Review of Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? Part One

Review of Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? Part One April 9, 2012

I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in the blog tour about Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Ehrman emphasizes that many mythicists appear to approach the question of Jesus’ existence in the manner of conspiracy theorists, and since such people refuse to change their minds, his book is not aimed at them. It is rather aimed at the genuine seeker after understanding. While a consensus among experts can be wrong, most people who are in their right minds grasp that such scholarly agreement is not to be ignored. His book aims to explain why that consensus exists, and to defend its conclusion from serious and not so serious attacks. Ehrman is emphatic about why he is doing so: because history matters, and those who deny that there was a historical Jesus do so not because a dispassionate consideration of the evidence leads to that conclusion, but because some other agenda drives them.

Not all versions of mythicism can be taken seriously enough even to merit a detailed response, Ehrman emphasizes. He nonetheless takes the time to point out what are not merely errors but howlers in the writings of Acharya S. (which he says seems like it could be a spoof of mythicism) and Freke and Gandy (pp.23-24,28-30). In addition to getting basic facts demonstrably wrong, they also simply make things up and make claims without citing actual evidence. And so most of the book focuses on mythicists whose writings Ehrman considers deserve a serious response: Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Earl Doherty, among others.

There are two major parts to the book, only the first of which I will focus on in this post. But there are also two kinds of treatments of primary evidence which run throughout the book: (1) material which, when considered from the perspective of historical investigation, points to the existence of a historical Jesus, and (2) material which, even if the mythicists are right about it, is irrelevant to their case. In some instances, the two overlap. For instance, considering the evidence from Josephus, Ehrman responds to the argument of one of his own students which is sometimes quoted by mythicists, to the effect that the Testimonium Flavianum could have been forged by Eusebius. But Ehrman also points out that a completely fabricated Testimonium Flavianum is not evidence for mythicism, any more than forged Hitler Diaries are evidence for the non-existence of Hitler. It is the state of the positive evidence that matters, and that alone. That some evidence is unreliable or inauthentic is a common occurrence in history and neither here nor there.

When it comes to the Gospels, Ehrman considers both those within and those outside the New Testament. Ehrman responds to the dismissal of these sources by some mythicists on the grounds that they are written by Christians and therefore biased, which he likens to someone dismissing sources about American history written by Americans simply because they are liable to be biased in favor of America. The historian takes account of bias but does not ignore all sources just because they have a point of view. And when it comes to the Gospels, Ehrman points out that mythicists are often viewing those works as though they were from the outset what they only became later, namely Scripture. When they were composed, they were works seeking to persuade and communicate, not speak as though their authority would be indisputable.

The sheer number of sources that agree independently on the existence of the historical Jesus is impressive, Ehrman emphasizes. When one considers the sources of the works we have, canonical and extracanonical, their agreement on this matter points clearly in one direction. To cast doubt on this, one would have to envisage a unified authority structure in the Jesus movement able to accomplish such a conspiracy, when in fact the sources themselves highlight the diversity and competing visions within the movement. To suggest that these various authors and sources independently invented a historical Jesus, or that despite their divergent views they conspired together to do so, is (to put it charitably) less plausible than the explanation of this state of affairs accepted by all scholars and historians teaching at accredited institutions.

Ehrman addresses many other points, focusing not only on the evidence for the historical Jesus, but also the tactics mythicists use to try to neutralize that evidence. The mythicist suggestion that evidence that does not fit their desired conclusion might be an interpolation Ehrman characterizes (quite charitably, in my opinion) as “scholarship of convenience,” since it is a suggestion which is often not based on any evidence in the manuscripts we have (p.133). Before concluding this all too brief summary, let me note one more point that he makes. Mythicists often see significance in Paul’s relative silence about some points they expect him to have mentioned about the historical Jesus, were he aware of one. On the one hand, Ehrman notes that other New Testament authors of epistles, as well as similar authors from the slightly later patristic period, who clearly thought Jesus had appeared in history, nonetheless have similarly sparse mention of the details of Jesus’ life, beyond the crucifixion. And so to the extent that there is a (relative) “silence” it must be explained in some other terms, because it is widespread. But perhaps more importantly, the impression that Paul is leaving things out is only based on a perspective from a later time, having read the Gospels. And so it is inconsistent to dismiss later evidence from the Gospels as late invention that is of no historical value, and at the same time to suggest that Paul’s silence about those things indicates that there was no historical Jesus. Like mythicist arguments tend to be, this one is illogical and self-contradictory. Ehrman highlights these inconsistencies, irrelevancies and shortcomings with a treatment that is both pointedly precise and yet more patient and respectful in tone than the arguments Ehrman is dealing with often deserve.

Ehrman also addresses some of the claims of Richard Carrier, pointing out that if the term “brothers of the Lord” was used for Christians in general, that cannot be the sense in which Paul uses it in Galatians and other references to a group which is contrasted not with non-Christians but with other Christians such as Peter or the apostles. And so the meaning that fits is that Jesus’ actual family members were in view. Ehrman also points out the problems with Carrier’s attempts to appeal to earlier sources such as Daniel or the Servant Songs of Deutero-Isaiah which allegedly could have inspired the idea of a crucified Messiah (pp.167-170). But once again, Ehrman puts his finger on an irrelevancy in such mythicist arguments. If Christians turned to Scripture and found in them the basis for inventing the notion of a crucified Messiah, that still does not indicate that they invented Jesus, the person to whom they applied those texts. To claim that the use of Scripture in depicting an individual proves their ahistoricity is a blatant non sequitur which Ehrman addresses further in the second part of the book.

Ehrman’s book is incredibly rich in detail. It reflects his typical fairness, insight, and clarity. I know that many mythicists have already begun panning the book, even before reading it in at least some cases. There have been and will continue to be attempts at misrepresentation and distraction from the force of Ehrman’s points. My plea to those who hang out in circles in which mythicism is popular, and who have never investigated the issue but who might be inclined to join in that dismissal, reflects the fact that I was once a young-earth creationist. You are (as I was, back then) hearing one side of the story, one that does not represent what experts in the history of this period and the origins of this religious movement have to say. You may have been told that there is a worldwide conspiracy to suppress the truth – just as young-earth creationist are told about evolution. Please, I ask you, listen to what Ehrman, a renowned expert with relevant credentials and experience who is an agnostic with atheist leanings, has to say on this topic.

Part two of my review, focused on part two of the book, will follow later this week. Stay tuned!

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  • Christopher Rollston

    Nicely done, James.  All best wishes, Chris Rollston

  • Brettongarcia

    Of course, to call someone a “conspiracy theorist,” is name-calling.  A silly thing for a Christian to do.

    And?  The creation of a Jesus myth, would not require a conscious “conspiracy.” Any more than Evolution requires a conscious intelligent creator.  

    Having lived in the Middle East myself, and in many “primitive” communities – not least of all my remembered grade-school experiences – I know perfectly well that there are always many oral legends, rumors, folk tales, urban legends, swirling around.   As Folk Studies departments confirm. 

    It is no great stretch therefore, and involves no theories of “conspiracy,” to imagine that legends of various idolized “lord”s and local “gods,” became gradually intermixed, in the confused polyglot ANE world.  And came to be assembled as the sayings of “one” Lord.  In particularly, there would have been many local legends, of the many legitimate and illegitmate sons and grandsons of Herod, the “lord.”   Many claiming vague inheritance or authority from the “father.”

    No conspiracy is required for this to happen:   only a very natural confusion.

    Though once the master myth was compiled, codified, formalized, and became the basis for huge institutions?  There would have been a firm-enough institutional investment into it, to “blank out,” be “blind to,”  any evidence that would seem contrary to the growing sentiment of the firm solidity of the tales, of the accepted and lionized corpus. 

    • Grig035

       “Of course, to call someone a “conspiracy theorist,” is name-calling.  A silly thing for a Christian to do.”

      But, Brettongarcia, Ehrman is not a Christian.

  • steven

    ‘The sheer number of sources that agree independently on the existence of the historical Jesus is impressive, Ehrman emphasizes.’

    It is true.
    Ehrman produces a huge number of invisible documents, predating Paul, that agree independently on the existence of the historical Jesus.

    Ehrman points out to mythicists on page 78 that these invisible documents ‘obviously must have existed at one point.’

    I can only urge mythicists to read these invisible documents that Ehrman claims must have existed at one point.

    There are no less than 7 independent accounts of Jesus. 

    As an historian, Bart knows that 4  anonymous Gospels which copy each other’s storyline are 7 independent accounts. 

    Anyway, mythicists will not take the trouble to read the invisible documents Bart produces as evidence of a historical Jesus, which simply shows you how closed-minded they are.

  • steven

    You just have to love Bart’s explanation of why works which copy each other are independent on page 78.

    I guess we have independent attestation that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Matthew and Luke did not copy each other completely.

  • steven

    ‘Ehrman also addresses some of the claims of Richard Carrier, pointing out that if the term “brothers of the Lord” was used for Christians in general, that cannot be the sense in which Paul uses it in Galatians and other references to a group which is contrasted not with non-Christians but with other Christians such as Peter or the apostles. ‘

    After all, I have never heard a Christian minister say ‘I went to church last night and saw Helen and also Sister Mary.’ or ‘I went to church last night and saw Thomas and I also saw brother Joseph.’

    It would just be bizarre to refer to one Christian by just the name and then call another Christian ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ – in the very same sentence!

    • Trey

      But Paul did not just say he saw brother James. He said he saw none of the other apostles save for James “the brother of the Lord”. In the context of the sentence and the larger paragraph in Galations “brother” here appears to me to mean more than brethren.

      • Trey,

        To me the problem is that we don’t know enough of the context.  We don’t know anything about the other men named James who were known to the Galatians to have been a part of the Jerusalem community at the time of Paul’s first visit.  Without such information, I don’t think we can claim to be certain why Paul chose to identify this particular James as “the brother of the Lord.” Suppose for example that there was a second James who had a falling out with the leaders in Jerusalem in the intervening years and went on to form a rival cult.  Paul might have used “the brother of the Lord” merely to indicate that he met James the Christian rather than James the apostate.

        I think Paul’s main purpose is to distinguish the James he met from one or more other men named James rather than to fill in Jesus’ family tree.  That this James was biologically related to Jesus would certainly be one way to distinguish him and it may be the most obvious explanation for using the the term “brother of the Lord,” but even if it is, I don’t think that it is the only plausible one.  The fact is that plausible but less obvious explanations often turn out to be the right ones (sometimes an initially implausible explanation even turns out to be the right one). This is why historians like to be able to corroborate things.

        • Trey

          But we do have corroboration…In the gospels. Two of them name James as being a brother of Jesus. So we have Paul in Galations naming James as a brother of the Lord. In Corinthians we have Paul referencing the brothers of the Lord as having wives. The gospels make mention that Jesus had brothers and 2 of them name James as being a brother to Jesus. Outside of the bible in his retelling of the matrydom of James, Josephus mentions casually that James is a brother to the one called Christ. Unless there is a conspiracy by various persons for unknown reasons, it seems we have an established fact that James is indeed a biological brother to Jesus.

          • Trey,

            James was a common name though and neither Matthew nor Mark tell us anything that would enable us to identify Paul’s James as the same person.  Josephus doesn’t say anything to indicate that the James he knows is a leader of the Christians in Jerusalem or that he is a Christian at all. On the other hand, the only author who does seem clearly to be talking about the same person declines to identify him as Jesus’ brother.  In fact, Luke completely drops Mark’s reference to one of Jesus’ brothers being named James.  Dr. McGrath has suggested that Luke did not want to recognize James as having some greater authority by virtue of being related to Jesus and that seems perfectly plausible to me, but I don’t think we can ignore the possibility that Luke dropped Mark’s reference because he didn’t want his readers to make the mistake of thinking that the James in Acts 15 and 21 was the same person.

            I think the confusion among the early church fathers about James’ relationship to Jesus is in part due to the ambiguity in the New Testament accounts.  It doesn’t seem like an established fact to me that James the Just was the biological brother of Jesus even if it is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis.

  • steven

    ‘ I know that many mythicists have already begun panning the book…’

    I think you will find that the word is actually spelled ‘quoting’, as in ‘many mythicists have already begun quoting the book…’

    I can see why you get confused. ‘Panning’ the book  and ‘quoting’ the book are very similar activities.

  • Brettongarcia

    Re the “scholarship of convenience”: 

    When served a bowl of too-cold soup, the mythicist said, “this soup is too cold!”  Then, when served one that was too hot, he said, “this soup is too hot!”  Obviously the mythicist is foolish and inconsistent?

    • When served a bowl of soup, the mythicist said “the chef is nothing more than a mythic construct”

      • Brettongarcia

        When serves a bowl of soup, the mythicist said “a human being made this right?  It didn’t appear out of thin air by magic or miracle, right?”

  • Good post, though I thought dragging in your other ongoing argument (YEC) was counterproductive.  Using the Flat Earth argument would have been more genuinely analogous, even if not as personally relevant for you.

    I read Ehrman’s book as well and agree that he showed much respect and patience with mythicist arguments – more, as you rightly say, than their arguments deserve.

    While I think Ehrman’s “expert consensus” argument has validity, it is also quite possible for a layman to read the seven uncontested letters of Paul, generally considered to have been written 50-60 CE, and recognize that indeed a Mediterranean-wide conspiracy involving hundreds, if not thousands, of people would have been required to validate the mythicist scenario.

    Further, this reading of Paul’s letters would reveal as ridiculous these mythicist claims that “in the confused polyglot ANE world” a mythical Jesus could arise.  The Jewish context in which Paul and his contemporaries existed was not monolithic, but neither was it without a defining prejudice against the very pagan myths that mythicists believe inspired “creation of the mythical Jesus.”  The earliest witnesses to Jesus are all Jews who were trying to convince other Jews.  Adoption, or even adaptation, of pagan myths would have been a non-starter for both protagonists and antagonists in those exchanges.

    The great irony of Jesus Mythicists is that they are not debunkers of myth, but rather are purveyors of myth.

    • Brettongarcia

      First of all? Conservative jews militated against it.  But in spite of their efforts, Paganism, Greco-Roman influences especially, DID creep into elements of judaism, by all objective historical accounts. Especially when Alexander the Great took over this religion c. 300 BC; then Pompey annext it in 64 BC.  So that Jerusalem was governed by a Roman governor, Pontious Pilate, in Jesus time.  With so much Greco-Roman domination everywhere, some adulteration of pure jewishness was all but inevitable.  And is now well attested to … even from strickly Biblical readings.

      Conservative members of teh jewish community, to be srue, were clearly adamantly against any Greco-Roman influence, tainting their religion. And would be resistent to Greco-Roman influence.   But?  These conservatives were not the only jews around.  The Herods and others, included thousands of jews who collaborated daily with their Roman overlords; and who often attempted to integrate Greco-Roman ideas, worship of the emperor, into Judaism.  Paul especially, said good things about Greeks.  While Jewish philoophers like Philo, again and again integrated Jewish and Hellenistic thought.

      To be sure, the NT is often at pains it would seem to suggest that Christianity was wholly Judaic, or consistent with Judaism.  And yet?  The NT ALSO contains countless statements attributed to Jesus himself, allowing non-Jews like “Samaritans” and a Roman centurion, to come into the fold.  Though at first, it was insisted that no Jewish “laws” be bent to allow Greeks and Romans into the new religion.  But soon enough, Paul was slyly moving past the “Laws of Moses”; to allow eating shellfish, and getting past circumcision, and so forth. 

      So that?  The way was opened for Greco-Romanization/Hellenization.  Even within the text of the NT itself.

      To be sure?  Remember that conservative Jews, thought there was something funny – possibly Samaritan – about Jesus himself.  And indeed?  They killed him in large part, on the impression he was not conservatively jewish. 

      And Though generations of scholars denied jesus’ departure from traditional Judaism?  More recent scholarhip begins to document significant departures; like allowing his apostles to pick corn on a Sabbath and so forth.  And increasing tolerance of non-Jews, like Samaritans.  And eventually, in Paul, for their … mores and myths.

      Which was all but inevitable, as Greek and Roman legions conquered Jerusalem over and over, and increasingly dominated it overall.

      • Brettongarcia,

        Your argument seems to be that because Judaism was not univocal (a point I’ve already acknowledged and that anyone reading the New Testament would already know), it must have devolved into a syncretism which would produce a mythical Jesus.  It’s an argument that will only be attractive to people so committed to the Jesus myth thesis that they’re willing to ignore historical evidence in order to continue believing it. 

        Please read those letters of Paul I mentioned (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) and see that your scenario is just not tenable.  You’re proposing something on a level with “the moon landing was faked.”

        More importantly, you’re depriving yourself of knowing more about Jesus of Nazareth – the most notable human being who ever lived.

        • Brettongarcia


          I of course do not assume that “because Judaism was not univocal … it must have devolved into a syncetism.”  My point was that because Judaism was equivocal, and constantly exposed especially to overwhelming Greco-Roman domination, it is all but inevitable that elements of it were indeed, Hellenized.  As History confirms of most of the cultures of the Mediterranean religions, after Alexander the Great added them to his Greek empire.

          I supported this general Historical observation, here and earlier (see earlier discussion on this blog, on Nicolas/Santa Claus, and James the Brother of Jesus)  with dozens of references to Greeks.  And then evidence of jewish accomodations to them, in the New testament itself.

          But if you insist on my reading say “Romans”?  How about 1) Paul, the Roman citizen, 2) writing in Greek no doubt, 3) say Rom. 1.14:  “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish.”  Then 4) Paul speaks to a Jew, speaking of problems with his attachement to “law”; which turns out to be Old Testament law of Moses (Rom. 2.17).  As opposed to the new – as it turns out Platonic/greek “spirit.”   Paul specifically, is attacking the Jewish Old Testament attachment to literal, physical circumcision (2. 25ff).  Though it had been traditionally insisted upon by the old Testament and Judaism, over and over, as one of its foundational rituals.  Paul metaphoricalizes/spiritualizes it.  As he affirms 5) “Are we Jews any better off?  No , not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3.9).

          That is just from the first two pages of your recommended reading list.  And if you read on carefully?  you will see that Over and over, Paul systematically and over and over, albeit slowly and almost imperceivably, edges away from the frequently-expressed (if not monolyticly expressed) Old Testament idea – that Jews as the uniquely favored race.  Paul over and over, subtly leading the reader to note problems in “Jews.”  And tellin gus accept Greeks, specifically and by name.  As being at last jsut as admissible, acceptable to God.

          That’s just in the first two pages.  As we read on?  we see the NT dropping one Jewish law after another, in accomdation to specifically, Greek and Roman practices.  Like for example, dropping the Jewish/OT demand for literal circumcison, just for starters. Soon after that?  A careful reader can find  countless other, far deeper accodations of Hellenization, following. Throughout Paul, and the whole of the New Testament.

          Finally?  Though i don’t have time to fully graph the dozens, then hundreds of such accomodatations evident in just a simple comparison between the OT and the NT? Finally So many accomodations were made to Greco-Roman culture, that we could fairly say that the real nature of Christianity, is in effect a sort of Hellenized Judaism.  Combining the semi-historical legends – myths – of Greece and Rome, with legends of the great jewish king David, especially.  (While still more assimilations are made of Egyptian myths and so forth too.)  These accodations – beginning say with the metaphroicalization/spiritualization of Circumcision – finally progressed to the degree that finally, Christianity could be explained as having come about from a sort of critical mass of a hundreds of  gradually, naturally merging mythologies – with some semi-conscious Christian editing.  Rather than from the efforts of a single, proud, historical individual.

          It might be thought that no such process and editing, could ever take place, without hundreds, thouands of people noticing bits of religion and/or history being topspun.  But?  In ancient times, when the means of communication were extremely poor, and transporation was difficult?  And given a period of hundreds of years in many ways, to effect the most gradual of changes?   In a mix up of thousands of different cultures?  Even conventional Christian scholars acknowledge some editorialization /redaction of what might have otherwise have seemed to be irrepressible historical facts.

          • Brettongarcia, 
            Wow, you’ve got it bad.  I pray that I will be as committed to Jesus of Nazareth as you are to His non-existence.

            No one’s denying Hellenization.  After all, the Septuagint is quoted more often in the New Testament than the Masoretic Text.  However, to suggest that the embrace of Greek culture meant the embrace of Greek gods by the strictest sect of Judaism is ludicrous.  And your suggestion that Paul’s reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible according to the resurrection of Messiah is an “accommodation to Hellenism” would come as quite a shock to the philosophers on Athens who sneered at him for it.

            While it’s true that Paul did not require his Gentile converts to be circumcised his preaching did require them to forsake the worship of other gods which made them persona non grata in the social scene of the Greco-Roman world.

            As “given a period of hundreds of years,” the circumstances won’t give you that long.  As I said earlier, the undisputed letters of Paul were written roughly 50-60 CE.  That means they were written 20-30 years at most after Jesus’ crucifixion, which is attested to even in secular sources.  1 Thessalonians (written ca. 49 CE), for example, makes reference to events that occurred and beliefs that arose during the previous 15-20 years.  You just don’t have the unlimited time you’d like to give your theory some plausibility.   

            And, by the way, keep reading those letters of Paul and whenever you find a reference to Paul folding in the myth of a Greek god to buttress his case for Jesus, jot it down in your notebook.  Er, you won’t get writer’s cramp…nor even leave any ink on the page, for that matter.

  • steven

    ‘1 Thessalonians (written ca. 49 CE), for example, makes reference to events that occurred and beliefs that arose during the previous 15-20 years.’

    It claims, (according to Bart) that the Jews in Judea drove Paul out.

    Strange, because Paul hardly ever was in Jerusalem.

    Please do tell where Paul mentions Jesus of Nazareth, executed by Pilate in Jerusalem in 1 Thessalonians. 

    You won’t get writer’s cramp….

  • Tim Widowfield

    “[T]hose who deny that there was a historical Jesus do so not because a dispassionate consideration of the evidence leads to that conclusion, but because some other agenda drives them.”
    I wish I had the ability to see into another person’s mind and know what he or she is thinking. Is this a gift that you and Bart were born with, or is it a talent we can all cultivate?  Can you tell me how much I weigh just by listening to my voice?  Do you have any suggestions on lottery numbers I should play today?

    Accusing people with whom you disagree of having nefarious motives is unbecoming of a trained professional scholar.  It suggests that you do not want to persuade but to ridicule. It does not help your cause.

    • Since everyone who works as a research and teaching professional at an accredited institution of higher education agrees on this, and those who adhere to mythicism do so not because of but in spite of the evidence, it is hard not to conclude that something other than scholarship persuades mythicists. 

      It may be that those who are mythicists are not aware of their own underlying motives. But that doesn’t mean they are not there.

      • Brettongarcia

        Wait a second; I was for a while (at my option) a research and teaching PhD professional at an institution of higher education … and was basically a mythicist, and I didn’t agree with James McGrath!  Ohmygod!  James McGrath is … not telling the truth!

        • Would you care to share your qualifications in history, religious studies, or some relevant field, and where you taught?

      •  Mmm — or maybe it is those with a vendetta against mythicism are the ones who are flying in the face of the evidence. I have produced evidence that mythicists are not motivated by anti-Christian feelings but the evidence is ignored and never countered. The accusation is not based on evidence, but entirely on mind-reading powers.

    • Maxximiliann

      No speculation required. As Lewontin puts it, many scientists are ready to accept dubious scientific claims because they “have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.” As he candidly admits, “we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

      If that’s not noetical bigotry, what is?

  • Brettongarcia

    Grant and james:

    Thanks you for your patronizations and mischaracterizations and mindreadings; I am sure the angels will sing when you become a good Christians. 

    Of course I did not say that Christianity was accepted by extreme conservative jews; it was accepted by the already half-hellenized ones easily found in Roman-occupied Jerusalam.  Nor did I say that Christians worshiped “Greek gods”; rather, they found in Jesus a “new” halfway figure, that claimed total acceptance by Jewish tradition … even as he brought in hellenistic qualities.  This halfway figure was not accepted by purists in the Greek or Jewish communities; but was accepted by the many in between.  And thanks to its self-sacrificing and “meek” qualities, it was able to survive in Rome for many centuries; before becoming the official religion of the roman empire, c. 300-400 AD.  Suggesting some compatibility with Greco-Roman values, after all.

    • Roo Bookaroo

      It was much more like 400-500 than the 4th century. There was no definite date when all other cults, Christian and non-Christian, were de facto eliminated and the Catholic Church was established as the official instrument of the Roman Emperor’s administration. ca 450 would seem like a defensible date.

  • When I consider that the only sources we have for most of the works we have are hypothetical reconstructions, and that those reconstructions seem to me to depend heavily upon the reconstructors’ initial assumptions about historicity, I find their number, agreement, and independence much less impressive.  

  • “… a completely fabricated Testimonium Flavianum is not evidence for mythicism, any more than forged Hitler Diaries are evidence for the non-existence of Hitler.”
    It would take more than one forged document to make me doubt the existence of Hitler. There are too many eyewitness accounts, radio recordings, films….

    If our evidence for Hitler consisted only of a few documents, mostly not contemporary with him, the discrediting of one might cast surely some doubt on the others and therefore on his existence.

  • Just Sayin’

    “Would you care to share your qualifications in history, religious studies, or some relevant field, and where you taught?”

    At which point, “Brettongarcia” promptly vanished.

    • Brettongarcia

      Just Sayin’:

      Brettongarcia did not vanish; he and some others are around the corner, discussing similar subjects – a defense of Mythicism – in the posts on Nicholas Mythicism, and James the Brother of Jesus.

      • Just Sayin’

        So . . . “Would you care to share your qualifications in history, religious studies, or some relevant field, and where you taught?”

        • Brettongarcia

          Just:   I’ve narrated sufficient details here for James.  By the way?  I obviously prefer anonymity; religion is a controversial subject.  My purpose is not to hide any supposed lack of credentials.  In any case?  The informational base implied in my statements should speak for itself.

          Would you like to give your full real name, address, and phone number here, “Just”?  Just to demonstrate your sincerity and consistency?

          Just Sayin’

  • (1) In my new and improved diagram, I separate “Mythical” into two categories:
    (a) Fabricated 
    (b) Fictionalized

    Though it would be a big undertaking, to see you go through (say) the Book of Mark and highlight green for fabricated and yellow for fictional would be fun. 
    I wonder if any mythicist arguments have moved your opinions from fictional to fabricated.  Did they effect you in any way?

    (2) Did you get mentioned in Ehrman’s book for your battle against Mythicists?

    (3) I have enjoyed Ehrman and probably will read him.  I look forward to coloring my bible with my 4 categories on my post and see what I come up with.  I imagine the colors book by book because the Bible is not homogenous (though Evangelicals would have us believe otherwise).  For instance, wouldn’t you say that Revelation is fabricated?  or is the Fictionalized version of the fall of Jerusalem?

    • Sabio, interacting with mythicists, which has led me to closely examine the evidence for Jesus, has led me to view it as of more historical value than I had tended to assume, not less. In reacting against a conservative Christian experience, my pendulum had swung quite far in the direction of being skeptical. I’d say that if anything, my approach is rather more balanced now, resigned to the fact that certainty is always elusive, and thus setting the bar of evidence in a way that is more characteristic of history in general, rather than the hyper-skepticism one sometimes encounters in New Testament discussions.

      I don’t think I’m mentioned anywhere in Ehrman’s book.

      I’m not sure what it means to say that the Book of Revelation is “fabricated.” If you mean that it is a literary work rather than an account of an actual vision, like other apocalyptic literature, then yes, I’d agree. I’m still not sure whether its claim to come from someone named John known to the churches of Asia Minor is truthful, or whether like most if not all other apocalyptic literature, the work is pseudonymous. I don’t, however, assume that the predictions of the destruction of the temple are fictionalized – people predict things all the time, and when they happen to get something right, it is remembered, but that doesn’t mean that actual supernatural knowledge was at work. Some of the details – such as not one stone being left upon another – are at odds with what actually happened, which makes it less likely that they are purely vaticinia ex eventu. Of course, that there may have been some rewriting with hindsight is likely (see e.g. the Gospel of Thomas’ version of the saying about the temple being destroyed, which has no one being able to rebuild it, rather than it being rebuilt in three days). 

      • Thanx, James, that was helpful and interesting !! (as always)

  • I look forward to delving into this book and subsequent discussions.
    Price and Doherty have had significant publications in Humanist magazines, and many ex-Christian Humanists are curious about these ideas.  Recently, Carrier has been popularizing his ideas on freethoughtblogs.  There is a tendancy for bad ideas supporting Myth to propagate (like the ‘Jesus is Mithras’ meme), but I think equivocating deniers of historical Jesus to conspiracy nutters with an agenda to be harsh, dismissive, and wrong (although there are many psychological similarities between pursuing curious ideas that reinterpret previous consensus and the creation of conspiracy theories which mythicists would do well to guard against).  Academic curiosity and play could have led to the mythicist position, and finding falsehood within scholarship that has some legs does not mean the intent behind that scholarship was misguided.  I hope this book is not poisoned before it is read, and contains the robust scholarship it promises to contain, so it can be circulated widely among casual followers such as I of the historicity question.  Thank you for the review.

    • Earl Doherty has already begun to post a series of chapter by chapter responses to Bart Ehrman’s book. The first of these is here at Earl Doherty’s Response . . . . .

      I and others have also been posting a series of articles demonstrating the depth and extent of the scholarly rigour with which Ehrman has tackled the mythicist question and these posts are archived at Did Jesus Exist?

      I hope Dr McGrath does not mind my mentioning these things here since I don’t mean to pre-empt his next “Around the Blogosphere” post when I am sure he would have planned to mention all of this.

      I have also begun a series of reviewing Carrier’s book on the same blog and am about to publish my review of chapter 3. I am sure others must be doing the same.

      For what it’s worth there are quite a lot of statements in Ehrman’s book that lack supporting citations. He makes many assertions about mythicist arguments that I have never read before, so I have emailed him personally to ask for these citations. His automated reply tells me that my now quite long wait for a response is probably due to his taking painstaking care to research and answer my questions in the most thorough manner possible.

      I have asked Dr McGrath also to cite mythicists who advance this or that argument but he is too busy to reply, but I am sure Dr Ehrman will respond. (I don’t believe either gentlemen would be concocting straw men or be carelessly ridiculing anything they have not taken the trouble to research in a serious manner.)

  • steven

    Did Bart Ehrman really write that Tacitus claimed it was Nero himself  who arranged an arson in Rome? (page 54, Did Jesus Exist?) and that Tacitus wrote ‘Nero *falsely* accused those …whom the populace called Christians…’

    Can anybody read Latin to see if Tacitus really did say ‘falsely’?

    Tacitus clearly writes ‘A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire.”

    Even by the standards of books James McGrath praises as ones mythicists should read, this is bad work….

    Still, basic blunders won’t stop McGrath giving the book 10 stars out of 5.

    • Sorry — I missed the first half of your post in a bad light here and see you did cover both errors, Steven. Mea culpa!! But I’ll leave stand what I began to say anyway . . . .

      That’s only the half of it as I’ve pointed out in other venues. Ehrman also says that Tacitus wrote that Nero set fire to the city of Rome. Which is simply false. Tacitus said no such thing.

      But McGrath has already made it clear that he doesn’t need to read a book by a mythicist to know it’s bad and to be qualified to review it on Amazon; and like Joel Watts, he appears to be of the flip side of that mind-set and simply “knows” that any book, anything, that attacks mythicism, is by definition good. If there are any mistakes in it then blame the HuffoPo editor.

    • Hasn’t that always been understood to have been Tacitus’ innuendo?  It’s sort of like “I’m not saying the guy’s a child molester, but….”  There is much in the book that disappoints me, but I would give Ehrman the benefit of the doubt on this one.

      • No. The passage in Tacitus is clear. Read the passage. I had never heard of Tacitus even hinting at that till I read it in Ehrman — even assuming the passage is genuine.

        • Neil,

          Really?  You never saw Quo Vadis with Peter Ustinov as Nero and Deborah Kerr as the hot Christian woman?  I guess that movie has always shaped my understanding of the events, so I need to try to look at Tacitus without those preconceptions.  Tacitus clearly knows that Nero was accused of being responsible for the fire and he says that Nero fixed responsibility on the Christians to get rid of the report.    I will grant you that Tacitus never expressly states his belief that Nero started the fire, but I think it is pretty clear that he thinks that the Christians were unfairly blamed.

          • Sadly, I don’t think I ever did. My info has stuck with me from not completely unmemorable lectures and hours spent on assignments. Tacitus hated the Julio-Claudians but he never blamed Nero for the fire. That hit me like a classroom spitball between the eyes when I read it in Ehrman’s book. “He”, if it were Tacitus, says the general populace eventually started to sympathize for the Christians over Nero’s supposed treatment of them, but only that Nero “fixed the blame on them” — not “falsely accused them”.

          • Neil,

            Tacitus writes “A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived
            by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts….”  Isn’t it clear from that that neither Tacitus nor anyone else who wrote about it actually thought that the Christians were responsible?  He goes on to say that the reason that Nero fixed the blame on the already disliked Christians was to get rid of the report that he was responsible for ordering the fire.  I think that also speaks to Tacitus’ belief that the charges lacked any valid basis.

          • Yes, “Tacitus” can be read to infer a belief that the Christians were not guilty, but I am not the only one to notice that “falsely accused” is not the best translation of “subdidit reos”. There remains an ambiguity there.

            But this is only a tiny point and nothing hangs on it alone. The major one of the pair I was referring to was Ehrman’s careless assertion that Tacitus blamed Nero for the fire. This is carelessness that would never pass in peer-review. Ehrman knows his words are repeated as authoritative by much of his readership. The error sits in book with a host of other hearsay (uncited and uncitable) assertions. Ehrman knows better and does not deserve to be let off as leniently as a non-scholar.

          • Neil,

            You may be perfectly correct about the seriousness of the error regarding Tacitus’ belief in Nero’s guilt, but I don’t have the expertise to recognize it and I doubt that most lay people do.  As a result, when you focus on something like that, I think it plays into the idea that only people who are highly trained can understand why all the experts find the case for the historical Jesus so compelling (and hence only they are qualified to criticize it).   More importantly (as I think you are noting), nothing regarding Jesus’ existence hangs on the point.  Therefore, even if only as a tactical matter, I would still give Ehrman the benefit of the doubt on this one.

  • steven

    ‘For what it’s worth there are quite a lot of statements in Ehrman’s book that lack supporting citations.’

    I find that really hard to believe. Scholars write scholarly works full of scholarship, and don’t leave out citations. 

    Next thing you’ll be telling me Ehrman attacks Doherty for citing scholars!

  • steven

    Tom Verenna points out even more really basic errors in Ehrman’s book.

    I guess James will have to downrate his review to 9 stars out of 5.

    Or perhaps just 8 stars out of 5.

    On page 56, Ehrman writes:“It should be clear in any event that Tacitus is basing his comments on hearsay rather than, say, detailed historical research.”But on page 97, he contradicts himself:“Tacitus almost certainly had information at his disposal about Jesus, for example, that he was crucified in Judea during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. …. Indirectly, then, Tacitus…provide[s] independent attestation to Jesus’s existence from outside the Gospels…”

  • Barghest

    Steven, thanks for convincingly demonstrating that Verenna doesn’t have the slightest clue about what a contradiction is. Everybody can tell that “It should be clear in any event that Tacitus is basing his comments on hearsay rather than, say, detailed historical research.” and “Tacitus almost certainly had information at his disposal about Jesus, for example, that he was crucified in Judea during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. …. Indirectly, then, Tacitus…provide[s] independent attestation to Jesus’s existence from outside the Gospels…” are compatible statement, since it is possible that hearsay contains information about Jesus’ crucifixion and it is also possible that hearsay is independent from the other textual sources at our disposal. The maxim “if it is hearsay, it cannot be considered historical ‘independent attestation’ to anything” looks like convenient fantasy and nothing more.

    • “[I]t is also possible” and “almost certainly” seem somewhat contradictory to me.

      • Barghest

        Maybe they do, but they aren’t. The almost certain are a subset of the possible. No (partial) contradiction involved.

        • All that means is that the claim “X is possible” will necessarily be compatible with another claim if it can be shown that the claim “X is truly certain” is compatible with the other claim.  It does not follow that “X is truly certain” is compatible with the other claim just because “X is possible” is.

  • steven


    So if Tacitus is repeating hearsay, he counts as an independent witness?

    Especially if he based his comments on ‘hearsay, rather than, say, detailed historical research.’

    And Ehrman reveals that Tacitus had information at his disposal about Jesus.

    Shock news! Somebody who says ‘Person B was in event A  ‘has got information about ‘Person A and Event B’.

    And if he got that information from hearsay, that counts as independent.

    As my sister would say in the newspaper trade ‘an informed source is the cab driver on the way from the airport’, and a ‘confirmed source is if the hotel barman backs up what the cab driver said.’

    I don’t think Ehrman would get a job on a newspaper, if he is going to start claiming that hearsay counts as ‘independent information.’

  • JoeWallack

    “the fact that I was once a young-earth creationist.”

    This isn’t helping you James. Ehrman’s primary objective is not clearly stated which is a problem by itself but you can piece together that it is:

    To demonstrate Jesus either certainly existed or almost certainly existed.

    In fact Ehrman uses the words “certain” and “exist” so many times together in the same sentence that Freke and Gandalfy have invented a new drinking game where every time HJ uses them in the same sentence Skeptics take a shot at them (me likee the frekee).

    For you to miss this and substitute it with MJ being full of skata markon means either you have not read the book carefully or should not being reviewing it in the first place.

    Like it or not that’s where Ehrman has set the Bar.


    • Joe, I’m afraid I don’t get some of the allusions you seem to be making and thus am not grasping what your point is and how it is allegedly a criticism of either my reading skills or the appropriateness of my writing a review of the book. Could you perhaps restate your point in plain English?

  • Barghest

    Incorrect, what it shows is that if a claim is compatible with the set of the possible it is necessarily compatible with the “truly certain”, a subset of the set of the possible. Please do note that what I was referring to was “the almost certain”, which is really distinct from “the truly certain”.

    Now there are claims that are incompatible with the subset of the truly certain but compatible with the rest of the set of the possible, that would mean it is only compatible with the contents of the subset of the possible excluding the truly certain. “X is uncertain” is such a claim.

    So in normal language, I don’t really get what your objection is directed at here.

    • You are confusing sets with claims.  Things that are possible is a set.  Things that are certain is a subset of things that are possible.  “X is possible” and “X is certain” are individual claims about X, not sets or subsets. 

      • Barghest

        1) No I’m not. As you can see, I first discussed it in terms of sets, but you shifted towards claims. Yet I did not accuse you of being accused.

        2) It is irrelevant (and a little fastidious), since the individual claims like “X is possible”, “X is truly certain” and “X is almost certain” can define sets of Xs that are related to eachother in the way described. This shows that a claim like “X is possible” is consistent with a claim like “X is almost certain”, since what is almost certain has to be possible.

        • Barghest

          Yet I did not accuse you of being confused.*

  • I look forward to reading part two of your review. Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  • I didn’t accuse you of being confused.  I accused you of confusing claims and sets.  

    The original issue is whether two claims that Ehrman made are compatible with each other.  You confused the issue by talking about claims being compatible with sets.  You are further confusing the issue now.  

    “X is almost certain” does not define a set of Xs.  The set is the set of things that are almost certain.  X is a single thing.  The claim is that the single thing X is a member of the set of things that are almost certain.  If it is a member of that set, it must also be a member of the set of things that are possible because things that are almost certain are a subset of things that are possible.   However, if it is a member of the set of things that are possible, it need not be a member of the set of things that are almost certain.  That is why you cannot rehabilitate Ehrman’s claim that something is almost certain by showing merely that it is possible.  

  • Barghest

    VinnyJH, I think you are mistaking my goal. It was never my intention to “rehabilitate Ehrman’s claim that something is almost certain by showing merely that it is possible”, I was correcting Verenna’s egregious error that assumed that being possible and being almost certain are compatible, for the almost certain must be possible. You have restated the same in your post so I’m sure you agree with that. What I didn’t do is arguing that if something is possible it’s almost certain, which is silly, and I also didn’t argue that Ehrman’s claim that “Tacitus almost certainly had information at his disposal about Jesus, [etc.]” is correct – only that it is compatible with the hearsay claim. Verenna wrongly claimed it is contradictory. For it to be compatible and thus non-contradictory it only has to be logically coherent, which it is.

    Besides, as X is undefined as of yet, we do have many possible options for X that do together form a set.

    • Brettongarcia

      So why disagree, when there is substantial agreement?  To be “possible” is not in fact as good as, “almost certain.”

      • Barghest

        That is true, but the issue discussed is whether Ehrman contradicted himself or not.

    • I don’t see anything in Verenna’s post that indicates any assumptions about the compatibility of “possible’ and “almost certain.”  It was you who defended Ehrman by arguing that it was “possible” that Tactitus had information that Ehrman claimed he “almost certainly” had.   This is of course no defense since the fact that a thing is possible is irrelevant to the correctness of a claim that the thing is almost certain.  

      • Barghest

        >I don’t see anything in Verenna’s post that indicates any assumptions about the compatibility of “possible’ and “almost certain.”

        Apologies, “that assumed that being possible and being almost certain are compatible” should read “assuming that being possible and being almost certain are compatible”, with this referring to me, not Verenna’s error.

        Verenna claimed that Tacitus almost certainly having information about Jesus contradicts it being hearsay. If it is shown that these two claims by Ehrman are simultaneously possible, it is clear that there is no logical contradiction. I was not out to defend the historical truth of those statements – since Ehrman will do a much better job of that than I could -, only to show that Verenna’s assertion about contradiction is wrong.

  • James H

    An excellent series of articles refuting the Christ-myth myth is here:

  • Parakletos

    Ehrman would have few people to sell his books to, if he claimed Jesus never existed…  And that should give everyone pause as they read his books.

    Jesus ben Pandira was hung on a tree at the end of Passover — about 100 years prior to the time of the Jesus of the Bible. Coincidence? I don’t think so…

    • So the late Rabbinic sources that mention Jesus ben Pandera are completely accurate, while early Christian sources are completely false? Unfortunately for mythicism, historians have to evaluate all the relevant evidence, and cannot expect to get away with simply trusting late sources while ignoring early ones.

      • Parakletos


        It seems to me more reasonable that the figure we have before us in the Bible is a composite figure — made up of multiple Jesus figures.  And, logically speaking, a composite figure made up of multiple figures is NO ONE.

  • What is your evidence that the earliest Christians were confused about which Joshua they were talking about? Are you confused about which James you were addressing, just because I am not the only person of that name? This is a common viewpoint among mythicists, but it doesn’t seem to me to make much sense, at least as usually stated. 

    • Barghest

      I think he/she was addressing James H, “in reply to James F. McGrath” is likely an interpolation.

  • Wow. This is like reading the arguments between the Reconstructionist and the Revivalist Druids.

    I don’t wish to disparage the efforts of scholars and historians, but since I’m not one of you, and since I’m not writing any books from either the “pro-mythicist” or “anti-mythicist” schools of thought, I tend to ask some rather more general questions.

    For instance, it’s my understanding that there are a lot more than four Gospels: the recently-rediscovered Gospels include the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and most recently the Gospel of Judas. It’s also my understanding that neither theologians nor historians give any of these much weight because they believe they were written much later than the other Gospels: second, third, or perhaps even fourth century. 

    Isn’t that a pretty clear argument that Gospel-writing was a bit of a literary fad? These aren’t commentaries, as I understand it, they’re Gospels — “first-hand accounts” by those closest to Jesus, but not written until a century or two or three after he died.

    I’d sure call that a literary fad.

    So if Gospel-writing was a literary fad of the second century (say), then why not of the first century? You don’t need a conspiracy — all you need is an audience. If first-century Jews want to hear stories about Samson, there will be stories about Samson. If they want to hear stories about Jesus, there will be stories about Jesus. And if for some reason you don’t think people get worked up about fictional characters, you’ve obviously never been to a Star Trek convention.

    But the more fundamental question for me is, what difference does it make whether Jesus existed, or if he did, whether he resembled in any way the stories told about him?

    Obviously, it’s an important question to historians, and I repeat, I don’t want to disparage that field of study, nor the efforts of those who quest for the “historical Jesus.” No more than I want to disparage the work of those who seek the historical Arthur. 

    But the simple fact is, modern Christians are in love with the mythical Jesus, not the historical one (if any.) Just as Medieval Europeans were in love with the mythical Arthur, not the historical one (if any.)

    • Thanks for your comment, Themon! Let me start with the question of whether it matters, and respond with “It depends.” Conservative Christians have made a point of ignoring historical scholarship’s challenges regarding traditional doctrines about, and the Gospel portraits of, Jesus, and so in practice it might not matter to most of them at all, one way or the other. But it matters to historians in the same sense that anything else matters, simply because we want to get the details of our understanding of the past right inasmuch as we can – and because the tactics of distorting history can be used for all sorts of ideological ends.

      Gospel writing certainly became a literary fad, which as far as we can tell began with Mark. Historians typically only give some of the very earliest extracanonical Gospels some weight in their work – the Gospels attributed to Peter and Thomas, for instance. But to explain the desire for stories about Jesus, we still need to ask who this Jesus was and why people wanted to hear stories about him. There have been fads for writing books about a wide range of figures, and while the results are regularly full of fiction, the figures so treated range from the almost certainly purely fictional to the almost certainly based on a real person. Noticing the popularity of a certain figure in storytelling doesn’t in and of itself tell us what category the figure in question falls into.

      On the comparison between religious and sci-fi fans getting worked up about the details of stories in their canons, you will enjoy this, if you have not already seen it:

  • Funny video! 🙂

    So what I think I hear you saying is that both the “historicist” and “mythicist” views of Jesus are a priori plausible, and that the weight of scholarly opinion tips the scale somewhat to the historicist school of thought. Is that correct?

    I’m a little curious as to when this issue of “the historical Jesus” first took form.

    If you go back to the old Pagan tales, for instance, I don’t think anyone — other than your typical belligerent idiot in a bar looking for a fight — would have been upset by the assertion that Odin didn’t actually walk the earth. Maybe he did, or maybe those who encountered him weren’t walking the earth themselves at that moment. The transitions between the mundane and the noumenal were more fluid, and if you encountered the Fae, it might be in your own woods, or perhaps you’d been transported to their woods, or perhaps you were in some in-between place.

    You see this even with modern conservative Christians. “I speak with Jesus every day,” they say. Really? What color shirt was he wearing this morning? Does he wear Old Spice these days, or is he a Dial man? It’s a stupid question, of course, because we both know they aren’t saying they actually had coffee with Jesus this morning, but that they had a prayer-experience. They met him in the wood of the Fae, so to speak.

    Yet if you say, “But Jesus never existed — he’s always been a myth, like Odin, or the Fae, or the imaginal being you spoke with this morning,” they will become belligerent or even hostile. For some reason, it is essential to their faith to insist that he physically existed, and physically walked the earth (and on water), and was physically resurrected, and will physically return.

    This has become particularly difficult in the wake of our culturally accepted Cartesian duality. Our sense of the mundane has become much sharper in the past 500 years, and the mundane world has spread to take over most of the noumenal world. I call myself Pagan, and have an active appreciation for the noumenal world: while I consider it quite “real,” I don’t make the mistake of identifying what is real with what is mundane. But most people, raised in our Cartesian world, do identify the real with the mundane, and this puts literalist Christians in a very hard spot, forced to either declare the mundane reality of what is clearly myth, or throw the whole thing out as “unreal” and “nonsense.” I think it’s what makes them all a little crazy.

    I believe some of this “mandatory historicism” is built into Christian orthodoxy, coming out of the debates of the fourth and fifth centuries — particularly in the doctrine of the resurrection, and the belief in the physical return of Jesus. But I don’t really know, and since this is your passion and field of study, how would you weigh in on this?

    When did the importance of a “historical Jesus” enter the picture?

    • Most things are plausible when considered abstractly. The reason why scholars get irritated is that mythicism uses tactics comparable to those used by young-earth creationists and other denialists in order to try to give an impression that the evidence does not clearly lean in one direction. We have Paul mentioning this figure, with the ordinary Jewish name Jesus (or better “Joshua”). Paul says that he had met Jesus’ brother, and refers to Jesus as one who had been born Jewish, supposedly descended from David, who was crucified and buried. This figure, Paul claimed, was the fulfillment of the expectation that God would restore the kingship to the line of David. The claim itself is outlandish. That it was arrived at not through a process of seeking to deal with the cognitive dissonance of having someone you believed to be the Messiah killed by the foreign overlords, but by someone simply concocting the individual – and pretending to be his brother – strikes most of us as less likely. I don’t see how anyone who is well versed in ancient Jewish history and religion could conclude otherwise. But of course, as with denialists in other areas, this is precisely the problem: most people who hold strong views on the topic are not actually particularly familiar with the relevant sources and their historical and cultural context.

      The overwhelming consensus of historians is that there was a historical Jesus, and that he was not thought of as a divine entity by anyone until significantly later. And so when it comes to the subject of the scholarly consensus, it is not a matter of defending a faith stance, but of defending an academic conclusion from fringe critics. The work historians have done on the figure of Jesus has done more to challenge the religious beliefs of Christians willing to take those historians seriously than anything the mythicists have come up with, precisely because the historians deal with the evidence and show that it doesn’t mean what later Christian dogma claimed, whereas the mythicists largely accept the claims of conservative Christians, such as that Jesus was a divine figure and matched up precisely with prophecy. They just say that he was invented, which – since that is impossible to prove – does little to actually challenge conservative Christian views of Jesus.

      • Hello James, This is Bwian speaking so feel free to reply directly to me. 😉

        What do you make of R. Joseph Hoffmann saying that he has in the (relatively recent) past thought Jesus to have been a mythical person and is only now leaning towards his historicity? Has Hoffmann been a complete idiot for so long and only now showing some early signs of recovery?

        Is Thomas L. Thompson a reputable historian? What do you think of his contribution to “Is This Not the Carpenter?”

        What do you think of Arthur Droge’s wondering aloud if something similar happened in the case of Jesus as happened with Ned Ludd? Or is Droge a looney?

        What do you think of Hector Avalos’s remarks about mythicism in The End of Biblical Studies and also of his remarks about the ideological nature of biblical studies?

        • Hey Bwian, how’s things?

          Since the conversation has moved on to “what R. Joseph Hoffman thinks about stuff”, what are your thoughts on Hoffman’s description of the views of Neil Godfrey (among others) as “provocative ignorance”?

          What did you think about the bit where he wrote:

          “The disease these buggers spread is ignorance disguised as common sense. They are the single greatest threat, next to fundamentalism, to the calm and considered academic study of religion, touting the scientific method as their Mod Op while ignoring its application to historical study.”

          I think he’s spot on. What you about you Bwian?

  • Okay, so what I think I hear you saying is that we have two disjoint myths, here.

    The earlier is the myth of a prophesied Messiah who will come to restore the line of David. That does seem more authentically Jewish. I’ve read that Messiahs were also a cottage industry in Palestine from a century or so BCE through Jesus’ time and beyond — I believe even the Gospels discount the “false Messiahs.” So I’m getting the picture of something not unlike our modern and perennial “The Rapture is coming!” where a Messiah rises up, gathers some followers and sets out to restore the line of David, and then disappoints his followers. The historical Jesus/Joshua would likely have been one of these.

    Is that more or less correct?

    This outlandish Pauline concept of “Well, yeah, he kinda died just like all the rest, and yeah, it seems like another bust, but wait, he really WAS the Messiah….” somehow diffused into Gentile society, probably after Titus trashed Jerusalem — which also makes sense, since I understand Titus sent a large fraction of the population of Judaea to the four corners of the Empire as slaves — and this concept started to transform into the second myth, that of God Made Flesh.

    Is that more or less correct?

    So the original myth would have been taken as quite mundane and literal — the Messiah was to be a new King of Judaea. Another David. Someone with hair and teeth and fingernails who would expel the Romans, take a wife (or 600) and found a new dynasty. An ordinary human king. Something that obviously never happened, prophecy or no prophecy.

    The second myth seems clearly a conflation with Pagan mythologies in the poly-faith Roman culture. But I don’t think most of the Roman Pagans were literalists.

    From what I’ve read, the main criticism the Pagans leveled against the Christians was that they were presenting a low-quality knock-off of existing Pagan myths. Pagans had The Lord of the Rings — the Christians were coming along with The Ring Lord (Reader’s Digest Version.) So either those Pagans simply didn’t understand that early Christianity was literalistic, or perhaps it wasn’t.

    So what’s the story of how the extreme literalism of modern conservative Christians came about? Was it always there? Did it get hammered into doctrine in the early Church Councils? Did it creep in during the Middle Ages? Is it a recent artifact of our very analytical Cartesian dualism? Is it very modern and American?

    • Not all the details or timeline is right, no. But I think you get at an important point. The expectation of a “Messiah” – an anointed one to restore the kingship – was a pre-existing idea, one about which people wrote, and into which various figures sought to insert themselves as the fulfillment of such expectations. And so perhaps one of the reasons why mythicists end up so far off base is because they confuse the issue of whether the notion of a messiah is mythical, with the question of whether specific named people who claimed to be that figure, or had their followers do so, were themselves purely mythical.

      The alleged literalism of conservative Christians in our time is in fact a selective literalism – they don’t treat the dome in Genesis 1 as literal, and certainly don’t follow the demand attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke that his followers give up all their possessions. But the attempt to achieve literalism is a product of the modern, post-Enlightenment era. In earlier times, if people assumed that the history of the world or of the cosmos unfolded in a particular way, they did so not having clear evidence to the contrary. That is a very different stance than willfully denying evidence that has come to light and insisting that older stories must be taken literally (in at least certain respects) in spite of counter-evidence. 

  • Fair enough on the details. I’m not a historian, so I’m content if I get the basic idea right. 🙂

    It makes sense to me that the selective literalism — the willful denial of evidence — of modern conservative Christians is, in fact, a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. 

    To some extent, however, it seems to me they are constrained to this by Christian orthodoxy.

    For instance, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the origin myth of Taliesin: the story of Cerridwen, Gwion Bach, and the cauldron. Did such a series of events ever actually take place? In the phenomenal world, certainly not. The world doesn’t work like that. Nor is it important, one way or the other. The story is mythic, and its lessons lie in the noumenal world, not the phenomenal.

    I could be completely wrong, but my understanding is that orthodox Christian teaching — going back to at least the middle of the first millennium — says that the Gospel stories, particularly the resurrection of Jesus’ body, were literal, historical fact. I believe the teaching on the Virgin Birth is also considered literal and historical. Once you’ve gotten past those, walking on water or producing an endless supply of loaves and fishes are parlor tricks, so why not?

    We all know the world doesn’t work like that. And while fourth-century church fathers may not have had statistical methods available to determine whether Paul really wrote II Timothy, or ice cores showing the earth is a lot older than 6000 years, I find it hard to believe that they didn’t know that virgins don’t give birth and the dead don’t come back to life. At some point in time they started claiming that the miraculous was real and historical. And that there was a price to be paid in this world (and the next) for contradicting this teaching.

    I’m curious when that happened.

    • It’s a good question. If we take Paul, whom even most mythicists take to have been a historical figure, then we can ask the same sorts of questions. Did the author of the Acts of Paul think think that when Paul was killed by decapitation milk literally flowed from his body? Or was it symbolic? Or perhaps both?

      In the case of the virginal conception it is perhaps easier to answer the question, since stories of miraculous births and divine origins got attributed to important people – in the case of Plato it happened even while he was still alive, as I recall. From the ancient sources we have, it seems that then as now there was a majority that loved such stories and believed them, and a minority that was more skeptical. Although we know so much more about the cosmos now, some things about human beings don’t seem to have changed much. 🙂

  • RWZero

    This is one of those situations where one can discuss details all day, but at the end of that day, a proper outsider can zoom out and see an almost complete consensus among academics and scholars… pitted against a few qualified outliers and some Internet People. Furthermore, one notices that in circumstantially similar situations (rather, ones with much less evidence), we do not encounter this kind of extreme skepticism.

    It is not very hard to see what’s going on. The emotional, religious or personal stake in the subject matter pushes a certain segment of people to the extreme of requiring absolute proof, in the face of a pile of perfectly good evidence. It is not much different than the behaviour of creationists.

    When there are no more Christians (assuming Christianity is wrong, which in my view is the case), this argument will almost certainly go away. I think skeptics only feel the need to question Jesus’ historicity because of all the Christians.

    But that could be a long time.

    • Claude

      I think skeptics only feel the need to question Jesus’ historicity because of all the Christians.

      My impression, after a few weeks of total immersion, is that many of the most vociferous mythicists are former Christian fundamentalists. It seems to me they have the worst of all worlds. They’ve abandoned the hope of Christianity, but they are still in thrall to Jesus. They obsess about Jesus and the scriptures 24/7! If they could prove once and for all that Jesus never walked the earth, would they finally be free of him? I doubt it.

  • Dalis

    Having listened to mythicists I consider that Bart it attacking a straw man. He seems to over simplify and misrepresent how they seem to me to explain forgeries such as in ‘Josephus’. They don’t argue that this proves a lack of evidence for an historical Jesus, but only that it cannot be used as proof for an historical Jesus. I can’t believe that Bart is not aware of this.

    • Then you can’t have listened to mythicists. The position of Jesus agnosticism, while still in my view not the best conclusion based on the evidence, is what you describe, and it is not as ridiculous as the attempts of people like Earl Doherty to claim that they can make a positive case not only that Jesus was not a historical figure, but that the earliest Christians didn’t think he was either.