Jesus, the Gospels and History

Jesus, the Gospels and History August 9, 2013

Amanda Witmer has written an article for The Bible and Interpretation about mythicism. Here’s how it begins:

In some quarters it is now fashionable to argue that Jesus did not exist! At the opposite end of the spectrum we find the position that every word of the Bible is literally true and that the gospels provide us with an unfiltered historical account of Jesus’ life. This is a false dichotomy rooted in our human tendency to insist on absolutes and true or false claims. Neither position takes the evidence seriously. As it turns out, historical information about Jesus can be found, but sifting through the data requires some work.

Click through to read the rest. For those who may not be familiar with mythicism, there’s the Jesus Birther Movement on Facebook. The comparison between Jesus and birthers (i.e. those who claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States) is apt, and I am surprised that it was adopted willingly. But as Poe’s Law says, when you get to the kooky fringes of pseudoknowledge, any attempt at parody will probably closely resemble something that someone actually admits to thinking.

See also the excellent post at Unreasonable Faith about storytelling and how stories which may not be factual can still tell us something about how a real, historical figure was perceived, the impression that they made.

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  • The comparison between Jesus and birthers (i.e. those who claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States) is apt,

    -No, it isn’t. I’ve responded to the article in the comments, with only my html and reference to in the end being removed.

    • Well, ironically, it was the mythicists who made the Facebook page who themselves chose the title, so perhaps you would do well to explain to them why the connection is not apt?

      • Poe’s law made me think parodists made it (your original post turned out to be right about that!). In any case, the comparison is not apt because we have this for the location of Obama’s birth, nothing reliable for the location of Jesus’s birth, and this
        sole possibly forged, possibly independent non-Christian record of Jesus’s very existence. Obama’s still President. Jesus in Paul’s epistles doesn’t seem to have had much of a life before his death.

        • Ah, but the denialist can always insist that they are forgeries. Obviously a question about a living person vs. an ancient one creates a different situation. But the whole point of the comparison is that, if one approaches determined to cast doubt, one can do so, no matter what the evidence happens to be. That is the common thread that unites various forms of denialism across different fields and disciplines.

          • “Ah, but the denialist can always insist that they are forgeries.”
            -Very true. But not all who insist on a “forgery” hypothesis for a given text are denialists.
            “if one approaches determined to cast doubt, one can do so, no matter what the evidence happens to be”
            -Doubt, yes, but how much? Also, you’re presuming that the non-historicists are “determined to cast doubt”, which is a questionable assertion.

          • Well, I don’t see how else one can conclude that a group of Jews inventing a crucified Davidic anointed one and then try to persuade their fellow Jews to accept him as God’s anointed is more likely than a group whose leader was crucified finding a way to retain their belief even so. Or how else one can think that the negative reference in Tacitus was invented by Christians. Or any of the other things that mythicists posit to deal with the evidence that simoly does not fit their starting assumptions.

            The difference between historical research and denialism is whether you insist on reaching a negative conclusion even when straightforward historical reasoning about some details points in a different direction.

          • Well, I don’t see how else one can conclude that a group of Jews inventing a crucified Davidic anointed one and then try to persuade their fellow Jews to accept him as God’s anointed is more likely than a group whose leader was crucified finding a way to retain their belief even so.

            -What would persuade you of the former conclusion?
            I do not say the Tacitus reference is a forgery. I do say the Tacitus reference is not independent of Christian tradition.

          • And how widely would you consider that sort of issue relevant? Are sources about Jewish history written by Jews never trustworthy? Is Plato biased in favor of Socrates’ existence because he viewed him as his teacher?

            The question of where Tacitus got his information is relevant, but in mythicist hands, legitimate scholarly concerns end up as a distorted parody of their appropriate use.

          • And how widely would you consider that sort of issue relevant?

            Well, I do agree with you that “[t]he question of where Tacitus got his information is relevant”. What more needs to be said?

            Are sources about Jewish history written by Jews never trustworthy?

            -No, they sometimes are trustworthy. What relevance does this question have to my above comment?

            Is Plato biased in favor of Socrates’ existence because he viewed him as his teacher?

            -Er… yes? I can’t see how this question is at all relevant to my above comment.
            You still didn’t answer my “What would persuade you of the former conclusion?” question.

          • Well, I’ve encountered the argument from mythicists that Christians cannot be trusted on whether Jesus existed because they are biased. So I was addressing that.

            If all other considerations were equal, then it simply is unlikely that someone would choose to invent a crucified Davidic anointed one and then try to persuade other Jews that this seemingly automatically-disqualified individual is the one they’ve been waiting for. And so what would it take to persuade me that all other things are not equal? Evidence that pointed in that direction.

          • Why is “a crucified Davidic anointed one” “seemingly automatically-disqualified”? What would “evidence that pointed in that direction” look like?

          • The expectation of a Davidic anointed one was the expectation that the kingship would be restored to the line of David. These are basic details that anyone discussing this needs to know.

            I do not know what evidence that we do not have for a phenomenon that is not in evidence would look like.

          • “The expectation of a Davidic anointed one was the expectation that the kingship would be restored to the line of David.”
            -But Christians did believe the Kingdom of God would be established by Jesus. Daniel 9:26 makes it clear that an Anointed One shall be “cut off”. I still don’t see how “a crucified Davidic anointed one” is “seemingly automatically-disqualified”.

            I do not know what evidence that we do not have for a phenomenon that is not in evidence would look like.

            -Examples: in order to accept the existence of fairies, I would first have to see a fairy or reliable reports of fairies by biologists. In order to accept that Julius Casear didn’t exist, I would first have to see a surprising absence of evidence for his existence in the 1st century BC and would have to see all the 1st C BC inscriptions mentioning him redated by, say, pottery chronology, anachronisms, or paleography. An Egyptian papyrus clearly mentioning Moses leading an Exodus would be sufficient evidence for the existence of Moses.

          • So a papyrus mentioning Moses would prove his existence, but a letter mentioning Jesus, written by someone who met his brother, would not? Would you care to explain the difference?

          • Not just mentioning a Moses (which might be ambiguous), but mentioning him leading an Exodus (preferably, contemporarily) would prove his existence.
            Context is important. A letter mentioning the god Apollo would not prove the existence of Apollo, but, rather, that people in antiquity believed that Apollo existed. Thus, Galatians only tells us that some Jews and some Galatians thought Jesus existed. It appears to me that Paul does not tell us which “way of knowing” James and and Cephas originally used to come up with the idea that Jesus existed.
            Note that I am not saying the Jesus-Apollo analogy is necessarily useful in any case but this.

          • If the person who authored the papyrus mentioned meeting Moses’ brother, what would you meed to know further about the ways of knowing whereby that brother came to conclude that his sibling existed? And can a mythical person not be credited with an Exodus?

          • arcseconds


            You’d accept an account of Moses leading an exodus as proving the existence of Moses, but you won’t accept a contemporary account of meeting Jesus’s brother as proving the existence of Jesus?

            Aren’t you being rather too credulous on the Moses issue and too incredulous on the Jesus issue?

          • arcseconds

            I mean, basically what you are telling me, is that you would read a document saying:

            “There once was a man called Jim, and he lead my bridge club out of slavery”

            and believe that Jim really existed, but

            “I was talking with Bob, the brother of the bridge club’s former leader, the other day”

            and suddenly get all incredulous. ‘What does he really mean by brother? Notice he doesn’t call him by name, he just says ‘former leader’. Do bridge clubs even have leaders? Maybe Bob himself doesn’t exist’.

            Surely the chances of an account of an exodus being true are less than the chances of an account of the writer meeting someone’s brother are true.

          • Again, the context would matter, especially the provenance and date of the hypothetical document you mention. “the Lord” is no mere “someone”.

          • arcseconds

            Why does the use of ‘the lord’ make you suspicious?

            You know what the greek word is and how it was used, right?

          • I don’t know Greek, but I have this list (for the Gospels and Acts). Just glancing at the list, the title “Lord” is clearly frequently used for God the Father in the Gospels. In Paul’s letters, the title “Lord” is often used for Jesus.
            Edit: Hm. There are at least two lists.

          • In ancient Greek as well as today, kyrios has the range of meanings running from sir/mister to ruler/owner to Lord with a capital “L.” The equivalent word in Romance languages typically has the same range of meanings.

          • arcseconds

            Why are you looking only at the Bible to work out what a Greek word means?

            I don’t have much greek myself, but I looked it up and found it means ‘lord, master’.

            It doesn’t seem very unlikely at all for members of a cult to refer to the founder as ‘the master’, does it? One could expect such a form of reference even in utterly secular contexts, e.g. two apprentices of the same goldsmith, two students of the same intellectual.

          • Who is claiming that a group of Jews invented him? That sounds like a straw man to me. My understanding of the claim is that individuals had visions and convinced other individuals of the validity of those visions.

            Did a group of Arabs invent the appearances of the Angel Gabriel or did one Arab invent it and convince others?

            I can’t see what basis you have for determining that either scenario is more likely than the other.

          • Do you have a reason to think that Christianity was the invention of a lone individual, and if so, which one?

            Is there any comparable historical scenario that cannot be dispensed with by assuming that one person invented it and persuaded others to believe it?

          • Did I say that I thought a lone individual invented Christianity? What I think is that people mostly acted individually rather than collaborating as a group.

            Unfortunately our sources are so skimpy that there are any number of possibilities that could fit the evidence. I think it entirely possible that Christianity started with a single person claiming to have a vision of the risen Christ and that the numbers grew in the transmission of the story. Regardless of Jesus’s historicity, I can’t think of any reason to take the claims of multiple simultaneous appearances at face value. I certainly don’t take Mormon claims of multiple witnesses to the Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates at face value.

            I also think it entirely possible that Paul was the inventor of Christianity for all practical purposes. Regardless of Jesus’s historicity, it looks to me like Paul was the one who worked out the theological and eschatological meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. Whatever the beliefs and practices of his predecessors might have been, there is no way to know whether they were anything we would recognize as “Christianity.”

          • Is there any comparable historical scenario that cannot be dispensed
            with by assuming that one person invented it and persuaded others to
            believe it?

            -Sure. The siege of Lachish. The existence of Ron Wyatt. Is this what you were looking for?

          • I’m not sure that the existence of Ron Wyatt is beyond the possibility to cast doubt. But of course, when dealing with figures of the recent past, making a case should indeed be easier.

            I suspect that a Lachish-denialist could claim that the artifacts of which replicas are on display in the Israel Museum are forgeries. I’m not saying it is plausible to do so, but that is precisely the point, namely whether we accept the evaluation of experts regarding what is likely given the evidence, or accept instead what someone without that sort of expertise manages to doubt from the comfort of their armchair.

          • Before we start looking for comparable historical scenarios, we have to establish that this is a historical scenario. The question is whether or not an invented Jesus explains the origins of Christianity better than a historical Jesus. Asking about comparable historical scenarios begs that question.

            In any case, if we are going to talk about comparable scenarios, I can think of a couple religions that started with one individual claiming to have an encounter with a heavenly being and convincing others of the authenticity of that encounter. Sometimes others subsequently claimed to encountered the supernatural being, too.

            I don’t know that it makes any sense to talk about someone “choosing to invent a crucified Davidic anointed one.” I don’t think that people who have visions of supernatural beings necessarily have any choice in the content of those visions. Moreover, many Jews did come to believe that this seemingly automatically-disqualified individual was the one that they were waiting for. Isn’t that pretty strong evidence that the idea wasn’t nearly as unthinkable as you make it out to be?

          • Unless you are suggesting that the emergence of early Christianity is not a historical event, then I am not sure what you are trying to say in your opening statement. I presume you are not trying to suggest that historicity ought to be separated from evaluation of the evidence?

            Talking about visions of “supernatural beings” and “heavenly beings” begs the question. Paul says that he encountered the resurrected Jesus, a human being and descendant of David who had been crucified. And so he is clearly saying that he had a supernatural experience involving a human person.

            Although nothing seems clear when one is determined that it should not be.

          • You asked about comparable historical scenarios that might be denied. As far as I know, no one is denying the historical emergence of early Christianity. Therefore, I can only read your question as referring to historical scenarios comparable to the historical Jesus.

            Paul actually says precious little about his experience so describing it as an encounter with a human being greatly overstates the case. The idea of a “supernatural experience involving a human being” is inherently unclear.

          • No it isn’t. If someone says that they saw the ghost of someone who died, are they claiming to have seen a “supernatural being” or to have had a supernatural experience of someone who was a genuine historical individual? Of course, if it were not for mythicists muddying the waters, we probably could just speak clearly and not have to split hairs in order to get the terminology just right.

          • How could I possibly know what it was that Paul thought he saw? In Matthew 1:20, it says that a angel of the Lord “appeared” to Joseph is a dream. That tells me that some people in that general time period thought of appearances in dreams as supernatural manifestations that were somehow objectively real. In what sense is seeing a supernatural being distinguishable from having a supernatural experience of a genuine person? What class covers that in the secular history curriculum? Even without mythicists dipping their toes, those waters would be pretty darn muddy.

          • Is Jesus a human name or an angelic one?

          • That sounds like a theological question rather than a historical one.

          • It isn’t. It is a question about the way names were used in Judaism in the second temple period. But I can understand why you would want to try to avoid answering it, given where the evidence leads.

          • I am far from certain where it is that you think that evidence leads, but I would be more than happy for you to make an argument so I can see. I could also point out that you did not answer my question concerning the sense in which an encounter with a supernatural being is distinguishable from a supernatural encounter with a human being. Nor did you answer my question concerning where such a topic might be found in a secular history curriculum. Nor did you answer my question concerning the success of Christianity as being evidence that the idea of a crucified messiah was not all that repugnant. However, I generally find “you didn’t answer my question because you know I’m right” to be one of the most tiresome forms of argumentation in the blogosphere, so I try to avoid it so long as it is not used against me.

          • I have made these points before on the blog, and so I tend to not repeat things unless someone indicates that they missed it.

            Angels had distinctive categories of names in Jewish sources in this period. I cannot think of an instance when an angel was given a name that was a name in common use for human beings, as would be involved in having an angelic Yeshua.

            I responded to your question about a supernatural being by pointing out that saying one has seen a purely supernatural being, like an angel, is different than saying that one has seen the ghost of a person who formerly lived. Resurrection was a Jewish belief about the afterlife, and so what Paul says about seeing the risen Jesus is in the second category, not the first.

            Once a religion exists, it often manages to spread, regardless of what embarrassing experiences or cognitive dissonance may have been involved in getting to that point. Sometimes things that were once an embarrassment become an advantage, as seems to have happened with Jesus’ statement about the destruction of the temple prior to vs. after 70 AD.

          • Once a religion exists, it often manages to spread, regardless of what embarrassing experiences or cognitive dissonance may have been involved in getting to that point.

            Could you point me to some other examples of this phenomenon?

          • What about some of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Co. claims early on? Or Mary Baker Eddy’s own sickness?

          • Aren’t those cases where the experience of embarrassment or cognitive dissonance occurred after the establishment of the religion when events failed to unfold as predicted? I don’t see how they shed any light on the question of a religion’s foundational claims being so embarrassing that we can be certain they were beyond invention. On the other hand, in Mormonism we have the an illiterate bumpkin expanding the canon with golden books he dug out of a hill in upstate New York. This was a claim that many Christians of the day found very offensive, but it was, nonetheless, completely invented.

          • Are you suggesting that someone invented this bumpkin? Or are you suggesting that no one ever says something that offends others, which I would dispute, and is something very different than embarrassment of the sort that the criterion that goes by that name envisages.

          • No. I’m suggesting that the fact that many people found this this bumpkin’s story contrary to their understanding of the way God did things tells us nothing about whether or not he made it up.

          • And what does that have to do with our discussion? Has anyone ever suggested that new ideas are not invented? I am not sure where you are going with this.

          • I have understood your argument to be that we can assign a low probability to the possibility that someone would “invent a crucified Davidic anointed one and then try to persuade other Jews that this seemingly automatically-disqualified individual is the one they’ve been waiting for.” However, Joseph Smith invented a story that was patently absurd given mainstream Christians expectations of the day and nevertheless managed to convince many of its truth. I would guess that there is nothing unusual about a religion starting with invented ideas that are inconsistent with prevailing expectations.

          • In further looking at the matter, I note that in addition to describing Christ Jesus as a descendant of David, Paul also describes him as being “a life-giving spirit,” as having a spiritual imperishable body, as being “of heaven,” and as no longer being “flesh and blood.” Were these recognized as the attributes of human beings in Judaism during the second temple period? They sound like attributes of a supernatural being to me. I’m wondering why the fact that the name “Jesus” wasn’t applied to angels should be the sole determinative piece of evidence here? I think I would still contend that “he is clearly saying that he had a supernatural experience involving a human person” is a less than satisfactory summary of what Paul has to say.

          • Becoming no longer flesh and blood is something that some Jews expected to happen to all human beings.

            What on Earth leads you to claim that Jesus’ not having an angelic name is the sole determinative piece of evidence? Why is it that every time we have a conversation, it is as though we are starting from square one all over again? Can you really not recall our previous discussions about this topic?

          • When I declined to answer your question about whether Jesus was a human name or angelic name, you wrote “I can understand why you would want to try to avoid answering it, given where the evidence leads.” Therefore, I concluded that you thought that the answer to that question somehow determined the issue.

          • Part of the reason it seems as though we are always starting from square one is that you keep falling back on “Nobody could have invented the idea of a crucified messiah so Jesus must have been real,” which I find to be an incredibly weak argument. There is simply no objective criteria by which it can be determined that any particular idea is so bizarre as to be beyond the reach of human invention.

          • And once again we retread the same ground. My position has never, ever been “nobody could have invented.” It has always been that it is less likely to have been invented, and that the appropriate historical conclusion is that which is most likely, expressed in an appropriately nuanced way. It is less likely that a crucified Davidic anointed one was invented by someone wanting to start a new religion, and who wanted to make sure it was sufficiently challenging to spread, than that the idea arose as a result of a human being that some believed to be the Davidic anointed one being crucified.

          • Regardless of how you phrase the argument, it still depends on your ability to determine what kind of ideas people are relatively unlikely to invent. Moreover, you also must determine what kind of interpretations people are relatively unlikely to give to visions and/or hallucinations. If you have an objective empirical basis for thinking you can make these determinations, I would be interested to know what it is.

          • It doesn’t sound to me as though you are talking about historical study any longer. History involves not just the objective empirical data – texts, artifacts, etc. – but the drawing of conclusions based on that evidence, using reasoned inference and deduction.

            Again, why do you feel the need to go over this ground again?

          • I go over it because I don’t think you have ever explained how you distinguish an idea or a story that was likely to be invented from one that was unlikely to be invented. What characteristics do you look for? What criteria do you use? What analogous situations are you looking at? Aren’t these the kinds of questions that historians need to be able to answer? I want to understand why you and Ehrman and so many other historical Jesus scholars think this is such a compelling point.

          • I’ve talked about the methods of historical reasoning. I’ve shared books on historical methods that discuss the points in further detail. I’ve discussed specific examples of historical reasoning in relation to Jesus of Nazareth and other ancient figures. What exactly is it that you are still looking for? I am beginning to think that you suffer from some ailment of memory, since it seems as though each time we interact, you have forgotten everything I presented previously, on multiple occasions, over the course of several years.

          • I’m looking for an explanation of how those methods are applied to this situation in order to conclude that it is unlikely that anyone would invent or hallucinate a crucified Messiah and I’m looking for an example of a situation in which the same methods are applied in order to conclude that a particular story was likely to be invented or hallucinated. I’m looking for an explanation of why you think you know the things you think you know.

          • And why are you asking for that again? What was inadequate the last time, and the time before that…? I don’t mind expanding on points, but you seem to be asking me to repeat them, and I am not sure why.

          • I’m asking for it again because I don’t see where you have ever provided it. All I see is your insistence that you have.

            What are the analogous situations from which you conclude that this particular idea is unlikely to be invented? Can you give me one example of a situation where the same historical methods would lead you to conclude that a particular story was likely to be invented? Can you tell me what the distinguishing characteristics are that make the one likely to be invented and not the other?

          • Comparable scenarios might include scandals associated with politicians. If a historian in the distant future had a text from a Clinton supporter that mentioned the Monica Lewinsky scandal, they would deduce that the individual would not be inclined to invent this detail about Clinton, and so it probably reflects some information that was well known and they could not actually deny.

            Claiming that the person who is the rightful king chosen by God to restore the line of David to the throne was executed by the Romans is similar. It isn’t something a supporter of that person’s status as the rightful heir of David would make up. They might try to spin it and do damage control, but they are unlikely to invent it, since it undermines the central claim they want to make.

            I’ve said this before, apart from the Clinton analogy. Why are we going over this ground again?

          • Steven Carr

            Paul does indeed try to spin Jesus being executed by the Romans by claiming that they are God’s agents, who hold no terror for the innocent and who do not bear the sword for no reason.

            His spin seems to be that basically Jesus had it coming to him, because ‘…, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.’

            Of course, this is the same Paul who claimed that if the Romans had known who Jesus was – the messiah who was to end Roman rule and institute the kingdom of God – they would never have executed him.

            Or perhaps Paul just didn’t know that the Romans crucified Jesus?

          • Or perhaps Paul was no more consistent on this subject than on several others he touches on – and not less capable of inconsistency that Steven Carr and other people with strong beliefs.

          • Steven Carr

            So McGrath claims early Christians would have spun away embarrassing facts, and now claims that they might not have spun away embarrassing facts as they were not always consistent.

            So James ‘defense’ is that early Christians might well have done exactly the opposite of what he earlier claimed they would have done….

            If only Paul had written that the Romans had crucified Jesus, but he ascribes it to ‘archons’ and calls the rulers on Earth ‘God’s agents, who do not bear the sword for nothing.’

          • Poor Steven Carr. Most internet trolls at least can tell when someone is poking fun at them.

          • “Apart from that, how did you like the play Mrs. Lincoln?”

            My understanding is that historians reason by analogy, so learning what kind of situations you consider analogous to a first century Jew inventing a crucified Messiah is very helpful to me.

            To me, better analogies are provided by the real life examples of religions starting out with an individual claiming to have some sort of revelatory vision and convincing others of its validity. The analogy you are offering for why Christianity was unlikely to have started this way seems strained to me.

            One problem with your analogy is that you have specified that the writer was a Clinton supporter, which I would assume was for reasons unrelated to the Lewinsky scandal. In the case of Paul at least, he had no inclination to believe that Jesus was the anointed one but for the fact that he became convinced that he had been resurrected from the dead.

            If that future historian were to find a letter from a Clinton supporter who sincerely believed that it was Clinton’s response to the Lewinsky scandal that made him worthy of support, then perhaps we might have to allow for the possibility that the writer invented the scandal in the same way that Parson Weems invented the cherry-tree chopping in order to show Washington’s honesty.

          • Paul earlier opposed this religious movement. It didn’t start with him. Even if you are correct that religions typically begin with some sort of religious experience, why would you make that Paul’s, rather than that of say Jesus of Nazareth?

            You seem to be trying very hard to distort the evidence so that it resembles an analogy which would support a purely mythical Jesus. When you have to distort the evidence to reach the conclusion that you hope to, isn’t it better to simply follow the evidence towards a different conclusion?

          • The reason I start with Paul is because he is my earliest source and he doesn’t tell me anything about religious experiences that Jesus of Nazareth had or even that Jesus of Nazareth had any religious experiences. Paul tells me about religious experiences he had with the risen Christ sometime after Jesus of Nazareth was dead. That looks to me like a better analogy to the religious experiences that Joseph Smith had with Moroni and Muhammad had with the Angel Gabriel.

            Now it is true that Paul indicates that others had religious experiences with the risen Christ before he did, but he doesn’t say much of anything about them, nor does he indicate that they were different in any significant way from the ones that he had. Moreover, it appears to me that it was Paul who worked out the theological meaning of those experiences so I think that it may still make sense to treat Paul’s experiences as the ones that gave birth to the movement.

            I don’t think that there is much here that I can be certain about, but I think that it is a possibility that doesn’t require any distortion of the evidence.

          • Treating Paul as though he were the founder of the movement is itself a distortion of the evidence, from Paul’s own letters.

          • We have been through all this before, but clearly your aversion to revisiting points is not as great as you pretend.

            (1) Paul never tells us why he was persecuting his predecessors.

            (2) Paul claims that his predecessors contributed nothing to his message.

            (3) Paul claims says that he preached for three years after his conversion before he even bothered to go to meet his predecessors.

            While we cannot take everything Paul says at face value, neither do we have any way to determine what the movement looked like before he came along and the extent to which it was shaped by Paul’s contribution.

          • And since a historian cannot embrace a supernatural scenario in which Paul ends up with a common message to those who were in the movement before him through a miracle, one has to posit a more mundane explanation.

            And it is clear from his letters that Paul’s appeal to miraculous revelation has to do (1) with his having had a dramatic experience of going from persecutor to adherent, and (2) his desire to assert this authority and independence in relation to the Jerusalem pillars.

            So why exactly should a historian think that Paul’s experience was indicative of how the movement began?

            And why should any of that be taken to detract from the impression given by Paul’s references to having met Jesus’ brother, and to his having been of the line of David, and crucified, and buried, not to mention the impression given in the Gospels, which, if they were written decades later, include traditions which were shaped in Paul’s time, as the connection of Mark 13 to the Caligula crisis makes clear?

          • Another more mundane explanation is that the extent of agreement between Paul and his predecessors wasn’t really as great as he made it out to be. The problem is reconciling Paul’s claim that his predecessors added nothing to his message with his claim that they were in complete agreement. Why do you accuse me of distorting the evidence simply because I recognize the possibility that the problem may be at least as much with the latter claim as with the former?

            I don’t think that we can be certain that Paul’s experience is indicative of how the movement started, but the historian has to work the available evidence and the evidence for Paul’s experience is the earliest available evidence for anyone in the movement plus it is first person evidence. That makes it vastly superior to the evidence for Jesus’s experiences which consists of writings of unknown authorship based on unknown sources which are themselves removed an unknown number of times in an oral tradition from the originators of that tradition who themselves may or may not have been witnesses to any relevant events. I think that is more than sufficient reason for the historian to start with Paul and to recognize that attempts to go beyond Paul are necessarily more speculative.

          • And Paul gives some indication that his story is atypical.

            Historians will start with Paul. And they will try to avoid reading later sources back into Paul. But unlike mythicists, they won’t try desperately to drive a wedge between Paul and the Gospels when the two fit together. Historians will not pretend that because a source is perhaps a decade later than another, it is to be ignored. Mark is no later that the latest of Paul’s letters, than the latest of Paul’s letters is in relation to his earliest.

            When Paul says in 1 Corinthians that the same basic message is proclaimed by him as by other apostles, that claim was verifiable. There were those in that location who claimed a connection with Peter or others rather than with Paul.

            All possibilities deserve consideration. But when one scenario fits the evidence better than the others, why not accept that it is more likely? Why insist on trying to justify agnosticism when there the evidence points towards a particular scenario being more likely?

          • Oh c’mon. You aren’t going to pull that apologetic claptrap of Paul had to tell the truth because everyone would have known he was lying, are you?

            Moreover, if, as I suspect, it was Paul who worked out the theological meaning of the death and resurrection, then the fact that everyone agreed on the basic message could show that the others were following him, not that he was following them.

            Since when is it established that Mark is no later than the latest of Paul’s letters? Is there even a consensus among scholars that Mark knew Paul’s writings?

          • Sorry, that last point ended up worded poorly. I was trying to say that Mark is not later in comparison with Paul’s latest letters, than his latest are in comparison to his earliest. And the Gospel of Mark was shaped by events that are contemporaneous with Paul’s letters.

            If Paul wrote to a group that included people associated with other apostles, and said that he and they agree on the basic core of the Christian message, do you have a good reason to doubt that he was telling the truth, when such a claim could easily be disputed? One can always come up with an objection, but you never seem to sense that you are crossing the boundary between reasonable doubt into denialism.

          • Ian

            Mark is not later in comparison with Paul’s latest letters, than his latest are in comparison to his earliest.

            Still not sure I understand this. You mean, the gap of time between Paul’s first and last letter is longer than the gap from Paul’s last letter to Mark’s gospel? Or, given the lack of significant theological development (w.r.t. the mythicist / historicist question) during Paul’s career, it seems unlikely that the basic narrative foundation of the faith should completely change over the comparably shorter time until Mark’s gospel?

            Just clarifying.

          • I was trying to say the former, or rather that the amount of time in both cases is comparable, since it is hard to be precise enough to say more than that. Thanks for helping to clarify what I meant!

          • During every election cycle Republican candidates will claim that they all agree on essential points when it suits their purposes and they will claim that there are fundamental differences at other times. Democrats do the exact same thing. Fundamentalist Protestants invoke traditional Judeo-Christian values when it suits their purposes and then turn around and deny that Mormons and Catholics are even Christians. Joseph Smith claimed that his teachings were consistent with what the Bible really taught.

            I cannot see any reason to attach any significance to a vague claim to unity.

          • And perhaps Paul was merely pretending to be a Christian so that he could undermine it from within. The possibilities are endless. But once again, historians can either not bother trying to reconstruct history, since it may have been otherwise, or can deduce what it is possible to about what is most likely.

            But you occasionally make statements – about Paul’s role as essentially the founder of Christianity, or about his claim to unity being vague – which suggest to me that the issue is not an unwillingness on your part to draw conclusions, but a combination of a lack of detailed familiarity with the sources, and a willingness to speculate selectively when you feel like it.

          • There are some things that a historian has to take with a grain of salt. A general’s estimate of the size of the force he is facing is one. A religious leader’s claims that other religious leaders agree with him is another. That’s not denialism. It’s just basic knowledge of human nature.

            Paul’s letters are filled with conflicts between different factions. How could we possibly take claims of unity at face value?

          • No one is suggesting taking anything at face value. I am suggesting taking what Paul write with a grain of salt, instead of ignoring it and engaging in flights of fancy.

          • That a religious leader might overstate the extent of agreement between himself and others is not a flight of fancy. It is an observation of human nature.

            On the other hand, you want to ignore what Paul says about his predecessors adding nothing to his message. However, if my guess is correct that Paul was the one who worked out the theological meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, than that may actually be a reasonably accurate statement.

            I simply have a different guess than you do about the degree of bullshit propaganda in various statements Paul makes. The difference is that I recognize that the evidence is insufficient for me to do much more than guess while you insist on claiming that you have probability on your side.

          • No, you have not been treating Paul’s statement as overstatement. You have been saying that we can’t know that those other Christians believed anything remotely like Paul did, and so we have to start with Paul.

          • No. I haven’t been saying that, but if it makes it easier for you to dismiss it, go ahead and believe I am saying that.

          • You seem not to have room for the nuance that your own statements claim. We can learn things even from propaganda. I don’t want you to ignore anything. I have no problem with others not having added anything to Paul’s message – how is that not something that meshes well with his own claim that you have been not merely qualifying but dismissing, that he and other apostles agreed on the core message? Why do you dismiss some things entirely and yet accept others at face value, with no evidence of a guiding principle other than what will allow you to continue to dismiss mainstream historical scholarship?

          • I agree that Paul’s claim that others agree with him meshes well with his claim that others agree with.

          • Just to clarify, which passage in 1 Corinthians are you reading as Paul’s assertion that he and the other apostles agreed on the core message?

          • 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

          • Doesn’t the rest of that chapter suggest that in fact the Corinthians were getting mixed messages and that they didn’t understand the difference between the various messages they were getting? Doesn’t that cast some doubt on both the idea that everyone was in agreement as well the idea that the Corinthians were able to recognize theological differences?

          • I think that we are wandering further and further from the topic, but in short, most interpreters think that the Corinthians’ disconnect with what Paul thought had to do more either with their over-realized eschatology or the strangeness of the notion of bodily resurrection from the perspective of so much Greek and Roman thought.

          • The point is that the Corinthians didn’t understand Paul’s position on the point. So when Paul tells them that everybody else agrees with him, why should we think that they understood anyone else’s position on the point well enough to know whether Paul was telling the truth?

          • How does what you wrote relate to what the text actually says? Why, because there were different views of resurrection, would that mean that they disagrees about the things Paul says they agreed about?

            You sound like you are just trying to be contrarian about everything just for the sake of doing so. At what point, if ever, do you stop and ask, yes, it is always possible that these sources meant something else, but is my alternative suggestion likely?

          • My alternative suggestion is that Paul may have misrepresented the extent to which all the apostles agreed because it suited his purposes to paint a picture of unity at that time. Since I can think of actual examples of religious leaders doing this, I cannot assess that possibility as unlikely.

          • We have photographs and videos of Ron Wyatt. As far as I can see, Occam’s razor will have to be torn to shreds before those videos and photos can be said to be faked.
            Also, how could anyone forge a siege ramp, fortification system, and a destruction layer? The closest thing that comes to Lachish-siege denial these days is Velikovskyanism and Eduard Lipinski’s opinions, and even they are not as unparsimonous as to suggest that the Lachish siege didn’t happen. Lachish-siege denialists not only have to deal with the Israel Museum artifacts; they have to deal with a whole tell and siege ramp!

            Jesus non-historicity proponents have much less to explain away. There is no archaeological evidence for Jesus, the gospels contain much fiction, and the only independent material we have to go by are Christian texts and (possibly) Josephus. As far as I can see, all of Paul’s statements about Jesus are fully compatible with an understanding of Jesus as a channeled figure (if you have any strong arguments countering this assertion of mine, please mention them in your response).

          • The convenient fact is that most denialists never go to archaeological sites or archives and so can persuade themselves that even literally solid evidence might be a forgery.

            But that is neither here nor there. Obviously a battle with archaeological evidence is harder for a denialist to deny. It takes extra work, because some historical events and persons are better documented then others. The point is not that all historical persons and events are equally well documented, but that, no matter how far into the side of “more likely existed” they happen to be, denialist tools can be used to persuade oneself that historical events and persons are not that. All it takes is the will to deny.

          • Coincidentally, I have a Great Pyramid Khufu-cartouche authenticity opponent posting here who has actually tried to visit the Great Pyramid.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘The comparison between Jesus and birthers (i.e. those who claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States) is apt…’

    In other words, the Gospels declare that Jesus was not born in Galilee, and McGrath compare people who doubt the Gospels to birthers!

    When it is his evangelists who were the first birthers….

    Who says Americans can’t do irony?