in his classic treatment. Are you intending to suggest that most Jews in this period worshipped Dionysius, or at least had incorporated stories about him into the mainstream of Jewish storytelling and theology?Why do I get the impression you’re trying to trap me so that you can discount what I’m asking?I’ve already asked this (I think three times now) in what I think is a very clear manner. After reviewing your class notes, I see that you place Mark at about 60CE. This would be plenty of time for the partial Hellenization of significant swaths of the Jewish community. I do not presume to suggest how much or to what extent this had happened, but to suggest that it hadn’t happened to some degree seems rather naive. If you’d like, we can move into a discussion of the dynamics of cultural assimilation, and that would actually be more in my field of interest, but I’m trying to learn about your field of interest.Bearing that in mind, and granting that the author of Mark (even if he was not the most polished of Greek authors) most certainly had been exposed to Greek myths, writing styles, and legends, is it not reasonable to suppose that the Gospel of Mark could have been the reinterpretation of Jewish legends through a filter of Hellenistic forms and style?Whether every Jew had heard of Dionysus seems rather irrelevant. If the author of Mark was trained in Greek, he would have heard of the legend. Why is it so implausible to think that in line with his Greek literary education, Mark’s author would have reinterpreted a Jewish prophecy and various other legends into the fictional tale of Jesus?While we’re on the subject, I’m led to believe that recent studies support the conclusion that there was a relatively high level of sociocultural assimilation of Jews in both Palestine and the Diaspora during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. There are images of Orpheus depicted as a Jew in synagogues, and solid evidence that Jews even became soldiers and politicians.The point is that a majority of Jews agreeing on anything seems hardly necessary for a single author schooled in Greek tradition and legend to write a fictional amalgamation of both Jewish and Greek legends. I imagine his teachers would have thought him very clever, actually.My question seems very clear. How do you discount the possibility that the author of Mark was a Hellenized Jew writing what he thought was a very clever reinterpretation of both Jewish and Greek myths?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    You seem to think that Greek-speaking Jews generally also worshipped Greek gods. The evidence from the Dura Europos synagogue is certainly interesting, but there too we have a grafting of Greek mythology into that of the Jews, not an abandonment of Judaism. You have yet to provide any actual aspects of Mark’s Gospel that would lead you to believe that Mark was “Hellenizing” his Christian faith. If that was his aim, why would he have Jesus refer to a Greek woman he meets as a “dog”?If you’d like to continue this, some newcomers have joined us over on a more recent post on this subject, and so it seems to make sense to continue the discussion there.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    You seem to think that Greek-speaking Jews generally also worshipped Greek gods. The evidence from the Dura Europos synagogue is certainly interesting, but there too we have a grafting of Greek mythology into that of the Jews, not an abandonment of Judaism.Are you saying this to me?I’m simply going to ask you to reread my posts because the statement you just made is so baffling as to make me lose hope in this discussion.You have yet to provide any actual aspects of Mark’s Gospel that would lead you to believe that Mark was “Hellenizing” his Christian faith. If that was his aim, why would he have Jesus refer to a Greek woman he meets as a “dog”?Equally baffling.You seem to make a lot of assumptions about what I’m saying. Let me make this abundantly clear. I am not the one making a claim. You are. You’re the one with “Doctor” before your name who’s teaching people that Jesus was a historical figure. That, my friend, is a claim. You are the one responsible for backing your claim up.I have asked you probably thirty questions, and as far as I can discern, you have not answered one.To be honest, James, and I mean this only as constructive criticism from someone who was genuinely trying to learn from you, I would drop your class if you taught it the way you’ve handled this blog. And James, please don’t insult me by suggesting that I don’t have enough background to take your class. I do.I read over all of your study notes last night, but I’m not going to ask you any more questions about them because you don’t answer questions. At least not here.For now, I’m leaving this conversation with the conclusion that you are biased and unwilling to consider opinions other than your own or even address concerns raised with it.I want you to know that I’m not mad, nor am I trying to insult you. I did my best to have an intelligent conversation, and spent most of two days of my life trying to get you to answer questions. At this point, I consider it a futile effort.Thanks for your time, and please consider rereading my entire conversation with you to see just how many questions you’ve completely sidestepped.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    You are free to stay or to leave. But I will say that from my perspective it is you who has sidestepped frequently. You have made statements about early Christianity that appeared to be incorrect or to assume things that are unlikely to have been the case based on the available evidence. Every time I have tried to get you to clarify, what you have responded with is “I’m not making any claim, you are”. I think if anyone else goes back and reads your comments they may reach a different conclusion.You ask how we know Jesus existed, how we know anything about him if he did exist. The answer I’ve tried to give in different ways of the course of this extended interaction has been this: We “know” (more precisely, we reach a conclusion about probability) based on a critical analysis of the evidence. We do not just do what you seem to, take sources and say “Couldn’t someone have just made this up?” but also ask “Is there reason to think that there is history embedded in this made up story?” and “Could the events described have actually happened?” and “Is it more probable that this story was made up, or that it is a legendary elaboration based on actual events, or that it is purely fictional?” As long as your response to every historical argument is “That doesn’t prove with absolute certainty that someone didn’t just make it up”, you will find you can conclude nothing about the past. Because historical study is not about certainty but about probability, and I’ve explained time and again what the evidence leads the vast majority of historians to conclude that Jesus existed, and that what we have in early Christian sources are interpretations of a historical figure. In some cases (e.g. the Gospel of John) the reinterpretation is quite radical. But that is precisely why historical study is necessary, to try to figure out what, if anything, we can know with some degree of certainty. And that is done by sifting through the details piece by piece, not by making unsubstantianted sweeping statements.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07844113417232897478 5keptical

    James, it seems you’ve answered none of the questions put to you.It also seems that your argument relies on looking for consistencies in text written many years after the fact. Any good work of historical fiction would pass this test.Here’s my one question:Is there any independent evidence that the man described in scriptures existed and did any of the things he was said to do?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thank you, 5keptic, for offering a short comment with a clear, concise question.I’m not sure if “getting crucified” counts as something that the historical figure of Jesus “did” (as opposed to “had done to him”), but since this particular incident has been a focus up until now, I’ll begin there.First, there is Tacitus. The testimony of Tacitus (contrary to claims I’ve sometimes encountered) is unlikely to have been concocted by Christians, since it is extremely negative. Unless you consider there to have been some direct contact between Paul and the author of the Gospels of Mark and John, or those who passed on Christian tradition to the author of these Gospels, then they too might count as independent witnesses. But it is also worth mentioning that Paul, in his own letters, mentions other witnesses that do not seem to be his own inventions (on the contrary, they seem to have been Christian leaders whose own outlook was in tension with his own), including one he refers to as “James the Lord’s brother”. It is hard to imagine that Paul is proclaiming a crucified Jesus, and trying to counter the influence of Jewish Christians connected with James, and yet never mentions “Oh, and when James says that there was no Jesus and/or he was never crucified, don’t believe him”.For most historians, the most natural explanation of the Christian focus on the cross is that it was a difficulty crying out for explanation. They focus on it as salvific because the alternative was to focus on it as not merely meaningless, but as strong counter-evidence to the Christians’ understanding of who Jesus was.This answer may not entirely satisfy you, but I do believe it is a specific answer to a specific question. If we can agree that there was a historical figure that these individuals were referring to, we can then move on to the question of whether anything else that he supposedly said or did is in fact authentic. A good place to start might be the baptism of Jesus by John, since the status of Jesus as a disciple of John’s that this event implies is unlikely to have been invented by Christians (and indeed, later Gospel authors do their best to apologize for it or distract attention from it).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07844113417232897478 5keptical

    Tacitus was writing in ~100AD wasn’t he? That hardly counts as independent collaboration – he could just be passing on what he heard. The others are hardly contemporary or independent and the justification for their veracity is contorted and could apply to any work of fiction.So there are no archeological or other contemporary accounts of jesus’ activities. Everything is guess and surmise.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Would you care to give me an example of an instance from antiquity were we have a comparable figure (i.e. a philosopher or rabbi rather than a king who may have left monuments to his triumphs) and we have better evidence than this sort? If you approach the evidence with this degree of skepticism, then we’ll have to be agnostic about most of ancient history. Do we have archaeological evidence for the existence of Hillel and Shammai? This doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Like Jesus there are stories told about them in later (indeed, much later) sources that are likely to be legendary. That’s precisely the sort of conclusions historical study allows one to draw.Tacitus certainly did not provide an eyewitness perspective. But that is hardly the point. He is writing from a Roman perspective that is critical of Christianity. There is no reason to think that he would pass on information that he obtained from Christians, or accept their claims at face value.Please do provide an example from the ancient world of a case where you do think there is sufficient evidence, and then we can use that for comparison.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00581376557055797131 Joshua Boeke

    So I have spent about the last 2 hours reading this extensive exchange and I must say that while I am impressed by its sheer length I feel that I must do my part to end it. Having partaken in some online discourse myself I can understand how invested people can get in these things and in a desire to “win” the argument. With that in mind I felt myself compelled to save you from yourselves and interject some perspective. Considering the amount of time it took me to simply read the exchanges I cannot imagine how much it must have taken to write (the bulk of time invested being clearly in hambydammit’s corner). I don’t pretend to know anything about this particular topic; my original interest in reading this post was to learn something about it. However, one thing I do know a little something about is human psychology, and in a strange way I felt it my duty to prevent these learned scholars from investing any more of their undoubtedly precious time participating in a discussion that has gone well beyond anything productive (even if they themselves cannot see it).Hambydammit, it is possible that you honestly believe that you are unbiased, that you don’t have a position to defend and that your interest is purely academic, but the reality of your language says otherwise. On a couple different occasions you have accused Dr. McGrath of being “religiously biased” and yet you clearly fail to see the bias you are yourself succumbing to. Perhaps you are correct in your argument, but in this case that is largely irrelevant. Being an agnostic myself I can understand how invested you may feel in trying to combat what you see as “religious intolerance” but you have to see that when you make claims like “you have failed to address even one of my questions,” it is simply not true. I have sat here and read line after line of these comments. Each time a relevant point is made you glance over it and attack from a new front or make assertions about something else that you felt was not adequately answered, all the while making claims of logical fallacies that don’t exist, taking offense to analogies that you have clearly taken to intentional extremes (beyond their intended scope), and finding bias around every corner even when there is nothing to suggest its existence. Dr. McGrath, though clearly frustrated by your clear desire not to concede even a single point, is much too polite to stop the madness, and if somebody doesn’t stop this I am convinced it could go on for several more days and end up going exactly nowhere (which is pretty much where it is right now).Judging by the conversation thus far I imagine that you are going to want me to list examples and point out specifics, an exercise that I can all but guarantee would do little good even if I had the time to undertake it. Please simply trust my analysis when I tell you that you are not doing yourself any favors by continuing this discussion. Perhaps it is not my place to tell you how you should spend your time but I sincerely feel that I would be remiss if I did not at least attempt to save you from your own ego and point out that you are accomplishing nothing by continuing what has become little more than intellectual school-yard one-upmanship on your part.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04307322997038298862 Hambydammit

    Hambydammit, it is possible that you honestly believe that you are unbiased, that you don’t have a position to defend and that your interest is purely academic, but the reality of your language says otherwise. On a couple different occasions you have accused Dr. McGrath of being “religiously biased” and yet you clearly fail to see the bias you are yourself succumbing to.If I had a magic wand and could change one thing about the world, I think I would make it so that everyone would read what I write and not what they think I’m saying. I’ve never claimed that I’m unbiased. I said that I am not persuaded one way or the other. I am certainly biased towards Jesus mythicism, and that bias comes from analyzing the arguments of scholars from both sides of the fence, including many that James has mentioned, as well as Thomas L Thompson, Robert Price, and Richard Carrier on the other side of the fence.I feel that the mythicist position is the stronger one, but in an attempt to make the most informed decision possible, I’ve asked as many intelligent questions as possible of scholars on both sides of the fence. I’ve gotten much more direct, coherent, and thorough answers from the mythicist camp.I will say it again, as clearly as possible. I don’t claim to be unbiased, primarily because I’m familiar with both sides of the argument, and I find one side to be lacking. This isn’t to say my mind is made up. This isn’t my primary field of interest, and I’m trying to learn more about it. Thus, my fifty or so (thusfar unanswered) questions.Being an agnostic myself I can understand how invested you may feel in trying to combat what you see as “religious intolerance” but you have to see that when you make claims like “you have failed to address even one of my questions,” it is simply not true.Who said anything about religious intolerance? I’m trying to make sense out of what sounds to me like weak arguments.Would you please point out a direct and logically sound answer that James has given me to any of my questions? I can’t find one.Each time a relevant point is made you glance over it and attack from a new front or make assertions about something else that you felt was not adequately answered, all the while making claims of logical fallacies that don’t exist, taking offense to analogies that you have clearly taken to intentional extremes (beyond their intended scope), and finding bias around every corner even when there is nothing to suggest its existence.Really? I’m extremely familiar with logic, epistemology, and critical thinking. Would you care to back this statement up by formally analyzing my arguments and pointing out where I’ve falsely accused James of fallacies?Dr. McGrath, though clearly frustrated by your clear desire not to concede even a single point, is much too polite to stop the madness, and if somebody doesn’t stop this I am convinced it could go on for several more days and end up going exactly nowhere (which is pretty much where it is right now).I’ve already stopped this madness. Didn’t you read where I said I wasn’t going to ask him any more questions?Judging by the conversation thus far I imagine that you are going to want me to list examples and point out specifics, an exercise that I can all but guarantee would do little good even if I had the time to undertake it.Imagine that. I want proof of a claim. How very scientific of me.Please simply trust my analysis when I tell you that you are not doing yourself any favors by continuing this discussion. No. I am in the business of trusting facts, not naked assertions.Perhaps it is not my place to tell you how you should spend your time but I sincerely feel that I would be remiss if I did not at least attempt to save you from your own ego and point out that you are accomplishing nothing by continuing what has become little more than intellectual school-yard one-upmanship on your part.You are well within your rights to tell me anything you want to tell me. I disagree with your opinion, and I feel I have accomplished much.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07844113417232897478 5keptical

    “Would you care to give me an example of an instance from antiquity were we have a comparable figure (i.e. a philosopher or rabbi rather than a king who may have left monuments to his triumphs)”I asked a simple question, and the simple answer is:”No – there is no contemporary, independent evidence that collaborates any of the deeds or activities of Jesus”.Are you unable to admit that, even to yourself? I was just looking for information. “Please do provide an example from the ancient world of a case where you do think there is sufficient evidence, and then we can use that for comparison.”To what purpose? Do you see the fallacy you’re subscribing to? The relative strength of evidence for other historical figures does not in any way improve your case.In what way does it matter if Hillel did or did not exist? Would that change his role in Jewish culture since the fiction would serve just as well? But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Jesus now does it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I am not addressing this subject as an apologist for the Christian faith, or rabbinic Judaism for that matter. The reason why it matters whether Hillel existed, or Jesus existed, or Socrates existed, is because I am interested in understanding history. The mere existence of Jesus does not uphold Christian dogma any more than the existence of Hillel or even Moses proves anything about Judaism. The only question I am asking is what conclusions we can draw that do the best possible justice to the evidence. Clearly the existence of Jesus is not as evident as it might be if we had things he actually wrote. Nor is it as self-evident as it might be if we had (or could be certain we had) writings that come from eyewitnesses. And of course, if they indeed found the tomb of Jesus with his bones still in it, that would prove he existed, but clearly not in a way that would support the Christian faith. Investigating Jesus as a historical figure not only is not Christian apologetics, but many Christians find it a threat. When the evidence is presented that the Gospel of John does not present the words of the historical figure of Jesus, or if it does so on occasion it does so through the filter of the author’s unique style and theology, it troubles many Christians. It troubled me. But the evidence is clear, and so I strive to do justice to it. Even in the absence of what we might call “ideal” evidence, historians can legitimately surmise certain things. But you seem to be unhappy even with a balanced historical judgment stating that it is more likely that Jesus existed than that he didn’t. Why is that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07844113417232897478 5keptical

    “Even in the absence of what we might call “ideal” evidence, historians can legitimately surmise certain things. But you seem to be unhappy even with a balanced historical judgment stating that it is more likely that Jesus existed than that he didn’t. Why is that?”Because you’re making stuff up and have no way to actually support your stance except to say that we can’t do any better and besides, all the other historians are doing it…This is not valid reasoning.If this is general standard for historical investigation, then ‘yer all doin’ it wrong. I would indeed contest the legitimacy of the conclusions drawn using those methods.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I must say I think your statement rather ridiculous. You’re saying “we’re doing it wrong” when we make the best surmise we can based on the available evidence, and say that it is the equivalent of “making stuff up”. Next you’ll tell me that the police should not investigate, and courts should not hear, any cases except for those with a certain “ideal standard” of evidence.The truth is that historical study is messy, as are trials and criminal investigations. Because even if one has contemporary sources, that doesn’t mean that they are honest or accurate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07844113417232897478 5keptical

    “The truth is that historical study is messy, as are trials and criminal investigations. Because even if one has contemporary sources, that doesn’t mean that they are honest or accurate.”And if the story put forth by a lawyer is not supported by the evidence or is invalid (such as hearsay) it gets thrown out. This is not an analogy that supports your position.Hypotheses are “made up stuff” – conjectures about reality. I love hypotheses, they are the creative part of any examination of the world. It’s the next step – testing – that determines what the best guess is at the moment.You don’t seem to test the alternatives – you don’t even acknowledge them as being possibilities. I was here to hear your arguments – there has been nothing presented by you that shows any rigor or even consistency except in the continual exercise of bias in interpretation.You’ve dodged direct questions and danced around the issues.It’s been an education.

  • http://www.abandonallfear.co.uk Alex Fear

    Hi, wading in to the muddy waters here and introducing myself.I do concur with JB’s comment, no more needs to be said, and no further debate really will make any difference with hambydammit.Having also spent the last 2 hours reading these comments I come to the conclusing that hamby may be a ‘jack of all trades, but master of none’ when it comes to his credentials he’s so eager to list (I have no credentials – just a bit of common sense). I have read many leading questions and relative “seems to” statements which betrays a bias – decision already made – of what to believe.5keptical appears simply to have commented in order to bait. 5keptical asked a very reasonable question, got a reasonable answer, but then proceeded to dismiss the whole context.I’d like to know what test 5keptical applies in determining the difference between historical fact and fiction- since 5keptical appears to know this and has a better analytical skills and tools than other contemporary historians.Now regarding the OP. I don’t know if this might shed a bit more historical light or send the hornets into a frenzy but wouldn’t the Apocrypha and the Gnostic Gospels fit into this picture?I’m not scholar of history or biblical texts, so I can only go off what I’ve read, but aren’t the Gnostics/Apocrypha are a small part of large number of ‘testimonies’ regarding the life and works of Jesus which were dismissed early on because of inconsistencies or evidence (subject to scrutiny and investigation methods of the time) was not able to be substantiated?Therefore wouldn’t the existence of the Gnostics/Apocrypha (and not forgetting written accounts lost down the ages) go to verify that there was some form of investigation and evidence-based testing at the time? As well as supporting the existence of Jesus of Nazereth his ‘natural/human’ recorded works and movements, even if the miracles and the resurrection were not verifiable?Thankyou in advance for the taking the time to read my garble and answer it.I’ve found your posts and subsequent comments on these subjects very useful so far.


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