David Fitzgerald on the Existence of Jesus

In his talk, Fitzgerald says that if you don’t like the talk, you won’t like the book. And so rather than looking at it as having wasted an hour from my life listening to the talk, I have saved myself the longer amount of time I would have wasted reading the book.

Let me sum up the essence of my criticism, before elaborating in detail. Fitzgerald makes frequent errors of fact, and when he doesn’t, he is largely presenting information that is common knowledge to scholars and those who read their works. And so he is very much like a creationist – not having any expertise in the area in question, utterly dependent on experts for the information that he does have, misunderstanding some of it, and ridiculing experts when he thinks he has reached a more plausible conclusion. And so, in a nutshell, this is a work of pseudoscholarly apologetics (or counter-apologetics) and not something that will consistently provide accurate information, much less offer plausible interpretations of that data.

On to the details. But first, let me share the video, lest it be said that I am not giving you a chance to hear Fitzgerald’s own perspective.

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Fitzgerald gets off to a rough start. He indicates that he previously assumed that we have eyewitness accounts of Jesus. He then proposes asking what “history” says – and immediately mentions apologists. He regularly lumps scholars, apologists and Christians together.

When he asks about history, he turns to the census, and points out the discrepancy of dates. He discusses Matthew’s account of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. When he discusses the “triumphal entry” he understands it as an account in which the “entire city welcomes him as their king” and yet somehow the Romans don’t notice. He amusingly whether Jesus was a “one man kung fu army of death” to be able to occupy the temple. He mentions upernatural events that supposedly happened in conjunction with or after the crucifixion. He gets a lot of laughs from the audience, but what he doesn’t say is that these are not dirty little secrets that scholars are hiding. He presumably is dependent, whether directly or indirectly, on scholars for this information. Josephus tells of miraculous signs preceding the destruction of the temple. We do not discount the historicity of that destruction simply because an author connects miracles with it, and so historians of antiquity learn to discard miracles, not simply dismiss an author because of such content if other factors suggest that there may also be useful historical data present.

Fitzgerald’s all-or-nothing approach is a major issue as well. He jumps quickly from one extreme to the other, making the basic mistake of the excluded middle. If some things didn’t happen, none did. If an event didn’t happen on as large a scale as depicted, it didn’t happen at all. Sometimes it does indeed turn out that there is nothing historical, but it requires better reasoning to reach that conclusion.

Fitzgerald then goes on to categorize the first century as one of the best-documented periods in history. He starts with a list of Roman authors, and claims they are writers who should have been interested in Jesus, if he lived. But as he mentions Epictetus, Martial, and Juvenal he admits that it is not in fact particularly problematic that they do not mention Jesus. He mentions Seneca, but as far as I’m aware Seneca doesn’t talk about Jewish ethicists, and so it is unsurprising that Jesus gets no mention. Pliny the Elder, Seneca the younger, and Gallio (who says nothing about Jesus or Paul) are also mentioned by Fitzgerald. But as he acknowledges that this may not be significant, we can turn, as he does, to Jewish sources.

Fitzgerald pays particular attention to Justus of Tiberias, the first-century Jewish historian from Galilee. Fitzgerald does not explicitly mention an important point, which is that Justus’ writings have not survived. Fitzgerald makes much of the fact that later church fathers are annoyed at Justus’ lack of reference to Jesus, but doesn’t explain that the church father in question is Photius of Constantinople in the mid-to-late 9th century CE! If it is possible that the text of Josephus was tampered with before the 4th century, is it not entirely possible that whatever Christian scribes preserved Justus’ writings may have removed offensive and insulting mentions of Jesus? We simply do not know, but cannot make much of Justus’ alleged silence when we do not have Justus’ writing, do not know how it may have been edited or redacted, and do not even know for certain how thoroughly Photius read him.

Since the Talmud is late, and Fitzgerald’s discussion of it short, I will move on to Philo of Alexandria. Philo doesn’t mention the high priest in Jesus’ time, Caiaphas, nor does he mention that most famous of rabbis Hillel, as far as I am aware. And so I’m not at all surprised that he doesn’t mention Jesus.

When he gets to Josephus, Fitzgerald makes some serious errors. At first, he only offers two options: the Testimonium Flavianum was either written by “orthodox Jew” or by a later forger. In the process, Fitzgerald makes a telling admission. He says that Christianity was not “tribe-sized” until later. If so, then lack of reference to them in earlier sources is not surprising. Fitzgerald then goes on to say that Christians try to insist that it is only a half forgery, and some monk in the Middle Ages made it up. Although he backtracks on the botched dating in his reference to the Middle Ages, his attribution of this conclusion to “Christians” rather than scholars is misleading. The point is not what atheists or Christians say, but what results from careful study of the text by experts in the original language, the author’s style, and other relevant factors. And the paraphrase by Agapius ought not to be ignored when considering this subject.

Fitzgerald goes on to say that Origen criticized Josephus for “never mentioning Jesus.” But that is mistaken. In fact, Origen states that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, which suggests not a complete absence of the Testimonium but rather the presence of some less complimentary reference, or at least one that does not reflect a Christian perspective. And so Origen’s evidence fits best with the scholarly consensus.

Fitzgerald also muddles the other reference to Jesus by Josephus, which he accepts as authentic, but says referred to another Jesus that Christians later confused with their own. But the idea that “Jesus called Christ” was a reference to some other figure is highly improbable, and Origen provides evidence that the reference to James the brother of Jesus called Christ was in the writings of Josephus as he knew them.

Lest I bore you with other details, let me skip ahead to his treatment of Paul and the non-Gospel literature in the New Testament. Fitzgerald turns to Colossians as evidence of what Paul thought about Jesus. The jury is still out as to whether Paul wrote Colossians – scholars are genuinely divided on the subject. But even if it is Pauline, it is not all he wrote, and Fitzgerald’s characterization of what Paul’s letters say about Jesus is inaccurate in ways typical of mythicism. He says that there is nothing in them sounds like they are referring to a historical figure. That is not true. There are some things which, taken on their own, could be understood to refer to a purely heavenly figure, but there are likewise statements which, taken on their own, would suggest a human being and nothing more. Paul seems to have held a more complex view, and scholars are wary of those whose “explanation” of something involves ignoring or dismissing significant amounts of evidence.

Even worse, Fitzgerald seems to say at one point that Paul never talks about events like the Lord’s Supper as though they actually happened. It may be that these was some intentionally slippery wording at this point, or imprecise expression, but what it sounded like he was claiming suggests Fitzgerald might not even be aware of 1 Corinthians 11.

Fitzgerald asks whether those to whom Paul preached would not have asked him about the life of Jesus. The answer is obviously yes – and that is the best explanation as to why Paul can simply assume that the Christians to whom he writes already know things. When he refers to his Gospel or to traditions he handed on, time and again they echo material that would later be included in the Gospels.

Fitzgerald assumes that Gnosticism pre-dates Christianity – and it well may, although the evidence for that is less clear than the evidence for the existence of a historical figure of Jesus. But those texts from Nag Hammadi which are the best candidates for reflecting pre-Christian Gnosticism are also examples of non-Christian Gnosticism. They lack Jesus. As critics of Bultmann and Reitzenstein pointed out decades ago, the supposed Gnostic redeemer myth that Christians were supposed to have drawn on in fact is probably a result of Christian influence on Gnosticism, rather than vice versa (although some more complex interplay is also possible).

Fitzgerald also misuses “Midrash” in the way Spong and others have, as though Jews went around creating new figures from old stories rather than adding to and creatively supplementing them.

There is more that could be said, but the sum of the matter is that Fitzgerald’s talk is an attempt to counter bad Christian apologetics with bad atheist apologetics. If one likes that sort of thing, you may enjoy his talk – there are certainly some amusing one liners (such as the reference to Mark’s George Bush-like lack of familiarity with the geography of Palestine). But even though there is obvious dependence on scholarly findings, there is little evidence of awareness of scholarly methods. Considerations such as redaction criticism are not on the radar, as evidenced in his treatment of Mark’s narrator’s comment about Jesus declaring all foods clean, which Fitzgerald treats as though it actually was supposed to stem from Jesus.

If you are genuinely interested in the question of Jesus’ existence, you should go straight to sources with genuine expertise in this area. You can get everything that Fitzgerald offers and more, without the blatant factual errors, and as a result, with more satisfying historical conclusions being drawn.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18239379955876245197 Stephen C. Carlson

    Now, you may have saved the longer time reading the book by watching the video, but I have saved the longer time watching the video by reading your detailed post. Thanks.

  • Don

    I think I agree Fitzgerald's book is really an attack on apologist's version of Jesus. Based on the talk his is just such a hugely broad overview that its hard to nail it down and get specific to answer it. I mean, his point about Paul you need to do a huge amount of work on this before you respond to these broad points. Look at Wenham's near 500 page book 'Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity' for a start! I also don't think much of the mythicists will get the point that just because the miracles attributed to Jesus might not have happened doesn't mean he didn't live! It will probably be seen as squirming. Two points though.Bethlehem would have had less than 10 children based upon the probable size of the place and birth rates. A repugnant act yes, but hardly of a scale to be newsworthy, or even footnoted, in ancient times- especially given that we don't have that much information on the proscriptions during the last generations of the Republic where thousands of the highest ranking, most 'newsworthy' class of Romans died.On Mark's geography. You might want to get this:http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0227173171/ref=ord_cart_shr?ie=UTF8&m;=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06137890891223067672 Morrison

    Fitzgerald's claim that the First Century Roman era is one of the best documented ignores the fact that we don't have any original documents from that era and that we don't have the complete works of any Roman "historian".Thus, claims about who didn't exist based on their writings is without foundation.His book also has a blurb praising it by Richard Carrier.Doesn't Carrier realize that Fitzgerald does not have a Ph.D.? ROFLMAO

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09663692507774640889 Lvka

    Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at AllHmmm… what a coincidence: neither did I. :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08955726889682177434 Vinny

    He regularly lumps scholars, apologists and Christians together.I will not quarrel with any of your substantive criticisms of Mr. Fitzgerald’s arguments, but I think the pot may be calling the kettle black here. If those within the field of historical Jesus studies can't define a line between scholars and apologists, I don’t think they should expect outsiders to do so.

  • Anonymous

    The problem Don, is that the two birth accounts are contradictory and possess folkloric qualities. But you are right in regards to the scale of the slaughter the so called Boston massacre only claimed five lives. So if this were the case in Bethlehem I wouldn't expect Josephus or any historian to pay much attention to it…even if they hated Herod's guts. Besides the massacre of the innocents however legendary it may be seemed kind of private.Well thank you again James for taking your time to review this speech, saving us time from having to buy it. Though I'm not to sure about Christians omitting material out of Justus, if Justus did indeed mention Jesus, I'd expect them to change his offensive comments into praises. But then again, Tacitus was left unmolested…so I'm unsure.Anyway…why does the word apoligist carry so much stigma, you guys make it sound like an insult. 😛

  • Anonymous

    Little respect is given to apologists because they start from a position of belief and attempt to defend it rather than looking for the truth.

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

    Well, I think that whatever one can say negatively about "apologists" does not only apply to the religious. Fitzgerald illustrates that. And likewise the overlap that can occur between "scholars" and "apologists" need not always also overlap with "Christians" in the way Fitzgerald seems to suggest. If we consider Hector Avalos, an excellent scholar, he has contributed to volumes that fall into the category of apologetics for atheism. That doesn't make him less of a scholar, does it? It just means that he has convictions, including ones that go beyond what his own scholarly area of expertise can demonstrate on it's own. And so he seeks to make an overall case for his beliefs. I don't think that is an inherently negative thing. I think "apologist" has taken on such negative connotations in our time because the arguments have become particularly shoddy, and those whom we label apologists or who describe themselves as such are often not as concerned as they ought to be with being as well-informed as possible about subjects they touch on.

  • Anonymous

    Well the early church fathers were apologist and we respect them or at least I hope. I agree with James that the arguments have gotten a little shoddy. But we are all apologist for something…you defend the historicity of Jesus.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08955726889682177434 Vinny

    To me, what distinguishes a scholar from an apologist is how they reach their conclusions and the constraints upon the manner in which they argue their case. The scholar is an apologist in the sense that the scholar defends a particular intellectual position, however, in order to qualify as scholarship, it must be a position that he has reached based upon the most objective analysis of the evidence of which he is capable using critical methods which are calculated to reduce and expose the effects of his personal biases and presuppositions insofar as that is possible. In arguing his position, his arguments must be calculated to persuade the foremost experts in the field and he must anticipate and address the strongest counter-arguments.I think the term apologist is commonly understood to describe someone who defends an intellectual position for reasons unrelated to its objective truth. A lawyer is an apologist in that he makes the strongest argument for his client’s position regardless of his personal assessment of his client’s case. He may believe in its objective merits, but that is not a requirement for what he does. The Christian apologist defends a position that is based on subjective spiritual experience and supernatural revelation. He may believe his position has objective merit, but he is obligated to defend it even if it doesn’t.The biggest difference between the scholar and apologist is in how they defend their positions. The scholar’s goal is to establish the objective validity of his position while the apologist’s goal is to win the argument. Sticking with the example of the attorney, the apologist is under no obligation to address any argument that his opponent doesn’t raise even if he thinks the argument would completely destroy his client’s case. The scholar, on the other hand, is obligated to anticipate and address the strongest counter-arguments. If the attorney thinks that he can obfuscate or evade a strong counter-argument, he may do so. The scholar may not. The attorney makes the argument that he thinks his will best convince his immediate audience, while the scholar must fashion an argument that he expects to withstand the scrutiny of the foremost experts in the field.One way to tell whether a writer is an apologist or a scholar is by reading the works of someone with an opposing view. If you find all sorts of evidence and counter-arguments that you never expected, then the first writer was probably an apologist. If the evidence and counter-arguments were anticipated and addressed, then the first writer was likely a scholar. The reason I consider Craig Evans an apologist is because he is willing make arguments for the benefit faithful that he wouldn’t make to anyone with expertise in the field.

  • David Fitzgerald

    Dr. McGrath: a friend referred me to your post and today I finally had a chance to read it. I first want to thank you for taking the time to review my brief talk at Skepticon; it pleases me there are at least a few points you found entertaining. I sincerely appreciate and welcome your corrections and comments, even if they are painful to hear. However I feel the need to respond as there are several points where I disagree with your assessment, and in some places it appears you’re operating under a misapprehension or are simply mistaken. My response is too long for your blog's comment field, but I have posted it at http://davefitzgerald.blogspot.com/2011/01/response-to-dr-james-mcgrath.htmlAll the best,David Fitzgerald

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

    Thanks David. I did leave a comment on your blog to let you know about my post, to give you a chance to respond, and am glad you have done so. I will see what I can do to reply in turn, and hopefully keep the conversation going in a useful fashion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08827731848618933239 Ross

    This is off topic here, but I wanted to get your opinion on the Apostle Paul. Some critics try to descredit him and his contribution to the NT canon because he never met or personally knew Jesus. Obviously these critics have no room for the supernatural in their hermeneutics, but how would you answer them?

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

    Ross, since your question is off-topic, I've posted something separately on the subject of Paul. It isn't entirely unrelated to this post, as it turns out.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    I suspect "Nailed" like so much other Christ Myth Material is aimed at the "less than four years of collage education" crowed. For such people their familiarity with Christianity is probably not from scholars but from evangelist and a childhood in Sunday school. The target audience isn't you, nor religious fanatics, but maybe mildly Christian fence sitters, and those who thing Christianity is humbug and are looking for conformation of their belief. The dilemma for the under educated Mythicist is "why don't educated people accept these arguments. The intellectually honest will question the argument, the dishonest will question the educated (Sarah Palin style) So you have folks who feel that NT studies are full of apologist or if they are atheist, are afraid to speak their minds for fear of losing tenure, offending Zionist, whatever.

  • http://www.errancywiki.com/index.php?title=Main_Page ErrancyWiki

    "Let me sum up the essence of my criticism, before elaborating in detail. Fitzgerald makes frequent errors of fact, and when he doesn't, he is largely presenting information that is common knowledge to scholars and those who read their works. And so he is very much like a creationist – not having any expertise in the area in question, utterly dependent on experts for the information that he does have, misunderstanding some of it, and ridiculing experts when he thinks he has reached a more plausible conclusion. And so, in a nutshell, this is a work of pseudoscholarly apologetics (or counter-apologetics) and not something that will consistently provide accurate information, much less offer plausible interpretations of that data."JW:So when he agrees with "scholarship" he should be criticized for agreeing with scholarship and when he disagrees with scholarship he should be criticized for disagreeing with scholarship. Thanks for writing this paragraph early on James, now I don't have to waste my time reading the rest of your review.Joseph

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

    No, not what I said. When Fitzgerald is reproducing scholarship accurately, it is information that can be found elsewhere, without the erroneous additions. And so my advice it to consult historians and scholars if one is interested in obtaining reliable information about this topic, or any other for that matter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11052061841793700062 Bart

    I think there needs to be a distinction between scholars and apologists.Scholars have a deep understanding of the source materials, and can read the ancient languages.Apologists tend to take their information from the scholars, and use it to defend their faith.Counter apologetics is the same thing, using scholarly publications to attack a faith.Basically the later group are popularizers. They are charismatic people who know how to get a laugh and keep an audience interested. They can seemingly link disparate ideas to 'prove' their argument.Attacking their presentations or books on a scholarly level is, I feel, missing the point. They aren't trying to convince scholars to change their minds, they are trying to get the Average Joe to consider an alternative viewpoint (whether secular or religious).I think their arguments should be based on:1. Do they present MOSTLY true information? (A few errors should be acceptable)2. Do they intentionally mis-represent well documented facts, or even make things up?3. Are they charismatic? Do they make the audience listen? (So many scholars tend to be boring to listen too, which is where I feel these people can fill a need)4. Are they 'preaching to the choir'? If your audience is predominantly people who already agree with you, then your'e not being effective.All in all, an excellent take down of the speech Mr. McGrath, thanks for your work.

  • Matthew North

    Have you read Fitzgeralad’s book? Though Fitzgerald may not be a prominent historian, he has a degree in history, and having read his book, I find his arguments very interesting. He lists all his sources and draws from historians and contemporary bible scholars like Bart Ehrman and Richard M.Price. Are you just like Christian apologists who dismiss out of hand any questioning of the historicity of Jesus? If the existence of Jesus is so obvious it should be easy to counter the arguments of a Mythicist.

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

    Hi Matthew. I am very disappointed to see that comments that were on this post over at my blog’s old location seem to have disappeared. David and I had a long conversation about the topic. I’ve no interest in doing Christian apologetics. My concern is to combat claims which no secular historian working on ancient Roman, Jewish or Christian history finds persuasive. I realize that, as with creationist claims about science, some of the mythicist claims can sound plausible to someone who is not well-informed about either historical methods or about the relevant evidence. But I am sure that if you take a look at the writings of mainstream historians – try Bart Ehrman, whom you mentioned – you’ll soon be able to understand why mythicism is viewed as pseudoscholarship rather than scholarship.

    I’ll have to see if I can get the comments that used to be connected to this post recovered…

    • Matthew North

      Hello Mr.McGrath. Thanks for the reply. I meant no disrespect with the questions in my earlier post. Just genuine curiosity. I didn’t expect a reply. I came to your blog by the link at D. Fitzgerald’s blog. After I read your summary of his Skepticon3 speech those questions just popped into my head. I’ve read four of Bart Ehrman’s books,- God’s Problem, Jesus Interrupted, Misquoting Jesus, and his latest, Forged-Writing in the Name of God-Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. God’s Problem is mainly about the problem of evil in the world, (theodicy, as I’ve learned). In it Ehrman explains he became an agnostic because of the problem of evil. But in the others he shows, in general, that the Christianity we have today came to us by a tortuous, centuries long process, influenced by thousands of people each with their own agenda, whether it be a early Christian in the first century, early church father, historian, scribe, monk etc.. I’m no scholar or academic, just a lay person with an interest and keen fascination about the history of Christianity and it’s influence on the Western World. The very type of person Ehrman wrote his popular books for. I’ve also watched many of Ehrman’s debates, and speeches on YouTube, multiple times. If you haven’t already, and if you get a chance, take the time to watch some of them yourself. Some good ones are..

      A speech he gave at the Commonwealth Club of California on 3/21/11 talking about his then new book, Forged. At the end of this speech, during the Q&A, he gives a very quick explanation of why he believes Jesus was a real person in history. He even remarks how he often gets asked if Jesus ever existed. He doesn’t have any doubt that Jesus was a real person, by the way.

      He debates professional debater and Christian apologist William Lane Graig.

      He debates New Testament scholar and Christian apologist Mike Licona a couple of different times. And many, many other videos with Ehrman if you look. You won’t be disappointed.

      I was firmly with Ehrman on the historicity of Jesus, but now I’m having some doubts after reading books in the Mythicists camp; Nialed by Fitzgerald, books by theologian and bible scholar Robert M. Price, and also secular bible scholar Hector Avalos. So you see, though I’m just a lay person, I am somewhat familiar with the different sides of the historicity debate. I believe Ehrman’s next popular book will be about the historicity of Jesus and I can barely wait for it to come out. A debate between Fitzgerald, Price or Avalos vs Ehrman would be very interesting.

      I’m an atheist. I’ve always been interested in science, history and religions from an early age. Since the age of about twelve I just couldn’t bring myself take any of the claims religion has made about our world or our place in the Cosmos seriously. The best way to become an atheist is to learn about religions. To me, religions blatantly show how man-made they all are. They betray Humanity’s desperate need for certainty in this uncertain Cosmos and our horror of death. Every plant, animal, insect, microbe, all the trillions of creatures that are and have ever lived will die and have died. Yet humans, in their conceit and arrogance think they have a “get out of death card” up their sleeves. Folly. I’d rather face the Cosmos honestly. I don’t automatically accept whatever some “authority” has to say on any subject. I filter all data that comes my way through my own mind and experience. I’ll always be watching and reading about the debate closely. If Jesus did exist, and just as Fitzgerald says and I suspect, the evidence outside of the gospels isn’t nearly as good Christians believe, then he was another in a line up of thousands of men who make a claim to be “THE” prophet. That claim was made before the first century and made many times since.
      Well, sorry I went on so long. Thanks.

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

        It’s no problem writing a lot, when you have a lot to say! :-)

        The evidence for the historicity of Jesus is not as strong as it is for the sorts of powerful, wealthy, influential figures who had the opportunity to create monuments or put their names on coins. In that respect, the question is much the same with respect to Jesus as in the case of Socrates, John the Baptist, and a host of other figures that we only know about from texts. And while historians cannot rule out entirely the possibility that these figures could have been invented, they can say that it seems less likely, given the unconvincing or unsubstantiated scenarios one has to posit in order to try to make the case for that having happened, and given the problematic way they treat texts such as that where Paul mentions having met James, “the brother of the lord.” When people like Earl Doherty claim that Paul thought that Jesus was a purely celestial figure, they are not dealing in a persuasive fashion with things he wrote, such as that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the Law” and “descended from David according to the flesh.” Paul was persecuting the Jesus movement (not yet called Christianity) within less than a decade of its inception, and so it seems that he was well poised to know whether Jesus had been a historical individual.

        Again, none of this is absolute proof, and no one who is working using historical methods would expect otherwise. It is simply an attempt to explain why I am persuaded that it is far more likely that there was a historical figure Jesus of Nazareth around whom the later legends and dogmas grew up, than that he was concocted in the manner mythicists claim. The point is not that mythicism is impossible, but that a scenario involving a historical Jesus makes more plausible sense of the evidence.

        On a related note, Bart Ehrman is working on an ebook on mythicism, which should be interesting!  

        • Matthew North

          Mr. McGrath,
          Thank you for the link to Ehrman’s Ebook! I’ll place my order right away. I wish there was a hard cover though. If one comes out I’ll snap that up too! This whole subject is fascinating and your above post makes your point of view much clearer to me. You make a very good, reasoned argument but I’m not completely persuaded one way or the other. I hope archeologists somewhere, perhaps in some bone-dry cave or tomb in Egypt or Israel, will find some scrap or scraps of text that will finally end any debate.
          Thanks again.

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

    I don’t think that there is any scrap of text that anyone could find that would settle matters so as to end debate for absolutely everyone. :-)

    • newenglandsun

      Did this guy really quote from Colossians 1-2 to show what Paul’s Christ is?
      ???? Confused? Because that’s among the seven that scholars DON’T hold to!

    • newenglandsun

      Oh, hai. I’m back again. I was wondering if you had heard what Pope Francis said on Jesus. While I agree that Jesus mythicism is wrong, even a lot of things about historical Jesus scholarship are dead wrong (such as denying the resurrection which is heretical).


      This is why I maintain that the resurrection and miracles are not historical claims. Because if they were, then receiving Jesus would be a “human consolation”.

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

        Heresy is irrelevant to assessing the historical evidence!

        • newenglandsun

          That’s why secular positions have not been condemned. Jesus can only be found in the church.

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

            If you are referring to the historical Jesus, then your statement is simply not true.

          • newenglandsun

            *Jesus* can *only* be found in the church. What do you mean by “referring to the historical Jesus”? I don’t know what you’re talking about.

            Let me give you an analogy, okay? You have a guy like Crossan or Ehrman. Both have their versions of the historical Jesus. But it’s *not the same* Jesus as the Jesus of the *church* which is the Jesus who can *save*.

            *Only* the Jesus with the power as taught by the Church who was *fully God and fully man and died on the cross for your sins* can *save*. Translation – Earl Doherty’s Jesus is more powerful than Crossan and Ehrman’s “Jesus”.

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

            So it doesn’t matter what the evidence supports – instead, one should opt for the more powerful Jesus? I’m not convinced.

          • newenglandsun

            No. That’s not what I’m saying. I thought you were the Bible “scholar” here. So I assumed you knew the distinction between the Jesus of history and the *Christ* of theology.

            Hence, my point – *Jesus* can only be found in the Church. You can go to academia and get loads of debates about who the historical Jesus was but you can really never truly grasp him unless you seek him in the Church.

            *The evidence is always going to be argued back and forth*. One guy’s going to say the historical Jesus was the savior, one guy’s going to say the historical Jesus was a failed eschatological prophet, one guy’s going to say he was a wisdom teacher, one guy’s going to say he was a revolutionary, still another is going to say he never existed.

            Either way, unless you seek him inside the Church, you will always get a “Jesus” that looks exactly like you. I’m not saying that historical Jesus research is bad if done solely for educational purposes because again, Jesus can *only* be found in the Church.

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

            I am aware of the distinction. I am not persuaded that within the church(es) we do not find the Jesus we are looking for even more so than those who have the tools of historical investigation, and the community of scholars, to challenge our assumptions and conclusions.

          • newenglandsun

            Within the Church (singular). Your error is that you assume that the Church includes all of those seeking to bring God down to a minute, material being. Your god is more of a god of human design. My point is that if one is a *Christian*, then why should they be bothered by outside scholarship? Why should they be bothered by the idea that Jesus is a myth? It wasn’t by any one telling me that the scholarly consensus was that Jesus existed. In fact, when I decided to turn back to Christianity, I was willing to believe even though I wasn’t persuaded Jesus existed. Scholars are always in disagreement on numerous things. Baukham defends the position that the Gospels were eyewitness accounts and he’s out of Cambridge. As far as I see it, the jury’s never going to be “settled” on this issue.

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

            Your statements about what you think my views are suggests that you haven’t read the blog posts where I’ve actually spoken about the subjects in question. But you are running together two sets of questions that are in fact distinct, even if related: what historians can conclude about Jesus or any other figure based on available evidence; and matters of Christian worship and worldview. It is precisely because history is never a settled matter, that many have sought to cut the cord connecting the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

          • newenglandsun

            I am not running anything together at all. I know that you don’t view John as historical. Most scholars don’t. My point is that even if the mythicist arguments did hold substantial weight in the secular world, it would never contradict the Jesus of theology or refute his existence.

          • newenglandsun

            I know someone originally taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, an Evangelical Christian, who gives more credence to mythicism than you do.

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

            That isn’t at all surprising. While historians have been investigating the human person, many Evangelicals and mythicists have been debating about a different sort of figure entirely. Both posit that the divine entity that historians conclude Jesus was not, was in fact who Jesus was thought to be from the outset.

          • newenglandsun

            Well there are two types of mythicists.
            Mythicist 1) Jesus is a man of indefinite past (we don’t even know what people believed about him).
            Mythicist 2) Heavenly Jesus, what you are talking about, people believed in him but only existed in their minds.

            When it comes to apologetics, I am more inclined to support mythicist camp 2 then historical Jesus is a failed eschatological prophet.

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

            (1) is problematic because a figure in the indefinite past is a poor explanation for the burst of eschatological fervor that we see in our earliest Christian sources. (2) is problematic because it simply doesn’t fit what our earliest sources suggest, when studied historically. You have to read those early sources through the lens of later Christological developments in order for it to even seem remotely plausible.

          • newenglandsun

            Later Christological developments? No disrespect sir but that whole notion that Christology simply just “developed” into Trinitarianism is a tired-old unitarian argument.

            Mark 2:7 – “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” … 9-10 which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins (RSV Catholic Edition)

            This is the earliest Gospel ever written and already we can see evidence of the deity of Christ. There was no “development” in early Christian Christology into apotheosis as a lot of modern scholars suggest. Even in Romans 9:5 we see that Jesus is called God as well as in 1 Cor. 8:6 where Jesus is given the role of the Creator. Modern scholarship attempts to argue that some of these are mistranslations due to their views on Pauline Christology but that’s already adding one’s personal biasedness into the subject.


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

            I am well aware that one can prooftext on behalf of the view that you defend, which is the dominant Christian viewpoint, and can offer the caricatures of opposing views that you do. But Matthew’s Gospel shows how one of the earliest interpreters of the story in Mark 2 understood it, and it was in terms of God having given authority to human beings, not in terms of a human being literally being God. Likewise Paul makes a clear distinction between God and the one whom God has exalted, giving him the name that is above every name. And so, if you want to discuss this subject with me, I must insist that you do so in a scholarly rigorous, accurate, and fair way. Otherwise I’m simply not interested, as apologetics is a game I find unsatisfying and unhelpful.

          • newenglandsun

            I used to hold to the position that the dominant Christian concept was inaccurate. However, in Matthew 9:8, which is what you are referring to (correct me if I’m wrong), the crowds are the ones who are glorifying God for giving authority to man.

            Remember, Matthew also holds to the concept of a Messianic secret (16:13-20) and so the crowds were not getting it that Jesus was actually calling himself God when he forgave the other persons sins.

            In addition to that, the author of Matthew also quotes Micah 5:2 (Matthew 2:6) which again exhibits a being who is from of old.

            That interpretation of Phil. 2:5-11 misunderstands the traditional interpretation on that verse.

            “Was it as if He gave Him something more than He had before? He would then have been imperfect in this point, and would have been made perfect for our sakes. For if He had not done good deeds to us, He would not have obtained that honor!” (St. Chrysostom, Homily 7 on Philippians)

            I am not a fundamentalist. The Trinity is an essential of Christian faith and has always been an essential of Christian faith.

            I would say that as opposed to the view that there is apotheosis in Christian Christology, there is actually better defenses of it thrughout the New Testament. Really, there are actually not too many scholars who would argue the position that anti-Trinitarianism is a scholarly position.

            “For when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which (it is said) had given such power unto men: for the flesh was an offense unto them. But He did not rebuke them, but proceeds by His works to arouse them, and exalt their thoughts. Since for the time it was no small thing for Him to be thought greater than all men, as having come from God. For had they well established these things in their own minds, going on orderly they would have known, that He was even the Son of God. But they did not retain these things clearly, wherefore neither were they able to approach Him. For they said again, This man is not of God; John 9:16 how is this man of God? And they were continually harping on these things, putting them forward as cloaks for their own passions.” (St. Chrysostom, Homily 29 on Matthew)

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

            I am not sure why you think that Chrysostom’s interpretation is relevant to the meaning of the texts in their historical context. No one denies that they were interpreted in terms of Trinitarian theology in a later time. But the debates that led to the formulation of that theology are simply inexplicable if that theology was already present – indeed, supposedly assumed! – by the NT authors. A historian needs to try to read those texts on their own terms, as products of a messianic movement within first century Judaism.

          • newenglandsun

            You have a very poor sense of Church history. The debates arose from people who were actually trying to go too far in their theology and ended up overemphasizing a point. In fact, if you look at the various different Christological debates over the early Church you see a) the heretics were actually quite sincere truth-seekers (I expect that a lot of them were genuinely saved) and b) the responses to the heretics unanimously were in favor of Trinitarianism. Even Bart Ehrman concurs (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).

            Yes, these texts should be read in context within a first century Messianic movement in Judaism. And they still come to the Blessed Trinity. It is an age of theology being passed down. A lot of these fathers were trained by the apostles themselves.


            I have researched the Trinity and the attacks against are all unwarranted, completely baseless, and if they are based, it’s all on conspiracy theories. I’ve read Sir Anthony F. Buzzard’s book “Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound” and have books by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why again is it that people who write in defense of anti-Trinitarianism are hardly ever advocating decent scholarship?

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

            Rather than discuss anti-trinitarian apologetics and orthodox apologetics, why not discuss the work of scholars, whether Dunn and Raymond Brown and myself, or Hurtado or Bauckham or Wright, who have actually tackled precisely the relevant texts and issues?

          • newenglandsun

            Hurtado, Baukham, and Wright all affirm the relevant texts support Trinitarianism.
            Not sure about Brown though, I haven’t been able to read him.
            Dunn is a Trinitarian though in spite of what he holds to in scholarship.
            3 quality scholars out of 5 hold to Trinitarianism?
            And I’m fairly certain that as a Catholic, Brown never rejected the Trinity and he seems to me one to take a not-so dogmatic position on this subject.
            So in reality, 5 Trinitarians.

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

            I get the impression that you have not read these scholars, or if you have done so, you haven’t read them except through the lens of whether they can be appealed to in support of orthodox Christology. What I’m interested in is their work on contextualizing early Christian views of Jesus within the context of first century Judaism. You’ve already indicated that you have no interest in that, but that is what all the aforementioned scholars are doing.

          • newenglandsun

            Actually, I just don’t have the time or resources to do that yet. When I do, I will. I promise. And if they convince me of your point of view, then I will recant. I promise.

          • MattB

            I don’t find evangelicals in the same camp as mythicists. Evangelicals like Liberals accept that Jesus existed. The only debate between Liberal scholars and evangelical scholars is over who the historical Jesus was. Mythicists on the other hand don’t accept what both Evangelicals and Liberals agree on: that a historical Jesus existed.

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

            Well, disappointingly large numbers of conservative Evangelicals in the United States accept pseudoscientific nonsense like young-earth creationism, and reject lots of results from the scholarly study of the Bible – except when it is undertaken in contexts in which the academics must make their work reach foreordained conclusions or otherwise lose their jobs. And so there are ways in which conservative Evangelicalism is a far more distressing phenomenon than mythicism. And I say that as someone who has reason to appreciate aspects of Evangelicalism, because I came to a personal faith, studied at the beginning of my academic career, and worked at the beginning of my professional career, in an Evangelical context.

          • MattB

            So you mean the more fundamentalist evangelicals? I would agree with you there. I myself was once a fundamentalist. It wasn’t until a year or two ago that I ditched Young-Earth Creationism. I’ve changed some of my views on certain Theological beliefs within the Christian faith. I would still consider myself Evangelical but not a fundamentalist.

  • MattB

    Gosh! this guy is so annoying. He’s like an amateur version of Richard Carrier.

  • http://example.com/ SwiperTheFox

    While I do agree that the real, flesh-and-blood historical Jesus as a person likely existed, I think that this article goes rather too far and into too polemical territory in attacking Fitzgerald. The default position is that Jesus may or may not have existed, and the burden of proof is on the preposition to argue that such a person in at least some sense did.

    It’s the same sort of thing as, say, arguing about King Arthur– I personally think that a real guy by that name actually did exist, but the burden naturally is on those trying to push for certainty while the default is agnosticism. I think Fitzgerald goes too far in actively concluding that, for sure, Jesus never existed, but he’s certainly closer to sanity and reality than the traditional Christian position. Still, he deserves some criticism, though not throwing everything he says out.

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

      Why do you simply assume that King Arthur is an appropriate figure for comparison? We do not have a letter from someon who had met Arthur’s brother, nor is the distance between the time when Arthur is supposed to have lived and the earliest written sources about him comparable.