The Quest for the Historical Nazareth

Greg Jenks has shared his essay “The Quest for the Historical Nazareth” on It deals with the subject in a manner that the apologists for Christianity and Jesus-mythicism do not.

Also of interest is Matthew Ferguson’s impression of the Gospels as a student of Classics (linked to by Richard Carrier). Like many mainstream New Testament scholars, Ferguson sees similarities to the novels of that period which were a popular form of historical fiction. And like them, he says (as many other scholars and historians have said, but mythicists reject): “I do think that there are some precious kernels of truth in at least the Synoptic Gospels, but they are few and far between.”

Also of interest on are the volume Religious Texts from Ugarit by Nick Wyatt, and Gerhardus van den Heever’s paper on baptizing movements in ancient Judaism at the time of the emergence of Christianity.

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  • $41348855

    Presumably, the shortcomings that Matthew Ferguson sees in the Gospels as historical records are also present in Acts. Since Acts is in large part a biography of Paul one might be tempted to draw the same conclusions about Paul that one draws about Jesus. In other words, if Jesus didn’t exist, then neither did Paul. Except that we know Paul did exist.

    Commendably, Matthew Ferguson doesn’t draw that conclusion himself, but the point seems to have been lost on Richard Carrier, who obviously sees the post as supporting his own position. There is a difference between unreliable history and complete fiction.

    • Indeed, and even among the things that seem like they could be pure fiction – escaping a city in a basket – there are things that get confirmed by his letters. And so, indeed, there is a valid point, which is that the Gospels are much more hagiographical and novelistic than what one finds in the best history writers of that time. But they are not therefore pure fiction, and that is demonstrable to the satisfaction even of the skeptical – but not the ideologically-driven hyper-skeptical.

      • I am entirely open to the possibility that there are some kernels of truth in the Synoptic gospels, but given the problems that Ferguson points out, I don’t think that it requires ideological hyper-skepticism to be open to the possibility that (1) there actually aren’t any or (2) if there are any, they aren’t recoverable by any credible historical methodology. I’ve certainly never seen anything on Ferguson’s blog that would give me a whole lot of optimism, although I would be interested to know what he thinks those kernels are.

    • I suspect that if Acts was all we had attesting to Paul’s existence, we would be much less confident than we are.

      • $41348855

        The question is whether the supposedly fictional style of the Gospels and Acts is a reliable indication that the characters in them didn’t exist. Because we have independent evidence of Paul’s existence in his letters we are in a better position to answer that question.

        • I wouldn’t expect it to be a decisive indication either way as it is possible to have fictional stories about real people. At most, my guess would be that fictional character should probably be the default position given fictional style absent evidence to the contrary..

          • $41348855

            I would take the independent evidence of Paul’s existence as an indication that the author of Luke and Acts was talking about real people in general, but, presumably, you would like to have independent corroboration for everything. Then I suppose there is Paul’s reference to meeting “James, the brother of the Lord”. I know that Paul says “Lord” rather than “Jesus” but I don’t think that is an issue. I could say that I had met the Pope’s brother or the President’s brother or the King’s brother and the meaning would be clear. There is nothing unnatural about the use of someone’s title in that context.

            “Brother of the Lord” could be metaphorical, as Richard Carrier has argued. Perhaps all Christians were “brothers of the Lord”. I would prefer to see independent confirmation of this. If Paul had talked about the days before he became a “brother of the Lord” that would do nicely.

            There is also Mark’s claim that Jesus had a brother called James. It could be that Mark deliberately turned metaphorical brothers into literal brothers but if James was a brother of the Lord only in the sense that all Christians were brothers of the Lord then it is strange that Mark chose James as a fictional biological brother, especially since that is James’s only role in the gospel; he isn’t at the centre of the action.

          • If there are other works of literature from the time that combine real and fictional characters, then I don’t know whether we should generalize from Paul’s existence to the existence of everyone else in Acts. I would think we would need to corroborate the existence of multiple characters.

            I didn’t think that there was any question but that all Christians were brothers of the Lord. I thought it was just a question of whether a biological relationship can be inferred from the designation “the brother of the Lord.” I assume that the reason Paul used that designation in Galatians was because there were other men named James in Jerusalem at the time of his visit and Paul wanted his readers to know which one it was that he met. It would be nice to know what the other ones were called.

            What I find interesting is that the author of Luke/Acts declines to follow Mark in naming Jesus’s biological brothers even though he appears to be writing about the same James in Acts that Paul writes about in Galatians. It is strange that he would decline to identify his James as the biological brother of Jesus if that was who he thought he was.

          • This has been addressed before, and so I am not persuaded by your “I didn’t think that there was any question…” statement. There are references to Christians as brothers. There are even statements attributed to Jesus in which he treats his followers as brothers/family. But there are no references to “brother(s) of the Lord” used as a designation for Christians in general or some specific class of Christians. An obvious explanation for this presents itself, namely that there were some literal brothers of the Lord, and using the term in a metaphorical sense would have been confusing.

            Since Mark mentions Jesus’ brother James, and Luke drops it, that seems more likely to be due to some other motivation on the author’s part than lack of knowledge.

            How often do these things need to be addressed before you will acknowledge them?

          • There are a lot of things that have been addressed before, and I deeply regret that that I don’t always recognize which distinction is being made.

            I don’t think that there is any lack of knowledge on the part of the author of Luke/Acts. I think he knows that Mark said that Jesus had a biological brother named James. I also think it likely that there was some reason that he dropped the reference and he declined to identify the James in Acts 15 & 21 as the biological brother of Jesus. One obvious explanation is that he did not think that that James was the same James referenced by Mark.

          • $41348855

            Like James, I don’t know where your certainty comes from regarding the metaphorical use of the term. In his post on the subject, Richard Carrier tries to deduce that early Christians would have thought of themselves in that way. That is a reasonable speculation but as a speculation, it must be less probable than the alternative.

            Also, they might have thought that they were brothers of the Lord without calling themselves “brothers of the Lord”. For example, nuns are thought of as brides of Christ. But it would be strange if I said I met “Mary, the bride of Christ”.

          • I don’t have any certainty on the question, but Paul’s focus seems to be entirely on the risen Christ rather than the earthly Jesus. He doesn’t seem to be the least bit interested in anything that the earthly Jesus might have said or done. I can’t think of any other place where he uses the word “Lord” where it makes more sense as a reference to the earthly Jesus rather than the risen Christ. I tend to think that a metaphorical interpretation of “brother” is more natural given the rest of what Paul has to say.

          • $41348855

            I can imagine something like Christianity arising out of a belief in, say, Elijah. People might start having visions of Elijah and believe that signals the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Then people start to work out the theological details. Because Elijah was the first man to be spared death it means that we will be saved from death.

            The point about this scenario is that Elijah would already have a well-established place in the popular imagination. When stories about Elijah’s appearances started to circulate it would make sense to people. The key to this is that Elijah already has a biography, albeit a fictional one.

            The problem with the myth theory of Jesus is that Jesus wouldn’t have a real biography or a fictional one. I think it would be better for the myth theory if the fictional biography of Jesus was worked out first. Otherwise, what was it that gripped people’s imaginations?

          • Mormonism arose without its adherents having any prior notion of ancient Nephites and Lamanites, although it invoked a lot of standard Christian imagery. Certainly most of the fictional story was worked out before the real growth began although I think many early Mormon missionaries downplayed that angle anyway.

            I’m not sure how much weight I would put on what might make sense to people as I suspect that novel religious beliefs often are viewed with skepticism by the majority of people. Nonetheless, a core group sometimes becomes convinced and their enthusiasm spreads to others.

            There are certainly a lot of questions that mythicism needs to address.

          • Vinny, if you are seeking to make a point about what is typical in the history of religions, then surely you should not always come back to Mormonism as an example. It might be a historical outlier. Why not provide other examples, lest it seem as though you are choosing that one because it is an exceptional case but the only one that leads naturally to the point you hope to make?

          • Actually, I am using that one because there is no other religion of comparable size whose origins are so well documented by both insiders and outsiders. I have no idea what is typical in the origins of religions because I just don’t see that there is sufficient data to draw those kinds of generalizations. However, I can use Mormonism as evidence of the kind of things that have are known to occur and many of them seem to be the kinds of things that historicists think are unlikely to have happened with the origin of Christianity.

          • I do not see the resemblance, hence my question. Simply assuming that a relatively recent American religion which drew on Christian texts is typical of ancient Mediterranean religion or ancient Judaism simply doesn’t persuade. You will need to do better than that if you want to sound like you are taking this seriously, never mind actually being persuasive.

          • Did you even read my comment? I didn’t say that it was typical of ancient Mediterranean religions. I said that we lack the data to determine what is typical of the origins of religions. For better or for worse, there is no other religion of comparable size whose origins are better documented than Mormonism. As a result, if you are going to make assertions about a particular phenomenon being unlikely to occur at the origin of a religion, I would think that the least you can do is to look at the one well documented case we have.

          • That is simply not true. We have plenty of religious sects formed over the years of recent history when documentation is available. What makes ancient Christianity more like Mormonism than like Lutheranism? You have not even discussed such basic questions. Both comparisons are tendentious given that they build on the very religion whose origins you need to explain, and are distant in time and culture. But pretending that Mormonism is the only well-documented religion is such patent nonsense that I cannot imagine who you think that claim would fool.

          • What makes ancient Christianity similar to Mormonism is visions of a hitherto unencountered supernatural being. Moreover, I think that Lutheranism is generally thought of as a … what’s the term?…reformation of the existing religion rather than a new religion. However, if you think that there are relevant insights to be found in comparisons to the origins of Lutheranism, I would love to hear what they are (as opposed to the accusation that I’m trying to fool someone).

          • Well, you are obviously going to give that impression if you claim ignorance about such a commonplace of scholarship as that Jesus was more akin to a reformer within Judaism than a figure setting out to create a new religion.

          • I don’t claim ignorance about the commonplace of historical Jesus scholarship. I just don’t find it nearly as convincing as commonplace historical Jesus scholars do.

          • I don’t buy it. Either you were not being entirely honest when you claimed Mormonism is the only religion that we have documentation of, or you are not being entirely honest now.

          • arcseconds

            We’ve got plenty of documentary evidence about recent religions and sects, as McGrath points out.

            Just to name a handful: Scientology, the Unification Church, The Source Family, and Bahá’í all arose quite recently, the first three in the later half of the 20th century. What all those have in common is a single charismatic founding figure with (broadly speaking) messianic claims.

            We know for sure that those figures existed. Those religions don’t (to my knowledge) involve purely spiritual figures like Moroni as being important to their foundation.

            If we’re going to generalize from modern religions we know about, the generalization would be that they are founded by real people who make messianic claims about themselves (or encourage others to make them).

            Flesh-and-blood founders with comparatively humble claims about basically being a note-takers for spiritual beings distinct from God seem like outliers.

            You appear to be fixating on the sole case that fits the story you want to tell about Jesus, and ignoring all the many other cases that are more akin to what historicists want to claim about Jesus.

            (The ‘comparable in size’ business seems irrelevant to me, as all religions start off small. Anyway, with 14 million members, Mormons do not seem to be comparable size with Christianity (2.2 billion) or even Roman Catholicism (1.2 billion), but rather comparable with Bahá’í (7 million))

          • $41348855

            I’m not sure that Mormonism provides a good analogy. It shows how a new religion can arise suddenly and spread quickly and in that sense it obviously resembles Christianity. So sceptics can use Mormonism to counter the argument that there was something inexplicable about the sudden appearance and spread of Christianity. But that isn’t the present debate.

            The point about Christianity is that the focus is so relentlessly on one figure. Is it possible to focus so relentlessly on one figure and say so little about him? Certainly, Paul says little about Jesus in his letters. But is that because there actually was nothing to say, or because his letters were not the medium in which to say it?

            If Jesus was a purely spiritual being then it might be understandable that there was little to say. But can a purely spiritual being be born of a woman and die on the cross? Or, more to the point, would people understand that a purely spiritual being can be born of a women and die on the cross but that there is no point in asking for any more details about this being? Presumably, that isn’t the case because not long after that this spiritual being was transformed into an allegedly historical figure.

            Since Paul was writing midway between the birth of Christianity and the writing of the first Gospel shouldn’t we see signs of the tension that would transform the figure of Jesus from myth into man in Paul’s letters?

          • I don’t think that it is at all obvious that silence is more likely in the case of a purely spiritual figure. In the case of a historical figure about whom news had circulated, you might be able to say less. If one is introducing a purely fictional figure, then one absolutely cannot rely on prior knowledge. But in this case, it seems to me that the specifics suggest that the playing field is simply even – the only thing that makes sense is that Paul assumed prior familiarity with the Jesus about whom he writes. Mythicism has no advantage whatsoever with respect to this particular issue.

          • If Paul assumes prior familiarity, why would he write anything so mundane as “born of a woman”? The problem with arguing that Paul doesn’t write about things that everybody knew is that it implies that people didn’t know the things that he did write about. It’s what one might call it a slippery slope.

          • It is poetic parallelism, part of a poetic or creedal statement. You don’t mean to tell me that in all your years discussing this you have never consulted a commentary on Galatians to inform yourself about the passage in question, do you?

          • So it’s a theological statement rather than a historical one?

          • Why the dichotomy? Do you think Paul thought that historical events could not have theological significance? Do you really know so little about Paul after all this time allegedly being interested in this subject?

          • Oh, you cut me to the quick. How shall I go on?

            What I think is that “born of a woman” is a conclusion that Paul could have reached by searching the scriptures in an effort to understand a visionary experience. I don’t think it constitutes particularly strong evidence that an actual person lay behind those visionary experiences.

          • So once again you are going to ignore the rest of our conversation? His points about Jesus being human and Jewish parallel the emphasis on redemption of Israel and the inheritance of Adam, a major linkage in Pauline theology that turns up so often in formulas like this that it is probably something Paul inherited. It is not worded in ordinary prose because it isn’t prose. Importing visionary experiences does not help your case. Unless you think Paul actually had supernatural experiences, then whatever dreams he had are not germane. Everyone dreams.

          • Why is a major linkage necessarily inherited? Even if we posit a historical Jesus of Nazareth, what makes you think that it wasn’t Paul who worked out the theological meaning of his death and resurrection? Wouldn’t that explain his claim that he was not taught his gospel by men?

          • Creedal statements and poetic utterances not typical of Paul’s own style are often suspected to be pre-Pauline traditions. Really, this is basic stuff. Why do you believe Paul’s claims about miraculous occurrences? Why aren’t you appropriately skeptical of that, and yet extremely skeptical if mundane details mentioned in passing – apart from your aim to draw certain pre-determined conclusions.

          • Once again, did you even read my comment (or any of the other times you have asked this question and I have answered it)? Perhaps it is because of you that we keep going over the same ground.

            I don’t see Paul’s claim that no man taught him the gospel as evidence of an actual supernatural revelation. I do think it could indicate that he was the one that worked out most of the theological meaning of the death and resurrection, particularly since he says that he went out preaching his message for three years before he went to meet with those he thought of as his predecessors in the faith. I think it possible that much of what we find in Paul’s letters actually originated with him.

          • When the evidence doesn’t matter, then of course all sorts of things may seem plausible. But then what happens when someone asks you about specific details? When Paul wrote to churches where his authority was challenged by people associated with other christian leaders, and he claimed to agree with them on a core of teaching, what makes you think he was bluffing, and why does his bluff then not come up in correspondence with that same church written later? And if he was not bluffing, then how did he actually end up agreeing with them based on dreams and visions?

            Can you see why your stance gives the impression that you either do not know or do not care about the actual evidence?

          • I think that Mormonism gives us an example of the kinds of things that can give rise to a new religion.

            I don’t know whether we can be sure why Paul says so little about Jesus in his letters, but I think he does give us reason to think that it is possible to relentlessly focus on one figure without saying much about him. I’m sure that Paul knew a lot of things that he didn’t put in his letters, but unfortunately, his letters are the only evidence I have of what he knew. I cannot see what justification I would have for concluding that he knew any specific thing that wasn’t in his letters.

            I’m not convinced that Paul thought of Jesus as a purely spiritual being. It seems to me that Paul thought that Jesus once was a flesh and blood man who walked the earth. The problem for me is that Paul doesn’t point me to anything other than visions and revelations as the source for his knowledge of that flesh and blood man.

          • Once again I must protest that this is not accurate and that this has been pointed out before. Paul claims to have persecuted the movement before joining it, and never claims that he did so on the basis of information received through visions or something like it.

          • And once again I must point out that Paul doesn’t tell us why he persecuted the movement before joining it and the history of religious persecutions suggests that the persecutor often if very poorly informed about the actual beliefs of the people he is persecuting.

          • That doesn’t change the point, which is that Paul had information, however accurate or imprecise, by other means than visions, contrary to what you claimed.

          • But since I don’t know what that information is (in addition to not knowing whether it was accurate), I have no way to know that it was information about a historical person as opposed to information about visions of a supernatural being.

          • That will only seem plausible if you ignore other things that Paul wrote, and the implications of his language within the framework of Jewish expectations. But of course, that is what you have been doing time and time again when we reach this point in these cyclical conversations which you seem determined to repeat.

          • Yes. I do have a preference for what Paul actually says over the alleged implications of his language within the framework of Jewish expectations which seems inherently more speculative to me.

          • No, you have a preference for what Paul would have meant if his words were written in your own language and context over a situating of his words into his own context.

          • No. It’s just that I reasonably doubt that scholars who think they can be certain about things that the historical Jesus said and that they really know as much about Paul’s frame of mind as they think they do.

          • Doubting historians and scholars in a field with which you show yourself to be poorly acquainted is easy to do and unimpressive, as is preferring your own historical lens to one shaped by the relevant ancient evidence – however much or little it might happen to be.

          • I don’t doubt all historians and scholars in the field. I’m quite impressed with the ones who don’t express more certainty than the evidence warrants.

          • Perhaps if you actually read more of them, you would find that appropriate historical caution is more widespread than you assume on the basis of your clearly superficial acquaintance.

          • You claimed that the consensus of scholars can establish things that Jesus “almost certainly said and did.” Ehrman claimed that scholars are certain “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt.” Don’t blame me for the intemperate language that historical Jesus scholars use.

          • Ehrman often puts things in a somewhat sensationalist way in trade books. We could debate all day whether, given the unscholarly sensationalism that he was aiming to combat, that was or was not justified. But as I have said from the very beginning, and am forced to repeat to you time and time again, is that I am addressing what we know with the degree of certainty that historical investigation can provide, as appropriately nuanced, and your choice to reject such relative probabilities based on your poor acquaintance with the actual scholarly literature in this area and your repeated comparisons with Mormonism and your acceptance that Paul actually received divine revelations.

          • I do not accept that Paul actually received divine revelations and I have repeated that time and again. It may make you feel better to think that I accept that, but it just ain’t so.

          • As long as you continue to insist that Paul agreed with other leaders of the movement based on dreams and visions, I will reject this as a less plausible supernatural scenario than the mundane one that most historians embrace. If you don’t want to be viewed as embracing actual supernatural revelation, then why not accept a more natural explanation of what we find in the sources?

          • I think that Paul claimed everyone agreed when it was convenient to do so and I think that he claimed he was right and everyone else was wrong when it suited his purposes–just as religious and political leaders have always done.

          • How does this sweeping generalization do justice to what Paul indicates about the presence of people associated with those other leaders in the communities he wrote to?

          • How is it a sweeping generalization to suggest that Paul likely did the same kinds of things that religious and political leaders have done throughout recorded history?

          • Why will you not discuss the specifics of what Paul’s own correspondence indicates about the connection of those groups with other leaders and other communities which could easily contradict Paul – and indeed, seem to have been doing so about some points? When one talks about generalities, everything is possible. But a Republican pundit can tell an audience of Republicans that even Democrats agree with him, and yet would not be able to get away with that to a mixed audience if it were not true.

            I think you choose to talk about generalities either because you don’t know the specifics, or because you know that your views are actually not plausible when considered in light of the relevant details, the actual contents of our sources.

          • He couldn’t have gotten away with lying? Paul would have been afraid of being contradicted? Is that really your argument? Isn’t that the exact same argument Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel use to prove that the appearance to the 500 really happened?

          • That someone misuses an argument does not mean that argument does not have valid uses. Please stop being silly and take this discussion seriously. If someone says something in a context in which they can be contradicted by those they are talking about, then is it not more likely that they are telling the truth? If you claim that I agree with you about something in a post on your blog, isn’t it likely that you actually believe it, since there are people who read both your blog and mine who would dispute the claim if it were obviously not true? How is this argument the same as a bogus one about a bit of hearsay that Paul repeats, with us having no reason to think that there was anyone in the community who had a basis for challenging Paul’s claim?

          • William Lane Craig routinely misrepresents Bart Ehrman’s position on the historicity of the honorable burial and the women finding the empty tomb. Ehrman contradicted Craig to his face in a debate, but that hasn’t deterred Craig from repeating it.

            Personally, I would be embarrassed to be contradicted by someone I was talking about, but I know people who don’t seem to worry about it at all. I also know people who think they know everything and just assume that everyone else must agree with them.

            So I’m sorry, but Paul’s fear of contradiction is an awfully, awfully thin reed. We know nothing about Paul that can give us any confidence that fear of contradiction would have constrained him.

          • What specific details in the way Paul puts things makes it seem more like the William Lane Craig case than like your own?

          • If the evidence contradicts William Lane Craig, he thinks that the witness of the Holy Spirit in his heart provides independent attestation that his position is still correct. If the evidence contradicts me (which I admittedly may be loathe to admit), I think that means I am wrong.

            Paul claims to be getting revelations directly from God. That suggests to me that his fear of contradiction may be more like Craig’s than mine.

          • Paul acknowledges that some from James, and Peter himself, had different views on a matter important to Paul. And there were people connected with those leaders in the churches in Galatia and Corinth. It is not only the fact that Paul’s claim to a common core could readily be challenged there. How do you make sense of these folks being part of some sort of Jesus-focused community together if they did not share something in common?

          • I have no problem acknowledging the existence of “some sort of Jesus-focused community” that “share[d] something in common,” but that could mean almost anything and could fit any number of historical reconstructions including mythicism..

          • Only if you ignore what he says they agreed about, and the language the he uses, and everything that we have talked about already countless times? Why won’t you just admit that you have a strong view you intend on holding to no matter what the evidence is, so that I can stop bothering to repeat it to you over and over and over again?

          • Now you are just playing games. If you want to make a specific claim about what the core was and how you know what it was, make it, but don’t waste my time by pretending that vague phrases like “some sort of Jesus-focused community” that “share[d] something in common” naturally include everything you think we’ve ever talked about and everything you understand Paul to be saying. If you don’t like having your arguments compared to those of apologists, don’t try to pull those kinds of tricks.

          • No games here, and if my statement seemed vague it simply reflects your unfamiliarity with the material. In Galatians Paul articulates what he and the Jerusalem pillars agreed about, and in 1 Corinthians he lists (with some additions that stick out) the core tradition which he received and in turn passed on. It includes some historical details as well as some beliefs about what happened to Jesus after his death. But more than that, what is obvious to anyone who knows at least a little about Judaism in this period is that he is talking about a man named Joshua who he claims is the awaited restorer of the Davidic kingship. That is not a purely celestial figure, except in the unconstrained imaginings of people who do not know or do not care about the relevant evidence.

          • “Some sort of Jesus-focused community” seemed vague because it is vague by any rational standard. It could mean anything. Moreover, in Galatians it really is more of a “Christ-focused” community than a “Jesus-focused” community. As far as I can see, Paul never uses the name “Jesus” standing alone although he frequently uses “Christ” standing alone.

            Paul doesn’t say he received tradition. He says he received revelation. And since you always seem to be confused about my position here, I don’t believe that Paul actually got a message from God. I do, however, think it entirely possible that Paul viewed the core of the message as something he got directly from God and not from other men.

            The only thing I can see in 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul would have needed to learn from other men is that other men had visions of the risen Christ. Certainly more of it might have come from other men, but I cannot see any non-question-begging way to determine that it did.

            And of course, in Galatians the only thing that Paul expressly states was agreed upon was that he was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised and Peter was entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised. Exactly what else it was that was agreed upon isn’t actually stated in Galatians (no matter how obvious it may seem); just that there was some sort of agreement. Moreover, that Paul and others agreed on the core of the message could just as well be explained by Paul working out the theological meaning of the visions and the others agreeing with him as it is by Paul learning the meaning from them.

            But of course we’ve covered this all before.

          • Paul worked out the meanings of visions he had, and the members of a group that he persecuted and which thus already existed abandoned all their prior beliefs and adopted his interpretation of his visions, only to suddenly be disagreeing with him by the time he writes his letters? Not impossible, but I don’t see why you or anyone else would view it as likely.

            You seem not to know what “Christ” meant in that time period.

            But of course, we’ve covered this all before. And yet why is there no evidence that you actually have absorbed any evidence previously presented, not even enough to mention it in an attempt to disagree with mainstream scholarship on the subject?

          • What do you mean by “abandoned all their prior beliefs”? What evidence do we have of what their prior beliefs were? Paul is our earliest source and the only thing he tells us is that there were people before him who believed that a crucified guy had been resurrected and made appearances. Paul says he was opposed to them until he received an independent divine revelation, but since we have no record of what his predecessors believed we have no idea of the extent to which Paul’s revelation would have compelled them to abandon any beliefs and/or the extent to which it simply provided new layers of understanding. Is it really so radical to think that before Paul came along, this cult didn’t have a single coherent theology? Doesn’t the evidence we have suggest that there were competing interpretations of the events?

            Why don’t you just say what it is you think I don’t know about what “Christ” meant during this time period rather than making snarky little remarks? Are you just trying to bait me into saying something that you can attack?

            What is that you think Paul articulates in Galatians that would be subject to contradiction? While I tend to think that people are less concerned about human contradiction when they think they are getting information directly from God, I don’t see Paul saying anything specific about his discussion of his gospel with the pillars in Jerusalem. It’s just the kind of thing someone might do if he didn’t wish to acknowledge how little agreement there actually was.

          • How can there be competing interpretations of events if there weren’t events?

            I’ve explained what anointed one denoted. I’ve presented what the case is for concluding that certain Christian beliefs are earlier than Paul. And yet you are behaving once again as though none of those earlier conversations ever happened.

            What is it you are hoping to accomplish by doing this?

          • Once again, why don’t you just say what it is you think I don’t know about what “Christ” meant during this time period rather than making snarky little remarks?

          • Once again, it is a term for the rightful Davidic king or the high priest.

          • $41348855

            Vinny, try setting aside the conclusions you have already reached about Paul’s understanding of Jesus. Let’s say we have no idea whether Paul was referring to a real man or mythic figure. We just know that he doesn’t tend to use the name “Jesus” on its own. What should we think when we read that Paul met the “brother of the Lord”, in the absence of any preconceptions?

          • Setting aside my preconceptions and conclusions is a tall order, but I’ll try to tell you my thoughts.

            My starting point is that Paul used “brother of the Lord” to inform his readers that his meeting was not with any of the other guys named James who might have been in Jerusalem at the time. He doesn’t have to say he met with “Peter who was also called Simon” because there was only one Peter. But since there was more than one possible James who he could have met, Paul needed to use a designation that the Galatians recognized, and for whatever reason, this James was known as “the brother of the Lord.” If they had thought of this James as “James the Just” as he later became known, perhaps Paul would have used that designation.

            I realize that this is a somewhat trivial point, but it raises the question in my mind whether Paul would necessarily have known the reason why James was called “the brother of the Lord” on that first visit. Sometimes in a case like that, a person will use the name by which a person is commonly known even without knowing why that person is known by that name. Paul wouldn’t have needed to know why Simon came to be known as Peter in order to refer to him as Peter. Even today, I don’t think that scholars are certain why the other Simon was “the Zealot.” He might have been from a sect known as Zealots or maybe he was just an eager beaver. (For all I know, it was an ironic name in that he was particularly laid back). All I think we can really be sure of is that there was a need to distinguish him from Simon Peter.

            Just as I think Paul could have used the designation “brother of the Lord” without knowing the original reason for it, I think he could have used it even if he didn’t think it was a particular accurate designation. Paul has no problem calling Peter “Peter” even though he doesn’t seem to think that he was particularly rock-like. Maybe “the Rock” and “the brother of the Lord” were titles that Peter and James gave each other in order to enhance their status in the Jerusalem. I’m just not sure how much we can infer about Paul’s understanding of James’ background from his use of what may simply have been a commonly recognized designation like “James the Just” or “Simon the Zealot.”

            That he thought that James was actually the biological brother of the man Jesus who he believed to have been resurrected would be an obvious and natural reason for Paul to refer to him as “the brother of the Lord,” but obvious and natural doesn’t equal probable. To get to probable you need to need to eliminate alternatives and you need to corroborate, and I don’t think that Paul gives us enough to do either of those things with any confidence.

            I’m not really all that impressed with the mythicists’ explanations for the term as I can’t see any reason to declare any of them most likely either. I just think that it’s one of those many things about which we lack sufficient data to do more than lay out a range of possibilities.

            I’m sure my thinking is colored by how nicknames work in our culture, but I don’t know what kind of data there is about how these types of designations were used in the culture at the time. I actually raised the question on Carrier’s blog once but he didn’t seem to think much of it.

          • $41348855

            Yes, I agree that “brother of the Lord” would be used to distinguish James from others of the same name. You agree that it would be natural way to refer to a biological brother if Jesus had a biological brother. I’m not sure what stops you from moving on to probable.

            I would put it like this: suppose I have a document which is about either King Arthur or King Henry VIII and you have to guess which. The clue is that the author of the document says he has met the King’s brother.

            Of course, it could be that the evidence for a mythicist interpretation is so strong that you feel compelled to find an alternative interpretation for the phrase.

          • If, as mythicists implausibly claim, “the brother of the Lord” simply denoted a member of this movement, then how would this have distinguished this James’ identity from others in the movement?

          • arcseconds

            You don’t need to ‘eliminate alternatives’ for something to be probable. You only need to do that to get to a probability of 1!

            The most probable explanation for the construction ‘X the brother of Y’, taken in isolation but given we have no real doubts about the existence of X, is surely that X had a sibling called ‘Y’, and the next most probable explanation is that X and Y weren’t really siblings, but understood to be such by whomever was using the phrase (maybe one of them was adopted, or they were actually cousins but were so close everyone just called them siblings).

            Yes, it’s possible that Y didn’t exist or ‘brother of Y’ meant something different from what we normally take that construction to mean, but surely these are much less probable options.

          • You are correct. It is not necessary to completely eliminate alternatives in order to say that a particular hypothesis is probable.

            Of course we aren’t taking about the construction in isolation, are we? We are talking about a writer who frequently uses the term “brother” in a metaphorical sense to designate a spiritual relationship. In fact, he uses it that way overwhelmingly. If you knew someone who called everyone “brother,” you could never conclude that any particular person was his biological brother based solely on his use of the word. You would have to have some corroboration.

          • So combining this with your other comment, you think that Paul used a generic phrase indicating a Christian to single out this Christian James from other Christian Jameses?

            Please tell me you can understand why I don’t find that likely…

          • I can think of several smart ass explanations for why you don’t find my arguments persuasive, but I will stick to what I honestly think your counter argument would be: “If every Christian was a brother of the Lord in the same sense, how could Paul distinguish any particular James by designating him “the brother of the Lord” when that phrase applied equally to every other Christian James as well?”

            My response would be in order for “the brother of the Lord” to adequately identify a specific James, it is not necessary that it could not logically be applied to any other James. It is merely necessary that the other Christians named James were called something else.

            If I speak of “James the Just” (as he was later known), you have no trouble understanding which James I am referring to even though “just” might have been applicable to other Christians named James. In fact, some of the others might even have been more pious than James the Just and you would still know which James I was talking about.

            The word “worker” is a pretty generic term, and yet, any Catholic who went to parochial school in my day could tell you who “St. Joseph the Worker” is. That doesn’t mean that St Joseph Marello, St Joseph of Leonessa, St Joseph of Cupertino, St Joseph the Hymnographer, St Joseph Calasanctius, St Joseph Cafasso, and St Joseph Cottolengo weren’t workers (although St Joseph of Arimathea was a rich guy so maybe he wasn’t). All that is necessary for a generic word or term to identify a specific individual is that it is understood that way.

            As long as the Galatians understood which person was known as “James the brother of the Lord” it would not matter that others could reasonably claim to be brothers of the Lord as well.

          • So if someone wrote a letter to someone in a monastery in Medieval England, addressed to “James, the king’s brother,” you think it is more likely that it was using brothers in the sense that everyone in the monastery was a brother, rather than that this James was actually the king’s brother?

            Again, can you understand why I do not see a basis for considering the view you hold to be more probable than the alternative?

          • Unlike a New Testament scholar, I don’t think that I would try to assess the probabilities based on so little data.

            Actually it can be hard to figure out what your thinking is on any given point when you so frequently follow up with additional questions without addressing the points I have made or answering the questions I ask.

            For example, in my last comment I stated what I thought your argument would be. If you could tell me whether I was correct, then I would have a better idea if I can understand where you are coming from.

          • $41348855

            The problem is that we don’t have much direct evidence relating to Jesus’ existence in Paul’s letters. If Paul had said that no one knows exactly when Jesus lived then there would be direct evidence for mythicism. If Paul had complained that the other apostles thought they were superior to him because they had known Jesus when he was alive then there would be direct evidence for historicism.

            It seems to me that the reference to meeting the Lord’s brother is the most direct evidence we have and it clearly points to a historical Jesus. Therefore, if we are going to base an opinion on anything in Paul’s letters it should be that.

          • Stuart,

            If everyone believed that the only way Jesus was encountered was as the risen Christ, then the fact that no one knew when or where the man Jesus lived wouldn’t be an issue for anyone and I can’t think of any reason to expect Paul to mention it.

            On the other hand, if everyone thought that some had known Jesus personally and had been his followers during his earthly ministry, I believe that in every dispute, someone would have appealed to something Jesus had said or done as bearing on the issue. Regarding circumcisions, someone would have argued that Jesus was a circumcised Jew who kept the law. Moreover, some people would have claimed Jesus said things that he never said in order to bolster their position. I would expect the authenticity of stories about Jesus and their meaning to have been a constant source of discussion and dispute. I might also expect to see these disputes and discussions reflected in Paul’s letters even though he didn’t know Jesus personally since it would have been so important to any community of believers.

            I agree that Galatians 1:19 is the most direct evidence we have of Paul understanding of Jesus’s historicity. However, I can think of a lot more direct evidence for historicism that we might reasonably expect to find and I cannot think of much greater evidence for a-historicism that I would expect to see.

          • $41348855

            Hello Vinny. I agree that Paul could have given clearer evidence that Jesus was a real person, but the evidence that he has given still seems pretty clear. However, I will set that aside and try to follow your reasoning.

            The key argument for mythicism is clearly Paul’s silence on matters on which he supposedly shouldn’t have been silent. I find it difficult to decide how much weight to give this. It seems to me that there is something odd about Paul’s attitude.

            When he suddenly becomes convinced of the truth of the claims being made about Jesus he doesn’t go to consult with other believers. Instead he wanders off on his own for three years to ponder his new belief. What matters to Paul is the theological implications of Jesus’ resurrection. In order to understand the theological implications Paul wouldn’t need to consult anyone else. He could legitimately claim that his understanding came from God.

            It could be that the theology of the resurrection became such an obsession for Paul that it would have been an unwelcome distraction for him to think too much about Jesus the man, if he was a man. So I think there may be valid reason why Paul would give a false impression that Jesus was a mythical being.

            You can decide whether this sounds like special pleading.

          • Stuart,

            I don’t know how we go about determining what part of Paul’s message consists of claims that were being made about Jesus of which he became convinced and what part consists of things Paul came up with himself that he deemed to be his revelation. I think we can say that Paul indicates that a claim was being made about a crucified guy rising from the dead and making some appearances. However the theological meaning of the crucifixion as an atonement for sin and the eschatological significance of the resurrection could all have been things that Paul worked out himself. I think the fact that Paul claims that he got everything by revelation and he never tells us why he was persecuting the church prevents us from determining what Paul got from his predecessors and what he invented.

            I agree that there may be valid reasons why Paul might give an inaccurate impression concerning Jesus’s historicity. It could be that he just didn’t care what the historical Jesus said or did because all that mattered to Paul was the theological significance of the resurrection. It could even be that the historical Jesus didn’t say or do all that much and that it was only after some people claimed to have seen him returned from the dead that the stories of his amazing life began to be invented. Maybe we don’t see Paul discussing Jesus’s earthly ministry because it took some time for those stories to gain traction.

            I actually think that there are a range of possible explanations for the evidence we have, many of which include some sort of historical Jesus.

          • $41348855

            Well said. I can’t add anything to that. I shall probably follow the debate as a spectator from now on.

          • You are being radically inconsistent. You believe Paul when he claims that he supernaturally had revealed to him the Gospel which the Jerusalem leaders later agreed was the same one they preached, but not when he says he consulted with James in Jerusalem. And somehow you have no qualms about possible interpolations when talking about those passages which you think cast doubt on Jesus’ historicity, unlike the ones that provide counter-evidence to your points. This selective application of principles and picking and choosing to fit your predetermined conclusions completely undermines your claim to be adopting a principled stance on this.

          • Talk about forgetting what someone said!

            Once again….

            I do not believe Paul when he says that the gospel was revealed to him supernaturally….


            I don’t believe it….

            Not one little bit….

            I do think Paul may be telling the truth when he says that his gospel was not taught to him by any man. I think this may mean that he had some sort of dream or vision, worked out the meaning of that dream or vision for himself, and then considered that to be the product of divine revelation. I think that makes sense of the evidence.

            I don’t really see where Paul says that the leaders in Jerusalem agreed that they we preaching the same gospel. What they agreed was that Paul had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised. How the gospels may have differed and how they may have agreed is not discussed. What else I see is that Paul doesn’t think very much of the guys in Jerusalem. They were only reputed to be pillars and Peter was a hypocrite and James helped make him one.

            I think Paul is telling the Galatians that they should quit paying attention to the guys in Jerusalem as those guys contributed nothing to Paul’s message. As I read it, the point of the meeting is not that everybody agrees on the message. The point is that the leaders in Jerusalem agree to keep their noses out of Paul’s gentile communities.

          • You keep saying that, and yet you keep claiming something miraculous, namely that Paul never knew anything about the Gospel, had a vision, and then as a result proclaimed the same Gospel that the Jerusalem Christians proclaimed. He refers to it as the Gospel, says they added nothing to it, and adamantly says in the same letter that there is no Gospel different than the one he proclaims. In 1 Corinthians 15 he also says that the message he proclaims is the same as that proclaimed by others.

            That this came about through a vision seems to me implausible. What makes you think it is more likely than that Paul received his Gospel by way of more mundane means?

          • Why would Paul working out the meaning of the visions be any less mundane than Peter or James working out the meaning of the visions? Someone had to work out the theology and there is nothing more miraculous in Paul doing it than in anyone else doing it.

            I think Paul knew something about the people he was persecuting. I think he knew they believed that a crucified guy had risen from dead and made appearances. Beyond this, I don’t know what Paul knew about them because he doesn’t say.

            After persecuting them for awhile, Paul has a vision of the resurrected crucified guy himself. Confused, he searches the scriptures for answers and finds them. “Holy crap!” he says. “This guy was the Davidic Messiah, his death was an atonement for sins, and his resurrection initiated the end times.” Inspired, Paul goes out to spread the word.

            After spreading the word for three years, Paul goes to meet the guys who first saw the resurrected crucified guy. What they have been doing for all this time, we don’t know because Paul doesn’t say. What they have been preaching or teaching, we don’t know because Paul doesn’t say. Paul doesn’t say what they talked about either, but it would be perfectly natural for him to explain the message he was preaching to them. “Holy crap!” they say. “The crucified guy was the Davidic Messiah? Whadda ya know about that?” Seeing that Paul had a good thing going, they conform their message to his.

            Paul doesn’t go to see these guys for another fourteen years. During this time divergences arise in the messages. Some guys from Jerusalem have been going around telling the gentiles that they need to be circumcised. This really cuts into Paul’s recruiting, so he heads up to Jerusalem and gets them to agree that he will handle preaching to the gentiles and they will preach to the Jews.

            To the extent that the messages agree, they agree because the folks in Jerusalem follow Paul, not because he follows them. Naturally Paul thinks that the only true gospel is the one he preaches and that only people who agree with him have it right. No miracle is necessary to explain Paul’s belief that he didn’t get the gospel from men or his belief that everyone agrees with him.

            You accuse me of believing in miracles because I think Paul might have come up with the message he claimed he got by revelation, but someone had to come up with it and Paul doing it is no more miraculous than anyone else doing it.

          • I don’t see how any of the things you wrote, from the purely speculative to the logical deductions from the text, are sustainable unless you actually think it is legitimate to treat the text of Paul’s letters that we have as reflecting what he wrote as opposed to a hodge-podge of interpolations.

            And I don’t see that you are taking seriously the unlikelihood that the Jerusalem leaders would follow Paul, or that they would happen to agree when coming up with ideas almost completely independently of one another.

          • Some men had visions of a crucified man returned from the dead. Unless you think that Jesus actually predicted his resurrection and explained its meaning to his disciples prior to his crucifixion, then someone had to work out what those visions meant in theological terms. Do you at least agree that Paul doing it wouldn’t be any more miraculous or any less mundane than anyone else doing it? Will you at least agree that my hypothesis doesn’t require Paul to have actually gotten any supernatural revelation?

            On what basis is it unlikely that the Jerusalem leaders would follow Paul? He was a dynamic persuasive person who had been on the road preaching his message successfully for three years while they were still hanging out in Jerusalem. It is possible that he was much better educated than they were and knew the scriptures much better than they did. I cannot see anything implausible about the leaders of the Jerusalem community incorporating Paul’s interpretation of the visions into their beliefs and practices, whatever they were at the time. Isn’t that just syncretism?

            Although Paul claims agreement at some points, he also makes it clear that there were many conflicts as well. The guys in Jerusalem had some ideas that were very different than Paul’s. That seems perfectly consistent with Paul’s claim that his message didn’t come from them. I cannot see how anything I suggested in my last comment requires any interpolation.

          • In this comment you are already stating that the visions involved a human being returned from the dead, not a purely celestial figure. That’s not what folks like Doherty are arguing. So are you agreeing that their position is less likely than that of mainstream historians?

            I’m still not persuaded that your view of the Jerusalem apostles embracing what Paul said deals with the evidence from Galatians through Matthew into the Pseudo-Clementine literature that there was a tradition of Jewish Christianity that looked back favorably to the Jerusalem church but rejected Paul’s ideas.

          • My best guess is that Paul thought that the risen Christ had once been an actual man who walked the earth, but it doesn’t look to me like Paul thought that anyone he knew had encountered him while he was a man. I can see where the purely celestial figure hypothesis comes from, but I’m doubtful that it could rate more than being an intriguing possibility, although I’ll be interested to see what Carrier has to say about it.

            That there was a Jewish-Christian tradition that rejected Paul seems to me to be consistent with the idea that the agreement was never quite as complete as Paul believed it was or claimed it was. I think that tension is there in Galatians. I think that fits with the idea that Paul’s message developed independently at least to some extent from his predecessors. That seems to me to be the kind of dynamic you see in Christian groups today that split into different factions. They try to maintain a common front for a time but eventually their differences come to the fore.

          • Here is the data one more time:

            – Paul refers to Jesus in a way that indicates that he believes he was a human figure descended from David.

            – Paul refers to James the Lord’s brother and to the Lord’s brothers.

            – We have no evidence for the use of “the Lord’s brother(s)” as denoting anything other than biological brothers.

            – Even if we allow that the phrase in the plural could denote Christians, even though there is no evidence that it was so used, since Paul is writing of meetings with Christian leaders, there is no way that he could have been using it in that sense in Galatians, since it would not have served to distinguish this James from others.

            – Other sources refer to Jesus having a brother named James. Some attribute to him a leadership role in the early Church in Jerusalem parallel to what Paul indicates in his letters, and some also look back to him as having opposed Paul, again in agreement with Paul’s own letters.

            What exactly is it that you still need in order to be convinced that Paul was most likely referring to James as the literal biological brother of the Lord?

          • Here is why I do not find this nearly as persuasive as you do.

            Paul refers to Jesus in a way that indicates that he believes he was a human figure descended from

            This may be true, but Paul never suggests that anyone he knows was associated with the human figure or that the human figure was the source of anything he or anyone else taught. Paul has no apparent knowledge of anything that the human figure said or did prior to his crucifixion other than what he received from the Lord.

            Paul refers to James the Lord’s brother and to the Lord’s brothers.

            The earliest extant manuscripts do this, but uncertainties about the transmission of Paul’s original words don’t go away just by ignoring them.

            We have no evidence for the use of “the Lord’s brother(s)” as denoting anything other than biological brothers.

            I’m sorry, but I think that this is just a terrible argument. We also have no evidence that Jesus’s biological brothers were ever referred to as “brothers of the Lord” rather than “brothers of Jesus.” I think I could also argue that we have no evidence that Paul ever uses the word “brother” to refer to a biological relationship. The fact that no one else uses the phrase “brother of the Lord” or “brothers of the Lord” is no evidence that your reading is correct.

            Even if we allow that the phrase in the plural could denote Christians, even though there is no evidence that it was so used, since Paul is writing of meetings with Christian leaders, there is no way that he could have been using it in that sense in Galatians, since it would not have served to distinguish this James from others.

            I’ve answered this point. It doesn’t matter whether other Christians named James could be considered “brothers of the Lord” any more than it matters whether other Christians named James could be considered just. If “James the brother of the Lord” was understood to refer to one particular James (as “James the Just” was), it would have served to distinguish him.

            Other sources refer to Jesus having a brother named James. Some attribute to him a leadership role in the early Church in Jerusalem parallel to what Paul indicates in his letters, and some also look back to him as having opposed Paul, again in agreement with Paul’s own letters.

            It would be so nice if you didn’t always overstate this.

            There is only one New Testament source that attributes a leadership role to a man named James parallel to what Paul indicates. That source does not identify him as being either Jesus’s brother or the Lord’s brother.

            There are two New Testament sources plus Josephus that indicate that Jesus had a brother named James. None of these indicate that he ever played any role in the early church.

            What exactly is it that you still need in order to be convinced that Paul was most likely referring to James as the literal biological brother of the Lord?

            The problem is that even if I concluded that it is more probable than not that Paul was referring to James as the biological brother of Jesus, I would still have to assess the probability that he wasn’t doing so as significantly above zero. Because I understand probability, I know that the chance that he wasn’t affects every argument in which that conclusion becomes a premise and every argument in which any of the premises can be traced back to that conclusion. Even if I said that the chance that Paul meant something else was only 25%, because I understand probability, I know that it only takes three premises subject to 25% uncertainty before the probability of your ultimate conclusion is well under 50%.

            So to be rational, I need to consider the possibility that Paul meant something other than biological brother and consider the implications of that possibility on any overall reconstruction that I’m considering. When I do so, I realize that the reference to “James the brother of the Lord” is the only thing that shows Paul’s understanding of the existence of the man Jesus coming from anywhere other than his or someone else’s claims that they had visions of the resurrected Christ. That is for me more than sufficient reason not to place very much weight on it even if I conclude that it was more likely than not, which I don’t. I think I’m more like 60%-40% against.

            The problem with New Testament scholars is that when they conclude something is more likely than not, they treat that conclusion as a settled fact when they use it as a premise in another argument. That’s how they wind up claiming certainty “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt.”

          • $41348855

            If Jesus existed there is 60% chance that he rose from the dead. There is 75% chance that he existed, therefore there is a 45% chance that he rose from the dead. How’s that for probabilistic reasoning? But seriously, since the only thing that we are interested in at the moment is whether Jesus did exist it doesn’t matter what further conclusions we draw.

          • And once again you are ignoring so many previous comments of mine in this very thread – and why limit yourself to the NT documents and Josephus? My guess it is because those are the texts you know, and even so they offer fairly clear evidence. But what about everything else?

          • If you think I am ignoring a previous comment that is relevant, tell me what it is you think I am ignoring. Don’t summarize the data and the complain when I respond to your summary. Even better would be to respond to what I wrote.

            The reason I limit myself to the NT and Josephus is because they are the earliest documents and closest to Paul’s writings. If we are going to get into later sources, the case gets even murkier as we would have to into account the church Fathers who insisted that James wasn’t the biological brother of Jesus.

          • I don’t think it is good communication to repeat everything I said to you previously in every single comment I write. Why not just actually pay attention and remember, if you care enough about this subject to pretend that dogmatic agnosticism is actually the best response to the evidence?

            I have discussed why the manuscript issue is not a reason for concern. And the rest of my points actually address the first claim you put forward!

            If you aren’t going to discuss this in a serious manner, then I wish you would simply stop, rather than making claims as though the evidence against them isn’t in a post or comment from the day before.

          • If you put as much effort into responding to what I said as you do into snarky remarks and claiming that you have already responded to what I said, we might get somewhere.

            My recollection of what you said about the manuscript issue was that I shouldn’t “dwell on it”

          • So no matter how much time I invest in explaining something, by the next day you will have at most a vague and inaccurate recollection of what I said? If this is due to a legitimate medical condition I am happy to make allowances. But otherwise it is incredibly rude.

          • I’m not the one resorting to personal insults here.

          • How is asking you not to pretend that our previous conversations never happened a personal attack? How is recognizing that there may be a legitimate reason and that you may not be pretending a personal attack? I think I am doing my best to give you the benefit of the doubt when it seems as though you have made up your mind and prefer not to be bothered with evidence that would require the reconsideration of your stance.

          • Does accusing me of ignoring previous conversations when I point out the flaws and misstatements in your current arguments constitute “your best”?

          • I thought reposting this brief reminder of the things we had talked about before would be useful, but instead it led you to suggest that I ought to have reposted everything I had written already, or otherwise you reserve the right to pretend that anything not mentioned in this comment was never mentioned, even if it was talked about the day before.

            I honestly don’t understand why you are doing this.

          • I didn’t suggest that you ought to repost everything you had already written. You accused me of ignoring previous comments and I asked what comments you thought I was ignoring. I cannot imagine why it would be difficult to understand why I would ask that question.

            What I did suggest was that several of the points in your list were problematic for the same reasons that they have always been problematic. It baffles me that after all of our discussions, you would still make as poor an argument as “We have no evidence for the use of ‘the Lord’s brother(s)’ as denoting anything other than biological brothers.”

          • Mike K.

            Vinny, I appreciate the gracious and non-polemical tone you take in dialogue, but it does seem to me that you are dogmatically committed to sit on the fence and will not be persuaded by what anyone contributes here. I get this impression because you offer incompatible reasons for why you evade a straightforward reading of the text: you want to both claim we cannot know Paul wrote it due to the state of the mss evidence AND that even if he did then Paul COULD have meant x, y or z instead of the natural reading of the Lord’s brother (leaving aside our earliest bios Mark and independent source Josephus have to say). Both the comments above and Bart Ehrman’s blog recently show why the metaphorical reading is problematic; on the textual question there is no support to omit it in the external (e.g. omitted in mss or at least located at different spots) or internal evidence (e.g., not awkward in the context) and no discernable reason a scribe to interpolate it (especially as you noted it does become a theological embarrassment for some patristic writers like Jerome). True, without the originals 100% certainty is impossible, but once we play the interpolation card then I can just cry “interpolation” for any text that you might cite that is inconvenient for a hypothesis of mine; scholars working with NT, Patristic, Nag Hammadi or classical sources (the latter have much less mss that are farther removed in time) work with the earliest recoverable text that we can reconstruct as best we can unless there is good reasons to be suspicious.

          • Mike K,

            Unfortunately, I do not subscribe to Ehrman’s blog so I don’t know what arguments he made against a metaphorical reading of “brother of the Lord.” Were they similar to Dr. McGrath’s argument that a metaphorical reading of “brother of the Lord” could apply to every Christian named James and therefore could not have served to distinguish any particular James? If so, what do you think of my point that “St. Joseph the Worker” and “James the Just” are more than sufficient to distinguish the individuals in question even though “worker” and “just” could reasonably be applied to many people with the same name?

            I think I can discern an extremely plausible reason why a scribe might interpolate “the brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19 and it’s the same reason that Paul would have put it there if he did so, i.e., to specify which James it was that Paul met. If at the time of Paul’s visit and at the time that he was writing to the Galatians, there was only one prominent James in the Jerusalem community, or only one James who was known to be an apostle, it would have been perfectly natural for Paul to write “I saw none of the other apostles—only James” and it would have been clear who he was talking about. However, fifty years later, a scribe who was familiar with other men named James might easily see that as ambiguous. “The Lord’s brother” seems to me to be exactly the kind of thing that a scribe might write in the margin just to be helpful. I generally get derided when I raise this possibility, but I’ve never understood why (or to be more accurate, I have never thought the derision was warranted).

            In fact, given the possibility of corruption in transmission, I do think that it is perfectly reasonable to consider the possibility of any word or passage being an interpolation regardless of the manuscript evidence. However, I don’t think that the consequences are nearly as dire as they are often made out to be. If a particular interpretation of Paul’s thought is supported by multiple passages in different letters, then the probability that all of them are interpolations becomes miniscule and that interpretation can be considered strong. However, if by positing any single word or passage as an interpolation, we suddenly find ourselves with a radically different understanding of Paul’s thinking on some matter, I think we have to acknowledge that our initial interpretation is much less secure than one that cannot be so easily upended. I think this is why historians are always looking for corroboration; multiple lines of support are better than single lines of support. That this makes doing history more difficult does not seem to me to be a sufficient objection.

            I just finished reading a book about the Battle of Gettysburg and it was interesting to see in the footnotes that the first source for a well-known story about a meeting between General Stuart and General Lee is actually a letter written a half century after the battle by someone who said they heard about the meeting from one of Stuart’s aides. From my reading of Civil War history, I have learned that there are many stories that we take for granted whose sources aren’t as strong as we might like. The good news is that nothing about our understanding of the battle or the war depends on whether that meeting between Lee and Stuart took place as no orders were given and no plans were made. Historians are generally much better about dissecting the sources when key turning points are on the line although, even then, there are many self-serving stories that were first heard decades after the events that become accepted as fact.

            I have no difficulty with the idea that Paul thought that the risen Christ who appeared to him had once been a flesh and blood man who walked the earth. My problem is that Galatians 1:19 is the only verse I can see that supports the idea that Paul thought that anyone he knew had ever encountered that flesh and blood man personally. Everything else Paul writes leads me to believe that Paul thought only that his acquaintances had encountered the same exalted being that he had—a being who manifested himself only in the scriptures and through revelation. I think that is more than enough reason to be reluctant to put a lot of weight on any interpretation of “brother of the Lord” without corroboration.

            I don’t believe that I am dogmatically committed to sitting on the fence. For most of my life I accepted the historicity of Jesus without a second thought. However, ten years ago some conservative Christians got worked up over the high school English curriculum. One of them got on the school board and tried to have some books removed. She failed and then lost her reelection bid, but during that period I started arguing with some of her supporters in the blogosphere. They would continually challenge me to “look at the evidence” for their various claims. The more I looked, the less impressive I thought the evidence was, even to the point where I didn’t think that the evidence for Jesus’s existence was all that good. Interestingly, it was Ehrman more than anyone else who showed me how problematic the sources really are. So I don’t believe that I am driven by ideological commitments or anti-Christian biases—I was a liberal Christian for most of my life until slipping into agnosticism during the course of my investigations. I think I’m just fascinated by the way that people can turn weak evidence into certainty.

          • Mike K.

            Vinny, I have to admit I am not yet a member of Ehrman’s blog either though his previews make me want to be, but his criticism of how Price interprets “brother” spiritually along the lines of Thomas as Jesus’ “twin” was on the public forum. On the interpolation, I think it would leave some sort of mark on the mss: did all the scribes happen to copy the one exemplar with the gloss “Lord’s brother” or why are there not competing glosses like “James the Just” or “James the Apostle” (though Acts has Herod Agrippa execute James, I could see a scribe familiar with Peter/James/John in the Synoptic tradition make this error). Your point about not hanging too much on a single verse is well taken, but we still have independent 1st century references to the Lord’s/Jesus’ brother(s) in Gal, 1 Cor, Mark, John and Josephus and, interestingly enough, all pass on this minor detail in a disinterested or critical report (e.g., Paul is not impressed with their credentials or does not follow their practice, Mark has Jesus’ family try to take hold of Jesus as insane and get rejected for a redefined family of followers, John explicitly notes that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him, Josephus has a passing reference to the “brother of the so-called Christ”). Paul also seems to imply Jesus’ recent history such as the reference in Gal 4:5 about how Jesus was born/under the Law when “the fulness of time came” (i.e. Paul’s own time at the turning of the ages which drove his whole mission to the nations).

          • From what I understand of textual criticism, the rate of variants increases as one looks earlier in the manuscript tradition and the highest rate of variants would have occurred during the period for which we have no manuscript evidence. As a result, I think we have to assume that there are alterations which left no trace in the manuscript traditions.

            Mark, Matthew, and Josephus say that Jesus had a brother named James, but don’t say anything about him being a church leader. Luke, despite using Mark as a source, doesn’t give the names of any of Jesus’s brothers and when he introduces a church leader named James, doesn’t identify him as Jesus’s brother. So the fact that Luke knows that Jesus had a biological brother named James but declines to identify him with the church leader of the same name would seem to me to be some evidence that Luke didn’t think they were the same person.

            Furthermore, Luke tell us about two men named James, one the son of Zebedee and one the son of Alphaeus. In Acts 12:2, the son of Zebedee is killed and thereafter a James is mentioned without designating his father. The most parsimonious reading of this would be that this is the previously mentioned son of Alphaeus whose father is no longer identified since there is only one James left in the story. The less parsimonious reading is that this a hitherto unmentioned third James who is being introduced into the story without identification.

            I don’t think that any of this is conclusive, but I have seen historicists talk about the consistent tradition identifying this James as the biological brother of Jesus. It seems to me that there is at least some ambiguity about who he was from an early point.

            Awhile ago in the public forum of Ehrman’s blog, I asked him how he squared his certainty about Paul meeting Jesus’s brother with his uncertainty about the texts of Galatians. I was surprised when he claimed that Acts confirmed it. When challenged, he acknowledged that Acts didn’t say that James was Jesus’s brother, but it bothered me that he would make such a mistake after just having written a book which criticized other people’s theories on the question. It just seems to me that there are some unquestioned assumptions in the mainstream consensus.

            I actually agree that Price’s explanation is strained, although to his credit, I think Price acknowledges that this point favors historicism. I would agree, too, but I just don’t see it as the slam dunk that settles the issue.

            I would also agree that Paul probably understands the crucifixion and resurrection as fairly recent events even though he never specifically says when or where they took place. I thought Ehrman’s argument on that point in Did Jesus Exist? made sense.

          • Mike K.

            Vinny, I am bowing out and will defer to Ian’s response ( I would add that you can only argue that Paul does not ever indicate when and where the death of Jesus took place if, in addition to neglecting that the Lord’s brothers were still alive and stationed in Jerusalem, you assume that Paul’s reference to the rulers of this age to have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:6-8) are to spiritual forces rather than the current imperial rulers who routinely crucified people and rule out Paul’s deeply troubling lashing out at his fellow Judaeans (1 Thess 2:14-16) – but, I know, there is a slight possibility 1 Thess 2:14-16 is an interpolation (incidentally Markus Bockmuehl has a useful article on this). Anyways, thanks for the conversation and I will go back to reading the back and forth as it goes on, and on, and on… 🙂

          • Mike K.,

            Like I said, I think Paul understands it as a recent event. Those arguments make sense to me. I don’t think that locating in a particular time or place has any relevance to anything Paul has to say. What matters to Paul is that Jesus Christ was crucified and raised from the dead. The circumstances under which he was crucified are for Paul secondary, if not tertiary, if not whatever comes after that.

          • arcseconds

            I know that it only takes three premises subject to 25% uncertainty before the probability of your ultimate conclusion is well under 50%.

            That’s true if the form of the argument is something like A & B & C -> D, where you need each of A, B and C to establish D to any level of probability at all.

            If that was the only form of probabilistic reasoning, we’d be in big trouble, because a conclusion would always have to have a probability no greater than the least probable premise, and usually a lot less than that. It also looks like it would be counter-productive to gather more evidence, if this is the only way it could be treated, as it could only decrease the probability of conclusion. Also, independent evidence would be worse, as conjunctions of independent events have less probability than those of interdependent events.

            But this isn’t generally how evidence relates to a conclusion. Normally we think gathering more evidence for a hypothesis increases the hypothesis’s probability, and independent evidence is better.

            If there’s a witness, footprints matching the suspect’s shoes, and a believable motive, then the attitude we should take is that the probability of the suspect having done it is increased on the basis of each of those pieces of evidence, even though each may be less than compelling in their own right. Another way of looking at this is that the suspect having done it explains the presence of each of those pieces of evidence. Whereas maintaining their innocence might require three alternative explanations.

            That’s where your analysis comes in. It’s actually the mythicist that’s more in the position that you describe, as they need a conjunction of individually-unlikely stories to explain away each of the pieces of evidence for Jesus’s existence, whereas the historicist is in a fair position even if one or two of them happen to not work out.

          • I agree. When you have several independent lines of evidence or argument to support such that the premise is true if any of the lines are true, then three lines that are 75% likely can produce a premise that is 98% certain. That is why corroboration matters so much. The problem I fear is that few of the pieces of evidence for Jesus’s existence are truly independent of one another.

            I don’t think that either the historicists or the mythicists have made a successful case yet.

          • arcseconds

            Then why do you continue to present the worst case of probabilistic reasoning as though it were typical of biblical historians?

            Even if the events are highly correlated, unless the correlation is 1 multiple events still can continue to raise the probability of the hypothesis.

          • Because I think that they are particularly prone to poor probabilistic thinking.

          • It is not simply a problem of sensationalism. It’s the logical impossibility of being that certain about Paul knowing the biological brother of Jesus when Ehrman insists that we can’t be anywhere near that certain about the text of Galatians. It is a simple error in probabilistic thinking to which historical Jesus scholars seem particularly prone. I don’t know why you would continue trying to excuse it.

          • What we know about Jesus we know with a comparable degree of certainty to what we know about other ancient figures of a similar sort. Again, how many times will I have to repeat this point? That history gives only probabilities is well established. And if you look into the dates of manuscripts on which our knowledge is based, you will find that the dates of our manuscripts of NT documents are surprisingly close to the time of their composition compared with others. So why pretend that, in terms of the relative degree of certainty history can provide, we are as certain as it is possible to be about some of these things?

          • You wouldn’t have to repeat it if you didn’t keep trying to excuse much stronger statements of certainty and if you didn’t spend so much time ridiculing people who find the evidence less convincing than you do.

          • In popular writing about history, the kinds of nuance one finds in monographs and journal articles is often lacking. I suspect that this was true in your high school history textbooks and not only in Ehrman’s popular audience stuff.

            But that is beside the point. The issue is why you reject the conclusion of all the mainstream historians and scholars who work in this field, based on what you have shown to be a lack of detailed acquaintance with the relevant texts, the nature of our textual data for ancient texts more generally, our knowledge of that time and place in history, and the comparative basis for forming models based on knowledge of other religious groupings, and why you insist that your stance ought to be taken seriously when it turns out to be incompatible with the relevant evidence about which you seem not to care enough to inform yourself.

          • I’m sorry, but I have a problem with scholars who think of logical impossibility as “nuance.” I have a problem with scholars who deal with sources of uncertainty by “not dwelling” on them.

          • If you think that characterizes the scholarly literature on this topic, then you obviously haven’t read it. Stop discussing an attempt to combat bunk by emphasizing what we know, which you can find in popularized accounts of anything, and discuss the actual scholarship in this field – assuming you are willing to read it. Or otherwise, take a look at what scientists have sometimes said in popularizing their conclusions for a general audience, and tell me whether that sensationalizing has any bearing on the actual articles and books that are written for other scholars, where the actual work of academic study takes place.

          • I read a lot of history and most of what I read is written for popular audiences. I just finished a book on the Battle of Gettysburg and I am currently working on a biography of Napoleon. I look for books by respected scholars and historians and I can assure you that they discuss issues of uncertainty even in popular works.

          • Surely you are not making the implausible claim that mainstream New Testament scholars and historians do not indicate our uncertainty, are you? Perhaps you need to read Ehrman again a little more carefully?

          • I have seen New Testament scholars express uncertainty. I also see them struggle with the basic logic of probability. It’s an area of knowledge where my understanding may be superior to yours.

          • But without detailed knowledge of the data, all sorts of things may seem logical that will not to someone with less formal training in logic but detailed knowledge of the content of the material. I wish you would take the time to get to know the data, rather than spinning logical string theories about early Christianity that do not apply to the universe we inhabit.

  • johnm

    Good job Ferguson. It’s the great achievement of modern biblical criticism: There are a couple of things we can say about the historical Jesus.

  • I showed Neil Godfrey the Nazareth paper some months ago. Here’s what he said:

    • That looks like a guest post by Rene Salm, whose expertise in this area is nil. But the post you link to does illustrate that denialists can always find a way of rejecting evidence contrary to their belief system, and so thank you for sharing it!

      • Look in the comments. I don’t really mind the lack of expertise so long as a cogent argument is made.

        • Would you say about science what you are saying about Salm and archaeology? Does it really matter not a whit that someone has never engaged in archaeology and yet claims to be able to overturn the conclusions drawn by professional archaeologists? Doesn’t the level of arrogance required to make such claims disturb you even a little?

          • Would you say about science what you are saying about Salm and archaeology?

            -Absolutely. Notice, however, that I said “so long as a cogent argument is made”. Atwill and Velikovsky are not known for the cogency of their arguments. Also, one can still engage in archaeology if one does not have college degrees in it – just look at George Grena, Young Earth Creationist, Electrical Engineer.

  • arcseconds

    From Greg Jenks’s essay:

    This all happens to fulfill an otherwise unknown prophecy and, just as importantly in Matthew’s theological aims,to link Jesus with the community of his later followers in Syria, who would become known as ‘Nazoreans.’

    I had understood that the term ‘Nazorean’ is obscure?

    • Here is something I wrote on the subject:

      Let me know whether or not it answers your questions!

      • arcseconds

        Well, it answers my question that the subject is obscure!

        Or at least, you think so.

        So what’s Jenks doing saying it’s to link Jesus with his followers in Syria as though that’s simply an undisputed fact?

        (It was an interesting essay, thanks. I rather like the idea that Jesus was being called a magician. I also rather like the notion that “he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled that he would be called a Twitterer” …)

        • He is probably equating Nazoreans with the Nazarenes, Jewish Christians who would later be found in that part of the world.