Jesus Mythbusting

Several people on Facebook drew my attention to a misleading press release about Joseph Atwill, who is listed there as a “Biblical scholar,” even though there is no evidence that he has relevant qualifications or research to his name. His view is similar to ones that have been discussed on this blog before. The press release claims “ancient confessions recently uncovered now prove, according to Atwill, that the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.” That such claims were recently uncovered by someone who is not a historian of the ancient world is unlikely to turn out to be true. Even when scholars come into possession of allegedly new and exciting sources, they sometimes turn out to be fakes. I suspect that this sensationalism will turn out to be nothing other than yet another attempt to promote his self-published book Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus:Flavian Signature Edition - and launch another one.

For some reason, Jerry Coyne is also still peddling mythicism, history’s version of creationism. It just illustrates that someone can be a defender of our best scholarly conclusions in one area and cast them aside in another. I wonder whether he’ll jump on Atwill’s bandwagon.

When people make sensationalist claims, and when people believe them only to be disappointed, it just makes the work of scholars that much harder, as we try to come up with scholarly reconstructions, float new ideas to their peers, critically evaluate evidence, and offer nuanced conclusions.

 

  • Dan McClellan

    This is why the link’s been getting so much attention recently:

    https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/387754660972355584

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

      It is sad to live in a world in which a self-proclaimed skeptic and renowned opponent of pseudoscience will promote something like this with no skepticism or sense of irony about what they are doing.

      • http://brucegerencser.net/ Bruce Gerencser

        Come on, James. The Bible is so simple that even a child can understand it. (And read Greek?) :)

        These days, some in the atheist community are quite embarrassing. Like the fundamentalist and the creationist, they often seize upon the slightest bit of “new” evidence/data/information to “prove” their presuppositions. Never mind allowing the scholarly process to work. If it is on Facebook, Twitter, or a blog, it must be true.

        • Todd Reinhardt

          Bruce, it’s not about understanding the bible, so that statement is a non sequitur. I’ll start with an aside; nobody can do the things Jesus did, so the story is a myth. Talk about simple, that’s about as simple as it can get. Every element of the Jesus myth, including the metaphysics were stolen. The main point; In this general topic, where Atwill proposes a platform of plausible concepts, he makes far more sense than does the mysticism-plagued bible. Atwill does not elude to, or directly use any supernatural elements in his proposals. If you want to remove the “scholarly process” from this discussion, elevate talking snakes and guys coming out of the sky to a reasoned analysis of the political realities of the first century. Atwill’s arguments are not in the same realm as ancient mystical nonsense. Attempting to even pretend they are equal partners in a scholarly process is as big a mystical, mind-created reality as the bible itself. In the end, Atwill’s proposed concepts may not be true, but that’s not the point I’m making. I’m saying they are more plausible and a far more reasonable place from which to start a scholarly process.

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

            I don’t think this comment is intended to be serious, is it? No one else taught, so Jesus couldn’t have? No one else claimed to be the Messiah, or had others claim it about them, so Jesus couldn’t have? No one else claimed to be able to exorcise demons or heal, and so Jesus could not have made similar claims? Either you are kidding, or you don’t know the sources from this time period, Christian, Jewish, and others. There certainly is myth in the New Testament, as in other sources, but the leap from their to mythicism – the idea that Jesus was completely invented – is a completely illogical and unpersuasive one.

            • Todd Reinhardt

              Yes, I’m serious James. Nobody’s coming out of the sky and nobody walked on water. If I want to read first century stoic philosophy I’ll read first century stoic philosophy. The rest of it is unnecessary. The water to wine, the “be good” stuff. I can know that and do that on my own and for the right reasons. Nobody existed that did any of the stuff that the bible claims Jesus did. That’s utter nonsense. You talk a good game, and it almost sounds like you’re intelligent, but no truly intelligent person thinks people come back from the dead or any of the other mystical woo woo in the bible. There’s no Santa, no Easter bunny and nobody’s coming back – get over it. I never cease to amaze that people talk about this like it’s serious… and the tone you take is hilarious – like it matters! In the 21st century we’re having conversations like this?… and people aren’t laughing this childish nothingness off the face of the earth? (Oh wait, many of us are…) Don’t use a water-walking, snake talking, made-up cartoon character in a sentence with a serious tone anymore. Grow up, and don’t ask me to be tolerant and understanding of your “faith”… faith is a euphemism for turning your brain off, and that doesn’t deserve respect, it deserves all the scoffing and disgust that reasonable people can muster.

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

                If you are serious, then you’ve completely misunderstood what is being discussed here. This is not about believing things on faith, not about accepting claims that miracles occurred, not about any of the sorts of things that you are focused on in your comment, and in which I have no interest. I’m discussing the historical evidence, and the conclusions drawn by professional secular historians. If you are interested in discussing that, then kindly explain why you reject the consensus of secular historians and prefer to embrace crank theories circulating on the internet. If you are looking for a conversation partner who thinks that miracles occurred and will try to persuade you of it, then you’re talking to the wrong person.

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

                  Who are some of those secular historians? Is Dunn one of them?

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

                    If you define secular historian as someone who is following the rules of secular historiography in their work as academics seeking to answer historical questions, then yes, absolutely.

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

                      That definition sounds reasonable enough, but my guess would be that many many confessional scholars would claim that they follow the rules of secular historiography.

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

                      Hence the need to read more than one scholar, and to see whether someone follows the methods of their field, or is challenged by other scholars for not doing so.

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

                      That sounds reasonable enough, too. Unfortunately, one of the rules in the field of historical Jesus studies seems to be that scholars are allowed to ignore the rules of historiography from time to time in order to do apologetics. As a result, I don’t feel that I can count on them to challenge one another as often as they should.

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

                      I think you will find that the rules are fairly clearly defined as the application to Jesus of the same methods that are applied more generally in the domain of history. Obviously academics debate such rules at time, and break them at others. But if there are writers and publishers which are clearly trying to use a veneer of historical study to do apologetics, the circles that do such things are well known and easy to spot.

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

                      If Wright can argue that the resurrection is a historical event and nonetheless be admired for his contribution to historical Jesus studies by Dunn, then it is hard for me to accept that the distinction between historians and apologists is as clear cut as you suggest.

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

                      I believe that one of the rules of any sort of scholarship has to be that you do your best to challenge your own biases and assumptions. No one can ever perfectly achieve this, but it has to be a goal.

                      For me, the debate between mythicism and historicism comes down to this question: Was it the vision of a resurrected Messiah that led men to invent stories about the things that Jesus of Nazareth said and did or was it the things that Jesus of Nazareth said and did that led men to have visions of him as a resurrected Messiah?

                      I’m not sure what the answer to that question is or whether the evidence we have is sufficient to answer it. However, I’m pretty sure that I am not going to look for answers to any scholar who believes as a matter of faith that God revealed himself most definitively in Jesus of Nazareth. No matter how much he speaks the language of historical methodology, I cannot see how I could ever have any confidence in his ability to challenge his own theological assumptions.

                    • arcseconds

                      I don’t understand this. Don’t arguments stand on their own merits (or fall on their own flaws) regardless of the intellectual virtue of the person tabling them?

                      A first-rate scholar who does everything well can still, nevertheless, produce flawed arguments (perhaps through no fault of their own, maybe they took every care to check the evidence but it was still faulty and later disproved). We don’t trust everything they say just because they’re the business, and if their arguments fail, they fail.

                      It surely works the other way around, too. A flawed scholar can still produce a good argument, and we shouldn’t just dismiss it because it was uttered by someone we think is flawed.

                      It would be reasonable for someone who doesn’t trust themselves to assess the quality of the arguments to worry that they might be reading the work of someone who doesn’t challenge themselves enough (and I’d say that I’m in that position (of someone who isn’t totally confident in their ability to judge the quality of a historical argument, especially in this field)), but surely this isn’t a concern for an expert.

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

                      arcseconds,

                      Even a broken clock is right twice a day, but I’m still going to look for one that works first.

                      A flawed scholar might produce a good argument, but if good scholarship means anything, I have to think the odds of him doing so are much less than those of a first-rate scholar. If the expert shares the same confessional biases as the flawed scholar, I would not expect him to be able to judge the effect of those biases on the arguments.

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

                      If the field were made up only or primarily of people with confessional biases, and/or whose commitment to historical methods was dubious, and/or people who never draw conclusions that run counter to the dogmatic claims of their confessional tradition, then I would probably share your concern. But obviously that is not the case, and no one familiar with the history of historical Jesus studies or the vast literature on the topic could claim otherwise. And so we have good reason to conclude that the methods of secular historical study are being followed, at least in academic research if not always in the books that are aimed at the mass market.

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

                      It concerns me that leading scholars in the field believe as a matter of faith that God revealed Himself definitively in Jesus and that they pursue the study of the historical Jesus in order to better understand that revelation. The fact that they might occasionally draw conclusions that run counter to the dogmatic claims of their confessional traditions wouldn’t assuage my doubts that there are a whole range of issues to which they are not going to be able to bring any degree of objectivity.

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

                      It concerns some people that several biologists are also outspoken atheists who claim that their biological research has metaphysical implications. And so it is great that in both history and the natural sciences, we can look at scholars across a range of ideological divides and see whether, on key points, they agree. When they do, it suggests that the evidence for those points is particularly compelling.

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

                      When a scholar admits that he accepts supernatural claims about Jesus as a matter of faith, it suggests his willingness to draw conclusions about Jesus without evidence. It is of course possible that particularly compelling evidence exists for some point about the historical Jesus upon which he agrees, but I cannot infer its existence from his agreement.

                      A biologist seeing metaphysical implications in the results of his biological research doesn’t tell me much one way or the other about the kind of evidence he needs to reach conclusions in his field of expertise.

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

                      I’m afraid I simply cannot share your anti-Christian bias, any more than I can have an anti-atheist bias simply because there are popular works by atheist authors that evidence shoddy thinking, and online communities which seem to have no sense that the people whom they quite savagely insult and mock are human beings (and, to be clear, I am referring to mockery of people, not ideas). There are Christians in so many fields where Christians beliefs have implications that, if Christians were as untrustworthy as you claim, and/or the worldwide community of experts had no ability to compensate for bias, then we would all need to live in constant fear for our safety. And perhaps you have that degree of paranoia and apply it to all areas and not just to history. But in my own experience, there are biases all around, not just among Christians, and likewise enough level-headed people across the spectrum that nonsense does not constantly prevail, or even go unchallenged.

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

                      If a Muslim scholar admitted that he accepted supernatural claims about Muhammad or a Mormon scholar admitted that he accepted supernatural claims about Joseph Smith, I would have the same reservations about their objectivity concerning historical questions that were directly implicated by those claims . If I have a bias, it is against magical thinking in empirical investigations.

                      One of the historical questions I have is whether reliable historical information can be teased from ancient religious propaganda of uncertain authorship based on unknown sources which are themselves removed an unknown number of times in a hypothetical oral tradition from the originators of the stories who may or may not have any first hand knowledge of the events in question. There is nothing biased about recognizing that a scholar might have trouble addressing that question objectively if he believes as a matter of faith that God spoke through Jesus of Nazareth since the absence of reliable information about what Jesus said and did would render faith-based positions meaningless.

                      I have pointed out the difficulty that classicists have in determining what constitutes “Socrates remembered” versus “Socrates invented” despite having the writings of three people who knew him personally. Somehow, however, scholars of faith are convinced that they can confidently separate “Jesus remembered” from “Jesus invented” despite having nothing more than anonymous writings based on several decades of oral tradition about which they can establish practically nothing. I find it sad that I can get no better response than an accusation of bias and paranoia.

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

                      Not everyone has that confidence (that it is possible to distinguish clearly what is remembered and what is invented), as you must know if you are even superficially acquainted with the scholarly literature. And again, as you must know because we have spoken about it before, there is a range of conclusions by historians, from “as certain as possible that it wasn’t invented” to “as certain as possible that it was.” It is your persistent ignoring of the very small but nonetheless real former category that makes you seem biased and paranoid, as well as making me feel that I have to keep having the same conversation with you over and over again.

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

                      I am aware of the diversity of opinion, which is why I often have a difficult time figuring out where the consensus that you are citing lies. If indeed you believe those scholars who are as certain as possible that it wasn’t invented to be a very small category, I’m not certain why you keep citing the consensus of scholars.

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

                      Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I was referring to the fact that historians draw different conclusions about different material. On some, there is overwhelming consensus as to authenticity. On others, there is overwhelming consensus as to inauthenticity. And on much there is disagreement and uncertainty. My point is the ignoring of the fact that, however small the number of events in the life of Jesus happens to be about which there is near unanimity, mythicists pretend that there is no such agreement, and that agreement among academics about anything indicates that the evidence on that point must be rather strong indeed.

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

                      OK. That sounds more like what I think you have argued on other occasions.

                      However, I don’t think that near unanimity necessarily indicates particularly strong evidence. It might be a function of weak evidence that only points in one direction. If we only had a single report dating fifty years after his death that Columbus was born in Genoa, there might be no reason for a historian to argue for any other location, but that wouldn’t make the evidence particularly strong. No matter how many scholars agree about any event in Jesus’s life, the evidence for that event is still going to be highly problematic texts.

                    • arcseconds

                      Well, I certainly hope that historians in general, and James in particular, and, well, all of the readers of this blog, too, are not going to fall for some rookie mistake like conflating “this hypothesis is the most likely option” with “this hypothesis is very likely”!

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

                      I think that historical Jesus scholars tend to recognize the issue when reaching a conclusion, however, they sometimes forget it when a conclusion that is at best more likely than not becomes a virtually certain premise in a subsequent argument.

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

                      I’m not sure I’ve understood you correctly. If historians conclude that the existence of Jesus, or Socrates, or whoever else, is more probable than not, are you saying that in your view historians should not then proceed to do further work that builds on that conclusion? If that is your view, I would be interested to know why you hold it.

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

                      No. I am saying that when you proceed to do further work by using that conclusion as a premise in a subsequent argument, that premise is still subject to whatever uncertainty there was about the conclusion.

                      For example if a conclusion which is 75% certain is used in a second argument, any conclusion drawn in the second argument can never be more than 75% certain. And if the conclusion of the second argument is used as a premise in a third argument, it will be subject to any additional uncertainty introduced in the second argument.

                      I fear that HJ scholars have a tendency to string together premises and conclusions without being aware of the effects of the uncertainty being introduced at each step. As a result they express unwarranted certainty about their final conclusions.

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

                      I don’t have that impression. Could you perhaps provide some specific examples of the sort of thing you are talking about?

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

                      The clearest example I can think of is Ehrman’s argument in Did Jesus Exist? that Jesus existed beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt because Paul met his brother James. The problem is that he has said on other occasions that we cannot be certain about the original text of Galatians due to the fact that our earliest manuscript dates from the end of the 2nd century. The authenticity of the passage is a necessary premise in the argument that Paul met Jesus’s brother so we can’t be certain beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt about that unless we are certain beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt about the text itself.

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

                      You are running together two phrases, “beyond a shadow of a doubt” and “beyond reasonable doubt.” When all our manuscripts contain a phrase, it will always be possible that an interpolation occurred very early and left no trace. But I wouldn’t call dwelling on such things reasonable doubts. But if you do, then most of our knowledge of the ancient world is far more doubtful than Paul having met Jesus’ brother. And so I hope you at least apply your extreme skepticism fairly across all of history.

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

                      No. I’m not running anything together. Ehrman wrote “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt.”

                      I think your statement perfectly illustrates my concerns. You cannot reduce uncertainty simply by choosing not to dwell on it. I expect any historian to deal with sources of uncertainty, not to ignore them. If our knowledge of the ancient world is more doubtful than the historian would like it to be, that’s too bad.

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

                      And we do deal with it. The problem is that there are purveyors of bunk who are trying to claim that the ongoing uncertainties, discussions, and debates are somehow evidence of something other than a vibrant and exciting academic area of inquiry, and claim that their own far-less-probable scenarios ought to be preferred to what historians have concluded and typically couch in an appropriately nuanced and provisional manner.

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

                      If that is true, can you explain how you deal with the possibility of interpolations or alterations that didn’t leave variants in the manuscript (other than by ignoring it)?

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

                      There are constant discussions of the possibility of interpolations, earlier editions, hypothetical sources, and all such things. You just have to make a case which is so persuasive that it seems to experts in the field that, even though there is no manuscript evidence, the scenario you argue for is more probable than not.

                      Why not actually read a book about a specific instance, and see for yourself how cases are made and evaluated?

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

                      I think I have read enough to have a decent idea about how arguments are made in specific instances, but my question isn’t about specific instances. My question is about the general problem.

                      Here are some of the things that I recall from listening to the 2008 Greer-Heard Forum featuring Bart Ehrman, Daniel Wallace, David Parker, Mike Holmes, Dale Martin, and Bill Warren:

                      (1) The rate of variants increases as you go earlier in the manuscript tradition with the earliest manuscripts having the most variants.

                      (2) The most critical period for the transmission of ancient documents is the first hundred years.

                      (3) The less orthodox variant is likely to be the earliest since intentional changes usually made the texts more orthodox.

                      This suggests the possibility—if not the high probability—that there were many alterations to the texts for which we will never have any manuscript evidence and that the autographs as a whole probably varied more from what we understand to be orthodox Christianity than the earliest extant manuscripts do.

                      I would expect that any scholar who purports to be using the texts to do history would have some thoughts about the degree of uncertainty this possibility introduces into any argument that includes as a premise that any passage is original. One of the scholars at the forum suggested that we probably shouldn’t be talking about the original texts at all, which seems eminently reasonable to me. I think it would be logical to treat them—at least as a starting point—as reflecting the understanding of the communities that produced the earliest manuscripts rather than reflecting the understanding of the authors. Why shouldn’t the burden be on the one who wants to treat a passage as original to make an argument for why it escaped the early transmission process unscathed?

                    • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

                      Would you apply this line of argument:

                      1) To all historical claims that derive from manuscript evidence? E.g. if I wanted to claim that in AD 79 during the eruption of Vesuvius, Pliny the Elder received a letter from a woman named Rectina, do I have to justify why this little nugget escaped unscathed across hundreds of years of copying?

                      2) To passages that could be used to support mythicism? E.g. you’ve previously pointed out that Paul refers to James the brother of the Lord, not James the brother of Jesus. Well, then isn’t there a burden on you to show that the “Lord” bit is original, and that Paul didn’t originally write “Jesus”?

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

                      In addition to Paul’s points, I would add that, in the case of the texts we are talking about, they are recognizably the same texts in our earliest and latest copies. They don’t go from being a letter of Paul to a soup recipe or vice versa. And so should a historian treat a scenario involving an interpolation for which there is not only no manuscript evidence, but no persuasive scholarly case, as equally or more likely than that the original text said what all extant manuscripts say, and all scholars studying the text and looking for signs of tampering conclude is probably did?

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

                      1) Of course, but in many cases it wouldn’t need to be stated explicitly because uncertainty about transmission is just one of those things that makes it harder to be certain about ancient history. Where it becomes important is when the authenticity of the passage becomes a premise in another argument. For example, if you were to argue that the letter led to action in the Senate that led to some military consequences, it would be important to consider the sources of uncertainty about the passage and the effect on your theory if the passage was inauthentic. Obviously, your theory would be stronger if you could corroborate the letter’s existence.

                      2) Of course it would apply to arguments for mythicism, however, I think it would be sufficient to consider the possibility of alteration rather than specific alternative language. If you assessed the probability of alteration at %5, there might be dozens or hundreds of possibilities for what the original might have been. It is hard for me to imagine that the probability of any specific alternative would be high enough to require attention.

                    • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

                      I tend to think that your point that “it is hard for me to imagine that the probability of any specific alternative would be high enough to require attention” would apply to most arguments made from textual evidence.

                      There is certainly a chance that any particular statement in an ancient text is not fully original. However, in most cases these changes would be of minimal importance, e.g. minor spelling changes. I’m not sure where your 5% figure comes from – is there some evidence that would make it reasonable to think that 5% of a modern critical text of the Bible (or any other ancient text) consists of passages that were entirely interpolated or redacted to read something directly opposed to the original?

                      You’re right that if an argument relied on a single passage from a text, then we’d have to factor in the possibility that the passage might not be authentic. However…

                      1)The possibility that a given passage is an unevidenced interpolation is relatively small, so it shouldn’t have a massive impact on an otherwise strong argument (the overall probability would still be pretty high)

                      2) While I note your point about the tendency to orthodoxy, generally any doubts we have about texts would apply to all sides of an argument based on textual evidence. So personally I’d agree that we can’t be completely 100% certain about anything that happened in ancient history (or anything else not known a priori), I think we should be clear that these doubts do not privilege one claim about history over any other.

                      3) Good arguments usually rely on multiple bits of evidence. The chances that an otherwise good argument would be ruined by multiple undetected textual errors are going to decrease with every new bit of evidence used. If my argument about Rectina’s letter leading to military intervention was supported by three passages in Pliny’s letters, then even applying your 5% figure to each individual passage, what are the chances that all three passages are fake? How about if I used four passages? I’d say sufficiently small that it would have almost no impact on the overall argument. Of course, you might argue that Pliny’s letters as a whole have been corrupted (perhaps some monk was a sucker for a good damsel in distress story and inserted multiple passages at the same time), but here I would say that the onus would be upon you to provide good internal, manuscript, or other evidence to show why this should be the case, not on me to show otherwise.

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

                      The 5% figure was chosen arbitrarily for purposes of illustration. I’m not certain what the actual magnitude might be.

                      I’m sure that most changes would be trivial, but my concern is what we call in finance “fat tails.” The probability that the stock market will crash on any given day is very, very small, however, the effect of a crash on investment returns is so devastating that the possibility has to be taken addressed seriously. Any shady lawyer can tell you that the key to inventing a story that a jury will believe is to go with what really happened as much as possible and only lie strategically on a few crucial points that will determine the outcome. I don’t think the problem would be the quantity of changes so much as someone making a couple crucial changes that changed the meaning. All it would take would be inserting or omitting the word “not” at some key points.

                      It was one of the conservative scholars at the Greer-Heard forum who said that the first century of transmission is the most critical for ancient documents. He did not elaborate on the point, but it is easy to see how important it could be in the case of the New Testament. The overwhelming majority of the extant NT manuscripts come from after the point when the church was sanctioned by the state and had an established hierarchy. By that point, the benefits of intentionally altering a text would not have been as great. On the other hand, the period for which we have no manuscripts is the period in which the controversies that the letters addressed were still raging, and there was no final authority. The benefits of getting Paul or some other important figure on your side in a debate would have been very great, which I think we can see in the number of letters to which Paul’s name was attached. I tend to think that someone who thought he was justified in writing letters in Paul’s name wouldn’t have had greater qualms about altering an existing letter to make it say what he believed Paul should have said.

                      I agree that multiple occurrences of the same idea strengthens the argument for authenticity particularly if they occur in different writings by the same author.

                    • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

                      I’m not an expert in finance or law Vinny, but I think your comparisons are red herrings. In both cases, the uncertainty relates primarily to future events, not past events, and in particular, the uncertainty matters because something important depends on the outcome.

                      If I staked a pound of my own money on the outcome of a football match, you might think the bet was a good or bad one, but it wouldn’t bother you much if I lost. If the person who runs you pension fund staked the entire fund on the same bet, you’d think he or she was insane, even though the odds haven’t changed.

                      Likewise, lawyers only have an incidental interest in establishing the truth of past events. Their primary concern is to influence a future event, ie the decision of a judge or jury, because something important, such as money, the life or a client, or public aafety are at stake. When OJ’ s glove didn’t fit, that was bad news for the prosecution, but it didn’t change the fact that he had brutally murdered two people.

                      These concerns are irrelevant to claims about the distant past, unless, say I decided to stake millions of pounds on the truth of a historical claim e.g. by funding an exposition the find Noah’ s Ark.

                      As far as I know, the letters of Paul actually show fewer textual changes than other NT texts, e.g. the gospels. There are a few passages in Paul that might be insertions, but suggesting that every passage is suspect because of what you think someone might have done simply looks like special pleading, unless you would apply the same approach to every other pre-modern text.

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

                      Paul,

                      If I say “A horse is like an elephant because they both have four legs,” it is meaningless to respond “No, a horse isn’t like an elephant because an elephant is much bigger.” It is meaningless because the response has nothing to do with the point for which the analogy is being offered. The nature of an analogy is that it compares two different things in order to illustrate a specific similarity. As a result, you can always respond to an analogy by pointing out differences between the two things, but those difference are irrelevant if they don’t relate to the point upon which the analogy is being offered.

                      The point of the finance analogy was merely that events with small probabilities can have large effects on outcomes. There are of course countless ways in which stock market crashes are not like the alterations of ancient texts in transmission, but if they don’t relate to the limited point for which the analogy was offered, pointing them out just shows a misunderstanding of how analogies work.

                      In the legal analogy, the lawyer doesn’t correspond to the historian who is trying to figure out what happened in the past. He corresponds to the scribe who intentionally alters a text. The historian corresponds to the jury trying to figure out what really happened. The point is that the lawyer doesn’t have to make many big changes in order to change the juries understanding of the events and the scribe wouldn’t have to make many big changes to change our understanding of a text.

                      I have never heard that Paul shows a lower rate of textual changes than other NT writings, but the problem remains that the rate is established by looking at manuscripts produced by trained scribes at a time when Christianity was the state religion with established hierarchy and doctrine. From everything I have read, that provides us with limited information about the fidelity of transmission by untrained copyists during a period when Christianity was a minority religion composed of competing sects subject to occasional persecutions and there are good reasons to think that the rate of textual changes was much higher in the earlier period than in the later one..

                      I do not think that every passage is suspect because of what I think people might have done. I think that every passage is subject to some degree uncertainty based on the the kinds of things that people were known to have done. I would expect any historian dealing with any ancient document to take into account the effects of uncertainties in transmission. Not dwelling on it or creating unjustified presumptions in favor of authenticity wouldn’t cut it for me with respect to any other ancient modern text either.

                    • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

                      Perhaps if you’re going to make analogies then it’s up to
                      you to show their relevance rather than bawling someone out because they’ve failed to share your amazing insight?

                      I would expect any historian dealing with any ancient document to take into account the effects of uncertainties in transmission. Not dwelling on it or creating unjustified presumptions in favor of authenticity wouldn’t cut it for me with respect to any other ancient text either.

                      I don’t know how you’re defining unjustified presumption, but I don’t consider that a scholar who uses a good critical text, and considers any known textual variants or debates about the authenticity of a passage is making an unjustified presumption.

                      There are a number of reasons why a statement in a text
                      (ancient or not) might be false. The source might be outright lying or reporting a very selective version of events. The source might have made a mistake or their memory might be faulty, or the whole source might be a fake. In many cases, we’d simply have no way of knowing if any of these applied – could you prove to me that Pliny’s memory wasn’t playing tricks when he recalled Rectina’s letter?

                      Clearly, if I unknowingly used a false statement as a
                      premise in a subsequent argument, then I’d most likely end up with a false conclusion. That’s not something we need any legal analogies to understand, and I don’t think that that the possibility of unevidenced textual changes takes us to a whole new realm of uncertainty beyond these other possibilities. As I wrote previously (and as you seem to agree), strong arguments will tend to rely on more than one piece of evidence anyway.

                      For example, Carrier makes an argument for the non-historicity of Jesus based on a certain passage in Philo: Regardless of the overall merits of the argument, I would not say there is any particular onus on Carrier to prove that this passage is authentic, unless there was some doubt about the passage in the manuscript tradition, or some literary reason to question the passage. I would say that there would be an onus on others to advance solid arguments for the passage being inauthentic.

                      I would expect any historian dealing with any ancient document to take into account the effects of uncertainties in transmission. Not dwelling on it or creating unjustified presumptions in favor of authenticity wouldn’t cut it for me

                      I wold tend to find your reasoning more persuasive if you
                      did not employ the same reasoning that you criticise in others. For example, a couple of comments above, you wrote that “The benefits of getting Paul… on your side in a debate would have been very great, which I think we can see in the number of letters to which Paul’s name was attached. I tend to think that someone who thought he was justified in writing letters in Paul’s name wouldn’t
                      have had greater qualms about altering an existing letter to make it say what he believed Paul should have said.”

                      You’re argument that Paul’s letters might have relies on the following things being true:

                      a) Some of the letters we have written in Paul’s name are not authentic.

                      b) We can extrapolate something from the production
                      of forged letters to the textual history of genuine Pauline letters, so that based on the truth of a) it is reasonable to expect changes from in the MS tradition that reflect [doctrinal?] debates within early Christianity.

                      c) [By implication] Some of these changes have left
                      no textual variants (so all existing MS reflect a particular change) and have not been questioned by NT scholars on the basis of internal or literary evidence.

                      How is each one of these not an example of the sort of
                      unjustified assumption that you accuse others of when they use the best available critical text of a document? Each premise might be “possible”, or “quite likely” or “what most scholars think”, but you certainly don’t produce any evidence to prove that the assumptions underlying your argument are true.

                      As another example, I seem to remember somebody raising in a discussion with you the possibility that Mark’s gospel might predate Paul’s letters (which would have been problematic for your argument in the discussion),
                      and you answered something along the lines that overall the scholars who argue this hadn’t really shifted the consensus.

                      It seems to me that you’re happy to default to the consensus when it suits you, but you criticise other people for doing so whenever the consensus position might be inconvenient for your own assertions. If you have certain expectations about the scholars should behave, then that’s fine, but I’d have much more respect for your position if you lived up to those expectations
                      yourself.

                      I have never heard that Paul shows a lower
                      rate of textual changes than other NT writings

                      Perhaps you could go and do some reading around the textual history of Paul’s letters, and consider how far this does or doesn’t support your overall hypothesis, rather than simply asserting unfalsifiable generalities?

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

                      So I should go out and do the research to disprove your unsupported assertion that Paul shows a lower rate of variants? I don’t think so.

                    • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

                      Okey dokey. I think it’s safe to say this discussion is over. Thanks, it’s been illuminating.

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

                      I figured it was over when you started generalizing from what you think you remember about comments I made in other threads. I’ll take a pass on that rabbit trail.

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

                      If many scholars start with the premise that the gospels contain retrievable historical information, it doesn’t surprise me that their reconstructions of the historical Jesus would overlap at a number of points, however, that agreement doesn’t tell me anything about the likelihood that the premise is true.

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

                      Fortunately what you call a “premise” is in fact a conclusion drawn as a result of historical-critical investigation of the sources.

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

                      I acknowledge that possibility. That is why I called it a “premise” rather than an “assumption.” However, that doesn’t change my point.

                    • arcseconds

                      Is that also why you said ‘start’?

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

                      No.

                • Todd Reinhardt

                  I completely understand what’s going on here. I looked at the top of the page and saw the type of community this is. What you’re attempting to do is mask a religious discussion in the air of rational discourse. Can you profess to me and everyone on this board, openly that you are not a Christian? And that has everything to do with this. You are trying to marginalize your beliefs for the sole purposes of minimizing the effects of your your bias and agenda on the discussion. I’m not against bias and agenda, I’m against people attempting to hide them. I’m saying that analyzing the historical Jesus as a hoax is the only way to approach this. Nobody did what he did, his storyline and metaphysics are stolen – none of that is crank theory. I’m not saying that Atwill is right, I’m simply saying it makes more sense than saying the character in the bible is historical when its mystical and implausible aspects are clearly not true. Atwill is part of a conversation that explores this issue, it’s not a crank, and he is not presenting water-walking, wine changing mystical garbage in his theory (like you do.. with a straight face and a tone of scholarly arrogance that is totally undeserved, I might add). Your religious beliefs are blinding you and everyone else on this board from opening up your minds to undertake a truly rational look at this. Don’t try to come off like you don’t have an agenda and that agenda doesn’t box in your thinking. Get out of the box. No secular historian believes anyone walked on water or is coming back after 2000 years. All secular historians know that the political realities of the day, the Roman situation and the Flavians had everything to do with the origins of the myth. All secular historians are aware that the Jesus myth, including its specific happenings and metaphysics are all lifted from other religious heritages. None of these rudimentary facts (all of which are integrated by Atwill) are disputed by anyone but religiously-driven zealots like you and the others on this board who cling to the myth like it’s a fact. Quit trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. The Jesus of the bible did not exist… nobody’s coming back… and while we’re at it… there’s no Santa or Easter bunny. Get over it.

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

                    The problem in our age is that too many people think that looking at the top of a web page is sufficient research to “completely understand what is going on here.”

                    If you actually examined the web site a little, you would know that it hosts a range of views, including atheists. If you explored this blog, you would quickly have discovered that I am a liberal Christian and don’t think that anyone has ever walked on water or been virginally conceived.

                    Let’s see if we can get at the heart of the matter, which is not about miracles or Christian faith claims but about history – at least, the discussion here on this post is focused on that.

                    There were people, according to our sources, who claimed that Plato was of divine parentage, even during his own lifetime.

                    Is that grounds for historians to dismiss all the data we have about him as most likely invented? Or is the appropriate thing for historians to do to set aside superstitious and supernatural stuff as unhistorical but nonetheless investigate whether they are dealing with a historical figure who was being mythologized, rather than a pure invention?

                    • arcseconds

                      Rubbish. Jesus may or may not have walked on water, but Plato’s divinity is the only way to explain the facts.

                      How else could he have predicted modern video games?

                  • http://irrco.wordpress.com/ Ian

                    “I completely understand what’s going on here.”

                    Yet you manage to completely misrepresent even the basic outline of the argument you claim to disagree with.

                    Its bad enough people substituting reading web pages for reading books, without bragging about only reading the top!

      • Galactor

        It’s sad to see people jump to conclusions instead of asking more questions.

        @Roryshiner I didn't BACK it, I tweeted it. It seems far-fetched to me but what do I know? I thought an expert might confirm or demolish it.— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) October 10, 2013

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

          I don’t think he would have tweeted a bizarre claim related to science made by someone who was claiming to be a scientists but isn’t really one. That tweet sounds like damage control to me.

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

      I don’t think the comparison is apt. On the one hand, I’ve emphasized that I welcome the making of a serious peer-reviewed case for mythicism. My objection to mythicism as it now circulates is that it is something which isn’t even currently at the status of a scholarly hypothesis that most find unpersuasive. It is, like Intelligent Design, an attempt to bypass journals and peer review and appeal straight to the masses.

      In the case of the Synoptic problem, there is vigorous scholarly discussion, with people who are clearly top-notch scholars arguing the case for a variety of viewpoints. There is a majority view, but not a unanimous one. And all those involved would, I hope, accept that the onus is on us as scholars to persuade our peers, not to complain about an alleged conspiracy or unwillingness to consider new possibilities as the reason our arguments do not persuade. I don’t know of anything more central to Biblical scholarship than fresh ideas!

      • Peter Kirby

        The onus is on anyone who wants to persuade to make a convincing case, historicity and non-historicity alike.

        I welcome the making of serious peer-reviewed case for the historicity of Jesus. The discussion needs to get off the ground in that direction also. The presentations for the historicity of Jesus have also taken place almost exclusively in books, not journals (not that I would agree that this means that the arguments in these books do not need to be taken seriously).

        The descriptions of a historical Jesus are themselves so various and methodologically muddled as to defy the description of an academic consensus around the subject matter.

        If I have a complaint, it is that you don’t attempt to make a serious argument for the historicity of Jesus, but you keep returning to the subject anyway, preferring to flog the non-historicity of Jesus as “the creationism of history” rather than making any actual attempt to demonstrate that it is wrong. Instead of the normal hemming and hawing, a straightforward presentation of the case for the historicity of Jesus would be a riveting read.

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

          There is extensive historical research on the subject of Jesus. He has been treated with a higher degree of skepticism than any other figure in history. And historians still consistently conclude that some details about him withstand such scrutiny and seem historical. What more of a case than that are you looking for, exactly?

          • Peter Kirby

            That’s not a case. That’s a summary of opinion as you see it. That you should confuse the two illustrates the problem.

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

              If the writings of historians, arguing their cases in lengthy monographs and many other sorts of publications in detail, and the fact that these voluminous scholarly writings on the subject converge on a conclusion about which historians and scholars in related fields agree pretty much unanimously, is not a case, then what pray tell is? If I summarize their arguments on my blog, does that then become a case? Why is a summary of a case a case, but the case itself presented in all its detail with substantial evidence supposedly not one?

              • Peter Kirby

                All obfuscation aside, a set of arguments and evidence make a case. Nothing else.

                Your fantasy about the state of historical Jesus scholarship is emphatically not a case. Anybody who’s read the stuff will know that you’re describing a fairy tale world parallel to the real one. We’re not faced with an embarrassment of riches regarding our knowledge of a historical Jesus but rather with an acute problem of whether we know anything at all.

                • Peter Kirby

                  By the way, congratulations are due. You made the top 10 in the new list of top biblioblogs by inbound links:

                  http://peterkirby.com/top-225-by-linkage.html

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

                    Thanks both for the congratulations and for making the ranking!

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

                  We do indeed face a situation of having less information, and less reliable information, than we would ideally like to have. But historians are aware of that, and know that the same is true of other comparable figures, like John the Baptist, Hillel, Socrates, and many others. And few would say that it is possible that we know nothing – in Jesus’ case, the crucifixion is as certain as anything could be about a figure like him. And so acknowledging the significant uncertainty is mainstream historiography, and doesn’t make the positive claims about the meaning of our sources made by Earl Doherty or Dorothy Murdock any more credible, much less more likely than the understanding of those sources by mainstream scholars.

                  • Peter Kirby

                    With all the qualifications being made that are necessary to be made, I am not one to disagree. And continuing a debate like this in comments would be a little silly, anyway. Also, no problem; your blog’s position is well-earned.

  • Richard Raspberry

    hahahahaha it’s hilarious to see atheists fabricate their own version of history. This is gold!

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    For some reason, Jerry Coyne is also still peddling mythicism, history’s version of creationism.

    -While I firmly agree that Dawkins’s promotion of Atwill is an embarrassment to Dawkins, Jesus non-historicity is hardly “history’s version of creationism”. For Jesus non-historicity to be true, all that is required is a few imaginative minds. For creationism to be true, at least one physical impossibility (a conscious brainless thinker that can transform matter while not being composed of matter) is required. Thus, the two are not even in the same twenty leagues.

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

      For Jesus mythicism to be correct, all that needs to be true is that historians are completely misguided about how to draw conclusions about the past. For young-earth creationism to be correct, all that needs to be true is that scientists are completely misguided about how to draw conclusions about the past.

      • Jack Collins

        Although, to be fair, the evidence for evolution is a little more copious than a few books written by biased sources decades after the fact. Holocaust denialism probably comes closer to creationism in its sheer willful dismissal of historical data. We aren’t as certain about anything in antiquity as we are about evolution.

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

          Indeed! Holocaust denial is perhaps beyond evolution-denial since it involves denying the testimony of people still alive. Evolution is next, since science has harder data to work with and experimental investigative possibilities for the processes at work. So perhaps I should say that it is a comparable phenomenon within the domain of ancient history. Most things in ancient history are by definition far less certain than things in most domains of the natural sciences. But denialism in all these domains relies on many of the same tactics to deny the conclusions of each scholarly field, and the degrees of certainty it offers in its conclusions.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        For plate tectonics to be correct, all that needs to be true is that geologists are completely misguided about how to draw conclusions about the past.

        -Hypothetical James McGrath, 1940.

        The academy is perfect, isn’t it? Remember that there is a future. In any case, both of your sentences are false; academic conclusions are not the real world; the map is not the territory. Focus on the potential truth of an idea’s impact on the territory, not on its impact on the mapmakers.

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

          That scholars can be wrong doesn’t justify embracing fringe views as though, if the consensus can be wrong, therefore anything goes. Plate tectonics has been accepted because of evidence and rational argument. If the mythicists had offered plausible accounts of the evidence, the situation would be very different than the actual state of affairs.

          • Nick Gotts

            Interestingly, it was widely admitted prior to the acceptance of plate tectonics that a lot of evidence from geology and biogeography seemed to support continental drift; but it was considered that it just couldn’t happen – Wegener’s proposed mechanism, which had the continents ploughing through the crust, was physically impossible. As a consequence, improbable land bridges and evolutionary convergences were hypothesized. The discovery of sea-floor spreading provided the mechanism, and the consensus reversed within a decade. But where’s the evidence that seems to support mythicism?

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

              That is indeed the pertinent question! Scholarly consensuses are the best judgment experts can give based on the available evidence. If new evidence comes to light, that consensus can change rapidly. It is the claim – rather like that made by some fundamentalists – that there is no new evidence, but no one else understood these texts at all until we showed up – that makes mythicism seem particularly implausible to some of us.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            That scholars can be wrong doesn’t justify embracing fringe views as though

            -Firmly agreed.

            If the mythicists had offered plausible accounts of the evidence, the situation would be very different than the actual state of affairs.

            -What would constitute “plausible”?

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            if the consensus can be wrong, therefore anything goes

            -Waait… Am I reading this correctly? So Galileo was actually wrong?

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

              I don’t think you read the entire sentence. And I don’t think you’re taking seriously the extent to which there are methods and articulated criteria for academic investigation in our time which were not in place when much older consensuses were formulated.

              • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                Ah. Good. I wasn’t reading you correctly. Whew. I did read the entire sentence (see my second-to-previous comment), but I was thrown off by your unnecessary comma.

    • JackBlair

      Dawkins has plenty to be embarrassed about, Atwill aside.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        Examples?

        • JackBlair

          Here’s a few hundred: “The God Delusion.” Every page is cringeworthy, infantile, embarrassing.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            I see nothing wrong with it.

            • JackBlair

              If you’ve read it, and find nothing wrong with it, this indicates that you are unacquainted with anything like actual thought.

              Check academic and critical reviews. (I don’t mean Amazon.) You’ll see that the academic and scientific communities are less than enthusiastic about Dawkins, and rightly so.

              Pity none of those voices have the guts to make the rounds on the brain-dead Jon Stewart/Bill Maher/Rachel Maddow circuit and set the dumb masses straight.

              • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                The “academic reviews” I’ve seen generally follow the pattern of the courtier’s reply. The claims of the “academic reviews” are largely refuted in the Preface to the Paperback Edition of the book. I admit to only reading a tenth of the book, but this is only because I strongly suspect I would be bored by reading the rest of it. Since the book still seems to be quite popular, I might consider reading it. Didn’t Reza Aslan get a much more favorable reception on the Daily Show this year than Richard Dawkins?

              • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                Also, your description of the masses as “dumb” is disconcerting. The masses are not “dumb”, they are merely ignorant. Besides, there is plenty of nonsense only the intelligentsia can believe.

                • JackBlair

                  Yes, I misspoke. I specifically mean the kind of people who watch Stewart, Maher, and Maddow.

                  • arcseconds

                    From what little I know about it, I agree with you and disagree with Enopoletus Harding about the substantive issue here: Dawkins frequently says asinine things about religion.

                    But responding with vague claims and gratuitous (and, it seems, irrelevantly politically motivated) insults is worse than useless in terms of correcting anyone’s views on the matter. Anyone who agrees with Dawkins, or is on the fence about it, reading your comments will just lead them to the conclusion that Dawkins’ detractors are just a bunch of arrogant arseholes who are only capable of responding to requests for information with put-downs.

                    • JackBlair

                      You have trouble with comprehension. Dawkins not only says asinine things about religion – he says asinine things generally, due to his cringe-inducing incapacity for logical thought. His legions of followers are just as embarassing, but at least they have an excuse: They don’t know any better. They are to be pitied.

                      Dawkins is a skilled rhetorician, but that only serves to oversell him as an intellectual. I’d call him a charlatan, but he actually seems to believe that his own thoughts are brilliant and perfectly reasonable.

                      He indeed suffers some kind of delusion. The title of his book may have been a cry for help. Perhaps there isn’t a name for his malady yet, but I imagine the best experts in psychology are working on it.

                    • arcseconds

                      oh boy! more gratuitous insults!

                      Tell me, what do you hope to achieve by such churlishness? It’s no way to convince anyone of your position.

                      Especially as, ironically, it’s you that are demonstrating a lack of comprehension. “Dawkins says some asinine things about religion” in no way commits to or even implies that he says sensible things about other things, any more than “Hitler did some nasty things to the Jews” suggests that Hitler was generally kind and generous towards everyone else.

                      Why, for all you know I might be completely ignorant of everything Dawkins has said on other topics. In which case it’s only right for me to limit my statement to the one subject I have any knowledge of, and on which we have agreement.

  • Don

    They can get away with it because they meet little resistance. There is no organization (informal or formal) that seeks to moderate or highlight such abuses. The media and the public cannot tell what is bogus pseudo-science pendling and what is genuine. The lead codicies? Well that was first pushed by the BBC news all around the world (!), SImcha’s series of incredible claims hits all the main channels, and if even intelligent people like Coyne dont know how silly he looks it is because there is no easy way to let him know. It is an abuse that would never, ever to tolerated in the sciences.

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

      You must live in a context in which young-earth creationism and other forms of science denial are not as rampant as they are in the US. Here, as happens with history, so too with science, there are vocal denialists and there are very vocal objections from those with genuine expertise, but they don’t always get a hearing. And on the other hand, the BBC and other venues have reported historians’ objections in the cases you mentioned, just as the media tends to at least give “equal time” to the scientists on topics like climate change and vaccinations.

  • Herro

    Isn’t the belief that Jesus rose from the dead the true “history’s version of creationism”?

  • antiallanbloom

    Exodus clearly states the existence of Moses and Joshua.

    Do you think skepticism Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses or Ester or Daniel or King David or Solomon or Noah as non-historical non-existent pure myth historically justifiable?

    I think one reason Bart Ehrman’s book is unsatisfactory is that it appears only the NT is a source of evidence of Jesus existence, and of course many Jesus mythers dismiss the whole NT as pure myth and fairy tail.

    If there’s no reason to regard the OT’s testimony as to the existence of the above individuals, uncorroborated by archeology or outside accounts, why not also disregard the new?

    • Jack Collins

      Well, to start with, the accounts of the patriarchs were redacted many centuries after the supposed events, while the NT books were written within a few decades. The question of the historicity of David and Solomon as figures remains a topic of debate, especially since a lot of recent archaeology just doesn’t fit, but we do have archeological evidence of some of the later kings.

      But the closer the figures get to the composition of the books about them, and the more recent those books are, the more reliable they are likely to be. I’d bet money on, say, Ezra’s historicity, even though most of the books in his name are certainly pseudepigraphal.

      History isn’t black and white, and neither testament is a monolithic whole. Both run the gamut of complete fiction to probable fact, and there is a lot of debate about the stuff falling in between. We can’t speak of absolute certainty about anything in the distant past, but we can weigh evidence and figure out what is most probable.

      • antiallanbloom

        btw what is the recent archaeology of David and Solomon?

        Jesus mythers claim of course that the Gospels are very late.

        I don’t recall Bart Ehrman or anyone explaining why the Gospels should be taken as valid historical sources. GJohn for example is regarded as mostly fiction. And Luke and Matthew is dependent on Mark, so really the original author of Mark is the source of historical Jesus. Jesus mythicists of course regard Mark to be pure fiction to in effect there’s no historical evidence of Jesus’ existence.

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

          The issue with those simplistic mythicist claims is that (1) they ignore the fact that Mark’s Gospel was not written in a vacuum, it clearly tells the story of an individual named Jesus that is the same person as the one Paul writes about, and is part of that same phenomenon which eventually comes to be called Christianity; and (2) they ignore the arguments based on historical-critical reasoning that some details in the Gospel of Mark are extremely unlikely to have been invented, since they raised problems for the central claim of the author – an obvious example being having the person who is being claimed as the Davidic anointed one, i.e. the one to restore the line of David to the royal throne, be executed by the foreign overlords.

          • antiallanbloom

            Some JM’ers claim that Mark is dependent on Paul, he knew Paul and of the Lord’s supper, and he decided to take Paul’s celestial Christ in historical terms, with specific pericopes constructed out of OT.

            Are there scholars who have countered JM the claims that Paul’s Christ is the result of mystery religions + speculative Wisdom personified and therefore a purely spiritual person, with comparison of course to Mithra and Hercules and Wisdom. Richard Carrier of course is promoting this to secular students. Carrier Price et all are claiming several early Christian phD’s are beginning to endorse mythicism.

            What do scholars think of Acts historicity? Acts depicts Paul preaching a historical Jesus, but as you can imagine JM’s claim Acts is pure 100% fiction like Mark and the rest of NT.

            JM’ers regard TF to be pure interpolation. Is this reasonable?

            Bart Ehrman doesn’t appeal to Gospel of Thomas or Peter or Didache as extrabiblical evidence for Jesus existence. (if I recall)

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

              It is very easy to say “this is pure fiction” – one can say it about any source one wishes, if one is happy to ignore the conclusions of historians that don’t support the assertion. We’d surely conclude that at least the story of Paul being let out of a city in a basket was pure invention, had Paul himself not mentioned it in one of his own letters.

              • antiallanbloom

                well you know, common reply is to mention Hercules and King Arthur. evidently most of the history of the OT is highly suspect.

                what do historians say is the relationship between the author of Acts and Paul? Acts doesn’t mention Paul as an important source of his epistles.

                Acts obviously refutes Doherty Wells et al claim that Paul only spoke of a purely celestial Christ.

                btw have you thought about uploading on YT rebuttals to Price Carrier et al on existence of Jesus?

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

                  The OT is a mixture, and has some useful historical material when we are talking about the 8th century onward, closer to the time when some of the sources were written. Some of it is legend that is so far removed that we simply don’t know what if anything gave rise to some of the stories.

                  If we had a letter from someone who had met King Arthur’s brother, I suspect that historians would draw a different conclusion than they currently do. It is typical for mythicists to make comparisons that are not close with respect to the evidence and thus simply show their lack of familiarity with the field and/or apologetic rather than historical/scholarly aim.

                  • antiallanbloom

                    the reason king author is invoked is that mythicists claim that the gospels and Paul in substantive detail mirrors the mystery religions like Mithra, that Mithra also had a eucharist, slaying of the bull and spilling of blood mirrors crucifixion, many gospel stories are reworked stories of the OT, Price claims Jesus story follows the universal hero mythic archetype like outlined Joseph Campbell. Since every aspect of the Gospel story is either reworked OT stories and material, or material resembling mystery religions, or Jewish Wisdom literature, the confidence in Pauls’ claim he met James, brother of the lord as a biological relation and not a spiritual relation is somewhat weakened. i’m sure you know in John 1 an antichrist is one who denies that Jesus had come into the world as flesh, and that the heresy of docetism denies Jesus had a fleshly body.

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

                      Price ignores historical-critical considerations such as that many of the parallels with the universal hero archetype he outlines are either found in later sources (and thus evidence of the common phenomenon of conforming famous individuals to these types) or things that are common for historical figures and not just ones of uncertain or improbable historicity.

                      Most of the parallels with Mithras and others turn out to be either pure invention, or similarities that are more apparent than real, resulting from people looking for parallels to Christianity latching onto slight similarities which actually have significantly different meanings within the context of the literature or tradition in question. But that said, lots of religions have similarities, and that doesn’t always mean that their founders were ahistorical.

                      I’ve dealt with all these matters before on this blog. Why not read some of those previous posts, as it is rather tedious to repeat all this.

                    • antiallanbloom

                      I certainly encourage you to either write a book or have a single page/place set up dealing with mythicist objections.

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

                      I got

                      503 Service Unavailable
                      No server is available to handle this request.

                      but ur site could be pattern after a site similar to this

                      Kenneth Humprhey
                      http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/‎

                      ur site could be
                      James McGrath
                      http://www.jesusexisted.com

                      i think some of the top issues includes that jesus is not mentioned by any contemporary writers, and the NT is not reliable.

                      Bart Ehrman on YT
                      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV9JVEtDS8E

                      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUQMJR2BP1w

                      Richard Carrier gets a mention.

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

                      It seems to be working now.

                      I think the top issue is that people turn to sources other than people who work professionally in a field and are happy to embrace claims they like that they find on the internet even if they are not found credible by actual experts. And even if they discover the latter to be the case, they rarely change their mind or bother to find out why experts draw the conclusions that they do.

                    • antiallanbloom

                      there’s a good chance Prometheus books might publish your book should you write one, although i don’t think they pay out royalties.

                      btw

                      Has there been any scholarly research attempting to connect Jesus with Philo’s Therepeatue as described in The contemplative life?

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

                      Yes, usually by regarding the latter as a branch of the Essenes. How can you be interested in that topic but not know whether there has been scholarly research on the subject? What exactly have you been reading, if anything?

                    • antiallanbloom

                      I read Philo’s description of the Therepeatue and there is a website claiming Jesus was a Therepeatue. Of course Philo was contemporary with Jesus. I’m not entirely convinced the Therepeatue were Essenes. I’ve wondered if Philo was describing Jesus and his followers, since healing is what they both have in common.

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

                      Healing was a widespread concern, and so that is a slim connection. But again, I have to ask, why, if you are genuinely interested in this topic, do you not actually read books written by historians and scholars, rather than just reading web sites?

                    • antiallanbloom

                      are there any historians or scholars who have published books that seriously consider Jesus as a member of Philo’s Therepeatue? Philo himself does not say a whole lot, and I’m not aware of any other sources, except Testament of Job.

                      not just healing

                      “the entire interval from dawn to evening is
                      given up by them to spiritual exercises. For they read the holy
                      scriptures and draw out in thought and allegory
                      their ancestral philosophy, since they regard the literal meanings as
                      symbols of an inner and hidden nature revealing itself in covert ideas.”

                      —De Vita Contemplativa, para. 28

                      matches up with what Jesus says in Mark “to them is hidden in mysteries but not to you” and the Thomas Gospel “I will reveal my secrets…”

                      Philo locates them in Egypt and Celsus states Jesus learned black magic in Egypt. Matthew also states Jesus fled to Egypt.

                      “These men abandon their property without being
                      influenced by any predominant attraction, and flee without even turning
                      their heads back again.”

                      —De Vita Contemplativa para. 18

                      matches up with Q and Thomas Gospel “birds have nests foxes have holes but the son of man has no place to lay down his head and rest”

                      Philo does not identify any Therapeutae by name, but I believe he personally witnessed a group that had Jesus as a member (or were led and taught by Jesus)

                    • Jack Collins

                      You are more likely to find information of this sort in journal articles rather than books (a book-length work on Jesus and the Therapeutae would be difficult, since there is little data to go on). Scholar.google.com would be a good place to start, although if you don’t have access to a university library, it can be hard to get access to the most recent material without paying. (This is a major controversy in scholarship generally these days.)

                      The style of scriptural interpretation Philo describes was very common across Judaism during the Second Temple. Philo’s own approach was quite similar. The Dead Sea Scrolls sect used a technique of interpretation called “pesher” that fits Philo’s description to a T, which reinforces the association between the Therapeutae and Essenes.

                      The important thing to remember is that Jesus was the product of his times. The views, values, and concerns you find in the Gospels were shared by numerous contemporary Jewish movements. The parallels you cite are not unique to Jesus. If Philo said, “They believe they are preparing for the coming of the Kingdom of God, where the last will become first,” then you’d have something!

                      (Also, Philo is much more interesting to read for his own sake than for anything he can tell us about Jesus. Primary texts are always more fun than somebody’s website about them.)

                    • antiallanbloom

                      Philo distinguishes the Essenes with the Therapeutae.

                      (1) I
                      have now spoken of the Essenes who followed with zeal and constant
                      diligence the life of action, and so excelled in all, or, to put
                      it more moderately, in most particulars.

                      But the purpose
                      and will of the lovers of wisdom is discovered in their very name
                      and title; for they are most fitly called Therapeutae [healers,
                      male gender] and Therapeutridae [healers, female gender].

                      ^

                      Philo distinguishes the Therapeautae from the Essenes and from other Jewish groups “professed an art of healing superior to that practiced in the cities” along with the other concerns he lists.

                      His account actually makes me wonder whether the Gospel of Thomas and some of the material in GJohn are Therapeautae

                    • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

                      James, don’t you agree that the people who work(ed) professionally in the Beginning of Christianity field (the “actual experts”) to be, in the vast majority, Christians of some sort and therefore biased?

                      Would you consider Bart Ehrman, Richard Carrier or Robert Price as experts in this field or not?

                      Cordially, Bernard

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

                      People in this field often have axes to grind, but not always in favor of Christianity.

                      Bart Ehrman is a professional scholar of the highest quality. Richard Carrier has chosen not to work professionally as a scholar, and Robert Price teaches at an unaccredited seminary, and so they are much more at the fringes.

                    • Steven Carr

                      James McGrath started that page, but couldn’t manage the minimal scholarship requirements of a TalkWiki.

                      He couldn’t even catalogue mythicist arguments, let alone answer them.

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

                      OK, that’s quite enough of the trolling from you. I’ve pointed out several times that (1) there are no “minimal scholarship requirements” for a Wiki, and (2) I set it up at the request of others because a few people said they wanted such a thing: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2013/01/talkhistoricity-wiki-and-other-mythicism-related-news.html

                      I’ve been cataloguing mythicist arguments here for a long time. And you know that because you’ve been trolling here for a long time, and I’ve tolerated it because you illustrated just how deceitful and immoral mythicists can be. But I don’t think it is fair to those mythicists who are open to serious discussion to be tarred with your despicable trolling tactics. And you’ve crossed the line once again from mere trolling into troll spamming, simply pasting in the same claims over and over.

                      And so I bid you farewell. I wish I could say that it has been a pleasure, but from the beginning I’ve wondered whether you weren’t a bot, so uninterested were you in what anyone else said, and so unwilling to genuinely interact.

                      For other readers who may be new here, and interested in the long history of blogging about this topic that Steven Carr has so often pretended does not exist, this is a good place to start: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/07/round-up-of-mythicist-blogging.html

        • Jack Collins

          I’ll see if I can find a good link summarizing the status questionis regarding the archaeological evidence of a Davidic/Solominic empire. Suffice it to say that it depends a lot on how certain strata are dated, but it is getting harder to support the idea that there was a prospering, united Jewish monarchy in 10th century BCE Palestine.
          Why should any ancient literature be taken as a valid historical source? Should we throw out Josephus because he was clearly biased? Suetonius because he reported the most salacious rumors? We’ll run out of history real fast that way.

          The gospels ARE evidence, if nothing else, of what their authors believed happened. Sifting out what really happened from that is difficult, which is why there is only consensus on a few general details.

          Also, Luke and Matthew are not entirely dependent on Mark. They have some other material in common that isn’t in Mark. Where it came from, well, ask a room full of NT scholars after they’ve had a few drinks and watch the sparks fly.

          The Gospels can’t be all that late, BTW, because we have fragments of them and referenced to them as far back as the second century. Unless the mythicists want to argue against the historical Ignatius of Antioch too.

          • antiallanbloom

            I’ve wondered about historicity of the bible. what ever became of Jesus 12 apostles and why is only Paul the apostle we know about?

            One point is if Jesus was as important as claimed, at least Philo and Josepheus would have written about him. TF is of course regarded as pure interpolation.

            From what I understand Josepheus is the only contemporary account of the Jewish-Roman war, so the fact there isn’t contemporary accounts of Jesus isn’t that suprising.

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

              Who is “we” in your first question? Do you mean why is he the only apostle you know about, or are you referring to some group that you are a part of that is only aware of him?

              Who is doing the claiming in your second paragraph? If you are referring to Christian sources, then that is part of the problem with one strand of mythicism in particular. They treat the accounts of miracles and crowds with the naivete of Christian fundamentalists, and then assume that since his contemporaries don’t focus on the amazing Jesus of Christian sources, then there is no historical person who was of the sort historians conclude Jesus to have been. Which obviously does not follow.

              But as you say in your last paragraph, we have few sources dealing with this specific time and place in the sort of detail that would include mentions of teachers and movements, and thus also little to nothing about this period about figures whose long-term impact was comparable to that of Jesus, such as Hillel.

              • antiallanbloom

                i was alluding to Jack Collins but we as in it doesn’t appear that Jesus 12 apostles are independently attested in secular history, such as Josepheus or Pliny or Tacitus (minus the part of James brother of Jesus called Christ) , or any writings from them i.e Peter James were not written by them, or other figures from Mary Magdalene to Mary mother of Jesus.

                you know I’ve wondered if JM also regard Hillel to be mythological. There was a historian Rachel Elior who claimed the Essenes are pure myth.

                • Jack Collins

                  No, we don’t have attestations of the other apostles outside of Christian literature (although its worth emphasizing that the reference to James in Josephus is generally considered authentic), but that is unsurprising, considering how few sources we have from that era at all. Even Josephus was writing decades after the fact. But the apostles were well-enough known in Christian circles that people started writing letters in their names well before the authority of the gospels where they appear had become firmly established. The fact that Paul invokes Peter as a way of bolstering his own authority shows that the very early Christians were aware of some of the apostles as figures of authority.

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

                    I don’t usually find the emphasis on whether sources are Christian particularly helpful, as though Plato could not be trusted to tell us whether Socrates existed because of his connection with him. Josephus was Jewish, as was Jesus, so does that invalidate the former’s information about the latter?

  • guest

    It’s obvious that even the most intelligent people are still prone to confirmation bias.

  • Steven Carr

    Tom Verenna has lambasted him.

    By Atwill’s standards, Wonder Woman didn’t exist!

    Tom points out the obvious fallacy in Atwill’s work.

    VERENNA
    ‘Wonder Woman is a highly fictionalized and heroicized literary figure based on an actual person, the creator’s wife, Elizabeth Marston. ‘

    CARR
    There you go…..

    Historicists 1 Mythicists Nil.

    All those mythicists who claim Wonder Woman never existed are now shown to be amateurs who have no inkling of how a real scholar approaches the issue of historicity.

    Anybody who says Wonder Woman never existed is basically just operating at creationist level, and not at the level of scholars who say Jesus of the Gospels existed.

  • GakuseiDon

    Richard Carrie’s latest blog post blasts Atwill’s theory, here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4664#more-4664

    Carrier writes:

    Joseph Atwill is one of those crank mythers I often get conflated with.
    Mythicists like him make the job of serious scholars like me so much harder, because people see, hear, or read them and think their nonsense is what mythicism is. They make mythicism look ridiculous. So I have to waste time (oh by the gods, so much time) explaining how I am not arguing anything like their theories or using anything like their terrible methods, and unlike them I actually know what I am talking about, and have an actual Ph.D. in a relevant subject from a real university.

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

    Imagine a field of scholarly inquiry in which a significant portion of the participants were moon landing deniers. Let’s call it lunar studies.

    The overwhelming majority of lunar scholars were raised in homes where it was believed that the moon landing was a hoax, and this influenced their decision to enter the field. In the course of their studies, most lunar scholars came to the conclusion that the non-occurrence of the moon landing could not be affirmed on a historical basis although some continued to believe that the moon landing could be denied based on the evidence. Among the former, some affirmed publicly that the moon landing had occurred. Others acknowledged the historical basis for the moon landing, but continued to deny it privately as a matter of faith and maintained their membership in moon landing denial groups.

    In the field of lunar studies, the public and private deniers play a significant role in training, peer review, publication, and hiring. Many of the jobs in the field are provided by institutions where denying the moon landing is a condition of employment. Although there is generally some tension between the moon landing affirmers and the historical deniers, there are also many close professional relationships. Both sides work well with the private deniers.

    While I might be willing to respect the work of specific individual, I would not accord the consensus of lunar scholars the same respect that I accord the consensus of scholar in other fields. Even with specific scholars, I would be concerned about the extent to which their methodologies were the product of the training and peer review of moon landing deniers and the extent to which they relied on research that had been produced or influenced by moon landing deniers.

    To my mind, affirming a literal resurrection as a historical fact is no less bizarre than denying the moon landing. The fact that many historical Jesus scholars do so causes me to have similar reservations about the consensus in the field.

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

      Do you have any evidence that most historical Jesus scholars affirm a literal resurrection, and more importantly (since professors at religiously affiliated schools often teach bunk about science and other subjects and not only history), do you have any evidence that even a significant number of historical Jesus scholars at mainstream secular institutions affirm the resurrection as a historical fact?

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

        I do not know what percentage of scholars at mainstream secular universities affirm the resurrection either as a historical fact or as a matter of faith. Does your definition of mainstream scholars only include scholars at secular institutions who don’t?

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

          I don’t see how someone can practice the discipline of historical study and affirm the resurrection as a historical event. And so I am trying to get at what your comment is saying. Is it saying that most historians who do work related to Jesus of Nazareth at secular institutions are in fact not being true to the rules of the discipline? Or is your criticism aimed at people who claim to be doing history at religious institutions but clearly are not, as secular historians often point out?

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

            I don’t either, however, I have seen you cite scholars whose confessional bias seems quite obvious to me, so when you cite the consensus of historians in the field, I assume that it includes such scholars.

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

              It can be very useful to show when even confessionally biased scholars agree with the conclusions of more mainstream scholars. None of us is entirely without biases, and even those who have strong biases can in some instances say things that are worth considering. That’s one of the reasons I don’t find the mythicist dismissal of early Christian sources makes sense. That authors have biases doesn’t necessarily make them completely useless, or justify complete dismissal of absolutely anything they say – it just requires that we take that into account and exercise due caution. Otherwise, presumably I would have to dismiss everything that certain biologists say, given that they seemed to think that Joseph Atwill’s nonsense was worth promoting. But they can be quite biased and easily duped in some areas and still insightful in others.

              That said, even most confessional scholars working on the historical Jesus would acknowledge that the resurrection is not something that one can affirm as a historian, or prove using historical evidence.

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

                It is hard for me to see the usefulness of showing that a confessionally biased scholar agrees with the consensus view about the existence of a historical Jesus. In fact, it makes me wonder about the extent to which such biases might be influencing the consensus view, which was the point of my metaphor.

                I realize that everyone has their biases, but I have always thought that one of the primary purposes of the peer review process is to force scholars to come to grips with their own biases and presuppositions and expose them to the light of day. That is the reason why the consensus of scholars in any field merits respect in the first place. It is the product of a process that tests ideas for biases so that when an idea becomes the consensus, it is the one best supported by the evidence.

                Even if a scholar acknowledges that the resurrection is beyond the reach of historical investigation, if he personally affirms its occurrence, even if only in some symbolic or mystical sense, that is a potential source of bias when considering historical questions. That is the kind of thing that the peer review process should be addressing.

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

                  Alas, we cannot subject to peer review what someone doesn’t write about, especially not blind peer review when you don’t know what else someone has written. And I find it useful to highlight facts such as that most Christian biologists agree that evolution is likely, as it illustrates well that in most cases when scholars agree it is because of the evidence, and it convinces across ideological boundaries.

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

                    I would say that most Christian biologists affirming evolution is a bit more impressive than most Christian New Testament scholars affirming the historicity of Jesus.

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

                      Well obviously that’s a contrast and not a relevant comparison. A more similar case would be how many Christians who investigate the historical Jesus find the results inconvenient and a challenge rather than a support to their previously-held beliefs.

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

                      I think that you have to expect crackpot theories to gain more traction in fields where it is difficult to gauge the impact of systemic biases. I’m pretty sure that there is no link between autism and childhood vaccines, but given the impact of the pharmaceutical industry on research in the field, I cannot state that with nearly the degree of certainty I would like. I cannot blame anyone who is skeptical when “what most doctors believe” is invoked

                      By the same token, I suspect that the crackpot mythicist theories get more attention than they would if it were possible to determine the impact of confessional bias in New Testament studies. When someone talks about “the arguments that persuade most historians” in the field, I cannot help but think that many who claim to be historians in the field don’t need very much persuasion when the alternative is inconsistent with their faith based positions.

                    • arcseconds

                      I doubt very many people are thinking about it that seriously. Few are bothering themselves enough with the field to be in the position to have sophisticated doubts about residual or hidden confessional biases.

                      As far as natural scientists like Dawkins and Coyne are concerned, I doubt they have any idea whatsoever who’s involved in history of the mediterranean and near east of the 1st century. I reckon to the extent they’ve thought about it at all, they either assume it’s conducted more or less entirely by (theologically) conservative Christians, or that respectable scholars know that the Christ myth has been disproved, or at least are agnostic about the question because the Mithras idea seems pretty good!

                      (Stephen Fry presented the Mithras theory as completely factual on QI once)

                      There’s almost certainly another bias at play here: natural scientists frequently have a low opinion of the humanities. This is a cultural assumption, and many probably aren’t even really aware that they have it, or think they’re over it, a bit like racism. To many natural scientists, it just comes naturally to suppose that there’s not much difference between a professor of history and an autodidatical bookworm with a personal theory. I’m pretty confident Dawkins would not be doing this kind of thing with a fringe theory in physics.

                      And, that notion is also present ‘on the street’. Look at how Hawking is questioned and reported on things well outside his expertise! No-one treats historians like that. I suspect many even quite well educated people would struggle to name any famous historians.

                      As far as the media goes, they don’t care. They’re quite happy publishing ‘Noah’s ark found!’ one week, and ‘Jesus was an invention’ the next.

            • Jack Collins

              I think it’s worth differentiating between those who might affirm a personal belief in the resurrection (as a symbol, or a transcendent, non-physical event, or as a mystery that is beyond human comprehension) and those who would try to affirm it as history.

              • Herro

                I think NT Wright is an excellent example. He’s one of these “historical Jesus studies creationists” and is not only tolerated by his peers, but is actually championed by them.

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

                  Who among scholars and historians who are not Evangelical Christians champions N. T. Wright?

                  • Herro

                    Well, he was for example the chair of the historical Jesus section at the SBL. Can you imagine a guy like Jonathan wells being the chair of “evolutionary studies” at “The Society of Biological Research” (or whatever it’s called)?

                  • beau_quilter

                    James, why would you discount Evangelical Christian scholars? There are quite a lot of them.
                    I also wonder why so much time is spent discrediting mythicists, and so little time is spent (on your site for example) discrediting the N.T. Wrights, Mick Liconas, and William Lane Craigs who try to make a historical case for the resurrection.

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

                      I don’t dismiss anyone who does scholarship. But just as the fact that there are a handful of PhDs who dispute evolution, and it doesn’t prove anything about the consensus in that field, so too there are a handful of PhDs who think that history can prove the resurrection, and their status in the domain of history is comparable.

                      I’ve spent significant amounts of time interacting with conservative Christian thought, as you surely know. But someone who is capable of publishing a peer-reviewed article or book on a subject, but who also makes some dubious claims and needs to be called on it, is different than someone who doesn’t even bother to do questionable scholarship, or scholarship with the occasional dubious ideologically-driven claim thrown in.

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

                      I’m not sure that the confessional scholar who is capable of publishing a peer-reviewed article isn’t the bigger problem. If a scholar personally affirms the resurrection as a matter of faith, the fact that he disclaims the ability to affirm it as a historian isn’t going to give me much confidence that he has made any effort to challenge his own biases and presuppositions.

                    • beau_quilter

                      Sorry, James, didn’t mean that last comment to sound quite so much like criticism.

                      So, you’re differentiating publishing scholars with dubious claims such as Wright, Licona, and Craig with non-scholars in the mythicist field such as Doherty and Atwill. Would you place Richard Carrier in a category like Wright, Licona, and Craig – as a scholar with a dubious claim. (I also understand that Wright, Licona, and Craig have advanced degrees in theology and philosophy rather than history – but they are still commonly referred to as NT scholars.)

                      Do you have posts on your site about historical claims for the resurrection? I would like to read them, if you do?

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

                      If you search on the blog for all the places I discuss my book The Burial of Jesus I think you’ll find them.

                      I am looking forward to Richard Carrier publishing his case for mythicism in a peer-reviewed venue. My issue with mythicism is not merely that I think it is wrong. I think lots of people are wrong, and I might be wrong about their wrongness. My biggest issue with them is their eschewing of the scholarly rigor required to publish in academic journals and books, and their claim that they don’t do so because academia is just one big conspiracy to silence them.

                      UPDATE: In addition to the blog posts, this article online on the ending of Mark is relevant: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/mcg.shtml

                    • beau_quilter

                      Thanks for the suggestion, James. I had seen many of your posts about “The Burial of Jesus” already, because I read your book (on Kindle), found it interesting, and interacted on some of these posts myself. In your own writing, you seem to steer clear of making intimations about the historicity (or lack thereof) of the resurrection, and deal primarily with what can be derived about NT history from available writings. It seems to me that much of your academic writing most often deals with the time and context of the NT writers themselves, rather than the historicity of the stories they tell.

                      I can’t find a post in which you deal specifically with Wright’s, Lacona’s, or Craig’s arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, but you may not consider that your purview or interest.

                      I do think that “Herro” has a fair point when he states that evolution deniers in the sciences, and have nothing comparable to the status of N.T. Wright, as a “resurrection prover” in NT scholarship.

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

                      Another issue is that I have a review copy of Licona’s book on my shelf, where it has been for a long time, but I have still not found the time to read it!

                      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/04/thoughts-for-passion-week-and-passover.html

                    • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

                      James, you wrote “I am looking forward to Richard Carrier publishing his case for mythicism in a peer-reviewed venue”

                      Richard already explained what the peer-review of his next book consisted of:
                      Himself or his publisher, chose four professional teachers in the field of early Christianity to review his book still unpublished. Two of them came back with comments and requests, which Richard took in account in his revision of the book.
                      Of course these four scholars (unnamed) were selected because their views were close to Carrier. These professionals do not represent the majority of peers and would be from a minority opinion.
                      However Richard considered the feed back of these two anonymous/secret scholars to be enough in order to claim his book has already been peer-reviewed favorably.
                      I think this is a farce.
                      James, can you explain the process of peer-review of the book about a historical (or mythical) Jesus?
                      And how is it done in the real world?
                      Cordially, Bernard

                    • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

                      James, these are the exact words of Richard Carrier on the above:

                      “My new book, On the Historicity of Jesus, has passed peer review and is now under contract to be published by a major academic press specializing in biblical studies: Sheffield-Phoenix, the publishing house of the University of Sheffield (UK). I sought four peer review reports from major professors of New Testament or Early Christianity, and two have returned their reports, approving with revisions, and those revisions have been made. Since two peers is the standard number for academic publications, we can proceed. Two others missed the assigned deadline, but I’m still hoping to get their reports and I’ll do my best to meet any revisions they require as well.”

                      Ref: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4090

                      Cordially, Bernard

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

                      Yes, peer review normally involves a publisher sending a manuscript that has been sent to them to established scholars in the field in question, to evaluate it. Ideally, they should be assessing whether scholarly methods are followed rigorously, and whether something new is being proposed, and not whether the author is likely to be correct.

                      Does that help? If not, here is a very simple video on the topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLGp7LC2Nbw

                    • Herro

                      “so too there are a handful of PhDs who think that history can prove the resurrection, and their status in the domain of history is comparable.”

                      Really? What evolution-denier has a similar status in biology as NT Wright has in historical Jesus studies?

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

                      Well, both groups are popular among Evangelicals. But the difference is that N. T. Wright has written actual serious scholarship, and in them has made occasional claims that are dubious. It isn’t as though most of what he writes is not wrestling seriously with evidence and interacting with relevant primary and secondary sources. So part of the problem is that, while there is a comparison that can be made, there are also VERY significant differences.

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

                    I have seen James Dunn–who you describe as “indisputably one of the top New Testament scholars of recent decades”–speak highly of Wright’s work. Is Dunn’s status in the domain of history comparable to Wright’s?

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

                      Dunn is definitely in a different league, inasmuch as he has been teaching most of his career at some of Britain’s leading universities, while Wright’s career has been mostly ecclesiastical. But of course I might be suspected of bias where Dunn is concerned. :-)

                      Dunn cites Wright often because both have made an important contribution to Pauline studies, in the realm of what is known as the “new perspective on Paul.” Both offered serious challenges to a traditional Protestant way of interpreting Paul. Inasmuch as they were challenging views that prevailed in their own tradition, they provide a good illustration of how even those scholars with a personal connection to Christianity still find the evidence challenges their assumptions, and when it does so some are honest and forthright about it.

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

                      I am referring to a comment Dunn made in his response to Timothy Johnson in The Historical Jesus: Five Views where he took issue with something Johnson had said about Jesus and the Victory of God by Wright. Not having read Wright’s book, I can’t be sure of the exact point that was under dispute, but Dunn seemed to be lauding Wright’s contribution to and understanding of historical Jesus studies. This strikes me as akin to a top evolutionary biologist lauding the work of a creationist.

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

                      It is much more akin to someone lauding Richard Dawkins, even though he has thrown in occasional howlers in his work which are not justified by the evidence he presents. Wright is essentially a scholar, who sometimes throws in things that are not scholarly. He is by no means the only one, and so however useful it might be to make comparisons, there are simply few Intelligent Design proponents or young-earth creationists who are actually doing significant research. Perhaps a better comparison would be with Francis Collins or Francisco Ayala or Ken Miller, people who believe in God and sometimes make claims that are not scientifically justified, but do exceptional scientific work as well?

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

                      I think the issue is the proximity of what is being lauded to the howlers. Are Dawkins or Collins producing howlers in the field of evolutionary biology?

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

                      Is Wright producing howlers in his history, or is what he says that is problematic when he actually goes beyond history? And aren’t Dawkins and Collins similar to Wright in this regard?

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

                      I’m not sure that Wright ever confines himself to history. I think that he produces his howlers because he pursues the historical Jesus in order to defend and justify the Christ of faith.

    • Jack Collins

      I was raised in a household that didn’t believe the moon landing was faked. I have never even considered the possibility, because I find it logically incoherent. None of my professors ever implied that the faking of the moon landing was even an appropriate topic for our field of inquiry, because it falls outside the realm of naturalistic selenology (your metaphor is leaking). I suspect some of them personally had suspicions that the moon landing was fake, but more on a symbolic than a literal level. Having applied essentially the same critical techniques to my selenology that are used in the related fields of geology and areology, I have reached basically the same (rather minimal) conclusions about the historical…um…moon-rock?…that constitute the consensus in my field.

  • Sunshine

    It is a myth! No one can prove otherwise!

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

      Is this a parody of religious believers who say “God exists – no one can prove otherwise”? If so, it simply illustrates the nonsense on both sides of the divide. Historians, however, have to deal with the evidence in detail, and often find that sources include a mixture of fact, interpretation, myth, distorted but recognizable truth, and the whole spectrum of other possibilities.

  • Sunshine

    Someone came up with that!


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