The Historicity of Jesus around the Blogosphere

Here are some mentions of the issue of Jesus’ historicity and related topics from around the blogosphere:

Hector Avalos points out that the evidence for Alexander the Great is (not surprisingly to anyone who’s thought about it) more substantial than the evidence for Jesus. In the process, he discusses a number of aspects of how historians address questions, and how that is different than the approach of apologists. A key question I would have liked for him to address, however, is whether a denialist approach of the sort that mythicism represents could deny the historicity of Alexander the Great any less effectively than that approach manages to deny the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Scot McKnight quoted from Daniel Taylor: “All evidence is resistible. All arguments are assailable. … All Arguments… leak”

Jeremy Myers has proposed a syncroblog on “What if the Bible was fiction?” which I find problematic, because the Bible is a collection of literature, including fiction, myth, parable, letter, history, and many other sorts of things. Even as a thought experiment, I find it problematic to treat it as though it were a unified whole.

Ross McKenzie linked to John Dickson’s article, in which he says things like this:

…if anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1. It’s been a year since I first tweeted the challenge and religious critic John Safran retweeted it to his 60,000 followers. My Bible remains safe.

Hemant Mehta shared a video by Richard Carrier, and it is generating interesting discussion in the comments.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    What puzzles me is that the disagreement between mythicists (like Carrier) and historicists (like Ehrman) seems small and unimportant. Yet the bitterness of their disagreement seems huge.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

      Bart Ehrman wrote ‘With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.’

      The disagreement here between Carrier and Ehrman is mostly based on the fact that Carrier doesn’t seem to have taken whatever Ehrman was on when he wrote that.

      • http://twitter.com/rationalrevo R. G. Price

        Ehrman is simply full of it with this. I’ve provided him with substantial material refuting this, but he basically refuses to address them.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      If you make comparisons with other areas – disputing whether Socrates said this or that vs. disputing whether he existed; disputing the mechanism for evolution vs. disputing whether it occurred; disputing a detail about the Holocaust vs. disputing whether it happened at all – I think you’ll understand the bitterness. Just because some details are uncertain does not mean that they all are, and those who try to deny what experts agree is probable without making a strong and persuasive case are understandably viewed with disdain by the experts themselves. We work hard to figure things out, and when it is treated like so much garbage by those who don’t actually work professionally in the investigation of the matter in question, it is incredibly frustrating.

      • Marco

        It is funny how this (above) argument may be used by both sides: “We work hard to figure things out, and when it is treated like so much
        garbage by those who don’t actually work professionally in the
        investigation of the matter in question, it is incredibly frustrating.”

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          How can that be used by a side which doesn’t care enough about history to pursue a profession in the academic study of history? The quote could be hijacked by mythicists or creationists or whoever, but it clearly doesn’t work as worded, since they are clearly those who think the experts are wrong, without having comparable expertise themselves, and of course a few token individuals with higher degrees and obvious biases which don’t change the overall situation.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

        ‘We work hard to figure things out, and when it is treated like so much garbage by those who don’t actually work professionally in the investigation of the matter in question, it is incredibly frustrating.’

        What James is trying to say is that people who work professionally in the field in question are writing books pointing out the bankrupt nature of the methods that he himself uses, and this is very frustrating.

        See ‘Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise Authenticity’ by Le Donne,

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          There is a good analogy to be made between Steven Carr’s comment and creationism. Experts in a field regularly discuss and debate their methods and specific details of their conclusions, and then there are cranks and crackpots with no expertise in the area in question but try to depict the academic discussions and debates as though the central thesis in that area of study is itself spurious.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

      CARR
      Here is where Bart reveals that those danged mythicists were pretty much spot on the money in claiming that early Christians regarded Jesus as a heavenly being.

      EHRMAN

      Here’s a bit from my chapter 7 of How Jesus Became God where I talk about why I think Paul understood Jesus, before coming to earth, to have been an angel. There’s more to the argument than just this, but it’s a start. As you’ll see, this isn’t just a crazy idea I had. I learned this from some very smart colleagues in the field, who have convinced me. It’s one of the HUGE surprises that I’ve had writing this book, coming to this realization. It affects a LOT in terms of New Testament interpretation.

      Many people no doubt have the same experience I do on occasion, of reading something numerous times, over and over, and not having it register. I have read Paul’s letter to the Galatians literally hundreds of times in both English and Greek. But the clear import of what Paul says in Galatians 4:14 simply never registered with me, until, frankly, a few months ago. In this verse Paul indicates that Christ was an angel. The reason it never registered with me is because the statement is a bit obtuse, and I had always interpreted it in an alternative way. But thanks to the work of other scholars, I now see the error of my ways.

      In the context of the verse Paul is reminding the Galatians of how they first received him when he was ill in their midst, and they helped restore him to health. This is what the verse in question says:
      Even though my bodily condition was a test for you, you did not mock or despise me, but you received me as an angel of God, as Jesus Christ.

      CARR
      Of course, Bart has not yet gone all the way to mythicism, but his views are surprisingly malleable.

      And his frank admissions that eminent scholars like himself simply don’t interpret Paul correctly are refreshing.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    He’ll eat a whole page of his Bible?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

    One would imagine that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus should be compared with the evidence for the historicity of Judas, Thomas, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, Bartimaeus, Joseph of Arimathea etc etc.

    But the one and only thing that is not open to discussion is a comparison of the evidence of Jesus existence with the evidence of his contemporaries mentioned in the same book.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Those who understand how history works will understand why all the figures mentioned by Steven Carr (in his sterotypical troll comment that he leaves here over and over again) cannot simply be lumped together. Just because individuals are all mentioned in a particular source does not mean that the evidence for them is equal. It isn’t a difficult concept, but the disregard of it does nicely indicate once again that mythicists aren’t interested in doing history. And so I suppose it is worth permitting Steven Carr’s troll-like behavior, since he continues to illustrate these points about mythicism!

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

        In other words, the comparison of the evidence for Jesus with that for Judas is not to entered into by historicists, because they know it will only lead to bad things for their dogma.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          If you are ever interested in discussing this question using the methods of historical study, rather than in the manner of an apologist, I will be willing. But given that we have had this conversation so many times before, and yet you posted the above like the typical internet troll, as though none of that earlier discussion had ever happened, I guess you’re still not willing to treat this topic in a serious scholarly manner. That is disappointing.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    If the evidence for Alexander the Great is more substantial than the evidence for Jesus, it would seem to me that any denial of his existence would have to be less effective by definition. In order to establish “the sort of denialist approach that mythicism represents,” we would need to make comparisons to the denial of a historical phenomenon for which the evidence is at least as problematic as the evidence for Jesus. All evidence is not equally resistable (which is why I suppose Ross McKenzie does not offers to eat the whole book of Matthew).

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      It would have to be less effective, if there were any evidence that denialist tactics cannot find a way to neutralize.

      • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

        I’m not sure exactly what that means. However, I would suggest that to the extent mythicists are effective, it is because the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is uniquely problematic. My conclusion is drawn in part from the fact that so eminent a scholar as Ehrman could not make a coherent case for the existence of the historical Jesus.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          He couldn’t make a case that no one could resist, but he certainly makes a coherent case, as do many other historians and scholars. But that was my point. No evidence is irresistible. And if one sets out using the tools of denialism, one may have to work harder in some cases than others, but nothing will ultimately prevent one from denying what one is determined to.

          • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

            Some evidence isn’t even evidence, hypothetical sources that we don’t possess.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Historians work with many sources that they have deduced preserve accounts from earlier sources which are no longer extant. In what sense is such evidence not evidence?

              • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                In every sense it is not evidence. The evidence is the source with which the historian works that is objectively available to any observer. Evidence is the effect from which the cause is inferred. The existence of earlier sources may be completely obvious, but it is nonetheless a conclusion or inference that a historian draws from the evidence. It is an interpretation of the evidence. No matter how many scholars agree, the conclusion does not become the evidence.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  Evidence itself requires interpretation. I think you are trying to make a hard and fast distinction between evidence and conclusions that can be drawn as a result of interpreting that evidence which may well fit some instances, but is not universally applicable.

                  How is what you said inherently different from what young-earth creationists say about the fossil record or DNA – that only the bones and genes are evidence, and only evidence of states of affairs or kinds of organisms and their characteristics, with the result that extrapolating from those to organisms, and from organisms to historical connections between them, is to pile hypothesis on top of hypothesis?

                  It seems to me that the conclusions we deduce from evidence not only can but must serve as evidence for our theoretical-level thinking about the past. If it is not allowed to do so, then one must be content to be agnostic about a great many things. But many of us feel that, with caution, we can indeed legitimately draw connections between those dots to actually explain how those points relate to and correlate with one another, offering levels of explanation that would inherently be impossible if one adopts the unnecessarily narrow definition of evidence that you propose.

                  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                    I haven’t spent a lot of time arguing with creationists, but it sounds like they are correct about what constitutes evidence and what constitutes conclusions drawn from the evidence. When creationists proclaim that “evolution is only a theory,” their mistake is not in the word “theory” but in the word “only.” A theory that is very well supported by the evidence can rise to the level of fact. Nevertheless, I cannot see any difficulty in drawing the distinction between a conclusion and the evidence upon which the conclusion is drawn.

                    The conclusion that is drawn from evidence can be used to draw additional conclusions, but when it is so used, it is a “premise,” not “evidence.” You are quite correct that we could never reason about the world around us if we didn’t string together conclusions in this way, but it is still important to recognize that we are doing this. No premise is ever any stronger than the argument from which it is drawn as a conclusion. There is nothing wrong with “piling hypothesis on top of hypothesis,” but the strength of the final conclusion depends on the strength of every link in the chain. Higher level conclusions are necessarily less secure than those drawn directly from the evidence.

                    That is why “a pre-Cambrian rabbit” is an excellent answer to the question “What would it take to refute evolution?” Creationists will always find it easiest to attack higher level conclusions because they are in fact hypotheses built upon other hypotheses, but when you get to conclusions drawn directly from the evidence of the fossil record, they have a much tougher time.

                  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                    Here is an example of the problems that arise when conclusions/premises are mistaken for evidence:

                    In Did Jesus Exist?”, Ehrman claims that Galatians 1:19 proves “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt” that Jesus was a historical person, but he ignores the premises and conclusions that it takes to get there.

                    The evidence is the manuscripts of Galatians, of which Ehrman said the following in a 2008 debate with Dan Wallace:

                    Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know.
                    . . . .
                    What I have said to my colleagues is that we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine as the earliest text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t know if we can get back to the original text. And I stand by both statements. We don’t know what Paul originally wrote to the Galatians, and we no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us any further back than we have already gotten and our earliest evidence is from the year 200, 150 years later. So can we know for certain? No. We can’t know for certain that the text is reliable. You might want to think it is. You might want to hope it is. You might want to say there are intelligent people who say it is so probably it is. But think about it. There are people copying these texts year after year, decade after decade.

                    The evidence is the manuscripts of Galatians and the first conclusion that needs to be drawn is that Galatians 1:19 is original, but this is necessarily subject to uncertainty for the reasons Ehrman stated.

                    That conclusion becomes a premise for the conclusion that Paul was indicating a biological relationship James and Jesus. This too must be subject to at least some uncertainty as Paul might have been indicating a spiritual relationship. That Paul claimed to have met Jesus brother then becomes the premise for Ehrman’s historicity argument. Of course there is also the possibility that Paul was mistaken or making it up for his own reasons.

                    The problem is that it is logically impossible for Ehrman’s argument to provide certainty beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt unless we can be similarly certain beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that we have the original text of Galatians and similarly certain beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that Paul meant biological relationship.

                    In my humble opinion, New Testament scholars have a very bad habit of treating their conclusions as evidence rather than as premises when making higher level arguments and claiming unwarranted degrees of certainty as a result.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Yes, using phrases like “beyond a shadow of a doubt” with reference to history gives a wrong impression. But a 150 year gap between writing and earliest copy is much better than is typical, and so to suggest that this is somehow a distinctive problem related to the historicity of Jesus is simply false – as is any attempt to suggest that, because history doesn’t provide absolute certainty, what Paul thought about Jesus having been a human being who lived and died in the recent past somehow thereby becomes more ambiguous.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      The problem isn’t that “beyond a shadow of a doubt” “gives a wrong impression.” The problem is that it is that it is just plain wrong. It is logically impossible for a conclusion to more certain than any of the premises or conclusions that form the chain leading back to the evidence. (This is why I am so skeptical about R.G.Price claim that he has “clearly demonstrated” that Mark is allegorical fiction. I think that chain contains many links, none of which are susceptible of much clarity.) If New Testament scholars wish to be taken seriously as historians, then they need to stop expressing complete certainty about issues that are necessarily far from it.

                      It is completely irrelevant whether 150 years is “much better than typical.” That’s the stuff of conservative apologetics. What is relevant is honestly dealing with the degree of uncertainty that the 150 year gap creates. Ehrman is perfectly capable of doing that when it suits the position he wishes to argue, but happily ignores it when it doesn’t.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      It is not irrelevant to consider whether the date of our earliest manuscripts is relatively close to or far from the time of composition, not as part of an apologetic effort, but as something that needs to be highlighted so that people will see the inconsistency of the mythicist apologists. If they consistently regarded the greater distance between our earliest manuscripts and the composition of other sources as problematic, in the way they claim it is for early Christian sources, then I might still disagree, but at least they would have a consistent and principled stance. As long as they are engaging in inconsistent apologetics-style arguments, this needs to be pointed out.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      But it is irrelevant to any point I was making. I am only talking about Ehrman’s claim to certainty “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt.” To that point, it is not relevant whether the gap is less than for other ancient documents. What matters is the extent to which the gap makes Ehrman’s conclusion uncertain. If anyone made a claim to such certainty based on a document with a greater gap, I would consider it equally ludicrous.

        • Scott de Brestian

          I don’t see the evidence for the historicity of Jesus as uniquely problematic. It resembles very much the evidence preserved for most ancient philosophers and charismatic popular religious figures — Pythagoras, Epicurus, John the Baptist, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander of Aboneuteichos, Mani, Marcion, et al.

          • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

            Scott,

            People in the ancient world are generally known to us because they said or did things during their lives that had an impact on the literate and/or prominent people of their day. When you scrape away the supernatural stories that arose around Alexander the Great, you still have a significant historical footprint resulting from things he accomplished during his life. Jesus, on the other hand, likely as not spent his life unnoticed by anyone outside a group of illiterate peasants until he somehow managed to annoy the Roman authorities sufficiently to get himself executed. This is the kind of person who likely would have come and gone without leaving any discernible trace in the historical record had it not been for a belief that arose in supernatural events that occurred after his death. When you scrape away the supernatural stories surrounding Jesus, you scrape away the only reason there was any record of him in the first place.

            I see this as uniquely problematic.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              You are simply saying that Jesus was a figure who was considered to have religious significance. How is that different in principle from a John the Baptist or a Mani or an Apollonius of Tyana? The precise evidence differs, but they all are comparable in this regard, are they not?

              • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                No. I am saying that it is impossible to determine whether Jesus was considered to have religious significance during his natural life because everything we have was composed as a result of supernatural events that were believed to have taken place after he died and was written to propagate belief in those events.

                In the introduction to almost any biography of George Washington, you will find the author describing how difficult it is to get behind “The Father of Our Country” mythology despite the fact that we have lots of primary source material from the period before he was so canonized. Imagine trying to understand the life of George Washington if all we had to go on was the hagiography of Parson Weems.

                Jesus wasn’t just mythologized into the father of his country, but into the anointed one of God and eventually into the creator of the universe himself. Moreover, we have no source material that preceded that mythologization or that can be considered to be independent of it. I don’t think Josephus’s references to John the Baptist were composed in service of mythmaking in the way that the gospels’ references to Jesus were. I’m not as familiar with the material for Mani or Appolonius.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  Are you really telling me that you have read the Gospels and become acquainted with them in detail, and do not find them to contain material that does not serve the agenda of claiming that Jesus was the Davidic anointed one, or one who died and rose again for the salvation of others? I find that hard to believe. The Gospel authors clearly reflect the conviction that what happened to Jesus must have been part of God’s plan all along and thus also known by him, but if they were written simply to articulate that perspective, much of what they contain is inexplicable.

                  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                    No. What I am telling you is that I do not believe that there is any reliable method of determining the extent, if any, to which that conviction or the stories that were used to communicate that conviction were rooted in historical events that preceded those visionary experiences that occurred after Jesus’s death. Just as every early thing written about George Washington was shaped by the need to mythologize him as the Father of His Country in order to create a national identity, every story told in the oral tradition and recorded in the gospels was shaped by the need to mythologize Jesus as the Anointed One of God. With Jesus, however, we have nothing that can be considered independent of that mythologizing purpose.

                    As we can see that stories about Jesus were changed by different writers to serve their own particular perspectives, we can assume that any actual story about Jesus as well as any invented story that survived the transmission process did so because it served the mythologizing purpose. That is the possible explanation for everything that was written, making it impossible to separate memory from invention.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      But you seem to be assuming that the only option is for something to be wholly independent of mythologizing interests or to simply be a product of those interests. Why are you leaving out those works which show some interest in interpreting the person and events in a particular way, but clearly have material about the person embedded within them which does not serve those interests and thus is unlikely to have been invented by them to promote their viewpoint?

                      Those who study history and those who study the psychology of memory seem to have reached agreement that we do not have tools which will allow us to infallibly separate memory from invention, because there is no such thing as pure memory. Every act of remembering involves invention and recreation. If we cannot disentangle the two with absolute confidence even within our own memories, why is it surprising that we cannot do it in the case of the memories of others?

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      I fully recognize the difficulty of disentangling memory and interpretation. Sometimes it is more difficult than others, and I think that Jesus of Nazareth is one of those times that it is unlikely to be possible at all.

                      If a historian wants to tell me that he can separate memory from interpretation in a general’s account of a battle, I would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. We have lots of data on lots of battles and we have the accounts of lots of generals and we can look at them to see what kinds of things can and cannot be corroborated. I think we may have adequate basis to determine what kinds of stories would be in a particular general’s interest and what kind of stories generals are wont to invent.

                      On the other hand, when it comes to people who are proclaiming encounters with supernatural beings, I don’t see how we could possibly know enough about their thinking to know what they might or might not invent. We just don’t have enough data on that kind of situation, and what we do have suggests to me that such people are capable of inventing all sorts of things that don’t make any sense in hindsight.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      We have lots of information about first century people’s beliefs about supernatural entities, and their practice of exorcism in that context. We have lots of information about first-century Jewish teachers, although none as close to the time of the teacher in question as we have in the case of Jesus. We have lots of information about what ancient people thought the Davidic anointed one would do. We have texts, and know a great deal about what they are claiming with regard to the person they focus on, because we have so many other sources that put this first century teacher, exorcist, and possible messiah into his context. What exactly is it that we do not know enough about?

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      What you need is to show that the information you have is a good predictor of the kinds of things that might be invented by people who claim to have encountered supernatural beings.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I don’t understand what you mean. Who was claiming to have encountered a “supernatural being”? Even the Gospel of John has the Word encountered as flesh, as a human being who had “heard from God” and been “sent by God.” Or are you defining “supernatural being” to include ancient Jewish beliefs regarding life after death? I suppose that fits, but those are supernatural beliefs about ordinary human beings, and so your choice of terminology seems odd.

                      If you start by trying to read mythicism’s nonsense into the texts before you begin, you’re going to tie yourself into all kinds of bizarre knots unnecessarily. Mythicism reads later dogma into these sources to the very same extent that conservative Christians do. Historians work to read them on their own terms, not as giving voice to a later Chalcedonian view of Jesus, but as the products of a group that at that point was still a form of Judaism.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      Our earliest source says that the risen Christ appeared to him and says nothing about anyone interacting with a human being who walked the earth.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      It seems to me that you are claiming that religious visionaries are constrained in predictable ways by their cultural contexts. I am skeptical.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      You seem not to care what sort of name Joshua was, nor what the range of connotations of “anointed one” were, nor what resurrection meant, in the Jewish context of that source. That’s even without pointing out the details you ignore about what he actually says about the brother of Jesus, his having been born, killed, buried, etc. And that’s without pointing out that within a decade of Paul’s letters, if not earlier, we have a narrative that purports to be about the same Jesus, which gives no hints that it is engaging in a revisionist transformation of a previously heavenly figure into a human one.

                      I understand it may be fun to try to twist texts to see what they can possibly mean. But a historian has to ask about the probability, given the different types of sources we have and the linguistic, cultural, religious, and historical context in which they were written. And you simply aren’t doing that.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      I am not sure what you are driving at. Are you saying that I am wrong when I say that Paul claimed to have encountered a supernatural being?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Paul doesn’t talk about the “supernatural” because of his worldview. But from our perspective, the historically-informed meaning of his words seems to be that he believed he had a supernatural encounter with a supernaturally-exalted natural being.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      Alright. Now what is it that you think you know about people who claim to have such experiences that enables you to predict the type of stories they might invent about the natural being? What is it that you think you know about such people’s followers that enables you to predict what stories they might invent while seeking converts?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      People invent things about ordinary people when they are important to them. The supernatural and religion do not need to be involved for that to happen. And what historians do is look to see whether the process of invention in the earliest documented period is unrestrained or has conservative as well as creative strands, as well as looking for things that run counter to the aims of possible inventors, which are then less likely to have been invented.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      Can you give me any examples of historians doing this outside of historical Jesus studies?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I’ve provided examples of historians stating the principles before, as you know. I am afraid I don’t have the leisure time to read much history that isn’t somehow related to early Christianity, and so I don’t have a way of providing good examples easily.

                      Is there anyone still listening in on this thread who specializes in some other field of history, who could contribute to this discussion?

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      If you look at the earliest documented period of the Latter Day Saints, I suspect that you would find that Joseph Smith’s stories were transmitted quite faithfully. I don’t think that reduces the likelihood of invention though.

                      In my reading, I have often see historians discuss the interests of specific people in specific situations in an attempt to assess the likelihood that some specific story they have told is true. Even then, it hardly seems to be an exact science. I don’t ever recall anyone attempting to assess the likely truth of a story based on the interests of multiple unknown people in unknown circumstances in an oral tradition spanning decades about which we have very little information. For all we know, the gospel traditions developed primarily in communities founded by Paul where very little reliable information about the earthly Jesus was available.

                      So while everything that historical Jesus scholars do may accord with the principles articulated by historians in other fields, I don’t the situations to which the principles are being applied are analogous.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I don’t think that there is serious doubt about the existence of Joseph Smith. But historians will certainly be skeptical of some of the claims made about him. As in the case of Jesus, some things are as certain as is possible given the time and data available, some are uncertain, and some are probably spurious. The methods seem to work just fine – they just don’t provide the degree of certainty some people are looking for.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      I am not looking for any particular degree of certainty. However, if I am going to be implored to respect the consensus of scholars in a particular field, I would like those scholars to be able to justify the degree of certainty they claim to have. It is hard for me to put a lot of stock in the opinion of scholars who claim things are “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt” or “almost certain,” but when challenged, retreat behind meaningless phrases like “as certain as is possible given the time and data available.”

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      What part of the reasoning for the nearly unanimous consensus of historians about the historical Jesus do you consider to lack justification? I certainly offered a poorly-worded comment, but I hope you are not going to take the creationist tack of judging a field based on a poorly-worded comment on a blog when there is such extensive and carefully worded scholarly literature on this topic.

                      At one point you seem almost to be saying that you believe that every time a historian writes something, and there isn’t a coin or an inscription to support it, but only a textual source – yet one that has details historians have good reason to conclude has reliable information to offer on this point – then instead of continuing to describe what they believe transpired, they should engage in a long excursus about the nature of the difference in degree of certainty in the two cases.

                      It seems to me more appropriate and less time-wasting if interested laypeople simply learn a bit about how history works, and actually read footnotes. There is more certainty when we have certain kinds of evidence, whether in a criminal trial or a historical investigation. But the absence of the best kind of evidence (whatever that may be in a particular case) does not render conclusions involving other kind of evidence radically uncertain or worthless. And I wonder what motivates your attempt to suggest that it is in this field but as far as I can tell in no others.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      The poorly worded comment that concerns me is “Why are you leaving out those works which show some interest in interpreting the person and events in a particular way, but clearly have material about the person embedded within them which does not serve those interests and thus is unlikely to have been invented by them to promote their viewpoint?” As I said, I have a very hard time seeing the justification for attempting to assess the likely truth of a story based on the perceived interests of multiple unknown people in unknown circumstances in an oral tradition spanning decades.

                      Moreover, if Ehrman is correct that most New Testament scholars are convinced of Jesus’ historicity beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt by Galatians 1:19, then I think that most New Testament scholars have a problem with relative degrees of certainty and they probably should spend some more time thinking about it.

    • http://twitter.com/rationalrevo R. G. Price

      I disagree. I think that an extremely strong affirmative case can be made that the Jesus of the Gospels never existed, by proving that the Gospels are not based on real events, which is essentially what I do in my works on the subject.

      I’m not trying to plug my works here, but it’s just the case that that’s where the information lies to back my claims: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_history.htm

      But essentially my case is that it can be shown that all of the other writings about Jesus, not just the Gospels, but everything, descend from the narrative in the Gospel of Mark, and that the Gospel of Mark is an allegorical fiction in which basically all of the scenes are literary allusions to both the Hebrew scriptures AND the writings of Paul, which is quite important here, establishing a link between Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark.

      So, the fact that the first narrative about Jesus can be clearly demonstrated to be a fictional work, and the fact that every other narrative about Jesus is based on this fictional work, itself gives strong support to the idea that this person never actually existed, because if he had actually existed, how would it be that a clearly fictional work because the basis for all that is known about him?

      Furthermore, it is clear from the writings of the early apologists that ALL THAT THEY KNEW about Jesus came from the Gospels, which I have proven are completely ahistorical.

      The early apologists relied on passages from the Gospels as being historically accurate, and made claims about Jesus’ life based on scenes that I have shown are clearly actually literary allusions.

      For example, we have early apologists expounding on Jesus’ casting out of money-changers from the temple, giving all kinds of flourish to these events and describing them as though they had real knowledge about them, yet I have shown conclusively that this scene is entirely a literary allusion to Hosea 9, which not a single early apologist, nor actually any Christian scholar that I know of, ever recognized. That fact alone is really earth shaking to the foundation of a historical Jesus, and that’s really just the tip of the iceberg…

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        People who are not professional scientists or historians often believe that they have disproved what the majority of experts has concluded. Almost never does that turn out to accurately describe the situation.

        • http://twitter.com/rationalrevo R. G. Price

          I generally agree with this view myself, however I do think that Jesus historicity is a somewhat unique topic. First of all, I would say that most of the people touted as :authorities” in this field actually don’t have the proper backgrounds at all. For example, people with theology backgrounds are the most commonly referred to authorities, but that’s a completely inappropriate background actually.

          The proper authority on this topic should be historians, but there it seems that virtually all historians have abdicated their authority to the theologians, so we are back to the problem…

          I think that if you actually look at my work on the subject you will find both original analysis and multiple coherent arguments. It’s difficult to lay everything out in a few blog post comments…

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I think that if you take the time to study the work of secular historians on this topic, and learn enough about ancient history to understand that it is a field in which one has to correlate extensive amounts of information and not just the few, understood superficially, that amateurs tend to be acquainted with, then you may come to think differently. Even those who engage in doctoral research regularly think we have brilliant insights which turn out to be wrong as we become more and more deeply acquainted with the domain our research is in.

            • http://twitter.com/rationalrevo R. G. Price

              Well, I’m telling you that I have taken that time. Let’s simply take a very concrete example, okay.

              Bart Ehrman treats the “temple cleansing” scene as a historicalish event, something that really happened. This is Bart Ehrman’s view. He is the “reliable scholar” that you tout.

              This isn’t a quote from Ehrman because I can’t find one off hand on the net, but I’ve read what he has to say on it and this reflects it:

              “Bart Ehrman, for example, points out that Jesus never criticized the institution’s sacrificial practices and that animal-selling and money-changing would be necessary to support the practices. Jews often made very long trips–from Egypt and elsewhere–to the Temple and could hardly be expected to “load a lamb on his shoulders and start walking, especially since the sacrificial animals had to be completely free from injury and blemish.” Animals clearly needed to be provided in the vicinity of the Temple. Moreover, the money-changing was to allow the conversion of coins bearing images of the emperor into Tyrian silver coins, the only form of coin acceptable for donations. Jesus, contends Ehrman, would surely find this “all to the good.” Also, any large-scale disturbance of the sort reported in the gospel accounts would almost certainly have brought an immediate response from–and probable arrest by–armed Temple police.

              Ehrman offers the interesting theory that Jesus “as a country fellow from rural Galilee who preached against wealth and power” may have found the opulence of the Temple** so upsetting that “the place made his blood boil on principle.” The peasant revolutionary may have responded with some sort of a small-scale symbolic protest and a prediction amount the ultimate downfall of the Temple. If anyone were to speak out–especially in the Temple during the Passover festival– against the corruption and opulence of the Temple, and begin to draw a crowd of supporters, it certainly would have caught the attention of religious authorities. Caiaphas, the high priest of the Temple, might well have been expected to respond with an order to Temple police to track down and arrest the troublemaker.”

              Now read my work on this topic: http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/gospel_mark.htm

              “The Cursing of the Fig Tree and the Disruption at the Temple:

              The cursing of the fig tree and the clearing of the temple in the Gospel of Mark are based on a passage from the Hebrew scriptures. This is a significant scene and use of literary allusion because the cursing of the fig tree seems very hard to explain or understand if one does not understand that the scene is actually a reference to another text. This is also significant because it undermines the historical credibility of the temple scenario.

              Mark 11:
              12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

              15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:”‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

              18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.19 When evening came, they went out of the city.

              20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

              This entire scene is based on Hosea 9, and refers to the destruction of Israel.

              NIVHosea 9:
              1 Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; …
              7 The days of punishment are coming, the days of reckoning are at hand. Let Israel know this. Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great, the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired man a maniac.
              8 The prophet, along with my God, is the watchman over Ephraim, yet snares await him on all his paths, and hostility in the house of his God.
              9 They have sunk deep into corruption, as in the days of Gibeah. God will remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.
              10 ‘When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.
              11 Ephraim’s glory will fly away like a bird—no birth, no pregnancy, no conception.
              12 Even if they rear children, I will bereave them of every one. Woe to them when I turn away from them!
              13 I have seen Ephraim, like Tyre, planted in a pleasant place. But Ephraim will bring out their children to the slayer.”
              14 Give them, O LORD—what will you give them? Give them wombs that miscarry and breasts that are dry.
              15 “Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there. Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious.
              16 Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit. Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring.’
              17 My God will reject them because they have not obeyed him;

              We can clearly see here that the author of Mark uses Hosea 9 for his motif, because in Mark 11 the fig tree is in leaf but not in season, meaning that it was early in the growing season. Then Jesus goes to the temple to drive the people “out of his house”. After that they return to the fig tree where they see that it was withered “from the root.” This makes the parallel between Mark and Hosea 9 very clear, and shows that Hosea 9 was the inspiration for all of these scenes. The author of Mark was also clearly making a reference to the meaning in the text of Hosea 9. Hosea 9 is talking about the destruction of Israel in no uncertain terms.

              This is quite significant because it strongly undercuts the the temple disruption scene as a historical event, despite the fact that the temple scene is contained in all three of the other Gospels. The temple scenes in all three of the other Gospels are based on this scene in the Gospel of Mark, which is really a literary allusion.”

              Now, I’ve tried to correspond with Ehrman on this subject and he simply refuses to address my content.

              Now, given what I have just laid out, remember, I’m “not the scholar”, how can you possibly square this with Ehrman’s views?

              If you want to talk about EVIDNCE, I will assure that I have much more evidence on my side than Ehrman does on his.

              The evidence points to the entire temple disruption scene being a literary allusion. Therefore any “explanations” for Jesus’s motives and speculation about “what really happened” is utterly foolish!

              Here we have a highly improbable scene in the Gospels. We have two possible explanations for it, Ehrman’s and mine.

              Ehrman’s explanation is conjecture about what could have happened and how people who witnessed some conjectured actions may have later recorded them.

              My explanation is that the author of the Gospel of Mark created a scene based on a literary allusion. I have actual evidence to backup my claim, he has none, and he has never addressed my position (which, given that it has actual EVIDENCE, I think warrants being addressed).

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                What you have presented is not evidence. It illustrates that there are two texts between which it is possible to draw connections. It may even show that the text was in the mind of the Gospel author. What it doesn’t show is that the temple incident never occurred.

                What you have demonstrated is that you’ve barely interacted with one scholar’s attempt to discuss a topic for a popular audience. If you want to try to really get into a subject like this one, you need to dig into the scholarly historical studies, perhaps beginning with E. P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism. You need to interact with scholarship that is focused specifically on the historical evidence for that particular event, and not merely interact with popular audience books which mention it in the context of an argument whose primary focus is elsewhere.

                • Andrew

                  “What you have presented is not evidence. It illustrates that there are two texts between which it is possible to draw connections. It may even show that the text was in the mind of the Gospel author. What it doesn’t show is that the temple incident never occurred.”

                  “Evidence” was the wrong word to use. One allusion to the Septuagint could be an irrelevant coincidence. But when you have pericope after pericope totalling up to dozens of allusions to the Septuagint, then, you have a compelling case that we are dealing with narrative theology, not history. It is the cumulative weight of these allusions that point to the non-historicity of the text. It’s reasonable to then ask if, like Daniel and Tobit and Esther, Jesus was simply the lead character in religious story intended to teach a lesson about why Romans were entitled to use the Hebrew Bible in their new religion.

      • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

        RGP,

        I haven’t looked at your website for a couple of years. I do recall it being very helpful in helping me clarify my thinking on Paul’s silence.

        On the other, I remain skeptical that the practice of genre identification is anywhere near as precise a science as it would need to be in order to “clearly demonstrate” that Mark was writing allegorical fiction. Even if it were, it would seem self-evident to me that allegorical fiction can include references to actual people.

  • http://divinesalve.blogspot.com/ David Miller

    Hector Avalos cited Descartes as an exemplary empiricist epistemology. I quit reading at that point.

  • http://twitter.com/rationalrevo R. G. Price

    I’ve worked with Richard Carrier on much analysis and quite frankly shared a lot of my research with him, and I’ve sent Bart Ehrman copies of my books, which he has refused to read (not that I necessarily blame him, there are lots of quacks out there trying to send him stuff I suspect).

    I will say this, though, which is that I think Mythicism has suffered a lot of damage from a lot of horrible “scholarship” on the subject and the popularity of a lot of really uncredible claims made in the field unfortunately.

    As someone who doesn’t belief that Jesus existed, I must that that I pretty much disagree with the vast majority of those who share that view, and find most of the popular views to be of a conspiracy theory type nature.

    That’s why I went out of the way in my book, Jesus – A Very Jewish Myth, to address those views:

    http://www.lulu.com/shop/rg-price/jesus-a-very-jewish-myth/ebook/product-17510469.html

    But, yeah, I largely agree with Carrier’s expressed views, as I think you will see if you read my works, many of his views have been expressed by me.

    http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/gospel_mark.htm

    http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_history.htm

    I’m starting work now on what I think will be the most comprehensive and compelling case against the existence of a historical Jesus. It basically builds on my previous works, further supports the thesis, and adds additional information about the development of Christian literature and beliefs into the 4th-6th centuries…

    • Claude

      I’m not trying to plug my works here…

  • Andrew

    “I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1.”

    Is Dickson prepared to defend the historicity of Jesus’s genealogy as presented in Matthew 1? I’d like to see the mental gymnastics that would go on during that apologetic. An obscure peasant from Galilee is able to trace his ancestry back 42 generations? It’s legendary. Matthew invented it.


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