Nicholas of Myra Mythicism?

Nicholas of Myra Mythicism? April 4, 2012

Jesus mythicism is akin to someone saying that because there is no Santa Claus, it makes the most sense to say that there wasn’t a historical bishop Nicholas of Myra.

It seems as though some are afraid that if one concedes the existence of the historical figure, you are accommodating or leaving an open door for the myth.

But that simply isn’t true. In fact, historical study of the history behind legends and myths, when such exists, is a far more effective way of combating the mythology, should one be inclined to do so, than simply suggesting lamely and implausibly that someone simply invented the whole thing out of whole cloth and then tried to base it in history.

What the evidence indicates is what matters. While the evidence for specific details about the historical figure of Jesus are open to dispute, some details – in particular the crucifixion – are beyond all reasonable doubt.

When I suggested this analogy in a comment on a post at Why Evolution Is True, someone responded that in the case of Nicholas of Myra we have clear evidence, unlike in the case of Jesus.

Even a tiny amount of research indicates that the historical evidence for Nicholas is fairly minimal and from after his time. As it is for so many historical figures who are nonetheless more likely to have existed than to have simply been invented.

Time and again it comes back to this: why would an adherent of the later mythology try to turn its central figure into a historical human being who fails to live up to the emphases of the myths? It makes no sense. But that is what mythicists claim.


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  • Time and again it comes back to this: why would an adherent of the later
    mythology try to turn its central figure into a historical human being
    who fails to live up to the emphases of the myths? It makes no sense.

    Considering how effective and appealing the idea turned out to be, I would say that it made a great deal of sense. 

    I’m not saying that’s how it happened, but I don’t find arguments in the form of “Nobody ever would and/or could have invented this” at all persuasive.  People come up with bizarre and crazy ideas every day of the week and I don’t believe that there is any reliable way of determining that any particular idea is beyond the reach of human invention. 

    Can you reliably determine that the idea of a crucified messiah would have been any more bizarre or offensive to 1st century Palestinian Jews than the idea of newly discovered inerrant and inspired books of scripture was to 19th century American Protestants?  How do you objectively or empirically gauge such a thing?  Clearly the idea that the Canon is subject to expansion based on the claims of a man like Joseph Smith is still repugnant to large numbers of Christians.  Nonetheless, there are 14 million Mormons in the world today and they are the only ones who think that “nobody would have invented that” is a good argument for the Golden Plates.

    Time and again, it does come back to the idea that nobody could and/or would have invented the idea of a crucified messiah, and I just don’t find that persuasive. I don’t believe historians have enough information about every Jew living in the first century to say that none of them could have invented the idea. They certainly can’t say that at least some of them wouldn’t have found the idea appealing, because we know that they did.

  • Jim Harrison

    This debate is an example of the continuing power of the master myth of mythology, the meta-belief that origins have a special power to explain. Thus the mythicists think that it matters very, very much if there were no crucified carpenter while liberal Protestants Bible scholars, who certainly don’t believe that there was a son of God who literally died for their sins in the central event of cosmic history, nevertheless get extremely upset at skepticism about the existence of some guy in Palestine. You would have thought that the more interesting historical questions about the history and prehistory of Christianity would deal with how devotion towards a divine individual, what the Hindus would call bhakti, became the paradigm religious activity over much of Europe and Asia and how the Hellenistic, rather Hollywood version of sacred kingship fits in—the original savior, after all, was Ptolemy Soter. Actual or invented individuals fall into an evolving pattern that gives them their significance just as Marilyn Monroe (assuming she actually existed) was just some sweet gal in a coffee shop before the PR boys got a hold of her—whatever else it was, the emergence of Christianity was an episode in the history of marketing.

  • Vinny – to me the big difference between the NT and the book of Mormon is that the NT is set is set in a very definite and largely consistent historical, cultural, and geographical context. It features historical figures (e.g. Herod, Pilate, John the Baptist etc), groups (Pharisees), institutions (Sanhedrin), and locations (the Temple) and each of these seems to be consistent with this context. By contrast, there is not (as far as I’m aware) any independent historical or archaeological confirmation for the context of the contents of the Book of Mormon, and there seem to be some glaring anachronisms which would argue against such a context.
    For me, that’s why the NT contains at the very least a core of historical truth, while the book of Mormon contains only myth. That consistent, rich historical context of the NT is also why I find the whole mythicist case unconvincing – because it seems to me that this is not something which is shared with mythical stories. 

    • Ancient fiction could be filled with historical persons and places and institutions and customs but it was still fiction: e.g. Chariton’s “Chaereas & Callirhoe” — the historical Syracusan statesman Hermocrates is a leading character in it; the father of the lead male hero, Ariston, really existed, too; the historical Persian king and his wife make an appearance; yet no-one thinks Chaereas or Callirhoe are historical persons or that the tale is even remotely historical.

      It’s the novelist’s job to write with verisimilitude, as much then as it is today. We know that students learned the art of creating realistic fiction even in the Hellenistic-Roman era.

    • Paul R.,

      I do not for a second maintain that the Book of Mormon is anything other than a load of hooey.  It offended the religious sensibilities of 19th century American Christians for good reason and it was contrary to their expectations.  Nonetheless, that didn’t stop Joseph Smith from inventing it and it didn’t stop many Christians from converting.   That makes me skeptical about the idea that a crucified messiah would have been so offensive to 1st century Jews that nobody could have invented it and nobody would have believed it if it had been invented.

      I am entirely open to the possibility that the NT contains a core of historical truth. I just don’t think that “Nobody could have invented it” is a persuasive reason to think that it does.

      • The “invented” Messiah of Christianity fulfilled everything that was expected and more of any Messiah: He was a greater than Solomon, remember. Conquering sin and death and demons far exceeded any worldy conquests or acts of liberation. As Richard Carrier points out, this is exactly the sort of Messiah that one would expect to be “invented” — someone would have noticed if one was proclaimed to be a Messiah and had not fulfilled the promises, e.g. the Romans were still around. This is all standard stuff of the thought-world of the day: the greater conqueror is the one who masters himself rather than empires.

        No-one invented a messiah who failed to live up to expectations.

        A messiah evolved who exceeded all earthly hopes.

        • Neil,

          Perhaps, but I don’t know how you eliminate the possibility that someone simply stumbled on that particular idea of a messiah as the result of the kind of process that McGrath believes occurred.

          • I don’t know what McGrath believes occurred. But I don’t know of any argument — except some versions of the historicist one — that believes someone made up an idea of a messiah who did not do messianic-type things.

  • McGrath has his fingers in his ears and sings that he can’t hear anyone to the contrary when he repeats ad nauseam: “why would an adherent of the later mythology try to turn its central figure into a historical human being who fails to live up to the emphases of the myths? It makes no sense. But that is what mythicists claim.” Of course he has never actually cited any mythicist claiming this or explicitly where they claim it. But why should he care? Any flippant falsehood will do.

  • Fortigurn

    //A messiah evolved who exceeded all earthly hopes.//

    Jesus failed to liberate the Jews from the Romans, and failed to establish the eschatological kingdom of God. These facts were so repugnant to first century Jewish expectations that Paul and the other apostles were forced to address them repeatedly when attempting to proselytize the Jews. The gospels themselves record these as the expectations of Jesus’ very own disciples, who express disappointment when it becomes clear that Jesus would neither liberate the Jews from the Romans, nor establish the kingdom of God.

    Similarly, both the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own writings make it clear that apostolic reports of the resurrection of Jesus were met with ridicule from Greeks to whom they preached. Paul’s letters (and those attributed to him), also refer explicitly to Jewish rejection of the gospel message on the basis that the crucifixion of Jesus was unpalatable to them.

    So where’s your evidence that this messiah ‘exceeded all earthly hopes’?

    • In the New Testament letters and the Gospels. Jesus conquered death and Satan. A greater than Solomon was here.

  • Fortigurn

    Neil, I note you didn’t address what I wrote. Is there a reason for this?

    • You asked me a question and I answered it. If you don’t like my answer then construct an argument that shows it is fallacious.

  • Fortigurn

    Neil, your answer failed to address my question. I asked for your evidence that this messiah ‘exceeded all earthly hopes’. I described the two main earthly hopes which first century Judaism pinned on their messianic figure, neither of which Jesus fulfilled. Your reply ignored this completely.

    So I ask again, where is your evidence that this messiah ‘exceeded all earthly hopes’? Clearly Jesus did not exceed all earthly hopes, since he failed to satisfy two critical messianic expectations, which is precisely why so many Jews rejected Jesus as the messiah. Your claims are not only devoid of evidence, they are patently in contradiction to the evidence available.

    • Is English not your first language? Do you know the meaning of “exceed”? Do you nothing about the thought world of humans universally let alone specifically to the culture we are addressing? Do you know nothing about the concept of conquering self, demons, spirit powers, death itself as exceeding any mundane hopes for glory of beating human armies etc?

      Do you know anything about the messiah concept in Jewish literature, both canonical and extra-canonical? Do you not know that the first time a messiah appears in the OT his death liberates (unintentional) sinners?

  • Fortigurn

    Neil, instead of resorting to insults you can just answer the question. Yes I’m familiar with the messianic expectations of Second Temple Judaism. Yes one messianic expectation was liberation of sinners. However, there were other expectations as well, such as those I have listed.

    What you have claimed is that the Jesus of the New Testament ‘exceeded all earthly hopes’. Here are three earthly hopes which Second Temple Judaism expected the messiah to fulfill:

    1. Liberation of sinners.
    2. Conquest of the Romans and liberation of the Jews from Roman rule.
    3. Establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.

    Which of these is the Jesus of the New Testament said to have fulfilled?

    • What on earth is your problem? Jesus is portrayed as a greater than Solomon. He was greater than a conqueror of the Roman empire. You’re so keen to try to pick a fight with me you are not even showing common logical understanding of words. Gee, now how insulting can I get! I will leave you to shadow box in your own little corner.

  • Fortigurn

    Neil my problem is that you haven’t provided any evidence for your claim that the Jesus of the New Testament ‘exceeded all earthly hopes’. On the contrary, the evidence we have in the New Testament itself, not to mention later rabbinical commentary, is that Jesus was considered to have failed to fulfill all earthly hopes rather than exceeded them.

    Would you like to answer my question?

  • Hjalti

    “Jesus mythicism is akin to someone saying that because there is no Santa Claus, it makes the most sense to say that there wasn’t a historical bishop Nicholas of Myra.”

    Although I’m sure that there are people out there that think like that, surely you’re not suggesting that this is the thinking process of people like Carrier or Price?

  • Vinny – I agree that “nobody could have invented it” is not itself a persuasive argument, though it’s no worse than “heck maybe some guy just made it all up”. Further, going back to the book of Mormon, the arugment that “nobody could have invented” the book of Mormon is contradicted by a range of linguistic, archaelogical, historical, and even DNA evidence which suggests that somebody did precisely that.

    Conversely, the mainstream view that the NT is a collection of works that attempt to preserve details about the life and teachings of a historical Jesus, and /or to communicate the beliefs of the early Christians about the meaning and significance of his life, is not, as far as I know, contradicted by any firm evidence, historical, archaeological or otherwise.

    Neil – Chaereas & Callirhoe is not a myth. It is, as you point out a work of fiction and *would have been understood by its readers as such*.

    • Paul R.,

      I would say that “heck maybe some guy just made it all up” is slightly better because we have examples of religions starting as the result of people just making stuff up and I don’t think that we have any way of identifying examples of stories that couldn’t have been invented as opposed to stories that weren’t.  However, it is only slightly better and certainly not enough to tip the scales either way. 

      The interesting thing to me about the Book of Mormon is that even though history, archeology, and linguistics refute its claims at every turn, it is still a bit of a mystery how an uneducated and possibly even illiterate bumpkin like Smith came up with the thing.  Scholars have different theories about Smith’s sources, but as far as I know, nobody has been able to pin them down.

      I’m not sure that the mainstream view is that “the NT is a collection of works that attempt to preserve details about the life and teachings of a historical Jesus,” and if it is, I don’t find it convincing.  The synoptic gospels may be, but I think that Paul’s concern is entirely with the theological significance of the risen Christ.  I see little evidence of any interest in the historical Jesus in Paul or most of the epistles for that matter.

      • Vinny – the second half of my take on the NT was “or to communicate the beliefs of the early Christians about the meaning and significance of his life”. I’d put Paul’s letters in that latter category. And having an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, I think that does seem like a fairly mainstream sort of view. I’m sure there are more qualified people who can correct me if I wasn’t paying attention in lectures and that is not the case!

        A question for you (if you are a mythicist): Is it just Jesus who is a myth, or the founders of all religions? I can see why we might put Abraham or Zoroaster in the mythic category and just maybe the Buddha (though most would say he is a historical figure). But how about Muhammad? Guru Nanak? The Bab? Baha’u’llah? Joseph Smith? The Reverend Moon? David Icke?

        And as a vague sort of Mormon-related aside – the Mormon migration to Utah has some strong parallels to the history/myth of the Biblical Exodus. In a mythicist view, does that completely rule it out as an event with a historical basis? 


      Neil – Chaereas & Callirhoe is not a myth. It is, as you point out a
      work of fiction and *would have been understood by its readers as

      And how was the Gospel of Mark understood by its first readers? Michael Vines argues it is in the genre of a Jewish novel.

      But you are missing the logical point. The simple fact that a literary work contains historical persons, places and customs does not mean the narrative itself is historical.

    •  One should also recall that many Greeks at one time understood the Iliad to be historical, too. But no-one today would say the narrative is historical simply because it contains the names of historical persons and places and a real historical event.

  • Paul R.,

    I am a historical Jesus agnostic.  I think the sources are too problematic to be certain what if anything is derived from a historical person.  I think that those problems pose just as big a barrier to the mythicists who think they can establish his non-existence as more likely than not.  I am reading Ehrman’s new book now and he seems to do a good job deconstructing much of popular mythicism, but his positive case for the existence of a historical Jesus seems to depend a great deal on hypothetical reconstructions of the sources as well as arguments like “nobody would invent a crucified messiah.”

    The parallels between the Mormon migration and the Exodus are not a problem because we have lots of contemporaneous outsider sources for the history of Mormonism from non-Mormons who dealt with Smith and his church and ex-Mormons who left the fold.   That’s what we so conspicuously lack for Christian origins.  If we had to rely completely on the stories that Mormons themselves told about their origins decades after the fact, I suspect that  we would be very hard pressed to come up with anything that could be trusted in anything but the broadest outlines.

    When you said “the meaning and significance of his life,”  I still took “his life” to mean “the life of the historical Jesus,” and my objection remains.  For Paul, it is Jesus’ death and resurrection that have meaning and significance.  That he was a man and was alive at some point may be theologically important, but I don’t think that gets us to Paul being interested in the “historical” Jesus or intending his letters to convey information about him.

  • I loved Dr McGrath’s attempt to argue the “logic” of his post on Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True blog. Pretty soon he will be forced to concede that only theologians and biblical scholars think their arguments for the historicity of Jesus are really “sound logic” and conform to “historical methods”:

  • Fortigurn

    Neil, would you care to answer my previous question? As for historical methods, proper historical methods involve appropriate use of lexical evidence. But Mythicists simply make up meanings for Greek words and phrases, even when they acknowledge freely that there is no lexical evidence for such meanings, and even when they acknowledge that no standard professional lexicon even gives such meanings.

    Proper historical methods also involve basing claims on verifiable historical evidence. But Mythicists see no problem in making certain of their claims without any evidence whatsoever, and get angry when they are asked to provide verifiable historical evidence. We’ve seen this right here; you did it yourself.

  • I did answer it. The rest of your comment is filled with hostile non sequiturs and indicates a mindset interested only in attack and argument. Sorry, but I prefer reasonable discussion. Simply treating narrative characters and events in unprovenanced sources as “historical evidence” — as is the basis of your counter evidence — is invalid. The only ones who think otherwise are theologians and those such as yourself, it seems.

  • Fortigurn

    Neil, this was my question.

    Here are three earthly hopes which Second Temple Judaism expected the messiah to fulfill:

    1. Liberation of sinners.2. Conquest of the Romans and liberation of the Jews from Roman rule.3. Establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.

    Which of these is the Jesus of the New Testament said to have fulfilled? You refused to answer that question. Now you’re taking refuge in completely unjustified personal attacks. You have also avoided the points I made about Mythicists making things up. This does nothing to establish the credibility of your case.

    If you had an evidence based case you wouldn’t be getting angry and attacking people personally, you would simply present your evidence in a calm and rational manner.

  • KevinC

    I don’t think this is a very good analogy.  We don’t have “Santa historicists” going around saying “Every serious historian accepts that Santa is real!  You Santa mythicists are just like Holocaust deniers, Creationists, and Flat Earthers!”  We don’t have “Santa historicists” arguing that Nicholas of Myra really did ride around in a sleigh, but it didn’t actually fly and only Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Comet were historical reindeer.  And what about the Kris Kringle tradition?  We have seven independent sources for that… 🙂

    In other words, while Nicholas of Myra may have been part of the inspiration for the mythic character of Santa Claus, nobody argues that he was “the historical Santa Claus” in the same way that NT scholars talk about a historical Jesus.  We can’t strip away the flying reindeer, the elves, and the North Pole and end up with a historically accurate reconstruction of Nicholas of Myra. 

    In contrast, NT scholars argue that the Jesus of the Gospels is the “historical Jesus,” but with supernatural trappings added and some inauthentic sayings put into his mouth by pious authors scoring theological points against their rivals.  And that, by applying scholarship and criteriology to the texts we can strip away the accretions and inaccuracies to get a reasonably accurate understanding of the historical man who really existed, and at least some actual facts of his biography.  That can’t be done with Santa Claus, and nobody says that it can.  “Santa Claus” and “Nicholas of Myra” are not the same person.  “Santa Claus” is a myth.

    To say that this analogy is accurate, and “Jesus” is only loosely based on some ancient person (or maybe more than one, given the conflicting nature of “his” teachings in different Gospels?), is to give an argument for mythicism, for all practical intents and purposes.

    • Kevin C, especially given that the Gospels are closer to the time of Jesus than our earliest sources for Nicholas of Myra, it is not surprising that historians think that they contain some reliable information. But I don’t think anyone since the nineteenth century has held the view that the Gospels’ Jesus is the historical Jesus once you remove the miracles. That simply isn’t what historians say, or how they treat documents.

      The analogy still seems apt to me. In one case we have an apocalyptic predicter of the end of the world, and the other a bishop. In both, the figures get turned into a supernatural eternal mythological entity with whom people believe they can continue to interact and whom they celebrate ritually year after year.

  • KevinC

    Fortigurn, I think what Neil was getting at is that “Solomon” (the legendary Jewish king who established a mighty united kingdom of Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates) basically exemplifies the “earthly expectations” for Messiah by making Israel/Judea the greatest kingdom on Earth, under native rule, and that Jesus “exceeded earthly expectations” by defeating spiritual “foreign occupiers” (Satan/the “principalities and powers in heavenly realms”) of the entire world/Cosmos and providing the way of salvation and entrance into an everlasting heavenly Kingdom instead of merely repeating Solomon’s accomplishments on Earth.  See also Paul’s use of Hagar and Sarah as an allegory of the earthly Jerusalem vs. the Heavenly Jerusalem.

    Thus, from the perspective of the early Christians, Jesus would have “exceeded earthly expectations,” hence Neil’s use of the phrase, “A greater than Solomon is here.”

    Neil, please correct me if I’m not understanding your posts correctly.

  • Fortigurn

    Kevin I am aware of who Solomon was, and I understand the point Neil was attempting to make with his reference to ‘a greater than Solomon is here’.

    However, Neil’s claims are simply his unsubstantiated speculations. I am not interested in Neil’s speculations. Proper historical method is predicated on evidence, not personal speculation.

    In this particular case we have clear evidence in the New Testament that Jesus failed to even live up to (let alone exceed), not only the expectations of first century Jews, but of his own disciples. We have no evidence for the claim that ‘from the perspective of the early Christians, Jesus would have “exceeded earthly expectations”‘. This is the difference between the historicist case and the Mythicist case; the historicist case is predicated on evidence, the Mythcist case is based on making things up.

    Neil actually said the Jesus of the New Testament ‘exceeded ALL earthly hopes’. Here are
    three earthly hopes which Second Temple Judaism expected the messiah to

    1. Liberation of sinners.2. Conquest of the Romans and liberation of the Jews from Roman rule.3. Establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.

    Which of these is the Jesus of the New Testament said to have fulfilled?

    • Well Fortigurn, if the epistles and gospels that portray Jesus as the conqueror of death, demons and satan are not evidence enough for you, they are to me and a few others out here in reality land.

  • Fortigurn

    Neil you are repeatedly avoiding the issue under discussion. It is not in dispute that the epistles and gospels that portray Jesus as the conqueror of death, demons and satan. What is in dispute is your claim that the early Christians believed Jesus had ‘exceeded earthly expectations’. There are two problems with your claim.

    1. There is no evidence that the early Christians believed Jesus had ‘exceeded all earthly expectations’. This is negative evidence against your claim.

    2. There is evidence that early Christians (as well as the Jews to whom they preached), believed Jesus had FAILED to live up to all earthly expectations, rather than exceeding them. This is positive evidence against your claim.

    So we have both negative and positive evidence against your claim, but no evidence for your claim. This is conclusive. You cannot talk about being in ‘reality land’ while you are insisting on claims without evidence, and failing to address the evidence contradicting your claim.

    Once again, this is the difference between the historicist case and the Mythicist
    case; the historicist case is predicated on evidence, the Mythcist case
    is based on making things up.


      There is evidence that early Christians (as well as the Jews to whom
      they preached), believed Jesus had FAILED to live up to all earthly
      expectations, rather than exceeding them. This is positive evidence
      against your claim.

      Once again you simply fail to understand basic English and elementary logic. Believing Jesus had failed to live up to earthly expectations does not invalidate “exceeding” earthly expectations. Exceeding earthly expectations merely reduces them to irrelevance. So what if the Romans are not yet in their graves? Jesus has conquered the ruler of this world to whom they own their power! They are (proleptically) dead already. So what if we die now? We are conquerors of all!

  • Gee I’m sorry Fortigurn. I see my error now. I had been assuming from the start that the letters of Paul and the Gospels were written by Christians. Gosh, how silly of me. 

  • Fortigurn

    Neil you are still avoiding the issue. I am choosing not to debate your claim that ‘failed to live up to all earthly expectations’ is compatible with ‘exceeded all earthly expectations’, the rationality of which I will leave readers to judge for themselves. I am leaving that completely to one side.

    I am concentrating on the fact that you have provided no evidence for your claim. Let’s look at the facts again.

    1. You have provided no evidence that the early Christians believed Jesus had ‘exceeded all earthly expectations’.

    2. There is evidence that the early Christians did not believe Jesus had ‘exceeded all earthly expectations’.

    Once again, please present the evidence for your claim, and address the evidence which contradicts your claim. I don’t want to see a repeat of your references to Jesus conquering sin, death, satan and demons. I want to see evidence that the early Christians believed that Jesus had ‘exceeded all earthly expectations’.

    Where is the evidence that early Christians believed that since Jesus had conquered sin, death, satan and demons, he had necessarily ‘exceeded all earthly expectations’, and where is your explanation for the fact that both Christians and non-Christian Jews expressed disappointment with Jesus’ failure to fulfill specific earthly expectations?

    •  So you want me to give up what is normally meant by the word “exceed” and to forsake what is normally understood by spiritual conquests being greater than earthly ones and to dive into your world where narrative characters and events are “historical evidence” . . .  in other words, you are not interested in an exchange of views but in total control of all the terms and conditions of an exchange so you win. Well, off you go and tell the world that according to your own definitions and rules you win. Happy shadow boxing.

  • Fortigurn

    No Neil, I am not asking you to give up anything. You are entirely free to use words with whatever definitions you choose, and you are entirely free to consider that spiritual conquests are greater than earthly ones. Please stop repeating your false claim, and address the issue at hand.

    What I am requesting is evidence for your claim. I want to see evidence that EARLY CHRISTIANS believed what you claim they believed. I also want to see you address the evidence that early Christians DID NOT believe what you claim they believed.

    As always, this is the issue; evidence. Historicists use it, Mythicists make things up.

  • Vinny – I completely agree that Paul’s interest is not in passing on historical details about the life of Jesus of Nazerth, but I would say any fair reading of Paul’s letters provides fairly compelling evidence that there at least *was* such a person.

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough about the point I was making about the Mormon Exodus thing. A future mythicist, if he/she had to rely on Mormon accounts about the migration might well suspect that they were fabricated on the basis of the Biblical Exodus. But they would, in fact, be wrong. There is a difference between a religious community mining details from existing religious narratives to try to validate its history, and a religious community entirely fabricating history on the basis of those narratives. Mythicists seem to completely ignore the first of these possibilities. 

    Neil – I am not claiming that where a literary work contains historical persons, etc it is necessarily historically accurate. I am simply saying that a common feature of myth is that it does not contain these sorts of details, being set in a vague imagined past age (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away). I am thinking here about the creation myths of various religions, the Hindu story of Rama and Sita etc.

    Homer is an interesting analogy. Do you think Homer invented the story of the Trojan war lock stock and barrel? Or was he retelling and reshaping stories about events and characters that his audience were already familiar with? This second option is, I would say, what Homer is doing and also what the authors of the Gospels are doing.

    On the gospels as ancient novels – why would a writer trying to pass of a fraudulent story as true (which I think is what you are arguing the NT evangelists did) choose to do it in a genre which would flag up to the reader that the story is entirely fictitious? That simply makes no sense. 

    I have not read Vines, I’ll add him to my to read list. Though I do note from the weblink you posted that a difference Vines notes is that “Mark is set in a realistic historical time, unlike Jewish novels that are set in pseudo-historical time”. Exactly the point I am making!

    • why would a writer trying to pass of a fraudulent story as true (which I think is what you are arguing the NT evangelists did)

      Not at all, by no means. I have never remotely suggested any such thing.

      As for your request for a sharing of opinions about the Iliad, I fail to see the relevance. We simply don’t know who the author/s was/were so cannot make any such definitive, let alone relevant, judgment.

      • Apologies for any misunderstanding of your views – but I am interested to know then, what is your view NT? What type of literature is it? Who do you think wrote it and why? What (if anything) in it is historical? 

        • I think firstly it needs to be understood that nothing I am exploring in relation to Christian origins is in the slightest tinged by any sort of anti-Christian or anti-religious interest. Yes I am an atheist, but if I were on a crusade to debunk Christianity I would do exactly what John Loftus does and not touch the mythicist argument as part of that effort since it will only serve to turn off my intended audiences.

          My view of the NT is no different from that of most others: it is a collection of early Christian writings that came to be deemed canonical over time.

          I have no more idea who wrote the gospels than anyone else does. As for “why” they were written, that is an interesting question to explore with respect to the Gospels and probably even the last book in the NT. I presume we can take the declared agendas of most of the epistles as self-explanatory, but I’m always open to the possibility of being wrong even there.

          As for what is historical, the documents themselves are historical. The letters are historical documents. The Gospels are historical documents. As to the nature of their contents, that is a question for literary analysis first and foremost.

    •  Paul R.,

      I would respectfully disagree.  I think that if you read Paul’s letters without reading the gospels back into them, it is very hard to see a historical person there.  Paul’s only contact was with the exalted heavenly being and he never tells us that anyone he knew had any other sort of encounter.  What he knows of Jesus, he claims to know by revelation.  He knows nothing of Jesus being a teacher or a healer.  He doesn’t say when or where Jesus lived or died.  That Paul thought that the exalted heavenly being had once been a man seems reasonable, but I don’t think Paul gives us enough information to say that it is more likely than not that there really was such a man.

      Ehrman’s argument that Paul corroborates a historical Jesus depends upon assigning an earlier date to the oral and written sources behind the gospels than to Paul’s letters.  If such dating is valid, maybe Paul does corroborates.  On the other hand, if you read Paul without assuming anything about what other traditions were in circulation when he wrote, I think it’s hard to see.

      • VinnyJH, what Paul does not say about the historical figure of Jesus only seems like a problem because mythicists have the later Gospels and ask why those things are not mentioned. The possible answers are many, from large scale fabrication on the part of the later Gospels, to Paul have very little knowledge, to Paul assuming that the Christians he wrote to already knew as much as he did. And so if one takes the Gospels out of the picture when considering Paul, the problem is in fact lessened, not increased. And it remains the case that what Paul does say – descended from David, born of a woman, crucified, buried – all indicates a historical human being was in view.

        • Dr. McGrath,

          As I have argued before, that Paul thought of Jesus as a historical man isn’t sufficient to establish that Jesus was a historical man.  Paul speaks of  Adam as if he were a historical man, but no one would infer anything about Adam’s historicity from that. 

          Without being able to locate Paul’s Jesus somehow in time and space, I don’t think we are justified in calling Paul’s Jesus historical even if Paul thought of him that way.  Descended from David is derived from scripture.  Born of a woman is pretty much true of everyone.  Crucifixion had been practiced over a wide swath of the known world for several centuries, although I will admit that Ehrman’s argument for why Paul must have thought that the crucifixion and resurrection had been relatively recent events makes a lot of sense to me.

          To my mind, however, the only thing in Paul that really suggests that his Jesus is historical in the sense that we consider someone historical is the reference to James as the brother of the Lord.  Without reopening that can of worms (not that it has ever been closed), I would feel a lot better if there were some way to corroborate that Paul intended that to mean biological brother of the earthly Jesus.

          • Let’s leave the brother of the Lord to one side, then, for the time being. Can we agree that Earl Doherty’s claim that Paul did not even believe that Jesus had been a historical human being is at best unlikely, and at worst simply incompatible with what Paul wrote? As you point out, whether Paul was correct is a separate question. But do we agree about what Paul believed to be the case?

  • Brettongarcia

    Why would anyone eventually give up on false dreams, and false expectations?  Because they found they were false.  And they found that believing these false things, believing in magical thinking and relying on miracles and spirits, made their lives worse, not better, in many respects.  Certainly they did not fuction as well in practical jobs.
    Are mythicists wrong?  Probably the actual position of most circumspect, scholarly mythicists, is defensible:  that Jesus, AS POPULARLY DESCRIBED (miracle-worker, etc.), is false.  Therefore, it is more correct to describe him to everyday people as false, as a figment, than otherwise.

    Though?  I have seen the Great Kirk.  And I know that he is a true historical person; as verified by his later appearances, in countless TV shows.

  • Kevin C

    Dr. McGrath, I wasn’t quite clear enough in my previous post.  Of course it’s not as simple as “take away the Gospel miracles and what’s left is the historical Jesus.”  Still, historicists do think that at least some of the biographical details (e.g., the crucifixion, living in Galilee) are accurate, and some of the sayings in the Gospels actually originate with Jesus, don’t they?  IOW, there’s basically a process of subtraction whereby mythical gloss, anachronistic teachings and so on are removed, in an effort to get to the genuine kernel of historical truth in the Gospels, right?

    In the case of Santa, we don’t have “Santa historicists” saying, “Well, we have reason to believe that ‘Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night’ is an authentic teaching of the historical Santa, but ‘Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight’ is a later insertion.”

    Wouldn’t you agree that the differences between “4th Century bishop who lived in Asia Minor” and “magical being who lives at the North Pole with elves and flying reindeer making toys for all the children in the world” are of a different kind than the differences between “An apocalyptic prophet/faith-healer/social reformer who was crucified by the Romans” and “An apocalyptic prophet/faith-healer/social reformer who was crucified by the Romans, who also worked miracles and was raised from the dead?”

    I think your analogy trivializes historicism by setting the bar for “Jesus historicity” so low that there isn’t any practical difference between “historicism” thus defined, and mythicism.  I think you would be hard-pressed to find any mythical or fictional character that was truly made up from whole cloth with absolute originality.  Somebody had to have thought up the Sermon on the Mount for the first time.  Bingo!  The Historical Jesus(tm)!  Who cares if his name was Parnassus and he was a Greek, at least we know that some historical person preached the Sermon on the Mount.  Historicism, FTW!

    But that’s not really what you’re saying, is it?  As I understand it, the historicist position is that there was a historical person named Jesus of Nazareth/Jesus son of Joseph (or Mary, for those questioning the legitimacy of his birth), who lived in Roman Judea in the time of Pontius Pilate, High Priest Caiaphas, and other historical figures mentioned as his contemporaries in the Gospels.  That this Jesus most likely said and did at least some of the things attributed to him in the Gospels, even if there is a great deal of embellishment and later additions.  That this Jesus was crucified by the order of Pontius Pilate, that he died, and that at some point afterward his followers came to believe that he had risen from the dead in some sense.  That he had a brother named James who was a personal acquaintance of the Apostle Paul.

    If this is a correct understanding of the historicist position, then historicists stand for something, even if it isn’t easy for them to deduce exactly which sayings or biographical details are accurate history.  The historical Jesus would have be one, specific individual, and any “candidate” for the position would have to meet some qualifications, and be recognizable as the protagonist of the Gospels.

    How much do Nicholas of Myra and Santa Claus have in common, beyond white beards and giving gifts to children?  By that standard, there were probably at least half a dozen “historical Jesuses.”  Plenty of guys named “Jesus,” most of whom with beards, and probably more than one of them got in trouble with the Romans for one reason or another.  Even the Gospels mention two–Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas.  Once you set the historicist bar that low, the law of large numbers comes into play and somebody, somewhere would kinda-sorta look like a “Jesus” if you squinted hard enough.  I think that does a disservice to the historicist position. 

    Nicholas of Myra isn’t “the historical Santa Claus,” he’s one of the sources for the Santa Claus myth, along with other influences from folklore.

    • If the analogy breaks down, it is because far less (almost nothing) of the historical Nicholas remains in the figure of Santa Claus. In the case of Jesus, however much he is later turned into the pre-existent second person of the Trinity, because Christians who adopted such mythological views of Jesus also valued early documents about Jesus – ones that are often at odds with their own mythology – glimpses of the historical Jesus remain visible and thus recoverable by the historian.

      Is that in essence your point? If so, then I don’t think we actually disagree! 🙂

  • Brettongarcia

    JAMES:  Why would millions of everyday, failing people, deify a crucified nonperformer?  To dignify and appear to justify their own failed lives. 

  •  Dr. McGrath,

    I haven’t read Doherty but based on what I’ve seen, it does seem like a long shot.  However, Paul writes a lot of strange things and I don’t think that he ever intends to communicate any information about a historical Jesus nor does it seem like he ever thinks that it is important for the recipients of his letters to know anything about a historical Jesus.  It does seem plausible to me that some of those references that seem to point to Paul believing in a historical Jesus could actually be intended to make some theological point that isn’t clear to us.  

    • Do you believe that a historian should fail to draw as the most likely conclusion something that the evidence points to, because there is a long shot alternative, one that is extremely unlikely but not impossible? Or to put it another way, do you on principle object to the drawing of probabilistic conclusions by historians, since there are usually other scenarios which, however unlikely, are not impossible?

      • I think I can best illustrate my point with an example.

        In 2004, Bart Ehrman did a series of lectures for the Teaching Company titled From Jesus to Constantine:  A History of Early Christianity.  In that series he gave a brief overview of historical Jesus questions, a subject to which he devotes an entire series of lectures titled The Historical Jesus.  In the brief overview he compared the kind of things that historians can investigate like whether Jesus was honorably buried and whether the women found the tomb empty to things that were beyond historical analysis like whether Jesus was raised from the dead.  Ehrman did not discuss criteria of historicity or attempt to apply any criteria to the honorable burial or the empty tomb, but I don’t think that he was as careful as he might have been in his choice of words, and if you didn’t know any better, you might think that he was saying that they were facts rather than that they were the kind of things that historians could address.  Of course if you’ve read anything where he discussed them in depth, you would know that he doesn’t think that the honorable burial or the empty tomb meet the criteria of historicity and whether they met the criteria of historicity or not wasn’t relevant to the point he was making at the time.

        Of course this has been quote-mined by conservative Christian apologists.  In a 2006 Debate, William Lane Craig accused Ehrman of flip flopping on the honorable burial.  Ehrman denied it, but I think the quotation from From Jesus to Constantine is still on Craig’s website somewhere. Every month or two I run across some blogger who claims either that Ehrman affirms the honorable burial and the empty tomb or that he has flip flopped.  I’ve argued with a few of them, but they always insist that Ehrman’s meaning is perfectly clear.  They are completely disinterested in the point he was making at the time or how those statements fit with what Ehrman has said elsewhere.

        So if the obvious reading of something that Paul says seems to contain some information pointing toward his belief in a historical Jesus, but that information is tangential or irrelevant to the main points Paul is making in the passage or any point he makes in any other passage, I think that’s a perfectly legitimate point to consider in deciding whether Paul is really communicating historical information about Jesus or not.  Those are the kinds of things to which I think a historian might be reluctant to assign too high a probability without further corroboration.

        • Vinny, you seem to be arguing that unless in a given letter or passage of Paul’s unless Paul’s main purpose of that passage is to communicate historical information about Jesus we should ignore any information he does include as historically suspect? This seems misunderstands Paul’s purpose in writing the letters: he is writing to established Christian churches, so he would have little need to set out the story of Jesus in any systematic way as his audience would already be familiar with it. 

          This also seems to be a fairly odd criteria for assessing historical information from sources. Should we always reject or suspect information if it is mentioned as an aside? Are there any grounds for thinking that such information is in practice less reliable than information that fits with an author’s broader purpose?

          For example, looking fairly randomly at one of Pliny’s letters (6.16): Pliny mentions a woman: “Rectina, wife of Tascius” who wrote a letter to Pliny’s uncle. Pliny’s purpose is plainly not to communicate biographical details about Rectina (and Pliny does not claim that he ever met her), but I would say that on the basis of Pliny’s letter there are grounds for believing: 

          1) That a woman named Rectina existed in history
          2) That she lived at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius
          3) That she lived in or owned in a house in the vicinity of Vesuvius
          4) That she was caught up in the eruption of Vesuvius
          5) That she was married
          6) That her husband’s name was Tascius
          7) That she was probably born sometime before 65 AD (given that she was married at the time of Vesuvius)
          8) That she wrote at least one letter to Pliny the elder

          We can’t say much more than that, though we might be able to come up with some theories as to the identity of her husband, her social class, and her subsequent fate (did she die in the eruption?). We should, of course, admit the *possibility* that Pliny got some of his information wrong, or that there are problems with our texts. And I suppose Pliny’s references to Rectina could, at a stretch, be intended to make “some theological point that isn’t clear to us” (as per your view of Paul). 

          But in in the absence of any contrary evidence (and against any Rectina mythicists out there), it seems to me more reasonable to accept than reject the existence of a historical Rectina.

  • Brettongarcia

    The three of you seem to have a good conversation going; I wouldn’t want to interrupt the flow too much here.  But parenthetically?

    Paul at times, briefly, seemed to think of Jesus as a physical man.  But other times, Paul is quite spiritual.  And  he very Platonistically suggests that the important thing in life, is not any physical reality.  But our mental or spiritual feeling or ideas; especially our Belief or “faith” in Jesus’ ideas or spirit.  That belief in itself, he often implied, will guide and save us.  Almost whether or not, any physical reality supports that belief.  Save us in a way that seemed to some, to exceed physical promises.
    That makes common sense, in part.  In that say, if I “believe” that Santa is coming tomorrow, I’m going to feel better; I’m going to feel “hope” and so forth. And that belief is a good sensation – in itself.  Whether Santa is real or not.  Whether Santa is physically real or not, still, believing that he eventually will give me physical presents for example, makes me feel good  (for a second at last). 
    And for that matter? Believing in the message not to be “naughty,” and trying to be good, might make me feel better, there too.  I feel “good,” not naughty.
    All of those pleasurable sensations come to me – whether Santa is physically real, or not.  (See also the White Lie theory of Christianity).  Much of religion says tgherefore that it is the mental sensation or spirit, that is important, not the physical reality.  And so, though Paul at times mentions physical/biological reality, Paul more often, does indeed seem almost unconcerned whether Jesus really, physically existed or not.  Because? The important thing for him, was whether Jesus’ moral ideas and example and promises of future rewards, would make us feel better (or be better) in our mind or spirit.  Whether Jesus physically existed, or not.  Or whether he was physically around, or not.
    To be sure though?  Paul’s quite Hellenistic/ Platonic disavowal of much importance to physical reality, his emphasis just on mental sensation, ideas, hopes?  Had problems in itself, theologically and practically.   As most of even the Church began to see.  When this emphasis on spirituality increased, into Gnosticism, docetism, and the physically fatal excesses of asceticism (self-flagellation, fasting to starvation, etc.). 
    The too-complete denial of the importance of teh physical side of life, (and the physical jesus) therefore, leads to practical and theological problems.  And so eventually, even Paul – and finally the very end of the New Testament – insisted that real religion, must eventually … return to physical reality.  That it must not have not just a “spiritual,” but also a real, physical reality behind it. 
    So that?  Paul’s temporary unconcern with a physical reward from following Jesus, his unconcern with a physical Jesus, must eventually be rectified, in other parts of the New Testament.  If Paul at times seems to acknowledge that  Jesus physically died?  He must come back physically again.  In a “second” appearance.  To finally make good, not just on spiritual promises, but also on physical promises.  Delivering a “kingdom” that exists not just in the heaven of our spirit, or hopes.  But a kingdom that descends, to become a real, physical place, on this material earth (REv. 21).

    The question of the physical/material/Historical reality of Jesus therefore, is part of a larger theological problem:  how much physical, material reality, must a religion have.  And?  And if it is – as I assert – a lot, then what should we say about our traditional Christianity?  And its huge problems, in making things like physical miracles happen, materially?

    In this aspect, the physical/historical reality of Jesus remains somewhat important; as part of the question of physical performance of Christianity – or the lack of it.  Though Paul and his Greek Platonism tried to sidestep this question for a moment, ultimately real Christianity, the Bible itself said, must be productive materially, physically.  And if we find no jesus at all, physically?  Or find one that did not really produce physical wonders?  Then we would have to suggest that ancient “Christ” was a “false Christ.”  And look for another. 

    Paul knew this deep down.  So that, even though at times he tried to evade and deny the question of the material reality of Jesus, and so forth, other times he tried to assert some additional reality to him, other than just spiritual.  While in any case, many looked forward to a fuller, more satisfactory, Second Material Appearance of Christ, soon.

    • Brettongarcia, you are still reading Paul through the lens of later theology, or perhaps are assuming that he wrote Hebrews. The dichotomies you posit seem to be interpreting “flesh” and “spirit” in a manner that does not actually fit what Paul wrote, read in context.

      At any rate, even Hebrews views Jesus as having been a real historical individual, and so clearly Platonism and viewing Jesus as a genuine human being were not incompatible. It is only when he gets elevated to the level of divinity that it became impossible for some to reconcile his fleshliness with that. But that happens later. This discussion is about the historical figure of Jesus, not the Christ of later theology and dogma.

  • Brettongarcia

    This question was not addressed to me.  But I guess I personally support probabilistic History.  Though such histories should always be couched in expressed hesitations, caveats, warnings about the tentative nature of their conclusions.  While secondary and tertiary probabilities should also be briefly mentioned.

    But in calculating the Substantially Real Existence of Jesus?  Just how probable was it? 

  • Paul R.,

    I’m not arguing that we should ignore anything.  I said that it’s a legitimate point to consider.  I might say that you seem to want to characterize my position as much more radical than it is because then it will be easier for you to ignore the points that I am trying to make.  However, I think that such a statement might generate more heat than light.

    I would say that a historian always wants as much corroboration as he can get.  Sometimes the most obvious meaning is not the one that is intended and there is always some chance that something was lost or altered in the scribal transmission and sometimes the writer may have misstated his thought or gotten something wrong.  It seems obvious to me that we can be more confident about a point Paul is making if it fits squarely within the context of the argument he is making and the same point comes up in similar contexts in other passages than if it only shows up as an aside in single passage in a single letter.  Is there anything controversial about suggesting that a historian can be more confident about something that he can corroborate?

    I think I gave a good example where Ehrman was misinterpreted on a point that was tangential or irrelevant to the main point that he was making in an argument because the misinterpreters didn’t bother to corroborate their interpretation.   In the case of a tangential point that appears a single time in Paul, corroboration is impossible.  Maybe scholars think that there is never any chance that the inability to corroborate something Paul writes could lead to a misinterpretation or that the chances of it happening are so small that the possibility can be ignored, but I wouldn’t think so. 

    I don’t think that we should always reject information that is mentioned in an aside, but I do think we should always want to corroborate our understanding.  If something fits neatly within the main argument, that context provides some corroboration.  If something is an aside, I would think that it is harder to corroborate our understanding.

    I think a lot should depend upon the extent to which other conclusions depend on a particular piece of information.  In the case of Rectina, it doesn’t sound like our conclusions about anything else would be effected if Pliny got it wrong so I would say that is more than sufficient to acknowledge that there is a certain degree of uncertainty that we will always have about events in the ancient world.  However, if our understanding of other events might be significantly affected depending on the validity of the inferences we draw about this woman, then I think we might want to be more circumspect about the conclusions we draw from so fleeting a reference.

  • Brettongarcia

    Paul R:

    OK; let’s talk probabilities here.

    As you correctly note, we might believe Pliny somewhat, relatively speaking.  And Pliny’s references to a Rectina, in part because the existence and (relative) reliability of Pliny himself, seems fairly well established.  Pliny was part of an historically-provable, huge Roman empire.  Whose existence cannot be doubted. It was an empire that knew enough science and technology and reason, to build huge monuments that survive to this very day.  As evidence of that empire, and its grasp of science, technology, and Reason. 

    And then, having established the existence of Rome, we might trust its word somewhat more than those not similarly establsihed.  Fortunately, Rome kept many written records, that can be used to cross-reference the existence of Pliny and so forth.

    But?  Is the existence and rectitude of say, Paul, quite as well established?  Particularly, is the reliablity of those many early Christian writers who spoke of “miracles” as verifiable?  Do we visibly see their miraculous works in evidence?  If we do not, then we might doubt their reliability.  And the reliability of their testimony. 

    So that?  We might well accept the testimony of Pliny, somewhat more than Paul.

    If we want to look at Paul therefore, and his testimony concerning say, the existence of James, the brother of the Lord?  We should apply the same tests, look for the same kinds of corroborating evidence of his statements, and their meaning, from evidence all around him. 

    But in that case?  There is far less evidence.  And then?  Relying just on whatever evidence we have?  We see, if anything, Paul himself being rather shy and equivocal, on important factual matters.  Like the question of the status of James, the brother of Jesus.  And shy even in the matter of whether he is testifying to phsyically provable things at all, but only on matters of the mind, spirit, or imagination.

    So if we go looking for an historical Jesus?  The quality, the reliability of evidence we have, is not quite as good as what we get from other regions.  And even the historical existence of Jesus therefore, is rather more in question that it is, with other historical figures.  Indeed, it is rather hard to tell whether he existed at all, or was just a legendary, even semi-deliberately made-up moral story.

  • BG – you seem to be arguing that we shouldn’t accept that Jesus was a historical figure, becuase early Christians believed in things like miracles which we would not accept today. Pliny on the other hand, had a rational Roman world-view, so we can probably assume that Rectina was a historical figure. 

    Pliny’s worldview was very different to that of Paul, but to say it was more rational than Paul is a value judgement. Having read Pliny’s letters, I would say that there is a good case for thinking that Pliny believed in the reality Gods of Ancient Rome, the divinity of emperors, the efficacy of prayer, and the existence of ghosts. None of those views are what I would call modern or rational.

    Personally I might believe in none of those things, but that doesn’t change my view that it is more reasonable to accept than reject the existence of a historical Rectina.

    • Paul R.,

      It doesn’t seem to me that BG is arguing that at all.  I might say that once again you seem to be attributing a more radical position to someone than they actually hold. 

      Part of the reason we accept the existence of a historical Rectina is that Pliny indicates that he came to know of her existence in a perfectly normal and usual way.  Had he indicated that the source of his knowledge was an oracle or visions and direct revelations from the Roman gods, we might think that we should reserve judgment until we can find some corroboration.

      Paul seems to want his readers to believe that everything he knows about Jesus he learned through divine revelation.  There is of course no reason to take this claim at face value, but I think that it precludes us from assuming that he came by his knowledge in a way that we think people might typically come by reasonably reliable historical information about another person. 

  • The Rectina case is an excellent point from which to stop and examine why and how it is we know anyone existed in ancient times. So far it seems the belief in her existence is subjective — at least from a quick survey of what has been said. Why not test that belief, that is, test the reasons for it, against as many other types of characters from various sources to give a wide range of types and situations?

    That’s what I did a few years ago and I finally came to the conclusions I have discussed in How do we know anyone existed in ancient times? and Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other historical persons.

    The reasons for believing in Rectina’s historicity are very strong. But when we examine the reasons — the real reasons — we accept this, then it follows that there is nothing comparable for Jesus. But the trick is in being honestly to think through exactly why we think Rectina was historical. That involves a multiplicity of factors, including literary analysis — though for most readers (as no doubt in this case) this operates at a subconscious or subliminal level. It helps to stop and think things through and isolate what is really going on in our heads when we are struck with such apparently intuitive feelings that such and such a person was probably real.

    • beallen0417

      Indeed, the Rectina case seems quite reasonable. However, the case of Hermodicus of Lampsacus seems more problematic. If the inscription didn’t mention his moving a 334 kg stone, we might have no reason to disbelieve it, but its mention of this act calls into question not just the veracity of the story, but also the very existence of the man mentioned. 

      • Brettongarcia

        To be sure, I noted that even the Romans often exaggerated, and seemed to believe in magical things … at times.  But I noted that overall, their accounts of things by many of the more rational, were – as I note, “relatively”  – more rational, credible, than most others.

        For example?  Is the account of Hermodicus lifting 334 kg, historically credible?  The current Olympic weightlifting record for one kind of rather strict weightlift is about 263 kg.; somewhat less, but perhaps with harder rules, than Hermodicus’ 334.  Especaally note that in the Olympics, there are rules that make lifting harder:  one is not allowed to use one’s knee as a stage or lever, etc..

        So that?  Roman accounts of someone lifting 334 kg, are far, far closer to plausibility. Especiall when compared to Christian accounts/promises of people making bread appear out of thin air, moving actual “mountains,” moving say 1,000,000,000 kg., etc..

        Of course even the most rational-seeming Romans, would lapse into superstition and overstatement now and then.  But at their best, and overall?  They were significantly better than Paul, claiming to get what he taught from a “vision.”  Or Peter, from a “dream.” And claiming that “whosoever asks,” will be able to move say, 1,000,000,000 kg..

        As James McG himself likes to say, there are no absolute certainties here, in History.  But let’s keep proportionality, probabilities, in mind. 

  • Fortigurn

    Neil, should we use a method in which we base arguments on evidence, or should we use a method in which we base arguments on personal speculation without evidence, and make up meanings for Greek words and phrases for which we cannot find any lexical support?

    • Oh Foritgurn, so you are trying to pick another fight with someone you believe is dishonest etc etc. Sorry, not interested. My method as addressed in the posts to which I linked is based on evidence and logical coherence. I do not waste time assuming that narrative details in unprovenanced texts are “historical evidence” in their own right. Go back and shadow box with yourself, if you will. I was hopefully addressing people who are genuinely interested in a very real and valid question about how we know anyone in ancient times exists. Your little spat about Greek words — something that means absolutely nothing for anything I have ever addressed — adds nothing to that discussion.

  • Dr. McGrath is very fond of pointing out that we cannot accept Paul’s claims that he learned what he knew about Jesus from revelation.  However, it seems to me that we have to at least allow for the possibility that Paul sincerely believed it and therefore that he may not have come by the information in a way that we can deem historically reliable.  It is certainly plausible that he learned about the historical Jesus from Peter and James on that first visit to Jerusalem and that he declined to give them credit because he was concerned to establish his own apostolic bona fides, but I don’t really see how that is any more than mere conjecture.  If it were anyone else claiming to have visions and revelations, we would allow for the possibility that he may have been a lunatic, a charlatan, or a pathological liar, but with Paul, his honesty and sincerity is taken for granted.

    • Vinny, are you actually suggesting that Paul persecuted Christians on the basis of having had dreams and visions of Jesus? Or are you ignoring the evidence that Paul knew things about the Jesus movement before he became an adherent to it?

      I can only assume that you are deliberately pretending that the interpretation of dreams as significant interactions with a supernatural realm was not all but universal prior to our being able to understand them in other terms, since the advent of psychology. Or are you genuinely unaware that even many of the greatest minds in history in the pre-modern era had dreams and understood them to have such significance? Why treat Paul as though he is exceptional? Or are you assuming that Luke’s depiction of a Damascus Road daytime encounter is historically accurate? And if the latter, why is Acts trustworthy about this when Luke is apparently untrustworthy about the historical Jesus and so much else? Are you perhaps picking and choosing evidence to fit your desired outcome, rather than on the basis of a consistently-applied historical-critical method?

      • Brettongarcia

        1) HOW MUCH did Paul know early on about Jesus?  It is likely Paul knew something about Christians, before his vision; since he was troubling himself to persecute them.  But how much? 

        2) CONTRADICTIONS IN PAUL   While if he DID know something before?  Then  Paul’s own account therefore is inconsistent; at times he wants to say he “conferred with no” human being on Jesus, but got it all from direct revelation or “vision”.  While other times, he says something different in effect.  Proving?   Paul makes CONTRADICTORY statements, in any case.

        3) PRIMARY SOURCE OF INFORMATION  Was Paul the only person to claim he had learned things in visions?  Hardly.  But?  Normally when it is PRIMARILY a vision, that is their source, we discount it.  Even when Romans do it.  And so?  We are entitled to discount it here.  Especially it is a major part of his evidence.  No doubt even Einstein had useful dreams; but then he did the math too.  Did Paul do the math?


        5) DOES THE ROAD TO EMMAUS COUNT AS GOOD EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE? The account of the apostles on the road to Emmaus say, “seeing” Jesus is actually pretty vague and strange; someone “sees” a “stranger” …who then suddenly seems to be Jesus … and who then suddenly disappears, etc..  This would not count as a normal, real, empirical-seeming appearance.

        6) So James:  are you really accurately, fairly accessing the evidence?  Or aren’t you rather clearly just picking and choosing and reading it, according to your own pre-determined opinions?

      • Dr. McGrath,

        I am not suggesting anything about Paul’s basis for persecuting Christians.  Since Paul never says why he was persecuting Christians, I’m not sure what it was that ticked him off.  Ehrman’s theory is that he was offended by the idea of a crucified messiah, which seems perfectly plausible, but I cannot see how anyone could claim to know.

        However, my understanding is further hampered by the fact that I think it likely that Paul had been telling his conversion story for a couple decades as part of his evangelistic campaigns by the time he wrote his letters.  I therefore would expect that the story had been shaped by its effectiveness as propaganda.  I’m wondering whether it’s wise to put any more confidence in Paul’s “I was the Church’s worst enemy” story than in Lee Strobel’s  “I was a hardcore atheist” shtick.

        I also have no idea what experience Paul had that convinced him that the risen Christ had appeared him and I make no assumption about it.  My only point is that Paul seems to be claiming that all his knowledge of Jesus came from revelation and scripture.  While I have no reason to take this at face value, I at least have to take account of the possibility that he believed it to be true.   Moreover, if he didn’t believe it to be true, that may mean that he was intentionally lying for propaganda purposes, which also negatively impacts the confidence I have in his statements.

        I’m not picking or choosing any evidence.  I pretty much consider it all suspect and I think that there are perfectly valid reasons for doing so.

  • Jim Harrison

    The existence or nonexistence of a man named Jesus who got himself crucified is not important to me even though I am interested in the history of Christianity. I just figure that the factual origins of a story don’t usually explain very much about what people do with the story as they elaborate and interpret it. Obviously, were I a Christian who bought into the notion of redemption through divine sacrifice, the literal truth of the story would matter to me a great deal; but I’m not and it doesn’t. That said, it is also true that the relative unimportance of factual vestiges in a sacred history doesn’t mean that there are no such vestiges. Indeed, bits and pieces of literal fact, dim memories of real events, and the names of actual people and places are inevitably carried along in even overtly fictional literary traditions like the detritus swept downstream by a flood. The trouble is, the general plausibility of the survival of authentic traditions isn’t much help in determining just what elements do preserve something that actually happened.

    Attempts to recapture a historical Jesus from the existing record is analogous to the problem historical linguists face in reconstructing long-lost ancient languages by searching for commonalities in the vocabularies of the known languages that are thought to be derived from them. The method is plausible enough–almost everybody expects that some of the similar words found in English and Chinese really are distant cognates because it is assumed that the tree of languages has a single truck–but in the absence of external evidence to separate the real instances of affinity from the equally inevitable coincidences and later borrowings, coming up with reconstructions is something like doing astrology. It’s easy to sound plausible; impossible to really test anything, which is why most of the experts don’t put too much weight on Nostratic or Dene-Caucasian even though they don’t rule ’em out either.  Analogously, the various versions of the historical Jesus one encounters aren’t hard to believe; but nothing is really nailed down beyond the probability that somebody who irritated the Romans was nailed up. Unless a new body of evidence turns up, there simply is no prospect of distilling a significant residue of fact from a huge volume of texts, the content of which is known to be almost entirely false and whose authors, like the creators of other religious traditions, belong to a class of individuals with an obvious proclivity for exaggeration, credulity, and fabulation.

  • Brettongarcia

    In sum, if we begin to apply the standards of objective (in part, science-based) History to the Bible and Christianity as a whole?  First 1) not only do miracles fail; but then 2) Paul and his visions collapses.  But then, next?  3) Essentialy the rest of the Bible collapses too; even many of its most-empirical-seeming moments, accounts of things visibly “seen” in the daylight.  None of these even vaguely match the standards of objective verification.

    So that?  What is there left, in the Bible itself, from which to reconstruct a “real” jesus?  Finally there is nothing left; there is almost no objective information, on which to try to reconstruct a plausibly real, historical Jesus.  We cannot be sure of a crucifixion.  Perhaps we can verify there was a “Jerusalem,” say.  But even here, History dis-confirms Biblical promises about it:   it does not become an eternal kingdom “soon,” but instead is burned to the ground by Rome, in 70 AD.

    The case for a real Jesus is less than 0 finally.  And literally?  The case for the reality of Santa Claus, is slightly better.

    • Bretton Garcia, either you are not taking this conversation seriously, or you are not expressing yourself clearly. No one who comprehends the nature of historical evidence in general and the specific cases in question could write your last sentence, that the case for a real Santa Claus is slightly better.

      Paul only claims that his message is authorized by God and Jesus directly, and does not depend on any other human being who might turn out to disagree with him. Such claims are neither here nor there when it comes to the origins of Christianity, which existed before and independently of Paul. And if Paul is untrustworthy, then we should simply turn to the next early sources, written only slightly later, which all envisage a historical Jesus and agree on numerous details in a manner that confirms that they are not without historical value.

      • then we should simply turn to the next early sources, written only
        slightly later, which all envisage a historical Jesus and agree on
        numerous details in a manner that confirms that they are not without
        historical value.

        I thought all critical scholars were agreed that the Gospels envisage a Christ of Faith and definitely NOT a historical Jesus.

        I thought it was your job to dig beneath the text of these texts to find the very thing they hide with their Christ of faith vision. I thought the Gospels as written are considered unreliable as history and that’s why “historians” had to dig beneath their texts to find what is “reliable? So why not do the same with Paul?

        I also thought that their agreements were very largely the result of copying from Mark. Other agreements, I always thought, were explained because they all ultimately were part of the same faith tradition (despite its variants — one community specializing in moral sayings, another in visions after death, another in apocalyptic sayings, etc — of Christianity itself). If so, how can their agreements be considered in any court of law as verification of anything except that they are all Christians of one stripe or another?

        I can understand why you retreated from the Why Evolution Is True blog with such logical inconsistencies as these.

  • Brettongarcia

    Indeed, why neglect Paul, the first written source (c. 53-58), to move on quickly to later sources?  To the gospels, which are usually dated c. 65-100 AD.

    Paul is our first substantial written source.  And aren’t the very first sources, normally considered, in History, to be extremely important?  Why just brush by Paul?  Is there something there that … troubles Historicists?

    Specifically:  is it of no significance to the Historicist project, when the first substantial written source … explicitly disavows the importance of any real, historical human source/provenance for his work?  (As it seems clear in most translations)?

    • Dr McGrath has given us excellent advice in whom to read for authoritative historical methodology and two of his recommendations advise us that any source that contains new information about a person, and that only appears for the first time as much as twenty years after that person, should be considered suspect and virtually useless. That’s Garraghan’s advice. Garraghan is the most quoted historian used as the basis for the Wikipedia article on Historical Methodology. The other recommendation was Vansina. He dismisses the historical value of an account that can be dated no earlier than a generation after the person or event in question. Paul: 20 years later; Gospels: a generation later.

      • Brettongarcia

        What have been traditionally been regarded as “historical” sources regarding a possibly historical Jesus?  And how reliable are any of our sources here?  And what finally do they indicate?

        As a trained cultural historian myself – mostly in another field that Religion to be sure – I might mostly agree with Garraghan and Vansina, that the more remote accounts are from the lifetime of the person, the less reliable they are.  Though if a “generation” is 20 years (as some compute it), then to be sure …

        1) not even Paul has much historical value.  Though, if a generation is 25 years, as other say?  Paul has some value. 

        2) While the gospels, being later, have even less value than that. 

        It 3) is thought that the gospels MIGHT in turn, have had access to a written Q document; but that remains highly speculative. 

        While 4) a Q document might have been so poorly written itself, as to have little value.

        Likely in any case?  5) Even a Q document would have relied finally, on Oral Tradition.  Which is normally highly suspect:  orally circulated popular rumors (like those collected by Luke?), are famously unreliable.

        Other sources?  6) Josephus’ single remark; highly disputed. 

        Then 7) one or two Roman references, rather negative in nature, or simply reporting rumors, as such, without attesting to their historical accuracy.  There is a group of people following a Christ, or Chrestus; that does not testify to the accuracy of that group’s belief.

        Then?  8) Archeological data.  Which is problematic too.

        Then?  9) Modern scientific data on what is physically likely; which utterly contradicts most of the Bible. 

        So far, none of these is very positive.

        Any other major sources?  So far, none of these are very good.  But we might finally add one more valuable source of historical information:   10) the known, general culture history of the ANE:  Ancient Near East.  Whose myths and semi-historical legends, especially Greco-Roman/Classic data, and especially rumors from Plato, begin to … strangely match key elements of Christianity. 

        Existing semi-historical legends/myths, finally supplying the closest thing we see to a structural match or corroboration.  At last.

        McG:  I do see the possiblity of a potential classic Christian apologetic here.  Suggesting that Paul knew inaccurate rumors, and persecuted Christians on the basis of them; but then he wanted to say that later he got truer, “real” knowledge of Christianity, directly from the holy spirit.  Still though?  Most of that would not have been Historical or earthly or “real” in nature.

        My own sense of Paul, was that he was himself embrarrased by the lack of historical foundation; and finally indeed, he simply began to confess he got much of it out of the “air” (“pneuma”/wind), so to speak.  The later gospels seemed to take it as being rather more solid; but even they at times had Jesus himself suggesting that his authority was from the spirit, the mere “wind,” that blows wherever (and whatever) it will.

  • Brettongarcia,

    We can obviously rationalise the Hermodicus story to make it seem more plausible – maybe he used a lever or brought the stone in on rollers, perhaps we can overlook the reference to him being magically healed by the Gods or just put it down to the placebo effect. But why can we not also play the same game with New Testament miracles, amending or ignoring details to make them more historically plausible? For example, I’ve read attempts to rationalise the feeding of the 5,000 by saying that, when Jesus started to share out the small amount of food he had, other people who had secretly held back a stash of food felt ashamed and in turn started to share their own food with those who had none. I’m not saying I agree with this interpretation, but I would say that trying to rationalise one miraculous story while dismissing another is an inconsistent position to take. 

    I’m also not aware of any NT stories in which Jesus or Paul (or anyone else) actually do magically move a mountain. The reference to mountains seems to be a rhetorical point to show the value of faith (Matthew) and love (Paul). This would make Matthew and Paul’s words in these passages arguably more rational than the Hermodicus story, not less!

    You talk about probability and plausibility. When reading the NT or related literature I would say that I am operating within a paradigm that:

    1) There was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. 
    2) He was a Jewish teacher who found himself on the wrong side of the authorities and was crucified. 
    3) His followers came to view him as the Messiah.

    This is, I would say, the view of an overwhelming majority of appropriately qualified experts within the field (Christian, agnostic, or atheist) and perhaps more importantly, is simply the most *plausible and probable* explanation for the origins of the Christian religion. There is nothing in this paradigm that is historically implausible or even improbable. There is nothing that does not fit in with the New Testament corpus, with the social, religious, and historical context in which early Christianity arose, or with the archaelogical or non-Christian evidence for Christian origins (in as far as it exists).

    To me, it’s a very useful paradigm from which to approach the New Testament and Christian origins – whether I look at early Christian literature generally, the NT as a whole, specific books within it or even at specific passages, everything seems to make perfect sense within this paradigm, and at no time do I find myself having to ignore or stretch a probable explanation of the evidence to make it fit my theory.

    I have no particular pro- or anti-Christian axe to grind here, and I recognise that paradigms are there to be shifed. But if mythicists want to get me to change my perspective, they need to move beyond trying to force a sceptical interpretation of this or that passage, and offer an alternative explanation of Christian origins that makes better sense of the evidence. An explanation that is more plausible or probable than my current view. This, so far, I don’t think anybody has remotely shown themselves capable of doing.

  • VinnyJH – I don’t think your view that Paul seems to want his believers to believe that everything he knows about Jesus was learned through divine revelation is tenable. It ignores passages where Paul simply drops or alludes to Jesus tradition into his writings without stating where he got it from (which is hardly evidence for the divine origins of this knowledge), passages where Paul is careful to distinguish between Jesus’ words and his own advice, where he admits to gaps in his Jesus knowledge, or where he seems to be explicitly stating information that he has received information from other people.
    Also, I don’t agree that where Paul does seem to claim divine revelation or authority, that this precludes us from thinking that his knowledge about Jesus’ life came from mundane (and potentially reliable) sources. Most or all of what we can learn about Jesus’ life from Paul is separately attested in the gospels, at least three of which are almost universally thought of as being wholly independent of Paul (and even the author of Luke-Acts seems not to have actually known Paul’s writings). This strongly suggests that traditions about Jesus’ life that are contained in the letters are unlikely to have originated with Paul, divinely inspired or not.

    • Brettongarcia

      Probably most would agree to disregard the miracles, or rationalize them?  But then what is left?

      Having already thus discarded the emotional half of Christianity, the part that attracted people, the part  that yearned for miracles?  Then we might go looking for any remnant reality.  But Paul himself never met the phsycial Jesus in reality; but only in a “vision” and “voice” on the Road to damacus.  While Galatians begins, as its first sentence, with the assertion that Paul was an apostle “not from men nor through man.”  And goes on to add that, in spite of a visit with James in Jerusalem, he did not get his gospel from any man.  The stress was always on the Holy spirit. (GAL. 11.12), as the source.  While Paul over and over says he did not consult with other men, but lays down his gosple whole, before Jerusalem (Gal. 2.2).   To be sure?  Paul’s remarks there contrast with his other remarks and actions.  But?  There we merely find Paul to have been inconsistent.

      Where could the story of Jesus have arisen?  To be sure, existing mythicist accounts themselves are still not fully developed; and we rely on early, semi-scholarly texts like  The Jesus Mysteries, by Freke and Ganday (1999).  Few persons to date, have adequately summarized and schematized this recent movement.  Though isolated scholarly texts have long existed, particularly in the field of Classics.  And then in German scholarship.  Particularly valuable were attempts to tie Christian ideas, to classical sources.  Augstine of Hippo himself, noted this:  “When I read those books of the Platonists, I was taught by them to seek incorporeal truth, so I saw your invisible things understood by teh things that are made'” (COnfessions, 7.20).  Following these and a thousand other indications of Greco-Romn influence, in Jewish Philosophers like Philo (fL. 1 ad), COUNTLESS scholars wrote of possible Greco-Roman influence, coming together with Jewish traditions, in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, to form Christianity.  Though conservative Jews resisted Greco-Roman influence, there were many liberal Jews that did not.

      I myself am not the specialist, to make the best case here for a full mythicism.  But some interesting books to read might include say, “Early Christianity and Greek Paideia,” by Werner Jaeger, 1961.  Or perhaps “the Religous Context of eraly Chrfistiaity; a Guide to Greco-Roman Religion,” by Hans-Joseph Klauck and Brian McNeil, c. 1996/7.  Hans was profl. of New Testament Exegesis at the U. of Wurzburg.  It had been 19th-20th century German scholarship, that probably lead the way here.  If you read German, there are lots of important as-yet untranslated texts.

      Paul himself, often said good things about the Greeks”; and quoted from Plato’s Theory of Forms, as I noted earlier.  There is no doubt of Greek influence from Paul, the Roman citizen, who spoke Greek, quoted Plato, etc…

      The first, definitive/reasonably complete New Testament that we have by the way?  Was written in Greek.  Not Hebrew.  Not Aramic. 

      The fact is, there are literaally hundreds of points of major influence by Greco-Roman culture, on Christianity.  Docummented in hundreds of scholarly works. Many unfortunately however, still untranslated.

      Here I’ve just referenced a very few general works, in English.  Such works are typically ignored or “diss-ed” by American religious scholars and departments; but Classics and History departments have generally been aware of them; in the cases of older texts, for even hundreds of years.  Or even thousands; if you include a longstanding awareness of Philo, and Augustine.

      So for to be sure, there has not been a central, fully integrative scholarly text to really set up Mythicism. Though maybe Dr. Price’s very recent book is a useful start?

      At first, such arguments seem unconvincing.  But?  Look into them a little more. If the early days of Christianity, c. 25-55, were rather spiritual and vague about concrete details – as Paul’s writing seems to suggest., immediately thereafter (c. 53-59)?  Then perhaps Christianity began with rumors, legends, longings, rumors, and so forth; as exemplified by rumors of miracles.  Vague impulses coming together only after Jerusalem itself was destroyed in 70 AD.  Destroying much of whatever material evidence – or counterevidence – existed.  And thus making wholesale, largely uncontradicted construction of details, possible. 

      That realistic details were often invented, is often suggested in connection witht the conflicting genealogies of Jesus in different gospels, for example.

      Good luck with your reading; there are hundreds, thousands of relevant texts; many of them unfortunately to be sure, still in German.  Though even many hundred-year old texts – and indeed, thousand-year-old texts like that of Augustine – are in many ways, still more advanced than current English religious scholarship.

      • Brettongarcia,

        I do find the areas of similarity Christian beliefs and texts and contemporary Jewish and Pagan equivalents endlessly interesting. I certainly think it’s useful to be reminded that ancient Christianity did not emerge in a vacuum and the King James version did simply fall out of the sky one day. I just think that there such a *huge* diversity of ancient belief and practice, that selectively pointing out similarities, ignoring differences and then claiming some causal relationship is, without further supporting evidence, simply an interesting example of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. 

        I agree with your view that “existing mythicist accounts themselves are still not fully developed”. If mythicists can at some point in the future offer a more plausible alternative for Christian origins than the current consensus view I’m sure NT scholars (many of them, don’t forget, agnostics, atheists, or otherwise non-Christians) would be happy to write books supporting, teach courses about, attend conferences on, or write blogs revealing the latest developments in, the mythicist view. Until then, I think it will remain a fringe theory.

        Thank you for the reading suggestions. Price seems like quite an engaging read, so I’ll definitely add him to my to-read list. I have read many books that put Christian origins in the context of ancient beliefs and practices, Robin Lane Fox’s “Pagans and Christians” being one of my favourite books ever, but again I’ll try to read some of the ones you recommend. 

        I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on The Jesus Mysteries however: it would violate my strict rule of never reading books that follow the [definite article/famous-yet-mysterious name/vaguely enigmatic noun] title formula. I apprecriate that I might be missing out on some great revelation, but in practice I’ve found that it spares me having to battle the twin urges to finish a book once I’ve started and to poke my own eyes out rather than read page after page of poorly written, ill-thought out, utterly tedious guff… 😉

    •  Paul R.,

      If you were to say that you don’t find my view persuasive, I would not object in the least.  However, when you say it’s not tenable, I think you are engaged in wishful thinking. 

      Paul does not distinguish between “Jesus’ words” and his own advice.  He refers to the “Lord’s charge” or the “Lord’s command.”  These are points that Paul could have thought had been revealed to him by God, particularly the one about the community being obligated to support him.

      The only time that Paul directly quotes Jesus, he claims that he received it from the Lord.  If there is any time that Paul might have indicated that he knew something through people who had actually been with Jesus at the relevant events, that would have been it.  That doesn’t mean he didn’t learn it that way, but I think it’s clear that he doesn’t want his readers to think that he did.

      We are not precluded in the least from thinking that Paul’s knowledge came from mundane and possibly reliable sources, but if we are going to be intellectually honest, I think we are precluded from ignoring the possibility that he thought they weren’t and I think we are precluded from ignoring the implications of that possibility.  I think we are precluded from uncritically assuming that Paul’s knowledge came from such sources. 

      • I wonder whether Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7 is as amenable to a distinction in terms of Paul feeling more or less inspired. At the very least, given the intersection with what we find in the Gospels, one can make a strong case that Paul was referring on that occasion to something that Jesus was remembered to have spoken about.

        • Ehrman also mentions the possibility that someone else in the community claimed to have a prophecy from the Lord on the topic and that Paul was simply adding to what the community already accepted as a valid command from God.   The context in which Jesus discussed divorce and the problem that the Corinthians are dealing with don’t seem to be all that close. 

          • That’s one of the reason why this tradition is not thought to be a Pauline invention, and why Paul felt the need to add his own thoughts on the matter that went beyond the tradition.

          • Dr. McGrath,

            That certainly makes sense to me.  On the other hand, I think that almost any preacher can, all by himself mind you, come up with the idea that the Lord wants the congregation to support him.

  • Brettongarcia

    Paul in 1 Corin 7.1 addressed his remarks to “matters about which you wrote.”  Here for once it might seem that Paul addressed other human beings; his congregation.  But? 

    But Paul does not presume to say these are the words of the Lord, of God.  In fact?  he carefully stipulated several times, that 1) the words he heard were from humans, but not of the Lord; while 2) he inserts against that human opinion, not words, typifications of God, but merely in turn, his own likewise, carefully stipulated and merely human opinion:  “I say” this or that.  As he says ofver and over (1 Corin. 7.80-39).  Paul ending with the very clear statement that what he offers is not about God, or from God; but is offered “in my judgement” (7.39).

    So that?  The proposed rule is not broken:  no words HERE are offered AS THE WORD OF GOD or Jesus, that came from another human being.  What is offered here are 1)  not words of God, but 2) Paul clearly specifying merely, his own opinion, on religious – but perhaps not even holy – ideas.

    • Bretton Garcia, it would be very helpful, should you actually wish to contribute to conversation as opposed to merely broadcasting your opinion, that you show how your viewpoint fits with the relevant evidence, in detail. From what you wrote, I cannot figure out what your point is supposed to be, or who if anyone you disagree with. But you seem to be ignoring the detail that is the focus of what others have been discussing here: the contrast between what “not I but the Lord” says and what “I not the Lord” say.

  • Vinny – 1 Corinthians 7, which Dr McGrath mentions, was the passage I was primarily thinking of:

    “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say…”

    “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord)…

    “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)…

    “Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy…”

    As Dr McGrath is, I think, suggesting, the most likely explanation is that the Corinthian church has asked Paul some questions relating to marriage and Paul is responding using Jesus tradition where he can, and supplementing this with his own views and authority where he can’t, while (to my mind) being careful not to conflate the two.

    The passage you refer to about Paul recieving support from the community is interesting. Here, to me, Paul actually seems to be trying to explain why he *isn’t* following an established practice sanctioned (according to Paul) by Jesus, while other apostles seem to be doing so. So we have two alternatives: 

    Option A: This is a reference to an existing, non-Pauline, Jesus tradition that is known to both Paul and the church he is writing to. I would say that there are good reasons to think that this view is correct: firstly a saying which does not support Paul’s practice is unlikely to have been invented by him. Secondly, a similar command about workers and their wages pops up in the Q/Matthew tradition that is, I stress, almost universally thought of as independent of Paul. 

    Option B: Paul invents or recieves through some miraculous vision a command from Jesus that doesn’t not fit his purpose or advance his case, but that paradoxically, he includes in his letter anyway. Subsequently, and by an unknown mechanism, a very similar command also finds it way into an independent Q/Matthew tradition (two miraculous visions?). While of course this second option is not wholly impossible, it does seem rather implausible. Certainly, I can’t think of any good reason to prefer it to the first option, other than that, if I were a mythicist, it would be less damaging to my case. 

    I simply don’t see how Paul sometimes claims to have learned his Jesus traditions necessarily changes the most likely interpretation for how he did actually come by it. If, as occasionally happens, one of my less dedicated students hands me an essay on – say – Buddhist Pilgrimage that seems to have been directly plagiarised from wikipedia, I tend to conclude that they *have* directly plagiarised it from wikipedia. I might of, course, also consider that there is some other rational explanation (e.g. they copied from another student who in turn copied from Wiki), but the fact that (as almost invariably happens) the student claims to be the unlucky victim of some infinite monkey style coincidence doesn’t change my view of the most likely explanation. (If a student claimed that their knowledge of Buddhist practices in Lumbini had had been divinely revealed to them, I’d certainly give them ten out of ten for panache but doesn’t mean I’d believe them!)

    • Paul,

      What I see as at least one non-trivial possibility is that you have a cult that worships an exalted heavenly being and this cult has a ritual communal meal, a strict view about divorce, and a practice of supporting it religious leaders financially.  None of these things strike me as terribly remarkable or so distinctive as to necessarily point to a historical human being as the source.  Certainly it’s a non-trivial possibility, but I don’t know how I would go about determining that it was more likely than not that the teachings came from a historical person rather than being attributed to a historical person later.

      Rereading Ehrman I see that he doesn’t think that the divorce teaching is the result of a prophecy within the Corinthian community.  Ehrman thinks that such things may have happened and that it might explain something like the rapture passage in 1 Thessalonians 4.  Nevertheless, he seems to think that whenever we have a parallel in the gospels, we should assume that Paul’s teaching is part of a genuine remembrance of the historical Jesus.  That seems kind of circular to me.

  • Brettongarcia


    What I (and Vinnie it seems to me) are trying to say, as our larger point?  And in response to your comments on 1 Corin?  Is that Paul over and over, says that he hears from God, not through ordinary or “real” people, but directly, through the Holy Spirit.  This means that Paul does not fully trust, or put much confidence in, the things you want to emphasize: communities of historically real human persons.    
    Did you advance 1 Corin. to pose an apparent exception?  If so, note that it does not work that way.  To be sure, there Paul seems to be hearing from some real human communities, human traditions, all around him; as it happens, on the subject of marriage.  But?  Note that PAUL DOES NOT ASSUME SUCH COMMUNITIES ARE SPEAKING FOR GOD, or for the Lord.  Far from it; he presumes to immediately correct them.  Albeit modestly advancing his own response in turn, not as the word of GOD, but as his own opinion.
    Our larger point here and earlier is that Paul claims he is not getting messages from God, through any human, physical intermediary; he gets it all more directly, through the Spirit.  And we might add now: anyone who intends to advance 1 Corin. as an exception to this rule, will be disappointed, when they look at it closer.  Paul 1) is indeed hearing from many other human voices; and on religious matters too.  But 2) he does not believe they are the voice of God.  Far from it:  he systematically corrects that voice.  Believing that what he himself had heard, from the “spirit” – a rather Greek/Egyptian idea – was better.
    Indeed, arguably, the rule in Paul overall,might be that there are really only two (?) ways that God speaks to us:  either from Jesus himself, and/or by the spirit, directly to us.  While most other human intermediaries, are generally unreliable.
    The final relevance of this point, to the larger discussion?  Is that therefore, there may have been other religious traditions, schools – even a “brother of Jesus” – around.  But attempts to find and stress them as the “real,” human sources for God’s word – like an historical James say (as noted in the related discussion on James and Mythicism), and a “real” human Christian community (and even conceivably ny real, non-visionary Christ, that seems disconnected to the Spirit) – are rather against the grain of Paul.  

    Indeed, any emphasis on the early “real” or Jamesian human Christian community, would be countered in part by Paul’s mistrust of that community – as for example here, of their or someone’s ideas on Marriage.  What Paul favors, is that we get God rather more directly, through the spirit. Over hearing from various “real historical” human intermediaries (other than himself, and the Holy Spirit).
    Paul indeed mentions the “I, not necessarily God.”  But? Most often – except when he qualifies something specifically as his own opinion – he most of the time assumes that the spirit is speaking through him.  If he does not assume this, then he qualifies what he says as his opinion, to be sure.  But in any case?  Paul is more interested in the “THEY are not necessarily God” finding.

    Paul at times was not fully trusting the various “real” religious communities around him … that are after all, real, but are also stoning him and trying to kill him often.  Paul in fact is not even fully trusting even the community of disciples, like Peter or Cephas; that he finds to be “hypocritical” or “insincere” on the key matter of allowing Gentiles, who are biologically non-Jews, into Christianity.
    If your dicussion on 1 Corin. was intended to attack our emphsis on spirit, vs. human realities?  If so, then none of your discussion on 1 Corin. really vitates that, Our main point here and elsewhere is to note Paul’s assertion, of the primacy of the Holy spirit, over and above almost any religious community … of “real” historical beings.  Over them and their many flawed,fallible, all-too-human, non-inspired assertions.  Over in this specific case, the matter of Marriage.

    In sum?  James, even a real, biological brother of Jesus, might have existed. (Though that is not certain).  But the major point would next be that however, James was not considered to be so extremely important by Paul, the author of half the New Testament.  Rather instead, by Paul, an almost random, “wind”y, spiritual element, was given primarcy. 

    And if so?  Then the Historicist project, the attempt to find – and stress ? Follow? – the biological provenance of Jesus and so forth, is curiously wrongheaded, or theological perverse.  Unless we just want to learn to see them clearly – in order to merely more firmly reject them.  Since ultimately a kind of very loose associative power – the “wind”; a “spirit”; Gk. “Pneuma” – was given more authority in the Bible itself.

    To be sure, “reality” remains important; if not biological inheritance.  Not only abstract ideas, but also brutal events in History, would have assisted the triumph of the “spirit”.  Especially when Jerusalem itself was burned to the ground by Rome, with many in it, in 70AD, the center of power and emphasis in early Christianity would have shifted.  With the Temple and the city and many Jews extinguished by Rome, the importance of a cult temple, and biological Jews, would naturally have declined of course.  In favor of … Rome.  And Greco-Roman, Platonizing – “spiritual” – ideas.

    • Bretton Garcia, I understand what you are claiming. My problem is that you are not providing evidence for your claims. You assert, for instance, that Paul says “all the time” that he did not receive information from other human beings, and that is simply not true, unless you are interpreting certain passages in a radically different way than interpreters of them in Greek understand them. Paul does say that his calling and commissioning is not from other human beings or a church, and that he didn’t even have to consult with other apostles before beginning his work, but that isn’t the same thing that you are saying.

      Can you please not simply assert what you think Paul meant, but explain in detail why? It is not at all self-evident.

      • Brettongarcia


        Your question/objection seems to be:  what does Paul mean when he says he did not get his idea of Jesus, or his commission as a religious authority “from any man” but from the spirit?  (In say Gal. 1.1, among many other places). 

        Your own likely interpretation, likely relies, on 1) a widely-accepted sermon or homily.  One that suggests that Paul means that our merely human “flesh” or material nature is “weak” and unreliable.  And that if we are able to express or understand God, it is thanks to a spirit – the Holy Spirit – guiding us, and helping our poor weak human nature, with its supernatural inspiration.  Paul in effect, is taken here to be invoking the doctrine of “inspiration”:  we are all fallible and weak fleshly creatures; but now and then we or others like Paul, can channel God, thanks to supernatural assistence of the spirit.

        That indeed is one of the most common readings of this kind of passage in Paul and elsewhere.  However?  As I recall, 2) not too many years ago – c. 1960-2000 or so? – there was a sort of vogue, in parts of the scholarly world, to read a second meaning into this.  Reading it as suggesting really, that Paul was … all but claiming to have written his half of the New Testament himself, from scratch, without hearing from other human beings helping him.  Just Paul .. or with the sole help of the Holy Spirit. 

        This reading of Paul was regarded as useful in certain ways.  Since it confirmed one academic model of early Christianity:  the spiritual Paul vs. the Biological Judaizers back in Jerusalem.  It was alleged that the purpose of this (secondary?)  message, was to distance Christianity from certain physical men, like James and Peter, in Jerusalem.  Or from Jews. Who might otherwise have seemed to be the natural leaders for Chrsitianity.  (Rather than say, Rome; or Paul). 

        The reading I have been employing here therefore, was considered useful in the literature (as I recall).  In that it confirmed or fit, the idea a sort of war between Paul, with his new emphasis on a “free” spirit, vs. merely real historical men like James. Thus freeing Christianity from slavish obedience to Jusaism, and/or whoever headed the Church in  specificallyJerusalem.  And especially freeing Christianity from developing around the idea that the truest descendants of Jesus, and the best authorities on Chrsitianity, our natural Christian leaders, were those who were biologically related to him.

        These passages being read as rejecting mere human, geneological, physical lineages, as determining our lives, and leadership.

        This to be sure, was an academic fashion; I don’t know the current status of this idea.   Any updates on it? 

        • Bretton Garcia, I am asking you (and I think this will be the last time unless you show interest in actually engaging in serious conversation and serious academic treatment of the topic) to stop dealing in broad brush strokes that are ridiculous, and address the specific details of the texts. Would you claim that anything and everything in Josephus or Tacitus is metaphor simply because they wrote in the Roman era? Or perhaps as a better example, just because Philo interprets Jewish Scripture allegorically, does that make what he himself wrote in Embassy to Gaius allegorical?

          In your comment above, you cite one text, and your use of it is at odds with what the text actually says. Paul denies that his commission is from any human being, not that his “idea of Jesus” does not come from any human being.

          If you want to have a conversation with me, I must insist that you actually deal with the evidence. Mere assertions are a dime a dozen on the internet and while you are free to continue to make statements, if you aren’t interested in doing what historians must do – making the best sense we can of the evidence – then I’ll leave you to talk to yourself or with others whose time is less precious to them than mine is to me.

  • Brettongarcia

    I agree that what historical data we have, does not strongly indicate anything definite; in part because it seems that most of any evidence regarding a “real” Jesus was destroyed. 

    Though?  Is James McGrath now hinting that the scholarly community now feels that, in the presumed contest between Pauline, Greco-Roman spirituality and down-home Jamesian brothers, it was … James that was closest to Jesus himself, and his movement?  As being his literal brother would seem to suggest?

  • Vinny,

    My point was that where we find similar Jesus traditions in Paul and the independent gospel tradition, that material is unlikely to have been invented by Paul or revealed to him in a vision – particularly where such material seems to be more of a problem for Paul to deal with than a support for his claims. It makes the view that all apparent Jesus traditions in Paul are the product of Paul’s feverish imagination, and therefore automatically unhistorical, an unconvincing one in my view.

    Saying that such material is automatically genuine is a bigger claim than I am making. I would hesitate to go that far myself. However, any Jesus material in Paul that also crops up in the independent gospel material must have been early and fairly wipespread. As such, I would say these traditions at the very least deserve further consideration and discussion as a potentially authentic Jesus tradition.

    • Brettongarcia

      Paul R:

      How much good, CHristian, Jesus-centered religious activity was already there for Paul to learn from?

      Did other, clear schools of distinctive, clear CHristians per se, really exist, before Paul?  There were various religious groups that appeared to have heard this or that about “baptism” by John; or about other things.  Few if any, about the Holy Spirit and specifically Jesus, crucified, it seems from most (all?) accounts.  Paul remember was founding Churches, usually out of Jewish and pagan – not recognizably Christian – communities; how many Christians might be said to exist firmly before him, therefore?  In say, Asia Minor/Turkey? 

      More likely, Paul’s religious opponents were from other religions; as indeed the adherents of Artemus were.  Are “the opponents of Paul” in the gospels proper for example, part of a Christian community? More often they are from conservative Judaism.  Which he and the gospels mention constantly. Or even othe religions entirely.  Or eventually?  After having founded churches, Paul was dealing with breakaway splinter groups.  (“Already departing so soon”).

      There does appear to be SOMETHING in Jerusalem; but what it was is not clear; it is not certain that it was not some verison of Judaism. The “pillar” like James he met with there, is not even clearly the same as the brother of Jesus. Even the “Peter” he meets, is not definitely a single person; what we hear of a Peter is constantly shifting around in name and identity; from Simon, to Peter, to Cephus, along with other possible Peters and so forth. Many Protestant scholars suggested there is no proof the “Cephus” Paul meets with, is the same Peter that was in Jesus’ personal retinue.  While in any cse, it is not certain how much authority one peter should have; when jesus calls Peter “Satan,” in Mat. 16.23.

      So how much Christianity existed, before Paul?  Writings attributed to the apostles in Jerusalem, are later; and are only conventionally ATTRIBUTED TO JEsus’ apostles.  While chronologically they are later.  They could have been created out of materrial in paul, and then rumors.  Or say, a single work of fiction. (Q itself was possibly a work of false, quasi-historical fiction, taken seriously?  Something that often happened in ancient times in point of fact).

      Why by the way, would the later Gospel tradition be regarded as totally independent of (and independent verification of) Paul? If Paul’s letters were circulated c. 54-59 AD, and the gospels were written c. 65-100 AD, the gospel writers could have … simply copied parts of Paul. Are you disputing Pauline chronological priority?

      Finally it is known that “The criterion of embarrassment” is not very firm evidence of the genuineness of a given passage.  The suggestion is  that an author repeating material that does not fit the rest of his corpus, suggests it was real, since no one would include it willingly or invent it.  But that is far from an ironclad rule.  Some 1) writers are conflicted within themselves; and are actively debating two of their own hypotheses.  But even 2) if there were embarassingly different schools of thought, regarding the marriage business?   Again, there were  indeed many different schools of thought, even within Paul’s circuit of Churchs; partly from inherent contradictions within Paul himself no doubt, as 3) well as from other  (but not necessarily Christian) religions around him. 

      Indeed?  4) My own thesis regarding this, that the conflict regarding marrying vs. not-marrying schools of religion, was simply and exactly, a conflict between lay Christians – who were eventually allowed, reluctantly, to marry – vs. the emerging priesthood.  Which came to be defined around not marrying.  It was not a conflict between two Christianities -Jesus/jamesian vs. Hellenized Pauline.  As much as a conflict between lay and priestly lifestyles.     

      • Breton Garcia,

        If you’re saying that Christianity started as a misunderstanding of a purely fictional work, you need to work a lot harder to make anyone take this claim seriously than simply stating that “it often happened in ancient times in point of fact”. I can probably guess a few works you might be thinking of, but still: tell me which works you mean, what evidence would lead us to conclude that a similar process happened in the case of the gospels, preferably show me that you’ve thought seriously enough to consider some counter-arguments, and then we can discuss it.


        Just to restate this because it is an important point – *the Q/Matthew tradition is almost universally thought of as independent of Paul*

        No-one knows for definite when Paul’s letters were first circulated, but the last decade or so of the first century is a fair bet. The 50s are the dates of composition, not circulation.

        The key problem with arguing for an early date for general circulation of Paul’s letters is that there is little evidence of any direct literary relationship between Paul and the synoptic gospels – in contrast to the very strong evidence of a direct literary relationship between the three synoptics. In fact, one objection to the traditional view of the author of Luke-Acts as a close companion of Paul is that Luke shows no evidence that he knew Paul’s letters (or even that Paul wrote letters), and it’s hard to explain the discrepancies in Paul’s career and theology between Acts and the epistles if he did.

        Incidentally, one reason why most people assume a late date and pseudepigraphy for 2 Peter is that 2 Peter seems to refer to a collection of Paul’s letters in circulation. If you assign an early date to such a collection, then you also have to consider that 2 Peter could similarly be much earlier and perhaps, therefore, authentic. This would mean, that – hey presto! we have an *eye witness* testimony for a historical Jesus. You see, a good sign of a bad theory is that the positions you have to take on the evidence sometimes pose your theory as many problems as they solve!

        • Brettongarcia


          I am trained in both History (MA), and in Cultural Study, with an emphasis on English/Semiotics (PhD).  I am not professionally trained in Religion, or ANE History; though I lived in that region for many years.  And have now and then looked at religious scholarship.  

          And?  My sense of what it was all about, is admittedly quite different from the oft-invoked iinfallible consensus.  In fact, the whole system looks like a house of cards to me, from my uninformed/fresh standpoint. 

          Among other historical problems I see, with invoking the definite existence of a strongly defined, clearly Christian community,  long before Paul?  And with asseverations of a wonderfully detailed historical body of evidene in them for that community?  Are teh many counterindations of that, in our first extensive available source:  the writings attributed to paul.

           First, Paul’s writing would, in ordinary Historical methodology, be considered massively important:  as the oldest extensive written corpus we have; c. 53-59 AD.  The Gospels were later. 

          But what happens, when we begin to give Paul priority?  For one thing, what I have been noting here, is 1) Paul’s frequent (if not absolutely prevailing)rather admant rejection of any physical provenance or source; in favor of a spiritual “faith,” based on no material evidence at all. 

          Then too we see something else, if we go with the earlier writings.  For for oce thing, not only does Paul attack physical sources; the allegedly more physically informed Gospels, cannot be taken so seriously either.  You cannot really quite take the later Gospels, as absolutely firm evidence of a a firm, phypically proven and grouned, phsyically “real” earlier Christianity, said to have existed before Paul; since these Gospel documents themselves, were actually written much later.  Written at some distance from the original scenes they claim to describe.  A distance that makes their own testimony regarding earlier days, questionable.

          The presumed death of Jesus was say, c. 30 AD; the gospels are attributed to say c. 65-100 AD.  But what does that mean?  They are only after Paul. And?  Some time and distance – and fallible memories and human desires – have had some 30-90 years or so – two and even three generations – to do their work.  According to stanard historiographical method, one generation from the original event, is a fatal distance to the historical accuracy of the account.  The longer an account is from the original event, the more time there is for that account to forget things, and invent things, and in general become … fiction, more than fact.

          Thus, in my hypothetical reconstruction here, we have two major factors, militating against any firm “historical reality” behind Christianity.  First 1) the testimony of the greaterst early corpus, in Paul, which explicitly all but denies any such provenance (in my reading, and that of others).  And then 2) the fatal distance of the later Gospels, from the original early events they claim to narrate.  Which suggests that their “original details” were rather filled in.  And often, filled in with real-seeming, but conflicting realities.

          The upshot of all this, my alternative reconstruction of early Christianity (if I could be so bold as to propose one, based on my limited knowledge to be sure?). Would be that the strongest and longest early writings we have – the writings of Paul, whose spirituality is evident in his massive emphasis on the spiritual quality of “faith” for example – rather explicitly disavow any important, strong, physcial reality or source, at all.  What is more, testimony from the Gosepls – which seemed to relate reliable evidence of a firmly real, physical, historical Christianity predating Paul – is actuaslly written much too late, to have much credibility, regarding the early days.  while indeed, its “realistic” and “hsitorical” details appear largely added; and often unreliable and contradictory.  Paul’s spiritual journey, was “filled out” with inaccurate detail.

          To be sure, I’m not trained specifically in Ancient Christian History.  But based on what I do know, and what you’ve described here so far? 

          What problems do you see with my current scenario?

          In any case, whether or not this model turns out to exactly fit Christianity itself, this discussion might serve to … suggest how far “historical” accounts can drift from actual, material reality.  And how difficult it is to confirm their reality, in point of fact.  Seeming “real” and “detailed” is not decisive; the genre of historical fiction or fictionalized history, was well known to especially, the very Greeks that Paul was inviting into the Temple.  As for example, the many Greek plays, based loosely on semi- historical figures.  Which may or may not have been entirely accurate, historically.  Even though they seemed to present great masses of concrete seeming detail.

          Ironically in fact, Christianity might have started with teh vague and spiritual; while the apparent corroborating and foundational “real details” were later added. (For an ontological parallel?  See “The Discovery of Natural Objects,” George Santa.)

          So that?  The legends of Santa Claus might be in fact, more realistically founded, than the Christian tradition. While based on spirit/pneuma.  Or what even Jesus himself at times called, the “wind.”

          • BG, if you’re refering to Paul’s priority in the sense that I might use the term Markan priority (i.e. that Mark was written first *and* used as a literary source by Matthew and Luke) then I think you need to deal with some of the problems with this view I’ve outlined above.

            That the gospels years after Jesus died is not in doubt, and most scholars would agree that this poses problems for trying to reconstruct the life and teachings of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. But at what point do we move from treating a comparatively late source with caution to assuming that the source is not refering to historical persons at all? Is there a hard and fast rule that after x number of years history becomes myth? What other ‘historical’ figures or events become myths if we apply such a more widely?

            And again, if you think that the best explanation of the NT and Christian origins is a misunderstanding of the nature of a purely fictional work, which works, specifically, offer comparable examples? What evidence would lead us to conclude that a similar process happened in the case of Jesus and the gospels?

          • Bretton Garcia, thank you for replying and providing more information about yourself and where you are coming from!

            Let me just make a couple of points in response to the details of your comment. On the one hand, I don’t see in Paul’s letters the same tendency towards allegorical interpretation of Scripture that one finds in Philo of Alexandria, for instance. Paul cites what sounds like an earlier Christian formula in Romans 1, highlighting Jesus as the Messiah descended from David according to the flesh. Considering such texts, it seems to me that, even if you were correct that Paul’s penchant is for allegory, metaphor, and spiritualization, the religious group to which he was a latecomer did not share that outlook, but viewed Jesus’ fleshly connection with David as literal and important.

            On the other hand, when I consider Paul’s letters written throughout the 50s CE, and Mark’s Gospel probably composed in the 60s CE, I don’t think there is reason to force a wedge between them if they fit together nicely on some points, just because Paul’s letters are slightly earlier. Giving priority to earlier sources is appropriate, but some mythicists seek to avoid any agreement between Paul and the Gospels even when they seem to intersect rather than be at odds with one another. Mark also shows no signs of being concerned to turn an earlier spiritual Jesus into a historical figure. The need to polemicize against such views seems altogether lacking, and Mark’s Gospel seems to assume (as do the next several Gospels) that Jesus was an actual human being who lived. And so again, even if you are right about Paul, it seems that he would be the odd one out, not those who thought there was a historical Jesus.

    • Paul,

      I think it makes sense that something found both in Paul and in an independent gospel tradition is likely not to have been invented by Paul, although the only thing I see that clearly qualifies is the Eucharistic meal.  To me, the divorce teachings aren’t quite close enough for me be sure they are connected and the obligation to support religious leaders is just too mundane to require any connection.  I don’t see the latter as being a problem for Paul as he is merely affirming the right to take support from the congregation which he chooses not to exercise.  If anything, he looks better for not exercising the right.

      However, even a tradition that predates Paul need not go back to a historical person.

      • Vinny, 

        Quick question – any idea how mundane or commonplace it was for religious leaders in ancient Judaism/Paganism to be supported by their communities ? That’s not meant as a criticism of your view, and it certianly sounds plausible that the plebs did the work while the priests did the praying, but it’s just not something I know much about. Can you (or anyone else) shed any light?

        I read the passage as Paul on the defensive – that there is a person or a group drawing unfavourable comparisons between Paul and other apostles. Part of that comparision is that “real” apostles are treated with great honour and respect, whereas Paul simply isn’t treated that way. Paul is claiming that he has exactly the same rights as other apostles, but has chosen not to exercise them. I could be wrong, it just seems to make sense in the context of the opposition that Paul faced in his career.

        The overlaps between Paul and the gospels are, I think, consistent with the view that Paul and the synoptics are drawing from a similar pool of oral tradition (a few similarities also crop up between Paul and some on the non-canonical texts, though it’s hard to draw many conclusions from these). They certainly aren’t always verbatim agreements, but then if they were I guess that would just be ammunition for anyone who wanted to claim that the gospels were derived from Paul. Poor old Paul… damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t!

        I agree that just because a tradition predates Paul that doesn’t prove that a historical Jesus did exist, but it’s obviously consistent with such a view. When I look at Paul’s letters as a whole, and when I bear in mind their often ad-hoc nature, I don’t think that Paul can convincingly be used as support for the mythicist case.

        I do think that Paul gets an undeservedly bad press. Ironically, I blame some historicists for the use and abuse of Paul – a lot of attempts to reconstruct the historical Jesus based on x or y pet theory usually start with the assertion that Paul has distorted an original, pristine, “true” version of Christianity, that the author just happens to have rediscovered. 

        I’m a big Paul fan, if you hadn’t guessed.

  • Brettongarcia

    Gal 1.1-12 traditionally – (in the scholarship not immediately accessible to
    me at this desk) – is open to a simple reading. In which? Paul acknowledges
    that he is made an apostle, not through any agency of men, but through through
    Jesus Christ. But note this importance point: since Paul had not personally,
    physically met Jesus? Presumably, he is speaking of some kind of indirect or
    possibly spiritual commission. Indeed, he refers to a “vision” on the Road to
    Damascus, elsewhere (q.v.). Which is the moment that energizes him, and begins
    his ministry. In a sense,metaphorically, it is the beginning of his
    commission. That iis the moment he is converted, and Jesus says “I have
    appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you” (Acts 26.16)

    But what is the nature of aan appointment, that comes in a vision? “Visions”
    note, are normally understood to be mental/spiritual, or somewhat different than
    normal physical meetings. Here I offered two ideas of what was happening; one
    of them was in fact accepting a commission from Jesus.

    But note that here Paul begins therefore to speak of an appointment gotten,
    authority gotten, from Jesus, in a non-normal, not face-to-face sort of way.
    But in a spiritual vision. These are not mere assertions. This is textual
    analysis; in which I am highly trained; I wrote my dissertation on

    Do you understand the nature of a “vision”? You seem to feel that it means
    seeing something visible, and perhaps empirically real? That is not the normal
    or biblical sense of it. Normally, visions are thought to be rather
    mental/spiritual in nature. So that? Paul in effect, is getting commissions
    from God … not by way of physical agencies, but psychial ones.

    After receiving the “commission” or energizing revelation on the road
    to Damascus? It is only years later Paul says – in Gal. 1.18 -that paul bothers
    to speak with real, physical leaders in jerusalem. Then a second time, many
    years in turn, after that in Gal. 2.1. But these meetings with those in
    Jerusalem, including likely JAMES AND pETER, who “were reputed to be something,”
    (2.6-11 ff), “added nothing to me” he says, 2.6. Paul even telling off “Cephas”
    or Peter in 2.11.

    What am I doing here? This would be a simple close reading of just
    one biblical text, that is relevant to my assertions here; one that suggests
    Paul’s rejection of physical authority. And specifically of the physical
    persons in Jerusalem; including likely James the Brother of the Lord (as merely
    an “alleged” or “reputed” authority) and, or especially Peter. In favor of
    “vision”s, or spirit. Corroborating a longstanding homelitic tradition, that
    speaks of the importance of “spirit” over the ‘flesh.’

    I am trained in textual readings and cultural semantics. It seems clear to
    me however, that your own training is not congenial to this kind of close
    reading of Biblical text, even with countless biblical quotations and
    citations. So that? Indeed, I will simply drop this subject and this approach
    with you.

    Hopefully we will be able to find other common ground? On other subjects and
    different approaches?


    • You are not offering a close reading of Paul’s letters. You are offering at best a close reading of one text which does not bear the meaning you are importing to it when considered in conjunction with other things Paul wrote and other early Christian writings. Paul is not the first Christian, and his purported commissioning vision is not his first contact with Christianity. And so there is no way to get from his sense of being called by Jesus directly to his having had no prior knowledge about Jesus, as you seem to wish.

      Can you be more specific about your training? Does it include historical methods, or only literary criticism?

    • So McGrath once again “wins” by intellectual bully-boy tactics. He would never dare address his peers like this even though they would argue the same points — as some of them have in the scholarly literature. But the difference is they are not “mythicists” so are “right thinking” about such things. Call Dr McGrath to account and insist he acknowledge what some of his own peers argue and challenge him on whether he would respond to their arguments so irrationally.

      You say you have some qualifications. That makes him want to know what. He is not interested in reasonable engagement with the arguments. He wants to know who you are.

      • Neil, reading the thread back (and the one on the Ehrman review) I think the first person to mention brettongarcia’s qualifications is brettongarcia. 

        If one person asserts that their own qualifications give them some authority to speak knowledgeably on a topic, I would say it’s reasonable for another person to ask for clarification on what, exactly, those qualifications are.

        •  Neil,

          I’m with Paul on this one.  I think it’s a reasonable question.

          •  So we all put down the arguments and direct our gaze at the person. No, that’s not right. I have not followed this discussion, but if the arguments can be answered with logic and evidence then let that happen. Why the bully-boy tactics and attention on the person?

          • I’m sorry Neil, but if you haven’t been following the discussion, then popping in to accuse McGrath of “bully-boy” tactics probably isn’t terribly constructive.  I have been following the discussion and even taking into account the fact I am more likely than you to give McGrath the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think that such a charge is warranted (at least yet anyway).

          • Vinny, my not following the discussion was a comment I made with respect to the ad hominem direction of the discussion. One can discern a logical fallacy when it appears and the full train of discussion leading up to that is irrelevant. That was my point. But I know that pointing out logical fallacies and drawing attention to personal abuse substituting for rational argument is indeed not considered “constructive” among many here.

          • Neil, without wishing to be dragged into a debate on the basics of logical fallacies, I do not see how simply asking somebody for clarification on the qualifications that *they themselves have claimed* is either ad hominem, or personal abuse. 

          • The way you put it is not ad hominem or personal abuse, Paul. I agree — at least with the way you represent it here. But there was a context. I had not read the entire thread but I did read enough to see a very specific context for our good doctor’s question and also to see a repeat of a pattern he has left for a long time now — ad hominem. Before that he was outright abusive. That you people shut your eyes to that and let your blog host get away with it is a shame.

          • Neil,

            I think that it is very rare for one of these discussions to proceed for very long without some occurrences of personal sniping and the ad hominem fallacy as people tend to be emotionally invested in their positions, but that doesn’t preclude the discussion of substantive points.  However, when the focal point of the discussion becomes whether personal sniping or the ad hominem fallacy have occurred and who is most responsible for their occurrence, the substantive issues tend to take a back seat.  Should the participants in the discussion choose to make the sniping and the fallacies the focal point, so be it.  Should someone jump in to the discussion solely to push it in that direction, I would consider that “not constructive. “

        •  The point is the avoidance of the issue. It may or may not be a reasonable request — I’m not interested since I don’t have any idea who brettongarcia is. Ad hominem is the fallacy of directing the argument at the person. That is what is happening here.

  • Paul,

    I make no claim to have any evidence from the ancient world on the question.  My conclusion was based purely on my observations of the modern world.  

  • Pf

    Parsing Paul to find some excuse for Mythicism is more than a bit silly.

    The subtext of Paul’s comments involve a longstanding argument with the apostles. Why? Well, Paul struggled to explain why people should listen to him, a guy who had never met the man Jesus, rather than the other apostles, who lived with him and heard him teach.

    Trying to twist that obvious point that is weaved through Paul’s letters in favor of an exotic interpretation is absurd.

    • Brettongarcia


      YUP! Everything was turned on its head.  A person who literally never met Jesus, presumed to found Christianity.  Not on plebeian street-level rumors of a miracle worker, but as a spiritual/Platonic ideal.

    • Pf.

      You have held up one scholarly paradigm. But what evidence is there in Paul’s letters that any of his rivals — even (dare we say it) apostolic rivals who were not of Jerusalem (yes, there are such scholarly paradigms) — had ever lived with and heard an earthly Jesus? None. That is not entirely, but to a significant extent, the construct of trying to mix and match Acts with the letters of Paul. But this entire hypothesis hangs on some very debatable assumptions about Acts.

  • Brettongarcia


    I mentioned my credentials because – here or in another post – our host flatly stated that there were “no” mythicists employed as teachers or researchers and any recognized university, (more or less).  It was only in response to that sweeping remark, that I mentioned my credentials here (positive and negative). 

    I’ve modestly noted that though I have a PhD, its not specifically in religion. Though still?  Actually,  after years of independent research in religion, I’ve probably got enough credentials and experience, to here do some rough-and-ready cultural contextualizations for a potential Mythicist work group.  Which  I think we have in effect, here and now: including most of you. Including even our opposition; as devil’s advocates ….and possible converts : ).

    Though I’m really a semiotics/cultural studies person, I’ve done some personal research in Religion.  In fact, “my” whole emphasis on Pauline Christianity, even Pauline Primacy, is an adaptation of quite classic 19th century German theology; from mainly the famous “Tubingen School.”  Where classic, respected,  central/canonical theological scholars like Ferd. Bauer, outlined the central importance of Paul, and his Hellenistic influence.  (See also Schwegler?).

    To be sure, at times even academic debates get a bit personal, among scholars very attached to their ideas.  And indeed, the whole idea of Pauline primacy was at times slightly overstated, in the commonly-repeated and slightly polemical phrase, “Paul created Christianity.”  That view was sometimes crticized of course.  (Cf. Abraham Geiger, etc.). 

    Still?  There’s still a fairly solid body of academic literature out there, especially from classic German scholarship, that I would revive and support again here.  A body of scholarship supporting the thesis that it was Paul as much as anyone, who was most responsible for creating Christianity … as we know it today. 

    I’d like to revive and extend/corrrect earlier work along these lines.  Roughly, here’s my brief proposed “Chronologyfor the birth of Christianity,” as I would tenatively throw it out here, for discussion from the rest of you, our present “work group”:

    Originally?  We have 1) Oral Culture; rumors on the street; Jewish and ANE rumors of various gods, good “Lords,” and “sons” of them —>  Then 2)  Paul’s writings, c. 53-59 AD.  As his restatement or Greco-Roman recontextualization of some provocative rumors, combined with his own Roman platonism/sprituality —> Later 3) Rome’s reaction to Paul (then imprisoned there), sending out inquiries (cf. the Greek Luke, stating his investigation to Jerusalem, to fill in logcal historical/contextual realities —>  Then 4)  the creation of Acts/Luke, based largely on a rough, Jerusalem-based view of Paul (but spiritual too)—>  Then 5) finally the rest of the Gospels proper, Matthew, Mark, c. 65-75 AD; 6) then the again- largely -spiritualizing John, c. 90 AD.

    By the way?  I agree with many scholars that this process of  Hellenistic /Platonistic spiritualization, was a bit off the mark of what proper, more works-oriented Judaism had originally proposed.  In the end, in fact, I will want to say that ultimately, even the Bible itself turned away from Platonic over-sprituality.  Toward a more “proofs,” “works,” “signs,” deeds-based, Science of God. 

    But for a very long time?  The New Testatment especially – thanks mostly to the influence of especially Paul, the Greek-speaking Roman citizen – was often very, very spiritual/Hellenistic/Platonic.

    That’s my brief proposal.  Anyone who wants to comment is welcome. aNYONE WHO careS to participate.  Since to be sure, my own qualifications here are marginally adequate; and I’ve therefore often been grateful for your own very useufly contributions (and sometimes criticisms) here.  But I think I could – on these very pages, if you want – spearpoint a rough preliminary investigation into, a plausible defence of Mythicism.  Basing it in large part, on a modification of the classic historical doctrine of “Pauline Primacy”; which is still respected among many scholars of Religion.  Which could and should now be refined, and represented.  As the core of a new Mythicism, say. 

    And/or ironically?  This could also serve an effort to discover the chaff, and try to see a “real Jesus” under all the later historical overlays.  Under the layers it seems, of Pauline Hellenistic idealizations.

    And some day?  I’ll buy a spellchecker, or learn to use the one I have.

    • I am not rejecting the idea, but would like to ask your basis for proposing your step 1, the oral culture.

      I would also like to know the basis of your point 3: Rome’s reaction to Paul.

      Also, what is the basis for your concept of their being “a Jerusalem based view of Paul”?

      And on what grounds do you date the gospels to the first century?

      Just for starters,



  • Brettongarcia


    Vinny:  I consider you a valuable contributer here; I recognize old school elegance and religiosity in your work, and value it.  Sorry if you were ever the target of criticism.  To be sure, I regard blogs as an inherently rude genre; and when attacked, I sometimes  respond in kind, eye-for-an-eye.  Just as the most effective way of making an argument in the language that many understand.  But again?  You are considered a valuable participant by me; thanks for your help to date.

    Neil:  Re point 1) I’d like to start not just with written ANE myths, but also likely Oral Culture.  Since Folkloristics confirms this is important, and where many myths start:  at the street level, in rumors.  What’s more, I have a specific likely set of rumors in mind:  rumors about local “lord”s, and their “sons,” and the contests between heirs presumptive, found in the era of the Herods, in Jesus time.  As it turns out, the Jewish collaborators of the Roman rulers – Herod jr, etc. – had many legitimate and illegitimate sons, conspiring to become king, even by assassinating their father. There would have been many plots against a “father,” by a “son,” seeking to become the new “god” or “lord.”  This possibly provenance of Chrsitianity, is wellknown in the literature.  (At random, see the neutral encyclopedia account; then extrapolate).

    Point 3: “Roman reaction to Paul,” is my first hypothesis, regarded the absolutely central, critical period, of 59-65 AD; the space between Paul, and the gospels roughly.  I’m guessing in “Paul’s imprisonment in Rome,” some romans began considering his thought; so early pauline Christianity had reached Rome … and likely was being modified in that cultural milieu/context.  As suggested in his book, “Romans”?   This is a first, very tentative guess as to what happens in this crucial period.   Any better suggestions are welcome.  RelevANT TEXTS?  Here note that Luke, begins with an apparent commission from some say, a very Greco-Roman source, to go to jerusalem, and put together a summary of what’s what.  a very critical moment.  Here?  I might put the writings of Paul first; then surprisingly Luke/Acts.  Only later Mat. mark

    Point 4:  A Jerusalem view of Paul, is my hypothesis for essentially Acts.  To account for the difference between Paul’s own direct views, expressed in first person, and the external view of him in Acts.  Other hypotheses?

    5)  dating even one the gospels to say 100 AD would be late; though some scholars support putting John in that bracket.  My own position is tht the Bible is still being written and redacted today, 2012:  have you read any recent “translations”?

    Paul:  The objections you are raising, are indeed my burden of proof:  the things I need to prove.

    Regarding possible written fictional sources?  Here my own memory fails a bit.  I can remember of course a) widespread scholarly acceptance as fact, that many of the Greco-Roman histories and myths were largely fictionalized history at best. They amounted to historical fiction, as we would call it today.  In addition? There were many outright frauds/fictions.  Interestingly?  Not too long ago b) some scholars began pointing to outright fiction.  I cannot recall the exact references. Maybe in especially round Philo, in Alexandria Egypt; a slightly older contemporary of Jesus, who was said to have traveled as a child to Egypt.  here?  You Paul, might be the point person; what might you have in mind?  Keep in mind that written sources should be added to … street rumors/oral history too. 

    And now?  I’m getting writer’s cramp, and am tired of talking anyway.  If any of you or anyone else would like to carry the ball for a while?  Please do so.  I plan to be gone for a little while.

    Thanks for all participation to date; even for the (more informative) insults (albeit to a lesser extent). 

    Yes, all this is QUITE speculative at this point.  But?  I feel these are provocative and useful hypotheses.  Especially I feel that the whole notion of Pauline priority has been adequately introduced – if not proven – here.  And in the writings of the Tubingen School; Baur etc.   And in our – all of our – writings on the subject of “James the brother of Jesus.”

    Somebody else talk for a while; that all I’ll have for a while, I guess.


    • Brettongarcia,

      I have no specific recollection of being the target of your criticism, so if I was, I am confident that it was neither rude nor harsh.

  • Brettongarcia

    Dr McGrath!

    Thank you for your participation here – and for your far more positive recent remarks about Mythicists in your more recent post. 

    Yes, it does seem that our first major goal – establishing “Pauline Priority” – is established with amazing ease and simplicity.  And right away; as a ‘gimmie.  It all follows with ironclad and inexorable logic:  since 1) Historiography says that the first written source, on any given subject, is extremely important.  And?  2) Almost all the scholarly world agrees:  that Paul’s writings are the earliest extensive body of written material on Jesus. 

    Basically, it is just a matter of seeing the obvious at last.

    To be sure, I think our next five or six major hypotheses would be harder.  And possibly we might abandon or put aside for a while the attempt at “driving a wedge” between Paul and the Gospels?  But we might spend some times looking at the amazing implications of what we have just done already. 

    “Pauline Priority,” as I’m calling it here, I think, leads to any number of revolutionary, amazing implications for Jesus scholarship.  As we begin Jesus scholarship not with the Gospels, but with the biblical writings attributed to Paul – suddenly our whole perspective on Christianity changes.

    [NOTE to Paul R:  surely you wouldn’t object to our instantly confirming “Paul”ine Primacy, on reconsideration?  And then moving on right away – to the admittedly, more difficult and revolutionary implications?] 

    • Bretton Garcia, I am afraid I still don’t see how or in what sense something that is axiomatic in historical-critical study of the New Testament, namely the priority of Paul’s letters vis-a-vis the Gospels, is supposed to be revolutionary.

      • Brettongarcia

        People often overlook the obvious.  My point is, what if we take the “priority” of Paul – the fact that he is the first substantial written source on jesus – very, very seriously? 

        Suppose we suggest that in effect – to put it extremely – since he is the first written source we have, perhaps Paul is even potentially the “inventor”/originator of “Jesus”?  Or, more moderately, what if we say – with much of the Tubingen school; Dr. Baur etc. – that the Christianity that we have today, was in effect at most effectively a distance collaboration between Jesus and Paul; or what we have followed is Jesus as seen by/added to Paul? 

        Or even?  What if the Jesus we have is far more a product of Paul’s mind, than any supposed original source? (E.g., any “Jesus” himself).

        More provocatively:  what if effect, Paul created “Jesus”?

        • So you are suggesting that Paul invented Jesus, persuaded some people to believe in him, persecuted them for doing so, and then eventually came to believe in the figure he had previously invented? I don’t see anything remotely plausible in that scenario. The evidence points to a movement focused on Jesus pre-dating Paul’s contact with it.

          • Brettongarcia

            James:  of course not.  I am suggesting that Paul 1) heard rumors of wonderful alternative “sons” of the local “lord god,” and?  Though 2) he opposed one or two of them at first?   Eventually, 3) he had an epiphany, and felt that “one” of them was, after all, viable and good. 

            And so – as in the christian account too, by the way – the great ‘enemy” of christianity, turned into its strongest advoate. 

            In the meantime, paul likely thought that he was just “reporting” or “assembling” existing reports of jesus. But he underestimated the actively organizing and modifying role that his own consciousness had, in organizing and in part creating, the myth of Jesus.

            Paul might never have had the conscious sensation at all, of “creating a myth.”  By as each and everyone of us, “repeats” older myths?  There is always an element of ourselves, added to it; changing it.

          • Are you suggesting that Paul wasn’t Jewish, when you refer to the local “lord god” having “sons”? Or that the groups he persecuted were not? That too seems to me firmly at odds with the evidence we have.

          • Brettongarcia

            THE local “god” or “lord” was often in many cases (if not all) Herod; and/or his many relatives and sons, in power as Tetrarchs, in various regions of Israel/Judah/Sumaria.  And?  Many like Herod were in effect, half jewish, half Roman collaborators.  as many locals were.

            Paul likely, was a very, very Hellenized Jew. Remember that he himself said he was a “Roman” citizen. Indications are that in Tarsus, then of course Epehesus, he was heavily exposed to Greco-Roman Philosophy.

            The Old Testament speaks strongly against this sort of thing; against any adulteration of Judaism. But in actual practice?  Don’t forget how many Greco-Romanized Jews there actually were.  Including Philo.  And, since jerusalemwas annexted by Pompey in 64 BC?  And governed by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, in Jesus’ time?  And since historians confirm the massive spreading of Greek influence, “Hellenization,” from Alexander’s conquest c. 300 BC?  Greek influence was widespread.  Even among Jews; even though conservative jews (and the OT) adamantly resisted it. 

            In the time of Jesus, the local “lord,” Herod, and.or others like him, were notoriously compromised, half-jewish, half Greco-roman collaborators.  Collaborating with the Roman occupier, Pilate, as well as Roman rulers in Rome.

            There were many local “lord” gods; including Herod, and then remotely, the Roman emperor, and ancient “lords” of memory, like David.  The local “god” or “lord,” for many, differs from person to person.  One is owned by one lord; another by another.  Some were jewish; others hellenized.

            So when Luke appears in Luke 1,  with his commission to compile a good, systematic account of “the Lordf”?  There are actually many rumors of many “the Lord”s available. And it is not sure which is which.  Manyh of them would have been Hellenized Jews.

            And so?  When Luke shows up, c. 60 AD?  Rumors of many different lords – Hebrew and Roman etc., all presented by their followers as “The Lord God” – could have all been accidentally assembled into “one lord.’ 

            Now known as “Jesus.” Son of the Lord.

          • You seem to mistakenly think that what Luke says about Paul – that he was a Roman citizen – Paul says about himself. But apart from that, I so far see nothing plausible about the suggestion that a son of a local lord such as Herod became a Jesus who was purely spiritual and then got historicized into a person claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, within the space of a matter of decades. Some of what you suggest is at best speculative and not based on the evidence, but some of it actually seems at odds with the evidence we have.

          • Brettongarcia

            From my PhD in Culture Study, I know that in any given culture at any given time, there is always a maelstrom of differing ideas, cultural influences, opinions, rumors, tales, rumors, floating around.  Some of them true, others not.  Just witness current “facts” in our current election, for example.

            So which of these thousands of different impulses, do we choose? And how many twists and turns do they make, and how many possible combinations and permutations are there … before some kind of sausage pops out the other end?

            Here I’ve sketched a few of the main influences around in the time of Jesus and Paul.  In the main 1) intense competition among various “sons” of Herod and his relatives, to become the “lord.” 

            Then too 2) Historians almost universally acknowledge “Hellenistic” influence in this region; from the days that Alexander the Great took it over, c. 325 BC.  Through the various Roman occupations.  If you are going to take the Bible as being at all authoritative, then why not seriously consider Acts (22.25-27 et passim), having Paul himself, declare he is a Roman citizen? Especially when huge masses of Historical evidence attest to the Hellenization of the region?  When Jerusalem was given to Rome in 64 BC; and was in the time in fact, occupied by Rome and a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate?  Wouldn’t that have tended to spread even more Greco-Roman influence in the area?

            Another major influence?  3) scholars typically acknowledge, particularly, a spiritual/Hellenistic influence in the region; among Hellenized Jews like Philo.

            The sense of it is that people in this region had a complex cultural identity.  And there were many different impulses at work.  But finally?  All these things came together to produce expectations of a 1) real son or heir of David, or a person of Jewish descent etc; 2) who would not oppose Romans fully, however, but would allow them into his religion (as Jesus did ); 3) allowed in part on the basis of extensive Platonistic argumentation by Paul, that being biologially Jewish did not matter, but what matters was believing in one’s mind or spirit, that Jesus was Lord. 

  • BG, 

    I’m not challenging the view that Paul’s letters were written before the gospels. I just wasn’t clear on what you meant by “priority” – the term is also used in reference to the synoptic problem. For example, in that context at least, “Markan priority” doesn’t just saying that  Mark was written before Matthew and Luke, it also means that Mark was used as a source by Matthew and Luke.

    For the reasons I have outlined above, there are some serious problems with the theory that Paul’s letters were used as a source by the authors of the synoptics.

    On parrallels to your view of how “fictional” gospels could have been mistaken as fact. Hmmm… Well… some, perhaps many, Romans might have thought that Virgil’s Aeneid was in some sense a “true” account. But I’m not sure that’s a particularly good comparison, as there are some big differences (gap in time between Virgil and any “historical” Aeneas, and Virgil seems to have been reshaping an existing history, not creating a new mythology from scratch).

    From my own (British) culture, the best example I could think of would be something like the legend of Robin Hood, where a folkloric figure is given in a real historical context (King John and all that). Perhaps with Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood Prince of Theives” standing in for the Gospel of Luke. I’m not really an expert in Robin Hood (or an expert in the New Testament, come to think of it), but I’ll mull it over and might post some thoughts later. I suspect that while there may be some interesting parallels, any differences could be more telling.

    • Brettongarcia

      Good guess, Paul R! 

      In addition? Some scholars note that there were many tales in ancient culture, from courtier sycophants, idolizing/deifying the local “lord” or nobleman.

      No doubt, elements of many new alternative lords, were invented, and spread.

      Then too, in fact, many ordinary human “lords” were known as “gods.” As were the Pharisees, for instance.  So ordinary people idolized/idealized local human leaders as gods.

      Good approach!  In fact, folklorists and mythologists suggest there are many, many sources of legend of Lord Gods, etc.,  tht entered myth.  That were at best, only partially true.

      Great ideas, here, from you!  Keep up the good work!

      Eventually?  Look for especially?  Perhaps?  Tales of herotic martyrs, in Greece, and Egypt; in the time of say, intertestamental Israel.

      Robin Hood though, is a great start!

  • Brettongarcia

    Paul R:

    Your remark on “priority” is well-taken.  I guess am modifying the meaning of “priority” somewhat here.  I guess I feel that Paul intervened his views so strongly, that in effect he is the ‘first source’ so to speak.  While he is really the “center” of Christianity, as it came to be formed. 

    I think that Paul’s view, is perhaps even the main source of Chrsitianity as we know it today. Though added to that, were local myths, of local “sons” of the “lord God father” in Jerusalem, and in the Judeo/Israeli Tetrachies.

    Herod jr. especially, had many, many wives … and sons. And many of them were pretenders to the throne:  “sons” in the running, to become the “Lord God.”

    Cf. also the – much later – “Book of the Courtier,” and other moralistic fictions, designed to give us an idealized lord, or courtier, to teach us morality

  • Brettongarcia

    Erratum/correction/dumb mistake :  for my “Pharisees,” recently, read “Pharoahs.” 

  • Jim Harrison

    May I ask if anybody has considered how Marcion the Gnostic figures in this story? Marcion, who founded a denomination that was a serious alternative to what became orthodox Christianity, certainly didn’t deny the existence or crucifixion of Christ, but his Christ wasn’t a human being. He was actually a deity from outside of our world who only appeared to be human and who suffered on the cross in order to ransom mankind from the Jewish creator god. In effect, Marcion was a mythicist avant le lettre. Unsurprisingly, Marcion appealed to the letters of Paul as the scriptural basis of his theology. (He also relied on the Gospel of Luke, though his version of Luke differed from the one in current Bibles, which contains additional material that was added to support the humanity of Jesus against Marcion’s hyperspiritualism.)

    What makes Marcion particularly significant is that he is believed to have been the first one to define a canon of holy books for Christianity, and he lived in the 2nd Century, not long after the time when the epistles and gospels were written. Granted his early date, one could ask why his authority shouldn’t be counted as significant, especially since it seems likely that the books in the orthodox canon were “adjusted” to combat him. He appears to be a guy who was Paulier than Paul, but maybe his theology is actually more authentically Pauline than the orthodox version.

    • Interesting point. Though I suppose you could equally read Marcion as engaged in the very first quest for the historical Jesus – cutting out of the bits he thought were inauthentic and leaving the genuine Jesus behind!

  • Jim Harrison

    I take it that the “quest for the historical Jesus” is a quest for a human Jesus. A Christ who was 100% spirit or deity wouldn’t count even he was quite real.

    It seems to me that the theological (or ideological) motivations for the quest go beyond the issue of whether there was one poor Jew in Palestine. In Marcion’s time, the humanity of Christ implied the continuing relevance of the law and the continuing authority of the Jewish Bible. The debate also gets mixed up with the faith vs works argument. Since Spinoza, asserting the real existence of the man Jesus goes along with trying to understand Christianity as a moral philosophy rather than a sacramental religion. For more recent writers, the mere humanity of Jesus appears to be insisted upon almost as if it were the superlative degree of kenosis.

    Absent some amazing archaeological find or the Second Coming, the lack of reliable evidence is going to guarantee that the quest for the historical Jesus is fruitless since even the people who think they can establish some fairly reliable knowledge about the actual events aren’t claiming that it amounts to a whole hell of a lot. On the other hand, thinking about why the issue is so important to so many people strikes me as a much more illuminating activity.

    • Jim, 

      The Marcion-as-historical-Jesus-scholar thing was kind of a joke. 

      But that said, the first words of Marcion’s gospel seem to have been something like:

      “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar,
      Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea,
      Jesus descended [out of heaven] into Capernaum, a city in Galilee”

      Marcion’s Jesus but be 100% God 0% Human, but he is still a God who acts at a very definite time and place in history, not in a vague mythological otherworld. 

      I would say the difference between Marcion’s view and what came to be Christian orthodoxy revolves around *what* Jesus of Nazareth was, not *whether* he was. That, for me, means Marcion is not a mythicist. 

      • Brettongarcia

        Good comments on Marcion.   Who indeed seems to demonstrate a kind of significant vacillation in early Christianity, between notions of Jesus as firmly physically real, vs. being more of a spirit or … an idea.

        • BG – I’m not aware of any early Christians suggesting that Jesus was just “an idea”. I think that’s pure speculation and inconsistent with what we know of church history. In very broad terms, I would say that the disputes in the post-apostolic church arise from different theological interpretations of Jesus’ life and person. But that Jesus was a “real”, historical person was, I think, taken for granted.

          If you have not already done so, it would be worth reading a good book by a reputable scholar on the history of the church, or a history of Christian theology. Something like volume one of the Penguin History of the Church would be a good introduction to some of the debates that arose within the early Christian movement. 

          • Brettongarcia

            I’m aware of the early history of Christianity.  But I’m suggesting – as you yourself for a moment joking suggested? – that in effect, when various movements began to emphasize the “Holy Spirit,” or to emphasize the metaphorical/spiritual reading of Jesus (cf. Gnosticism; Docetism; Marcionism; etc.), many splinter sects in effect were taking the position that Jesus had no material body.  Or in effect, no material existence.  See docetism, especially.

            Those early historical positions would tend to confirm that even in the (rather) early days of Christianity, there was a native tradition that in some sense, Jesus was not thought to be historically – or in this case, physically – “real.”   Which would feed into modern Mythicst readings.

            To be sure, such opinions were taken to be heresies by many.  Yet they were there, early on.  And strongly too.

  • BG – I don’t think that they are the same things at all. 

    Suppose I told you that I believed that the ghost of mechanic Freddy Jackson existed, and appeared in a photograph taken two days after he died (if, you don’t know the story, have a look on google). Now I might say that the Freddy Jackson we see in the photo was a spiritual entity, not a physical one. You might quite reasonably disagree, and tell me that there are no such thing as ghosts, that ghosts are just a myth. I might tell you that you’re wrong, and say that ghosts are real, that Freddy Jackson’s ghost existed in a very definite time and place and history and that this fact proves that ghosts are not just a myth. 

    Now whether Freddy’s ghost did exist or not is besides the point – the very fact that we could argue along those lines tells us that saying that something is spiritual not physical is plainly not the same thing as saying saying that it does not exist or is mythical, or even necessarily a step towards it. In fact in this instance saying that ghosts are spiritual and that they do not exist are two contradictory positions!

    • Brettongarcia

      I’ll grant that. 

  • Jim Harrison

     Marcion obviously believed that Jesus existed. Indeed, his theology absolutely demanded it, though, as I pointed out, he held that Christ only seemed to be a human being. Since his version of Luke didn’t survive, I’m not sure we know how he handled the biological features of the savior’s life. He surely didn’t have any use for the line of David bit. What we know about Marcion comes from polemical works written by men like Tertullian who weren’t exactly paragons of objectivity. As usual, the lousiness of the sources makes everything difficult, especially for me since it’s been over 40 years since I struggled through Harnack’s book on Marcion.

    How different were Paul’s views and Marcion’s? If Paul doesn’t show a lot of interest in Jesus as a man, perhaps the lack of biographical details reflects not a denial of the historical existence of Jesus but simply an indifference to his nonspiritual side or even a denial that he had one. Hard to imagine Paul palpitating the wounds of his version of the risen Christ. Paul was a Jew and Marcion a Greek, but Paul came down pretty heavily on the Greek side. The later church represented Paul as orthodox, of course; but they did so (as usual) by virtue of a virtue, which is to say that they agreed with him that Christ has been 100% God by declaring that he was also 100% man—the structural formula of Christian dogma is that any intractable political dispute will be settled by declaring that the logical or even arithmetical contradictions involved in the issue will henceforth be sacred theological mysteries.  James Joyce wrote, “Jew Greek is Greek Jew, extremes meet;” but the reason they meet is because we insist that they do and you’ll be a heretic if you disagree. Which is pretty much the fate of the extremely consistent Marcion.

    • Brettongarcia

      I guess I mean, I’ll grant the sense that “spirit” is real, and more real than “flesh” possibly, as a field of investigation.  To anyone who wants to risk it!  Though with due cautions and hesitations, as expressed by Jim and the Church of course.  That in the end, we need to find some physically “real” base behind spirits; or else the spirits are illusions.

      By the way?  What are spirits?  And do they link to “ideas”? Since childhood, I have been interested in the frequent link between “Ideas,” and spirits in Philosophy and religion.  Most of us think they are entirely different.  But?  From the days of Plato’s “Ideas,” or paradigms, then through the German idealists like Hegel, and others, words like the German word “Geist” have been taken, it seems, to mean either one.  So that all my life, I have wondered at the connection.  And after a while, i think I started to get it.

      So what do I think is the connection between spirit, mind, ideas?  I think – following Hegel and perhaps the Bible too – that when we say “spirit” of Jesus, we mean in effect – at least in part – the sense of his moral ideas, sermons, lessons. 

      And then Hegelians might suggest that when successive generations learn more about Religion, and take it into ourselves, from one historical era to the next?  In effect, “spirit” moves, and grows, through History (as Hegel might later suggest).  By effecting and imporiving our “ideas” about what is good, (or even real?).

      So that the intellectual, in trying to understand God, is in a sense, investigating “spirit” as well. 

      Many Christians try to separate our “mind” from our “spirit”; using one or two misquoted passages of the Bible.  But properly read, those passages condemn not all our human “minds,” but only the extreme “vanities” and mistakes of human ideas; not the moments where our minds manage to apprehend, legitimately, aspects of the divine.

      In any case though?  I do feel that the spirit has a kind of reality therefore.  One as real as new or good “ideas” as they are transmitted by culture and so forth.  Though?  I might agree too, that the spirit is not confirmed to be really good, until it has been matched to, confirmed by, real empirically physical things.  Or ultimately I will say, it cannot be known to be a good spirit, or a “false spirit,” until the idea is confirmed as materially productive, real.  (As suggested by Dr. Woodbridge Goodman, and hsi Science of God.)

      Thank you Jim, for the opportunity to clarify this.  To note strengths  but also risks, in any strict emphasis JUST on spirits always.

      Though if someone wants to be our “spiritual specialist”?  That would be an acceptable role.  So long as one qualifies it a bit, and is alert to the risks.

    • Paul’s first personal encounter is with the risen Christ, not with Jesus of Nazareth. This, I think, shapes Paul’s theology and the emphasis of his letters. However, for Paul the resurrection of Jesus is very clearly a historical event “”if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead”. (1 Cor 15:14-15)
      I also think that absence of the biographical detail about Jesus is partly attributable to the ad-hoc nature of many of Paul’s letters. He was writing to churches who already knew about Jesus, and usually trying to sort out specific problems. It would have been handy for modern readers if he could have included things like the names of Jesus’ parents, or told us what he looked like, our given us an outline of his career, but it was hardly relevant to his main aim in writing the letters. Where Paul does need to refer to Jesus traditions e.g. 1 Corinthians 7, we can see that Paul is not so disinterested in the Jesus of his that he can fabricate the words or deeds or Jesus to suit his own theology or purposes. In fact, Paul seems to be careful to differentiate between the words of Jesus and his own advice.  If other early Christians had taken similar care, our picture of the historical Jesus would be much clearer than it actually is!

      • Rationalis


        With all due respect, I don’t think that quite works; the rather Platonistic/Stoic Paul is less historically attached, attached to material/historical realities, than one might think. 

        First 1) Paul’s apparent statement of committment to the risen Christ, is a bit more rare than his very, very long discussions on teh spiritual quality of “faith” in particular.  Short enough to be almost cursory.  And?  2) in the longer statements of this nature, they are phrases in a hypothetical “if”/”then” format:  “if” Christ is not raised, “then” etc. ..

        Then too?  3) It seems arguable, that Paul considered Christ to have been raised already … when Paul saw him in the “vision” on the road to Damascus.  In which?  Simply having Christ in your mind or imag-ination, or having a “vision” of him, would be considered a “resurrection.”

        4) I don’t think you could attributed his sketchiness on the details of Christ on an already-familiar audience either; Paul and others note that when they go to communities to found churches, they oft4en find few if any that are already familiar witht he tale; and/or their versions of it are mostly Judaism.  Some have heard for example of the “baptism” of John, or of Apollo or whoever, but not of the Hol Spirit, or even jesus.  In most accounts, it looks as if he is in mostly (and arguabley, wholly?) virgin territory; speaking to rather purely pagan or purely Jewish audiences.

        Re. Corin. 1.7?  I don’t see Paul responding to a “Jesus tradition” here; but to other religious, probably Jewish or ascetic traditions.  I never see the discouragement (or for that matter, discouraging provisional allowance) of marriage, presented as a saying of Jesus, here.  Any references to Jesus here?

        In fact, that might be an example of what I’m talking about:  paul over and over, in his FIRST trips especially, does NOT seem to be addressing people very familiar with Jesus etc.; but to be speaking to other religions:  Jews, pagans.  The follower who has heard by jesus earlier, is rather rare, it seems to me offhand.

        So again?  The “real” jesus for Paul is often – if not always – the one seen in a “vision.” Though to be sure, there are cursory statements of loyalty to the doctrinal insistence on “flesh” of jesus.  But they are so cursory, as to seem almost inserted into the text, later on.  And they are outweighed in any case, by other emphases.

        You are right though that paul here develops one extremely important theological point:  rather than advancing his words firmly as the Voice of God, as dogmatic certainty, Paul more than perhaps anyone, begins to be truly modest.  And to qualify his speculations on god as being after all, hiw own speculations or person opinions; things that he says are true “for me” and so forth.

        Which is the beginning at last, of a more humane and aware theology, in many ways.

        • Bretton Garcia, I do not follow what you mean when you write “Platonistic/Stoic” as though the two were not vastly different in some of their views. Which in your view is the more appropriate framework for making sense of Paul, and why is Judaism (perhaps of a sort influenced by or at least interacting with particular strands of Greek philosophy) not a more appropriate matrix, given then evidence Paul himself provides?

          Vinny, we have evidence of the expectations of Jews around this period regarding an anointed one descended from David, and we have Paul’s own testimony that the notion of a crucified anointed one was a stumbling block for Jews. I am not sure what more evidence than that one could realistically hope for, when it comes to what ancient people thought on a given topic.

          • Rationalis/Brettongarcia

            James and Paul (!):

            I have favored here – and over the last two or three weeks in various posts have in effect documented – especially Platonic influence in Paul.  Stoicism is only slightly related; in the sense that if we here on earth are living in an imperfect illusion or “copy of heavenly things” or ideas (as Paul says, copying Plato’s language, his famous Theory of Forms)?  Then our apparent failure and pain here on earth, is pehaps illusory or inconsequential, compared to the ultimate or heavenly reality.  So we should Soically bear it, and suffering.  This also relates itself to Judaism of course.  and both influences – Judaism and Greco-romanism – are there in Paul too.  But?  I suggest that it is precisely the great contribution of Paul, and Christianity, to put these two great ANE traditions, especially, together at last, I assert:  1) Judaism, and 2) Greco-Roman traditions.  Notably – but not exclusively by any means – Judaism and Platonism.  (And both contain mythic elements:  the legend and myth of a future repeat of david, for example, in Judaism).

            Paul I think, is mostly a Jew; but also a roman, at his own insistence (in Luke?).  And if you know Greco-roman Philsoophy, finally he is mostly a Platonistic/spiritual/Idealist.  Though Idealism becomes a religious man.  Both suggest this material “world” is partly an illusion; spirit givbes us more direct access to real, heavenly forms or realities.

            So?  Paul AT TIMES favors material realities.  But? His commitment to them is less than one might think.  For example?  Paul speaks of committments to fleshly resurrection as a hypothetical.   In 1 Corin. 15.14, the EXACT WORDING is  “IF Christ is preached as raised from the dead”; “If Christ has not bben raised, your faith is futile.”  14-17. At FIRST, these seem rather firm.  But note the fine points of semantics here (one of may academic specializations):  Paul is tecnically, debating a hypothetical here:  “If” God has been raised, “Then” this would follow. Note that in formal LOGIC, in hypotheticals, the first term or phrase “if” this, does NOT ASSUME THE EXISTENCE OR RIGHTNESS of that first.  It mere suggests that “if” this is true, then something else will logically follow.

            The Bible is written in very complicated language; we need to be aware of such nuances.  In 1 corin. 15.14 ff for example, Paul wanted to write in such a way that could be taken as 1) bowing to anti-gnostic materializing theologies; but 2) at the same time, expressing a merely contingent, conditional, hypothetical attachement to such things, such material concerns. 

            By the way? I think Paul’s over-spirituality gets him into trouble later, to be sure; Paul is just inches away from the heresy of Gnosticism, or over-spirituality, too much “hate” for this material “world,” most of the time.  But?  That’s where he is.

          • Dr. McGrath,

            I don’t think we could ever realistically hope for any more evidence when it comes to what ancient people thought on given topic.  That’s why I find arguments like “Nobody could have invented a crucified messiah” so absurd.    Even if we had several times as much evidence, I still don’t think that we know enough about the range of diversity on various topics to determine that any specific idea could only have one specific source.

            I have no doubt that the idea of a crucified anointed one was a stumbling block for many Jews and that many Jews rejected the message for that very reason.  However, I think that it is equally clear that for at least some Jews as well as many pagans, the idea of a crucified anointed one made sense of all the world’s confusion in a way that nothing else ever could.  I don’t think we can possibly determine the sole and only way that the power of the idea might first have been recognized.

  • BG,

    Sorry, but once again, I think you’re indulging in a lot of speculation, without even trying to present evidence to support your views. On your points:

    1 & 2) “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead”. The only thing hypothetical here is Christ *not* being raised from the dead – it’s obvious that Paul thinks he was.

    3) Again, Paul clearly thinks that God raised Jesus from the dead, and thinks of this as a real, historical event. The nature of Paul’s experience, or the objective truth of it are not relevant.

    4) you seem to be confusing Paul’s missionary activity  with Paul’s letters. Paul’s letters are written to existing Christian churches, so he would already have done the missionary, telling-them-all-about-Jesus bit. In fact, how on earth can you write a letter to a church that doesn’t already exist?