Does Christianity Disprove Mythicism?

Does Christianity Disprove Mythicism? September 6, 2014

Jerry Coyne has been very candid about the anti-religious motivation that leads him and other atheists to want Jesus not to have existed, to find it advantageous if Jesus did not exist. Of course, he doesn’t seem to have grasped the extent to which solid evidence that Jesus existed but was different from what Christians claim might be even more desirable from that perspective. But I appreciate the honesty, even if it has not yet been matched with a recognition that we need to be cautious about our desires distorting our perception.

Coyne also shared a guest post from Ben Goren, offering what he calls “The Jesus Challenge.” Here’s what he is talking about:

  1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some randomschmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?
  2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.
  3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose?
  4. There will be lots of other significant pieces of evidence that contradict your hypothetical Jesus. Even literalist Christians have the Apocrypha to contend with, and most everybody else is comfortable observing widespread self-contradiction merely within the New Testament itself. Offer a reasonable standard by which evidence that contradicts your own position may be dismissed, and apply it to an example or two.
  5. Take at least a moment to explain how Jesus could have gone completely unnoticed by all contemporary writers (especially those of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Pliny the Elder, and the various Roman Satirists) yet is described in the New Testament as an otherworldly larger-than-life divine figure who was spectacularly publicly active throughout the region.
  6. Last, as validation, demonstrate your methods reliable by applying them to other well-known examples from history. For example, compare and contrast another historical figure with an ahistorical figure using your standards.

Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to take his own challenge seriously – he suggests that Jesus was a figure in a syncretistic cult, pointing to Justin Martyr as evidence. He largely ignores, and when he doesn’t he distorts, the evidence from earlier sources. Jumping to the Gospel of Matthew, without noting that the supernatural element at the crucifixion has increased compared to Mark, is not doing justice to the evidence. Goren also ignores the possibility that Justin may have been responding to people who were distorting the evidence for precisely the same reason that Jerry Coyne does, motivated as indicated above.

Be that as it may, I’d like to suggest (as the title of this post indicates), that “Christianity” is evidence against precisely Goren’s sort of mythicist scenario, which imagines Jesus being invented as part of a savior cult with a purely mythical or celestial figure.

Obvious problems with this include that Paul gives this figure an ordinary human name, and says things about him – such as that he was descended from David – which it is very hard to transfer to the celestial realm, and impossible to do so in a way that seems more likely to be what Paul meant than what professional historians understand him to have meant.

One tactic I’ve seen used to deal with this is to push the celestial stage back even earlier than Paul, so that by Paul’s time the euhemerization process has begun.

But that doesn’t work, because of “Christianity.” Not the movement, but the term itself, the label.

In Paul’s time, the movement that he was part of apparently did not even have a clear label that had been affixed to it. He doesn’t use the term “Christian.” He talks about those who are “in Christ” and “Christ’s” (i.e. in the anointed one and belonging to the anointed one).

Trying to push the origins back to the distant past, long before the time of Paul, is yet one more move by mythicists that poorly fits the evidence.

What do you think of Goren’s challenge? Would it be worth my time to undertake it, given the ample evidence that mythicists are resistant to changing their minds even in light of abundant historical scholarship, never mind single blog posts?

If you were to tackle Goren’s challenge, how would you do it? Use the comments section to present your cases!

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  • Anthony Lawson

    As an atheist I find the whole mythicist enterprise unconvincing, seeing that they typically engage hypercritical methods that ultimately would leave us in doubt of anyone’s existence.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      There is a brilliant essay, written in 1818, that uses such methods to prove that we cannot know whether Napoleon Bonaparte ever existed. It is of course written tongue-in-cheek, and is delightfully wicked when you remember that Napoleon was still alive in 1818.

      • I think that the essay you are referring to is the one included in this volume:

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Actually, I was referring to Richard Whateley’s 1819 essay (I originally stated that it was written in 1818–my mistake), “Historic Doubts Relative To Napoleon Buonaparte,” although the essay you cite here does also look interesting.

          You can find it at

      • Kris Rhodes

        I noted something about this on your blog a few weeks ago, though you understandably decided not to publish the comment, explaining that my post about how your argument doesn’t address the best mythicist arguments was not on topic to your post about how this argument does address mythicist arguments.

        What I noted was that this tongue-in-cheek argument doesn’t actually address the best mythicist arguments. It parodies the application of a hyperskeptical approach to the evidence, when the best mythicist arguments don’t apply a hyperskeptical approach to the evidence. Indeed, skepticism of any degree is not a particularly important part of their arguments, except to the extent that some degree of it is necessary to make any progress in any pursuit at all. Rather, the best mythicist arguments (which you have implied that you have read, so I don’t need to tell you this, but for everyone else’s sake…) put forth hypotheses drawn _from_ the evidence.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          That might well be true, but it certainly does address Goren’s above. And I would suggest that there aren’t any “best” mythicist arguments, just ones that aren’t as egregiously horrible as others.

          • Kris Rhodes

            //I would suggest that there aren’t any “best” mythicist arguments, just ones that aren’t as egregiously horrible as others.//

            Dr. Bernier, I think what you’re trying to say is that while there ARE “best” mythicist arguments, these arguments are nevertheless not good arguments. Though you know I think some are good, the post you’re specifically replying to does not imply the contrary of what you’ve said here. It was carefully phrased so as not to do so.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            You’re right: it doesn’t imply the contrary. I just like playing with language sometimes.

  • Bethany

    So I’ve seen several blog posts about this over recent days and one thing that frustrates me is seeing people insist that there’s no evidence that Jesus existed. “Where’s the evidence? Show me the evidence!”

    There’s been two books for the general public published on this topic recently, both by atheists if that matters to them. They could go read those.

    Or if they’re not interested enough to do that (which is an entirely reasonable stance) they could figure that the almost-universal agreement among scholars suggests that there probably is, is fact, evidence.


    I was amused by the end of the first post you link to: “Yet if that’s a real quote from Ehrman, and not taken out of context,
    why does he claim with such assurance that a historical Jesus existed?”

    Apparently the blogger knows Ehrman has written a book explaining exactly why he claims with such assurance that a historical Jesus existed, since the fact is mentioned earlier in the post. So answering that question is pretty easy. But that wouldn’t provide the nice rhetorical flourish with the implication that Ehrman is incompetent and/or inconsistent, would it?

    • It is easy to read his book and see why Ehrman claims to be certain “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt,” but I agree with Coyne that the problems Ehrman identifies with the evidence in many of his books are inconsistent with the degree of certainty he expresses in Did Jesus Exist?

  • Jonathan Bernier

    “[Y]ou’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.” That’s just bad methodology. Read R.G. Collingwood, writing 70 years ago, in which he describes such an approach as not being history at all. Note that Collingwood wasn’t a historical Jesus or even a NT scholar, but was simply talking about the philosophical conditions necessary for making affirmations in historical investigation. He calls this way of approaching things “scissors-and-paste.”

  • Benjamin Martin

    Do you find it disadvantageous if Jesus did not exist? Ferreting out agendas goes both ways.

    • I don’t see that a purely mythical Jesus would be any more problematic than the historical Jesus that historical investigation reveals, who predicted that the kingdom of God would dawn within the lifetime of his hearers, and turned out to he have been mistaken. And so no, I don’t think it would be disadvantageous if Jesus did not exist. But I think it is disadvantageous to human beings living in our time to accept problematic arguments for his non-existence, of a sort used by other denialists, since, as Clifford famously warned in his essay “The Ethics of Belief,” we should not believe on the basis of inadequate evidence, because even if the belief in question is theoretically harmless, we are training ourselves to be gullible, and that has consequences. Yet even though the Jesus mythicists have been shown time and time again to be cranks who misrepresent the evidence, self-proclaimed freethinkers accept what they say. It won’t disturb Christians, who will look and say “See, those atheists are so easily misled!” But it will disturb anyone concerned about education, history, and the means that denialists use to deceive and mislead.

      • Benjamin Martin

        The opinion a mythical Jesus—implying no sacrifice and resurrection—is acceptable to Christian faith is as “fringe” as those arguing a mythical Jesus.

        • So what if it is? What the fields of historical study or biology conclude does not change just because it is found acceptable or unacceptable by adherents to this or that religion.

      • Bethany

        It wouldn’t be problematic for historians if Jesus didn’t exist, but it seems to me that it would be pretty problematic for Christianity and Christian belief.

        Which doesn’t change the empirical evidence supports the existence of Jesus, of course, but I do think it would have been a problem for Christianity if it didn’t.

        Well, I mean, at least some of the people would do the same thing as the people who feel that the theory of evolution or the Big Bang or whatever is problematic for Christianity — they’d deny the evidence existed. So it’s not like it would destroy Christianity. But I think that objectively it would a problem in a way that evolution isn’t. Not necessarily insurmountable but definitely an issue.

  • Neko

    Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was.

    This seems like how not to start the quest. The evidence should suggest possibilities for who Jesus may have been.

    • Benjamin Martin

      “But here in the U.S. our sectarian Christians merely quarrel like talent agencies disputing who owns the screen rights to the Jesus Christ story. We’re hassling over the ownership to one of the most valuable properties of all time.”

      –Timothy Leary (2005) Chapter 3: Who Owns the Jesus Property? Start Your Own Religion. Ronin Publishing. p. 36.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      It does seem like he’s counselling one to put the cart before the horse, doesn’t it?

      • Neko

        Yes! Goren invites “believers” to proceed in the very way mythicists accuse HJ scholars of wrongly proceeding. The fix is in!

        [edited out because reflected badly on my ability to distinguish between mythicists and post got overlong]

        Update, no longer directed at JB: So I started reading some of the gazillion comments over there, and by way of responding to a different point of contention Goren says:

        It’s the one thing that historicists dare not do: let themselves get pinned down on who and / or what Jesus actually was. The rest of the points mostly just go to illustrate why that’s the case.

        And if nobody is even willing to define Jesus, how on Earth does anybody expect us to even have an intelligible conversation on whether or not he might have existed?

        He first complains that historicists acknowledge the historical Jesus is elusive. Well, they do, but they also develop quite expansive theories about what he might have been like, so it’s not true “they dare not.” A commonly defined Jesus: “Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet crucified under Pontius Pilate around 30 AD.” Another: “Jesus was a wisdom teacher crucified under Pontius Pilate around 30 AD.” Therefore Goren’s second complaint is moot.

    • I don’t think he is saying that the quest starts there; just that the statement of your conclusion should start there, however, even on that count I’m not sure it isn’t stacking the deck. One might conclude that six or seven different versions of the historical Jesus are possible given the evidence, e.g., zealot, stoic, apocalyptic prophet, etc., and the probability that one of them is true is higher that the probability of mythicism being true. Goren is demanding a one on one contest, but mythicism wouldn’t be justified simply if it were more probable than any specific historical Jesus.

      • Neko

        You’re right on that last point. Of course I used “quest” ironically. And the issue isn’t which Jesus one would argue for, but whether Jesus existed at all.

        Meanwhile, who on earth is Ben Goren to set the terms? If he’s convinced of the dying-and-rising-gods thing and wondering why the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t mention Jesus I’m thinking “James, the brother of the Lord” isn’t going to rock his world. (Yes, that was just for you, Vinny!)

      • Jonathan Bernier

        It occurs to me that historians are still deeply divided over what motivated Hitler. No one would argue that if you eliminated all the hypotheses aimed to explain his motivations that we would then have reason to doubt his existence. But that seems exactly the same logic here. Because in truth, when you get down to it, there is broad consensus on the details of Jesus’ life: that he spent most of his life in and around the Galilee; that he was active during the reign of Tiberius; that he was engaged in some sort of activity that is intelligible within a Jewish framework; that he was crucified as a result of that activity; that subsequent to his crucifixion his erstwhile followers got the band back together and started this thing that became Christianity. Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine many NT scholars disagreeing with that basic outline of his life, and that’s not bad when you consider that we’re talking about a Jewish peasant who lived and died upwards up of two thousand years ago. The real disagreements come when we try to work out the framework in which Jesus operated, i.e. his motivations, what Ben F. Meyer called “the aims of Jesus,” in a monograph by that title. And just as I do not doubt Hitler’s existence because historians still disagree about his motivations neither do I doubt Jesus’ for the same reason.

        • Yes, but there’s just as much disagreement about Jesus’s specific actions as there is about his motivations. The Gospels aren’t exactly solid history.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Perhaps. But is the disagreement that much greater than with other ancient figures? You will see comparable disagreements in discussions regarding why particular emperors pursued particular policies. You’ll see disagreements about which policies exactly they pursued, and when. For instance, there is debate about whether Claudius adopted an anti-Jewish policy in 41 or 49, or both. Each position can be argued from the data. There are also disputes regarding his motivation. And not for nothing he was considered a divine figure already whilst alive and officially after his death. So we have a figure, thought to be divine, whose actions and motivations are in dispute. Should we thus conclude that he never existed?

            Again, I’m actually not sure that the situation is much different with Jesus. Pretty much everyone agrees that Jesus gathered disciples, that he spent time in the Galilee preaching, that he eventually went to Jerusalem, that he taught and engaged in some sort of healing ministry, that he performed at some point (or more than one point) some sort of demonstration in the temple. The questions occur when we get to a level of detail actually in excess of where historians tend to venture. Few historians spend effort trying to reconstruct the exact words that a particular person might have uttered and when. And truthfully I’m not sure what historiographic advance would accrue from resolving such questions of myopic detail. On the really important matters, frankly I don’t think the difference of opinion is as great as a cursory glance at the field might suggest, especially when you note that most scholars fall into one of only a small handful of schools of thought on the matter.

          • Pretty much everyone agrees that Jesus gathered disciples, that he spent time in the Galilee preaching, that he eventually went to Jerusalem, that he taught and engaged in some sort of healing ministry, that he performed at some point (or more than one point) some sort of demonstration in the temple.

            -Pretty much none of that is in the Pauline epistles, and the Cleansing of the Temple is an obvious fiction:

          • I think that the Cleansing of the Temple has obviously been fictionalized, but creating a disturbance in the temple isn’t a bad candidate as a reason for the Romans to crucify someone.

            The fact that our earliest source corroborates almost none of the facts about which historians claim to be certain is a problem for me.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            “Pretty much none of that is in the Pauline epistles.” Well, yeah. I’ve read them a time or two myself and am quite aware of that fact. And I ask: so what? Paul’s silence on these matters is meaningful if and only if you can determine two things: 1) if they were in fact the case then Paul would have known about them; 2) if Paul knew about them then he would have reported upon them. Do you actually know that both these things are true? If so, how? Or are you just making it up?

            Note that the site that you cite rests upon bad historiography. It suggests that either one “accept” in their entirety the gospel accounts or one arbitrarily picks and chooses what one prefers. That’s the logic of the fundamentalist, not the historian: all is true or nothing is true. The fundamentalist choose “all,” the mythicist “nothing,” but they are still working with the same calculus. It’s not history. Read Collingwood’s *Idea of History* for crying out loud. He tore about this way of thinking seventy years ago, calling it “scissors-or-paste” history, and in fact saying that it’s not history at all.

            If you’re not willing to do the work of reading actual philosophy of history in order to understand why the arguments in that site do not constitute actual historical argumentation then at least check out my blog posts on Collingwood and the nature of historical judgment. Note that all I do in these posts is summarize and point the reader towards the thoughts of the masters on the matter, whilst offering some hopefully helpful suggestions as to their relevance for historical Jesus studies.


          • Note that the site that you cite rests upon bad historiography.

            -No; it doesn’t. It asks the right question: why accept a baseless “historical” version of the Cleansing of the Temple when the first version we have can easily be explained as pure fiction without any necessity for a historical Cleansing? Saying that the Cleansing happened, but didn’t happen the way it’s described in Mark, is much like saying Santa Claus is real, and hates kids, has never been to the North of New England, and lives in Florida (I’m paraphrasing someone else from one of the Coyne threads; I just can’t remember who). We might as well throw out the original text entirely. It’s Euhemerism.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            The unstated minor here is that if we can explain it as fiction without referring to a historical event then we should. Please give warranted for that unstated minor.

            Edit: I just realized that I made a mistake. It’s an unstated major, actually. It looks like this: If any given account might be ahistorical it should be considered to be ahistorical. The minor premise is then that the four canonical accounts of the cleansing of the temple might each be ahistorical. The conclusion is that therefore that each is ahistorical. Please provide reasonable warrant for the major premise. Spoiler alert: there ain’t going to be reasonable warrant because the major premise is demonstrably unsound for at least two reasons.

          • If any given account might be ahistorical it should be considered to be ahistorical.

            -This is definitely not one of my premises.

            My premises are these:

            1. All the other versions of the Cleansing of the Temple are based on Mark.

            2. Mark’s version of the Cleansing of the Temple is highly historically implausible.

            3. Mark’s version of the Cleansing of the Temple, whether fictional or historical, clearly serves an allegorical role in Mark’s narrative.

            Considering all the above premises, a historical Cleansing of the Temple is unnecessary, arbitrary and without basis in the evidence. It’s making an explanation much more complex than it needs to be. There are plenty of unevidenced events that might have happened, but, as the ideas that lead one to believe that they did happen do not pay rent and are ad hoc, they serve no use and are very likely to lead to incorrect conclusions.

            The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained.

            -Burton Mack

          • Jim

            So this is unequivocal proof that the writer of the gospel of John relied on Mark’s Temple cleaning account? WTF are points 1 and 2 anyway? You know, there were aliens in my living room last night – I know with absolute certainty because I found quartz bits on my rug.

          • Alright, Jim, if John’s Cleansing wasn’t based on Mark’s, from where did it come? Don’t appeal to random oral tradition unless you can show it’s a better candidate than Mark. We know Mark exists and existed in John’s time. We don’t know random oral tradition about the Cleansing of the Temple existed in John’s time. Though it’s by no means certain John copied from Mark, that is the hypothesis that makes the fewest unwarranted assumptions.

          • Bethany

            Not only is it “by no means certain” that John copied from Mark, the general consensus is that he didn’t. There are a few scholars who don’t agree with that, sure, but that doesn’t prove that John absolutely copied from Mark.

            If not from Mark, where did it come from? From older oral traditions. That’s the whole point of multiple attestation.

            I wouldn’t call John copying from Mark the hypothesis that makes the fewest unwarranted assumptions. What textual evidence is there that John copied from Mark except that the Gospel of Mark was written earlier so that it’s possible the author of John have known about it?

            (Paul does mention the twelve, BTW.)

          • I stand by my previous comment.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            You are free to do so, of course. That however does not make your comment anything other than bad historiography.

          • How? You’re not going to convince anyone by merely stating your conclusions.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Actually, I didn’t just state my conclusions. I observed that the historiography on that site and which you continue to suppose fly in the face of a century of philosophy of history. Go look up said philosophy of history. That’s not a conclusion: it’s a statement of fact, and anyone with even the slightest knowledge of currents in the philosophy of history over the last century or so would know that to be the case. I cannot be faulted for your ignorant of such matters.

          • Jim

            Yeah, “my unequivocal candidate” is that I absolutely don’t know one way or the other because there is no relevant unearthed data on this to date, so I lean towards more cautious statements. But hey, that’s just me. If you ever write a book on the current consensus on this, pros and cons, I will buy it.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Very sage, Jim. It goes back to a basic rule I learned early in my graduate student days: history is messy. I think it quite probable that Matthew and Luke incorporated much of Mark’s Gospel into their respective accounts, just as I think it quite likely that Luke also incorporated much of Matthew’s. I also think it likely that Matthew and Luke heard much of the material that they found in Mark’s Gospel independent of that text. I’ll bet that they heard about it in homilies, in catechesis, etc. And one can only exclude those possibilities from one’s analyses by adopting a completely ahistorical understanding of early Christianity, one in which there are in fact only texts but no one writing or reading or using or discussing them. In short, only one who is not doing history at all could exclude these human dimensions, but such a person thereby excludes her or his arguments from serious consideration as historical arguments.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Your argument would make a great deal of sense Mr. Harding if we thought that early Christians only communicated with each other via texts. But they obviously didn’t. Therefore you are ruling out a whole set of possibilities, known as human realities. But interestingly enough you have also to deal with the fact that Markan Priority is itself contestable, as are the dates of Mark’s Gospel and John’s. If I have learned one thing it’s to avoid building too much upon orderings of the gospels.

          • I wish this book chapter of mine were online in its entirety. It addresses this very topic.

          • Jim

            Sorry, I had totally missed your comment. For me, “the hypothesis that makes the fewest unwarranted assumptions” is that John knew little about the gospel of Mark. There is reasonable evidence that Matthew incorporated around 90% of Mark while Luke included about 50% (based on nearly verbatim sequences). If I’ve understood correctly, there is little verbatim overlap between Mark and John. Now this doesn’t prove with absolute certainty that John did not know of Mark or take any ideas from Mark. However, the notion of borrowing would be better supported if a level of overlap approaching that found with the other two synoptics could be demonstrated. Without such evidence, at least for me, the idea that John used Mark’s Temple cleansing narrative “contains the fewest unwarranted assumptions” might be jumping the gun.

          • Besides, this isn’t “unequivocal proof that the writer of the gospel of John relied on Mark’s Temple cleaning account”. That’s one of the premises. If you don’t like this premise, support your own.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            That’s not how it works. Your premise is in fact the conclusion to a previous argument. Your job, if you want to sustain your case, is to show why that conclusion is valid and sound. If you have not done that work then your premise, as it stands, is suspect.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I don’t think you quite understand the relationship between premises and conclusions. What you cite here aren’t actually premises, not really. They are conclusions that one can reach from previous investigations. They can become premises for subsequent arguments, but only if you can show that these conclusions and only these conclusions are the most reasonable for the questions that they answer. In other words, you have to show that they are sound. You have to do the work. Merely stating that these are your premises does not oblige me to think that they are sound.

          • All premises are “conclusions that one can reach from previous investigations”. The last two premises are defended in the Vridar posts I linked to; the first I presume due to avoidance of unnecessarily multiplying entities. Again, if you’d like to challenge any of my premises, please do so.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Actually, it’s not true that all premises are conclusions that one can reach from previous investigations. Premises include also statements about how one should proceed methodologically, which might or might result from investigation. For instance, the premise “Investigation is necessary to generate a premise” cannot come from previous investigation, for obvious reasons of logic (not if it is to be considered sound, that is).

            But again, show me your work. Don’t just link to some internet site. Show me why these premises are sound. Show me via a valid flow of argument why these lead to the conclusions that you want to reach. ‘Cause right now I really have no idea what are your premises, what are your conclusions, what is your logic, and that’s because you haven’t laid it out for me. Lay it out.

          • Many other ancient figures (e.g., Augustus, Tiglath-Pileser III, Hezekiah) have some kind of instrumental role in history, connecting past and present, in which they must be historical for them to play their respective role. Jesus doesn’t. There are plenty of events that his role in history led to, but none of these events require that Jesus be historical. There’s also not a lot of immediate and necessary background or past that inevitably had to lead to a historical Jesus. Perhaps this is why Jesus non-historicism is so popular.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            “There are plenty of events that his role in history led to, but none of these events require that Jesus be historical.”–That is really just bizarre. Jesus had a role in history, yet might not have been historical? And I have no idea what the next sentence (“There’s also not a lot of immediate and necessary background or past that inevitably had to lead to a historical Jesus”) could possibly mean. As for “why Jesus non-historicism is so popular,” I didn’t know that it was. More than 50% of the world’s population belong to religious traditions (i.e. Christianity and Islam) that put not a little significance upon Jesus, a significance predicated upon his historical existence. Only two NT scholars have said that they think it likely that Jesus did not exist. Compared to all that what is a small circle of skeptics, whose “communities,” such as they are, exist almost entirely on the interwebs? If you want to start talking popularity and numbers mythicism ain’t going to come out looking so hot.

          • When I say “so”, I only mean “as much as it is”, no more and no less.

            Amun certainly had a role in history, yet, he certainly wasn’t historical.

            If you knew all that is currently known about Roman Palestine up to 40 AD (except about the rise of Christianity), but you knew nothing about the origin, rise, and spread of Christianity, would you really predict that a religion based on a guy called Jesus would take over a third of the world? No. This is what I mean by “There’s also not a lot of immediate and necessary background or past that inevitably had to lead to a historical Jesus”.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Sure, I wouldn’t predict that. Then again, if I knew everything about biological evolution up to c. 250 mya I would never be able to predict that there would be, a) mammals, some of which would evolve into b) primates, one species of which would c) take over the entirety of the world. But so what? Does it follow then that mammals never existed? Of course not. That would be foolish. And why? Simple: evolution is retrospective not predictive. Turns out, so is history.

          • But historical Jesus scholars do tend to venture into that level of detail. They will talk about specific sayings or teachings being highly probable. Classicists will admit that they cannot be sure what if any things Socrates really said and what things Plato used him as mouthpiece for despite having the writings of three people who knew him personally. HJ scholars, on the other hand, think they can tease historical facts out of anonymous writings removed an unknown number of times in decades or oral tradition from anyone who knew Jesus.

            I recall listening to a lecture in which a professor of Roman history talked about Caesar’s wife warning him not to go to the senate on the ides of March because of a dream she had. He said that historians recognized that there was no way to tell whether such a story had any basis in fact. It seems to me that HJ scholars are often arguing about that level of detail in the life of Jesus.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I would agree re: the tendencies of HJ scholarship, but I would add a caveat: the last decade has seen a shift in this matter, largely as a result of Dunn’s magisterial volume, *Jesus Remembered.* Now, the work isn’t perfect; I have quibbles with a great deal therein; yet I suspect that it will come to define the general shape of HJ students for the generation of scholars who entered graduate school around or not long after it was published. It counsels a move from the looking at the trees to looking at the forest, and that counsel is by and large being heeded. We’re now moving much more to thinking about HJ studies as just any other instance of historical investigation, rather than a discourse on to itself, and with that comes a tendency not to sweat the small stuff.

    • Though I disagree with Goren’s answers, Goren’s way to start the quest is a refreshing break from the trial-balloon floating that has characterized Jesus scholarship over the past century.

      • Neko

        What’s refreshing about it? I read through much of that thread, and Goren strikes me as an utterly familiar type: the loutish internet mythicist who relies on a combination of Biblical literalism and decontextualization to pose a “challenge” to the consensus. Goren offers (in so many words) that the gospel writers believed themselves to be producing documentaries and wonders, for example, why a miracle-worker like Jesus didn’t make headlines. Why engage such disingenuous notions (or plain willful ignorance), though many people made good-faith attempts to do so. But Goren doesn’t seem that interested in good-faith argument. Rather he’s staged a duck shoot and whether he hits or misses will ultimately claim victory and a teddy bear.

        • Yeah, I, too find Goren to be a pain in the butt for his severe ignorance and arrogance. I still think Jesus scholarship’s lack of consensus regarding the basic question of who Jesus was is a sign of dysfunction that should be replaced by clarity.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Even if we grant that the unclarity is as great as you suggest, would it follow that the clarity in order is to reject Jesus’ existence?

          • Not necessarily. That pushes the problem a step forward; it doesn’t necessarily solve it.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            In what does it push “the problem a step forward”?

          • “If Jesus was fictional, where, when, by whom, and why was he invented?”

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I don’t know. I don’t have an answer, because quite simply I think that the “If” condition is not satisfied, and thus I have no need to address the “Then.” But if you do think that the “If” condition is satisfied then you do need to address the “Then.”

          • I agree.

          • arcseconds

            Why should it be replaced by clarity?

          • arcseconds

            The data on who Jesus was is not exactly clear-cut, as you’ve no doubt noticed. When there’s some evidence, but it’s often a little obscure, then it’s usually the case that there are many plausible accounts.

            Exploring the space of plausible accounts is exactly what ought to be done in such a case, is it not? This is exactly how science proceeds when there’s scarce data and no sure way of determining a single likely story. Whence this demand for consensus and clarity, when the data clearly does not support that?

  • Bethany

    You know, looking at this “Jesus challenge” again, outside of some of the suggestions (like the idea you’re supposed to decide who Jesus was first and then look for evidence, instead of the other ways around) a lot it sounds like… well, history.

    Looking for evidence, coming up with criteria to try to determine what evidence is more likely to be accurate, applying them to a wide variety of potentially historical figures, isn’t that basically what historians do?

    If the challenge is basically, “Use the methods of studying history to study Jesus” then a lot of people have done that, and many have written books for the lay audience discussing their conclusions.

    (And the parts of the challenge that AREN’T basically “use the methods of doing history to study Jesus”… well, why on Earth should one use methods that AREN’T the methods of doing history to study Jesus as a historical figure?)

  • Jim

    Re your question, “What do you think of Goren’s challenge? Would it be worth my time to undertake it …”

    This could take up some of your valuable time … but you only live once, so I would vote “hell yeah, do it”. There’s no winning this challenge, especially if the evaluator is anti-logic, but I think there is much value to having a logical and concise response to the posed questions from a current historical Jesus perspective even if the challenge is “a fixed no win”. The response could actually serve as a positive portal to further dialogue on a topic that just won’t go away any time soon.

    In order to minimize your time though, I would propose that you might consider posting an initial draft of the response on your page for feedback before submitting the final. It might even be worth considering a separate blog post devoted to each question? The resulting blog dialogue may influence some parts of your final draft.

    If you do decide to go ahead with the challenge, I also hope you will do a follow up, this one critiquing each of Goren’s own answers. This might seem redundant, but on the other hand may also serve to drive the current status of the historical Jesus approach home, which should prove beneficial to both HJers and mythers alike.

    Sure this is a no win situation (even if Jesus himself appeared live and sang a pop song, it likely wouldn’t convince some mythers), but I think it could be fun. Does anyone else think something like this is logical, or have I been drinking too much Scotch today?

    • A few attempts to interact with Goren on Coyne’s blog have me thinking that taking this further would be a serious waste of time. But if others want to pursue this, I’d be happy to highlight what others say as guest posts on the blog.

      • Jim

        Yeah, after thinking about this a bit more, it is probably good not to waste any time on this as you mention.

        Initially, I thought it might be a forum to summarize current HJ consensus in light of Goren’s 6 questions because I’m not sure how many mythers know the current status of HJ research.

        The fact that Jerry Coyne banned you from his site may be an initial indicator that this whole thing could end up going emotional quickly, which doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

  • Kris Rhodes

    I don’t think you should take it, because I don’t think it’s a valid challenge. For example, he says that if you’re going to say Jesus was a rebel commander, you have to find a source that _says_ he was a rebel commander. But he’s wrong to require that.

    Edited to add: OTOH I think you _should_ take it, but should feel free to correct his implicit methodolgy where appropriate.

    • Jim

      I disagree. I think that in return Goren should be asked to produce an eyewitness account (or even within 40-50 years) that reveals a documented accusation that Paul was deliberately evoking euhemerization. Sure someone may say geez you’re an a$$ole for asking something like that, but people working in abiogenesis for example, have to work with way more challenging problems than that … welcome to academia. Just spewing though.

  • Benjamin Martin

    “The greatest scientists in history are great, precisely because they broke with the consensus.”
    —Michael Crichton

    • arcseconds

      So, you’ll be a big fan of Gene Ray of the Time Cube fame then?

      I can’t think of anyone who’s broken with the consensus quite as thoroughly as he has.

      • Creationists regularly tout themselves as flouters of consensus, too.

        Crichton is simply wrong. All scientists will try to add to our knowledge and move things in a new direction. The ones who are remembered are the ones who overturned a consensus by persuading scientists that there was good reason to change their minds on the subject.

        • arcseconds

          Breaking with the consensus certainly isn’t a sufficient condition for becoming a great scientist, at any rate, which is what the quote implies.

          I’m not sure why we’re appealing to a science fiction writer anyway. Does Crichton have some degree of expertise on the history of science of which I am not aware?

          The other point which is worth mentioning (that you’ve made plenty of times in the past) is that it’s never dilettantes that overturn consensus, and only very rarely amateurs. Virtually all of the famous consensus-breakers had very much the same kind of background and involvement as their peers. When amateurs do manage it (Michael Ventis is the one that springs to mind) they are typically extremely dedicated ones.

          Also, generally speaking the problem is recognised by the relevant community already, at least to some extent. Newton and Galileo were working at a time when the theory that had been incumbent for centuries was recognised as being problematic, and there was a lot of activity in creating models of the solar system, they (and Copernicus) are simply the most famous. Evolutionary theory was definitely ‘in the air’ when Darwin was working, and had been for some time. There were already experiments showing a constant speed of light no matter what the reference frame prior to 1905, and people were already expressing doubts about the aether theory (or more properly, theories), etc.

          The only case I can immediately think of when there was a consensus that was considered unproblematic and practically settled that was overturned by a single individual was the case with the stomach ulcers. I’m sure there are many others (I’m sure I know of others, I can’t think of them at the moment, though), but I think they tend to be comparatively minor matters, not fantastic new theories.

        • Bethany

          Indeed. It wasn’t breaking with consensus that made them great. Any kook can break with consensus. (Hey, maybe the Sun isn’t a star at all, but a giant ball of burning bacon! I’m rebelling against the consensus!) What gave them a lasting legacy was that they ultimately created a NEW consensus due to the explanatory power of their theories.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          And in point of fact, if you look at the history of science, it is often less the case that a consensus is overturned as it is corrected or superseded. Aristotle noted correctly that different objects fall at different rates, but wrongly concluded this was due to differences in mass. Galileo corrected that error, demonstrating that it was not mass that made the difference but rather air resistance. Newton superseded Galileo’s quite correct description by integrating it into a more mathematically precise understanding of physics. Einstein superseded Newton’s more precise understanding through his theories around relativity and all that. The interesting thing about this history is that in fact the only major correction occurred during the move from pre-scientific thought to scientific thought. When scientific thinking hits a discipline, such that its reasoning is constrained by empirical data, consensuses generally become a lot easier to attain, and their transformation much more controlled and systematic.

          • arcseconds

            There are reasons to think that Aristotle was assuming the existence of a resisting medium. Certainly he thought there could be no such thing as a vacuum. Also, the distinction between mass and weight is clearly a modern distinction, and care must be taken when translating Aristotle’s terms into ours. So I’m not sure it’s clear cut that Aristotle was wrong on this matter.

            (EDIT: I think you’re right in locating the big change in moving over to the modern concepts in the early modern period. But this isn’t simply a matter of discovering that Aristotle was wrong, or in deciding to think scientifically, but rather working out what concepts were actually needed, something that’s much more difficult to do than merely empirically disproving someone, and a process that took some time. For example, it took a while for the need for a distinction between momentum and kinetic energy to be recognised, partly because the ‘scientific’ metaphysics that were in vogue at the time really didn’t allow for this distinction. )

            Not to disagree entirely with what you’ve said here, but the consensus is achieved when it attains the situation of ‘normal science’ in Kuhn’s terminology. It doesn’t matter how scientific you are, if the phenomenon really hasn’t been investigated thoroughly before now and is quite novel, even the question of how to investigate it and what the questions actually are can be up in the air, and speculation is frequently rife. You can see this in pre-Darwinian evolutionary speculation, for example, or pre-continental drift geology, or even to some extent in the early years of quantum physics, and it seems pretty absurd to say that earlier biologists (e.g. Linneaus) or geologists were not approaching the matter scientifically.

            That means that even when you are approaching a matter scientifically (being appropriately constrained by data, etc), a consensus may still not be reached for decades, and maybe even longer.

            EDIT: But sure, it helps if you’re feeling constrained by the data.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Fair enough; I’m not an expert in either Aristotle or the history or philosophy of science. But in point of fact the idea that Aristotle was imprecise rather than wrong would simply bolster my overall point: that paradigm shifts (to use the Kuhnian term, since you mentioned his thinking) often entail not so much the overturning but rather the supersession of previous consensuses. My own limited knowledge of the history of science leads me to think that new paradigms tend to incorporate a great deal of the insights of previous paradigms, rather than abandon them completely. This actually makes good sense in Kuhnian terms, for it is the breakdown in normal science that leads ultimately to paradigm shift, and as such the new paradigm will be born out of discussions within the old one.

            The crucial point for this discussion is that the normal science of NT studies is not breaking down on the specific matter of Jesus’ existence. This is not something that NT scholars are flagging as a difficulty under the current paradigm. It is not unreasonable to thus anticipate that whatever might happen in terms of paradigm shifts in the future, rejection of Jesus’ existence will not emerge as an aspect of a new normal science.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, you’re right.

            Kuhn’s a bit problematic, and tends to over-egg the pudding rather. In some ways it’s a bit dangerous to mention him, but the terminology is reasonably widely recognised, and he gets enough right (at least in a schematic way) that using his terminology is just easier 🙂

            What he says about paradigm shifts is more true of the shift from the ‘prescience’ (which does not mean prior to scientific approaches, but just that a paradigm has yet to assert itself) to the first phase of normal science, than any shift thereafter.

            After that, there’s a lot more conservation of knowledge — perhaps requiring an appropriate translation between frameworks — than the impression one can get from reading Kuhn. In fact, Kuhn sometimes gives the impression that no such translation is possible, but of course it is.

            I think it’s a very good point that the inevitable comparison with someone like Galileo is making a potentially inappropriate comparison: it’s precisely in the ‘prescience’ (I really don’t like that term) that one can see the most radical shifting in everything we thought we knew and the old authorities were just plain wrong on ‘everything’. Later shifts, in physics at least, have recast older results in very different language and using different concepts, but the older results are not just false, and often the old concepts still can be given a perfectly reasonable sense in the new regime.

            So if NT studies has gotten beyond prescience, then perhaps the analogy with Galileo is entirely inappropriate, and we should perhaps be more looking for an NT studies Einstein, who isn’t going to chuck out all the results to date, but allow us to keep most of them, and maybe stop us wondering about the speed of the earth relative to the ether.

            But can you argue that NT studies is now in a ‘normal science’ phase? If so, what is the paradigm, and when was it adopted?

            (I’m quite happy for the answer to be something along the lines of ‘Kuhn is a bit crap even when it comes to science, and we shouldn’t expect NT studies to look like science enough for even a non-crap analysis of science to be that applicable’, btw… but if so maybe there’s still a bit of work to do to argue why you wouldn’t expect this particular fact to be revised)

          • Jonathan Bernier

            The advent of historical criticism (which includes of course textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, etc.) in the 19th century constituted a much shift. If you look at what people were doing in 1800 compared to 1900, they were light-years apart. Compare that what people were doing in 1900 compared to 2000, they are remarkably similar. I think that a major paradigm shift occurred in the 19th-century works of David Strauss, F.C. Baur, J.B. Lightfoot, etc., and that the 20th century set about sorting out the implications of that shift. Given that most of our current debates are in one way or another responses to issues first raised in the 19th century I would say that was achieved was more or less a normal science. And what’s interesting about the 19th century, which had room for far greater and more radical skeptical scholarship than today (for instance: the idea that Paul never wrote any of the letters attributed to him was seriously flouted, and Baur held that only five, not seven, of Paul’s letters were genuine: you argue that today and you’ll be laughed out of the room), is that it rejected soundly the idea that Jesus never existed. And if there are today grumblings about normal science that might lead to a paradigm shift they interestingly enough don’t include doubts about Jesus’ science. The issue is a non-starter.

          • arcseconds

            That’s a good answer. It seems to me that one could make a case that there’s still considerably more diversity of approaches in NT scholarship than one might expect on the basis of such (*cough*) paradigmatic paradigms as Newtonian physics. How revolutionary would you say the recent work on oral histories is?

            Of course, Kuhn might caution us that there’s no telling what might be up for grabs on a paradigm shift. Euclidean geometry wasn’t something that was in serious doubt prior to Einstein, but it got ditched as a universally-true description of space nevertheless. Suspicion about geometry wasn’t an anomaly pushing the revolution, but it ended up being a casualty.

            On the other hand, it seems a vain hope, although one mythicists seem nevertheless to a greater or lesser extent still committed to, to suppose that Jesus’s existence will end up being something that falls by the wayside in such an upheaval.

            Kuhn unfortunately can’t really account for the conservativism we’ve already discussed, though. I think one would want to look closely at more specific practices of historians, such as the textual analysis arguments that determine who wrote what that you mention. Generally speaking techniques are very seldom jettisoned, especially if they are well-established and non-controversial ones, but are rather refined (of course, they can be replaced if a superior technique to do the same job comes along, but that doesn’t mean the older one was unsound).

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Re: recent work on oral tradition: I don’t think it’s a sea change in the discipline. It’s just an example of what you mention: refining preexisting ideas. Since Herder in the 18th century it’s been something of a given that there were oral antecedents to the gospel texts. A century ago the form critics tried to put this idea on a more scientific basis, and recent work has tried to do so again. There doesn’t seem to be too much under the sun here, really.

            I will grant that there is significant diversity within NT studies. My suspicion is that ultimately the nature of the human sciences will tend to generate greater methodological diversity than the natural sciences. But again, not a specialist in philosophy of science, and my take on it tends to be more Lonerganian than Kuhnian, so I’m limited in what I can say on the matter.

            Edit: I would add that in some areas there is little diversity in the field. Very few would dispute Markan priority, and fewer still would dispute the idea that determining the order of the Synoptic Gospels is well and good. But again, neither of these things was really on the table in the pre-1800 world, certainly not as they are now (order was talked about, but no one put much theological stock into it, and Markan priority is almost entirely a 19th-century invention).

    • I’ve also read this Crichton lecture that is reprinted in the Wall Street Journal. Crichton, of course, is not a scientist. He is a science-fiction writer.

      He makes a number of incorrect statements in this lecture, and one of his intents is to argue against climate science. He says:

      “Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough.”

      This is, of course, simply false. It’s true that science is conducted professionally through the verification of results rather than “votes”. But there are many instances in which solid science is questioned in popular writing, and consensus is used to demonstrate that the opinion is fringe. If you believed Crichton, you could say that the science of evolution is not solid, or the history of the holocaust is not solid – because in both of these instances, consensus has been invoked to point out that the science-deniers are fringe.

  • Ben Goren

    Dr. McGrath, you left Jerry’s site just when I thought it was getting interesting. Would you please be so kind as to offer, here if not there, your explanation for Justin Martyr’s complaint of the Mithraic imitation of the Eucharist?



    • Jerry Coyne just banned me from his site because I called him out on his opposition to pseudoscholarship in his own field and promotion of it in another.

      I left mainly because I saw that, almost immediately after you asked that I stick to the Nazareth topic, when presented with evidence that calls your assertions into question, you suddenly tried to move things onto the Eucharist. Those internet apologist tactics are tiresome, and as you will see if you read back on this blog over the past several years, I have spent more time than is probably wise interacting with and mythicists, and have no interest in repeating some of the more tiresome and less fruitful of those interactions.

      On the eucharist, I suppose the key questions to ask first are, (1) do you think that the practice of the Lord’s supper might not rather have some connection either with the meal practices of Jesus and/or the Jewish Passover; (2) do you think that all the various kinds of sacred symbolic meals found in religions are genetically related; and (3) even if you are convinced that there is a mithraic connection, why exactly are you so sure that a Jewish man like Paul (for instance) could have borrowed from Mithraism, but under no circumstances could a historical Jesus have done so?

      • Ben Goren

        Your frist two questions are unambiguously answered in the text of the First Apology. Since you’re clearly not familiar with it, here’s the relevant chapter:

        And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

        And, again, since this isn’t a text at the tip of your fingers, here’s the essence of his description of those “wicked devils,” from several chapters earlier:

        But those who hand down the myths which the poets have made, adduce no proof to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race. For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christwere mere marvellous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.

        Much of the work is devoted to banging on that one particular drum, in one form or another. In other chapters, he rattles off lists of dozens of examples, any one of which would serve the purpose of this discussion — and, indeed, all of which, combined, leave nothing at all remaining of Jesus.

        As to the question of whether Martyr got his chronology correct, it’s unquestionable that he did. Plutarch in _Vita Pompeii_ first described Mithraism as being the religion of the Cilicean Pirates who wreaked havoc on shipping lanes (and were subsequently defeated). Cilicea, for those who don’t know, had borders that roughly match modern turkey, with its capital at Tarsus.

        Tarsus, as in, “Paul, of.” Which brings us, of course, to the earliest mention of the Christian Eucharist, in 1 Corinthians 11, where the author introduces it to the audience as a ritual to be performed, accompanied by surprised admonitions that they weren’t doing it right. The entire scene is powerfully reminiscent of the manner in which Lucian of Samosata described the antics of Peregrinus — though, of course, other such examples are legion in the New Testament though not quite so raw. Matthew, for example, grafted Perseus’s virgin birth narrative onto the front end of Mark’s Gospel.

        For your theory in the third point to work, one would have to assume that Jesus, on the eve of his execution, reenacted the sacred Mithraic rite with himself cast in the role of Mithras…and that this wouldn’t at all seem bizarre to the others present or those, such as Paul, who must already have been familiar with it.

        Now, consider that, later in the same Epistle, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul establishes his _bona fides_ by equating his own unquestionably-spiritual encounter with Jesus with all the other clearly-spiritual encounters the others in the Jerusalem Church had — and, just for added emphasis, “45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. 46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. 47 The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven.”

        Paul engaging in the ancient, time-honored, and well-documented favored-by-Christians practice of adding some Pagan spice into the spiritual Jesus stew makes *far* more sense than him doing the same to the guy whose brother he just had dinner with.



        • You may think that copying and pasting a text is answering a question. It isn’t. It is not the case that I am unfamiliar with Justin’s Apology. I just don’t think that his response to similarities between Jesus and other religious figures supports mythicism or undermines the strong evidence in earlier sources for a historical Jesus. What it shows is that human religiosity regularly expresses itself in very similar ways across a range of traditions, sometimes as a result of borrowing, sometimes because human beings are similar and have certain symbols that seem to be a shared part of our human heritage. But the attempt to try to make Justin be a voice against what the earlier evidence points to is far less convincing apologetics than Justin’s own.

          • Ben Goren

            You’re dodging the question, so let me put it bluntly.

            Do you agree or disagree that the Mithraic and Christian Eucharists were, as the saying goes, peas of a pod?

            Do you agree or disagree that the Mithraic Eucharist dates to earlier than the First Century?

            If you disagree with either of those, what is your objective evidence supporting your conclusions?


        • Kris Rhodes

          Ben, James asked you whether you think the eucharist might come from a Jewish ceremony rather than a Mithraic one. You answered this (said it was unambiguously answered, in fact) by quoting Martyr about there being a resemblance between the eucharist and a Mithraic ritual. But you haven’t explained why you think Martyr is right that there is such a resemblance, and you haven’t explained why you think Christianity got its Eucharist from that supposedly symbolic Mithraic ritual.

          I’m a mythicist-sympathizer. If I had to bet, I’d bet on mythicism. But to be honest I’m pretty dismayed that you and Coyne are getting into this fray, because of the way you’re approaching the topic. You’re throwing about bad arguments, arguments that should be _manifestly_ bad in the eyes of people like yourself who claim to put a high priority on reasoned argumentation.* And by doing this you’re making it look to everyone else like that’s what mythicism _is._

          It’s not.

          *For example here you’re treating Martyr’s text by turns both critically _and_ uncritically, without any good reason to switch between modes, and in both modes, are treating it as a set of claims to be believed or disbelieved rather than as an artifact in need of explanation. All of this is very bad.

          • Ben Goren

            Kris, I would think that providing evidence to the fact that the Eucharist is Mithraic in origin, not Jewish, would make it plain that that’s what I’m arguing. But it wasn’t, so let me be clear: that’s what I’m arguing.

            And I’m applying a very simple — obvious, really — standard for my analysis of the Apology. It is an accurate report that early Christians had the same general knowledge and understanding of Pagan religion that survives to this day: Bacchus turned water into wine, Bellerophon Ascended on Pegasus, Perseus was born of a virgin and the father of the gods, and so on. Whether or not those are accurate descriptions of the innermost mysteries of the various cults as revealed to the most learned initiates is irrelevant; what matters is that, as far as Christians and everybody else was concerned, Mercury was the interpretive Logos from the divine realm.

            And, just to be clear: Justin Martyr makes perfectly clear that this was every bit the ancient zeitgeist of the period then as it is today. Common knowledge whose origins are lost to the mists of time.

            As such, it simply beggars belief that Jesus could actually have lived a life with a script ripped from the pages of the comic books — or that those who wrote his comic-book biography could possibly have been unaware of what they did.

            And it also beggars belief that there could have been a real human at the heart of it all whose actual biography was nothing like this yet whom everybody was eager, long after his death, to re-write it as such.

            Especially when — unless, apparently, if you’re Bart Ehrman — we all agree that all the other examples of the genre from the era are perfectly fantastic.

            …Ehrman, it must be noted, in his acceptance speech for the FFRF’s Naked Emperor award, attributed historicity to Romulus, Hercules, and effin’ Jupiter hisself. I’m sorry — I’m sure this must be off-topic for this blog, but talk about making historicists look bad!



          • Kris Rhodes

            //I would think that providing evidence to the fact that the Eucharist is Mithraic in origin, not Jewish, would make it plain that that’s what I’m arguing.//

            Not even a little bit. You said James’s question was “unambiguously answered” by what Martyr wrote. What James asked was, could the ritual come from something other than a Mithraic source?

            So in paraphrase:

            James: Could the ritual come from something other than Mithraicism?

            Ben: No. Read what Martyr said.

            If you thought you were just “providing evidence” rather than attempting to give some kind of proof-text, then while the thing you thought you were doing is a fine first step in the conversation, nevertheless what you _thought_ you were doing and what you _said_ you were doing (and what you actually _did_ with your words) diverged widely. This kind of thing goes into the mix that causes my dismay.

          • I would also add that most mainstream historians are skeptical that Jesus interpreted his death salvifically, rather than this being something Christians did to deal with the cognitive dissonance of the execution of the one they hoped would restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne. And so the eucharist as found in the early church is not something that I would rely on as indicative of the historical figure of Jesus. That said, the Didache provides evidence for a very different understanding of the Lord’s supper, and the New Testament texts relate the imagery to the Passover in a manner that is supposed to make sense of Jesus’ death. It isn’t at all clear to me why Ben Goren thinks that Justin Martyr’s emphatic attempt to say that his religion’s sacred meal and central figure is better than all the others somehow supports mythicism. I assume that, through some process of parallelomania, he thinks that anything that has a similarity must be borrowed from someone else. But even if he were correct, that still brings us back to the question of why he thinks that a historical Paul who was a devout Jew could have co-opted a Mithraic rite, but a historical Jesus could not have.

          • Jim

            Thanks for bringing attention to the Didache in this
            discussion. These teachings, likely written by second generation Christians, were considered canonical material by some Church Fathers. The Didache represented an early written catechism and covered rituals like prayer, baptism and the Eucharist.

            The dating favored by a number of scholars is late 1st century or very early 2nd century and therefore probably predates Martyr’s work.

            For this group of Christians, the Eucharist was part of a
            meal. This supports your assessment that it was a meal practice akin to the Passover meal. The Eucharist ritual was focused on sharing a cup and breaking a loaf together so that each member of the community received a portion.

            “And after you all have had enough to eat, give thanks in this way: We give you thanks, Holy Father, … through Jesus, your servant … You created all for your name’s sake and you have given food and drink to human beings for their enjoyment so that they might give thanks to you.” (excerpts from Didache 10.1-4)

            Now I hope it hasn’t gone unnoticed that they “drank from a
            cup”. This is key because followers of Mithras also “drank from a cup”. Therefore these Christians clearly must have borrowed the practice of “drinking from a cup” from a Mythraic rite. 🙂 😉

          • Ben Goren

            It isn’t at all clear to me why Ben Goren thinks that Justin Martyr’s emphatic attempt to say that his religion’s sacred meal and central figure is better than all the others somehow supports mythicism.

            You’re grossly distorting his thesis by only presenting the half of it. He spills almost as much ink railing against the evil daemons who imitated Christianity well in advance as he does trying to demonstrate how those prior demonic imitations are pale copies.

            But even if he were correct, that still brings us back to the question of why he thinks that a historical Paul who was a devout Jew could have co-opted a Mithraic rite, but a historical Jesus could not have.

            Seriously? Paul, devout Jew, wouldn’t have copied the Eucharist from the Mithraists and falsely attributed it to Jesus, but Jesus H. Christ himself would have?

            For that to even pass the sniff test, Paul couldn’t have been introducing the rite to the Corinthians as if they had never heard of it before. Teaching grandma to suck eggs? How was this mind-blowing fact communicated from Jesus to Paul but not to the church in Corinth? How did the Jerusalem Church not catch wind of this and toss Paul to the wolves?

            As to motivation, Lucian gives us a textbook example — one we unquestionably see repeated later when Matthew tacked the Virgin Birth and the Ascension onto the ends of Mark’s Gospel (and again even a couple millennia later when Joe Smith sent Jesus to the Americas), but also made much more transparent in the case of the author of this epistle:

            It was then that [Peregrinus] learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be?—in a trice he made them all look like children, for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.

            I mean, isn’t that pretty much how all new religions arise? What else did you expect — that Christianity is the One True Religion?


          • If you took the effort you currently put into sounding condescending, and applied it to being clear and well-informed, I think your comments would have a greater impact.

            Your wording sounds as though you think that Paul was passing on information about the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthians in his letter for the first time. But your wording is not at all clear. You seem more concerned to toss insults than to deal with the evidence. That might be acceptable in other places around the internet, but this is a site for serious discussion.

            My point about the copying of the Eucharist from the Mithraists is that, if you think it is plausible that a historical Paul did so, then there is no reason why a historical Jesus could not have done so. I obviously don’t think that either viewpoint is persuasive. I was just trying to help you to understand why this point seems irrelevant to the mythicist case you are making.

          • Ben Goren

            <sigh />

            Let me try once again.

            Virtually all credible mythicist arguments I’m aware of can not unreasonably be summarized as, “Save for the bit about the prognosticating daemons, Justin Martyr has it pretty much nailed.”

            For each and every significant element in Christianity, including Jesus’s own biography and even most famous words, he identifies obvious and unambiguous long-extant Pagan precedent — ones, for the most part, still as familiar today as they were then. Bacchus turning water into wine; Perseus born of a virgin; Aesculapius raising the dead; Bellerophon Ascending on Pegasus, and so on. His list obviously isn’t exhaustive; for example, we all know that Orpheus did the Can-Can in the Underworld before returning from the grave (and had his own mockery of a trial, too), yet Justin Martyr doesn’t mention Orpheus. But his list, though exhaustive and exhausting, clearly wasn’t intended to be encyclopedic.

            Either Justin Martyr is correct in his descriptions of the “imitations,” to use his favorite word, or he isn’t. Unless you want to claim that Bacchus didn’t turn water into wine or that Aesculapius didn’t raise the dead, and so on — at least, according to the then-common understanding of the stories, regardless of how well they bear up to objective reality — then there’s no need to consider the possibility that his assessment was invalid.

            We are then left needing an explanation for the imitation.

            Best I know, there are three main historicist explanations.

            First is Justin Martyr’s own: evil daemons knew the prophecies of Jesus’s coming and so planted all the Pagan imitations many generations in advance so as to lead honest men astray. Though, last I heard, this remains the official Catholic Church position on the matter, I would hope we needn’t give it any further consideration.

            Next is the common naïve Christian explanation: “What imitation? And so what? The Bible is the inerrant Word of God, so who cares what the dirty Pagans thought?” This, too, shouldn’t merit discussion.

            Last is the academic explanation. There was a real human Jesus, a mere mortal. His biography contained from zero to many of the Pagan imitations, either by coincidence or by fabrication on the part of Jesus himself or his followers after his death.

            This is the explanation that needs to be addressed.

            First, the “by fabrication” part is mythicism — with no ifs, ands, or buts. As such, we only need discuss any portions which weren’t fabricated.

            And, to start with, we should be able to safely dismiss any “coincidental” parallels. To come back to the Eucharist, even if a flesh-and-blood Jesus really did play out the Mithraic Eucharist on the eve of his own date with Destiny, there can be no doubt but that this was an intentional parody of the Mithraic rite — an actor playing out a part plagiarized from another.

            But if we strike out all the coincidental parallels, all we are left with are the fabricated ones that we all should agree are the very definition of mythical origin.

            So, finally, we come to the nub of the matter: absolutely nothing we know of Jesus is original. The Eucharist aside, even Paul is ignorant of anything Jesus even said, let alone did. Everything we know about Jesus on Earth begins with Paul — the Eucharist most emphatically included. Everything Jesus said or did was invented by Paul or those who came after him.

            And so what’s left to ascribe to an historical Jesus?


            The mythological Jesus clearly exists; I would hope that even you would agree that, at the very least, the Virgin Birth is a fabrication that originated either with or shortly before Matthew. The same arguments can be made for everything else — indeed, Justin Martyr made these very same arguments, himself, roughly the same time as the various New Testament works themselves were being authored.

            So everything we have of Jesus is mythological, and we have nothing of him that’s historical.

            To wrap it up: that’s why I opened my challenge with a demand for a theory of Jesus. To claim an historical Jesus, you have to be able to say who he was with enough detail to pick him out of a crowd. If he could have been anybody, he might as well have been everybody. If, before Paul came on to the scene, “Jesus” was a title shared amongst several people who reenacted Pagan mythological scenes for fun and profit, would you call each of them the real historical Jesus? Of course not! If it was two people? Still, no! Just one? On what grounds?

            If you wish to continue to insist on an historical Jesus, the only credible way for you to do so would be by identifying something of him that is both unambiguously originally human that’s confirmed by positive evidence and not contradicted by, for example, the Pauline Epistles. I laid out in detail how to do that in the challenge — something I still don’t see anybody as having tackled head-on.

            “Good luck with that,” as they say.



          • Jonathan Bernier

            “Virtually all credible mythicist arguments”–well, there’s your first mistake. First off, basic category error: credibility typically applies to the source of a statement, not the statement itself. So there really aren’t credible arguments but rather credible arguers. And credibility has two primary components: trustworthiness and expertise. Given that most mythicists in fact lack the latter they rank generally low on the credibility scale. Now, if you mean valid arguments, that’s another issue, and frankly I have yet to find a mythicist argument that doesn’t suffer from one or more logical fallacies that would render it invalid. As for soundness, which is another matter, I have yet to see a mythicist argument that is not unsound in either its major or minor premises. So, I’m really not sure to what you refer, but whatever it is I think unlikely to actually exist.

          • Bethany

            “Either Justin Martyr is correct in his descriptions of the “imitations,” to use his favorite word, or he isn’t. Unless you want to claim that Bacchus didn’t turn water into wine or that Aesculapius didn’t raise the dead, and so on — at least, according to the then-common understanding of the stories, regardless of how well they bear up to
            objective reality — then there’s no need to consider the possibility that his assessment was invalid…. To come back to the Eucharist, even if a flesh-and-blood Jesus really did play out the Mithraic Eucharist on the eve of his own date with Destiny, there can be no doubt but that this was an intentional parody of the Mithraic rite — an actor playing out a part plagiarized from another.”

            That doesn’t make any sense. If there was indeed a Mithraic rite that had some similarities, then there are a number of possibilities: that the Christian rite was an imitation of the Mithraic one, that the Mithraic rite was an imitation of the Christian one, that both were derived from a third rite, that both arose from part of a shared cultural context without explicitly imitating any particular rite, or that there’s no relationship between them at all but it just turns out that religious rites involving food and drink are the sort of things that humans tend to come up with.

          • I suspect that you will find that nothing in Mithraism is genuinely original either. Few human beings are completely original. But some sayings attributed to Jesus certainly do stand out, and simply saying you refuse to accept them as historical doesn’t persuade. Scholars have looked with the utmost skepticism at every detail, and the fact that the consensus of historians is that some details are more likely historical than not is what you need not only to take seriously, but also tackle. Because there are always challenges to the consensus – that is one of the two poles of the scholarly enterprise. But unless your arguments can persuade the experts that you are right, then you are probably wrong, as are most of us in most of the new ideas we try to float.

          • Ben Goren

            I suspect that you will find that nothing in Mithraism is genuinely original either.

            And this is supposed to support the historicist cause…how, exactly? It’s certainly not something denied by any mythicist — indeed, as I recall, there are even centuries-BCE academic works equating Osiris and Dionysus, though I don’t have the references at hand. Indeed, that’s the whole point: this is how religions start, with syncretism. The claim that Christianity is the one religion in all of antiquity to report truth is the absurd exception.

            But some sayings attributed to Jesus certainly do stand out

            I’ve repeatedly tried to get you and other historicists to both identify such features of an historical Jesus and support them with evidence. Few — including, i must note, you — even attempt more than vague hand-waving at the first, and none have anything other than the Gospels for the second.

            At this point, i’d be absolutely floored if you were to prove me worng and supply both example and evidence.



          • The fact that human beings regularly say and do a lot of the same things, and use a lot of the same symbols, across a range of periods of history and cultures, isn’t an argument for historicity. It is just something obvious that mythicists seem to have missed and then realized, and that they seem to think is a significant observation that proves something.

            There are extensive treatments of the evidence in historical articles and monographs, much as there is extensive treatment of the evidence for evolution in the scientific literature. When that literature is summarized on blogs for denialists, they often complain that it is insufficient or unpersuasive. And while I’m in theory happy to summarize the arguments that historians have made yet again, it seems more sensible to direct you to some of the lengthy discussions I’ve already offered on this blog in the past.

            Here is a link to the discussion up until 2011:


            And here is a round up of posts from later that year:


            There is also a multi-part review of Doherty’s book, and of course more recent blogging.


            I’d encourage you to focus on the evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus, as it relates to Christian claims that he was the Davidic anointed one, i.e. the one expected to restore the line of David to the throne. That is probably the best place to start.

            Once you give the impression that you have actually considered either the discussions I’ve offered, or better still, have actually read the arguments that historians have offered for the historicity of various details and have understood why most historians find those arguments persuasive, we can take it from there.

          • Ben Goren

            So, you make the comparison with evolution denial…but your own response is much more akin to that of the Creationists than what would be typical from a scientist.

            I’m claiming that there’s no (credible) evidence for an historical Jesus. This would be roughly analogous to a Creationist claiming that there are no transitional fossils.

            The response from an evolutionary biologist (even an amateur one, like me) would not be, “Here, go read all umpteen-dozen links on these several pages and don’t come back until you’re done.”

            Rather, the response would be that there are, indeed, a great many series of transitional fossils, with the three most famous being the horse, the whale, and humans. That would be accompanied by a reference to a concise summary of at least one of those series, such as this excellent one for the horse:


            It starts with pictures of a representative subset of the fossils, includes all necessary bibliographic information to follow up on every case should it be desired, and also includes a family tree showing how it’s not just a simple linear progression.

            Some Creationists will try to play the “they’re all horses” or similar games, but most at least tacitly recognize the futility of that tack. And some will challenge authenticity, but those who do will be met with references to the papers for the digs as well as invitations to view the fossils for themselves at natural history museums.

            Most Creationists who don’t get themselves stuck in those dead ends will instead challenge dating methods. Jerry has a wonderful explanation of isochron dating that is great to insert in these cases. Those doubting the basic physics can be pointed to experiments they themselves can perform to confirm (or refute!) the principles for themselves.

            And most of the Creationists who keep on pushing after that will resort to blatant conspiracy theories in which devils and / or angels are battling an existential fight for control of our senses — YHWH created a young universe but with a false patina to trick us into thinking it’s old; Satan planted the old-seeming fossils to trick us into the exact same conclusion. Regardless of the particulars of the delusion, they’re gibbering idiots who most need the compassionate assistance of qualified mental health professionals.

            Where we’re at with you is that you’ve hand-waved that there’re lots of transitional fossils and your favorite is the Crucifixion…but what’s lacking is your summary of the evidence.

            So, if you would, please provide, say, an handful or so of the best examples of the evidence for the historicity of the Crucifixion. If you don’t have any such pre-digested summary handy as I gave for the horse fossils, feel free to just list chapter and verse or other suitable bibliographic reference of your personal favorites such that I can find the originals — enough that I can, at least for myself, line up the pictures of the fossils in order and confirm that each adjacent pair is very much alike but the endpoints are radically different.

            If you can’t provide such evidence, you simply have no case, regardless the pedigrees of the critics of the Emperor’s wardrobe.



          • I’ve directed you to places where I have discussed the relevant points in detail on this blog. If you choose not to interact with any of those many posts, that is your business. But although creationists and mythicists may declare victory if a scholar doesn’t type up a particular argument again personally for them, but that doesn’t fool anyone, other than perhaps themselves.

            Perhaps something by E. P. Sanders would be a good place to start, in getting a good sense of why the crucifixion is treated as historical bedrock, and what other key points are felt to be highly likely, and why. Really, any of his books related to the historical Jesus would cover at least the basics.

          • Ben Goren

            <sigh />

            Apologetics and rhetoric, completely devoid of substance — sadly, exactly as I expected.

            Even after I explicitly showed you how a real scientist replies to pseudoscience — that is, with a concise summary of the evidence, complete with citations / bibliography — you still refuse to pony up the evidence and pile the bafflegab on higher and deeper.

            How hard, really, is it to give half a dozen or so mere citations of the evidence, as I asked? “Gospel of Frobnotz 3:14-15, Mumbldepeg’s Epistle to the Aztecs, 2:71-82, On Randomness, John Frum, 1:41-42.”

            But, of course. You can’t give the evidence, for the exact same reason nobody else can: it doesn’t exist. All you have is arguments — “rhetoric” — and no actual evidence. If you had evidence, you wouldn’t have to resort to rhetoric; the evidence would stand on its own, as it does for evolution and all the other honest academic disciplines.

            So, sorry, but I’m outa here. I can’t respect an academic who runs away from desperate pleas for evidence.



            [Edit: fix closing italics fail. b&]

          • You replied in a way that made me think you hadn’t interacted with any real-life creationists. When I presented additional evidence in the form of links and references you complained that I didn’t list more but did not actually read them. Nor did you respond to criticisms of claims you made with absolute certainty which, despite your claims being obviously inaccurate if not ridiculous from the perspective of someone who knows the relevant primary and secondary literature. And now you are leaving, claiming that I have somehow run away from my own blog and that this interaction has a victory. Please finish the process by insisting that, despite the above parallels, mythicism is nothing at all like creationism.

          • Bethany

            Most real scientists respond to psuedoscience by NOT responding to psuedoscience, because they don’t have time to argue with every psuedoscientist who crops up on the Internet, because they’re busy doing science. And when do respond to them, they tend to do it in things like columns or blog posts, or lectures — collectively, not individually every time it’s demanded in a comment.

            You’ve been given links. I’m sure people would be happy to suggest books on historical Jesus research. (I’ll start: “Did Jesus Exist?” and “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” by Bart Ehrman.) The Yale Open Course on the New Testament has a lecture on the historical Jesus, if you don’t want to actually read anything.

            What people are not likely to do is to regurgitate all of historical Jesus research on command in a blog comment, especially not when there’s so much out there that’s well-written and accessible.

          • Jim

            I’d actually be surprised if you could comprehend a historicist’s argument if it bit you in the ass, just saying 🙂 Maybe it’s because of a line my mentor sometimes overheard his mentor mutter under his breath; “bullshit baffles brains”.

            (My deepest apologies to Dr. McGrath for my earlier suggestion that he consider responding to the challenge.)

            Let me pick one bit of trivium; the statement “even Paul is ignorant of anything Jesus even said” and quickly analyze that. Historians generally agree that Paul wrote seven of the NT letters attributed to him. Six of these are mainly
            “responses” to letters/communications containing “specific questions directed to him. I suppose he should have answered each question with an authentic line from Jesus for future reference.

            Can you unequivocally prove that Paul had not written any other letters, including some that may have included specific sayings of Jesus?



            ps Sincere apologies Dr. McGrath for contaminating your site with my comment, but I guess I have LTFBS syndrome.

          • Ben Goren


            Sorry, but “YOU CAN’T PROVE ME WORNG!” is the battle cry of the conspiracy theorist.

            For example, you can’t prove that aliens aren’t, right this very moment, controlling your thoughts with their mind rays because your tinfoil hat has slipped.

            It is not upon me to prove that Paul didn’t do something for which we have no evidence of him doing. If you want to claim that Paul actually did do those things, it’s up to you to provide evidence as such.

            Dig up a letter from Paul that includes specific words of Jesus, and we’ll talk. Until then…may I suggest that you might wish to re-adjust your hat?



          • Jim

            Yeah, if you’re thinking in terms of a response to your challenge on “your page”, you are absolutely right. However re this op page, “YOU HAVEN’T PROVED YOU ARE RIGHT” either (except possibly in your own mind).

            Now my actual point is that there is currently no unequivocal proof either way. I think I might even consider some of your points if you could actually differentiate between evidence and speculation. There is nothing wrong with the latter (nor your speculations), and knowledge moves ahead by posing questions, even if they rock the boat. A problem does occur, for me at least, when someone doesn’t understand the level of proof required to displace current consensus.

            In the meantime, I’m just happy as hell that you didn’t go into science.


          • Neko

            Dig up a letter from Paul that includes specific words of Jesus, and we’ll talk.

            1 Cor 7:10-11

            To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

          • Jim

            Excellent point Neko. You should be hearing from Ben Goren (re then we’ll talk) anytime soon.

          • Ben Goren

            …er…you do know that “the LORD” is YHWH, not Jesus, no…?

            The original Greek has, “κύριος.”

            Here’s the side-by-side translation:


            and here’s the Wikipedia article on the word:


            You may be familiar with the variation, “Kyrie,” as in, “Kyrie elaison,” or, “Lord have mercy,” which is directly contrasted with, “Christe elaison,” “Christ have mercy.”

            …nice try, though….


          • arcseconds

            I think everyone here is familiar with the word ‘kyrios’. Several people here can read greek.

            Are you then of the opinion that when Paul refers to ‘James the brother of the Lord’ that he means James is YHWH’s brother?

          • Ben Goren

            Yes, of course. We know James wasn’t Jesus’s biological brother — that’s repeatedly confirmed in ancient Christian sources — but that he was instead a brother in the same way that monks then and ever since are brothers of the lord.

            Here, for example, since I know some apologist is going to challenge me on that…

            I would like to say to Celsus, who represents the Jew as accepting somehow John as a Baptist, who baptized Jesus, that the existence of John the Baptist, baptizing for the remission of sins, is related by one who lived no great length of time after John and Jesus. For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless— being, although against hiswill, not far from the truth— that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ), — the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine. If, then, he says that it was on account of James that the desolation of Jerusalem was made to overtake the Jews, how should it not be more in accordance with reason to say that it happened on account (of the death) of Jesus Christ, of whose divinity so many Churches are witnesses, composed of those who have been convened from a flood of sins, and who have joined themselves to the Creator, and who refer all their actions to His good pleasure.

            Oh — and, seeing how Origen wrote that before Eusebius, the first person to mention the Testamonium, had even been born, can everybody please drop the nonsense about Josephus providing evidentiary documentation of Jesus?


          • arcseconds

            Are monks really referred to as being ‘brothers of the Lord’ today? I’ve never heard that before, and a google search only turns up debates about precisely this kind of topic, i.e. what Paul meant by ‘brother of the Lord’, who Jesus’s brothers were, etc.

          • Neko

            I think Catholic religious use the expression “brothers in Christ.”

          • arcseconds

            Seems quite different an expression to me. Brothers in arms are not brothers of arms.

          • Neko

            Agreed. I’m assuming a theological pedigree that goes back to St. Paul:

            you are all one in Christ Jesus

          • Mythicists “know” later Christians motivated by the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity were right, because they were saying something mythicists agree with.

            James the more conservative Jewish voice within early Christianity was claiming to be Yahweh’s brother…you really haven’t thought this through in detail, have you?

          • Neko

            Still waiting for you to refute Dr. McGrath’s point. If I’m not mistaken Origen is known, among other things, for his audacious Marion apologetics.

          • Jim

            Oh brother *said from facepalm position*… and speaking of brother, have you read Professor Eleanor Dickey’s “Literal and Extended Use of Kinship Terms in Documentary Papyri,” Mnemosyne 57 (2004): 131-76? She apparently tracks kinship terminology (including father, brother etc.) and focuses on (I’m shamelessly ripping from Hurtado’s blog); “how/when these terms were used “literally” (i.e., referring to actual family members) and when they were used in an “extended” or “metaphorical” sense, for individuals not physically related to the speaker/writer.”

            Maybe your Carrier-influenced understanding of the use of the term brother in Galatians isn’t so slam dunk?

          • Kris Rhodes

            It’s not clear to me that Ben is getting any of this stuff from Carrier.

            As to your point about “brother,” though, you mentioned a study but didn’t describe what in it would tend to make it less likely that “brother” is used in Galatians in an extended sense.

            (BTW the Doherty/Carrier thesis doesn’t necessarily rely on “brother” being used in an extended sense in that passage, unless “brother” isn’t a literal kinship term when used of adopted siblings.)

          • Jim

            Kris you are right, my assignment of Carrierisms to Ben was just me being a jerk (and yes it felt therapeutic). I don’t have any direct proof of this.

            Also, I’m not trying to give the impression that the case is slam dunk for Gal 1.19 referring to blood relations either. However Ben states with confidence in his comment above “We know James wasn’t Jesus’s biological brother”. Not really Ben, we don’t know with absolute certainty one way or the other from this Pauline letter.

            I haven’t read Dickey’s article because I don’t have access to library journals. So I asked a NT expert who is familiar with her work if her article sheds any light on whether Gal 1.9 refers to a blood relative or to a third party.

            The response I received was: “… she observes that when kinship terms are used in letters referring to the relationship of one person to another person other than sender or recipient, the kinship term usually seems to designate an actual family relationship. So, in Gal 1:19, this fits: two
            “third-party” people, James and “the Lord”, as “brothers”.

          • arcseconds

            Your insistence that every professional scholar has somehow failed to realise that ‘kyrios’ refers to YHWH, yet you somehow have the insight to realise it’s obvious strikes me as like nothing so much as the creationist’s insistence that evolution is disproved by the second law of thermodynamics, a fact that has somehow been missed by actual scientists but obvious to a small group of ideologues.

            But maybe you’ve got a really stellar argument for this you’re not telling us?

          • It is actually closer to when creationists say “there are gaps in the fossil record” as though paleontologists might be surprised by the observation. “Lord” can indeed be a substitute for the divine name. And that name can be transferred to another figure who is appointed as Yahweh’s agent. And of course, kyrios can also mean what we mean by lord in English, and can also be “sir.” And so the context is important. And that is when mythicists tend to bungle things, having heard that “lord” means “Yahweh” (probably from conservative Christians insisting that Jesus is God and offering prooftexts of that), they uncritically accept it and don’t look at the details of the matter.

          • arcseconds

            Not that it matters, but if he was referring to the fact that kryios means different things depending on context, as thought that was news, I’d agree.

            But he’s not, he’s insisting that it always means ‘YHWH’, in complete contrast to how scholars understand it, and the proof he has offered is to point back at the text, at a very brief wikipedia page and to a commonly-known greek acclamation. The text simply shows you the scholars are wrong! If only New Testament scholars knew as much greek and were as familiar with the text as he is!

            Oh, and the strangely short wikipedia page with an odd transliteration of Κύριος that for some reason is distinct from the ‘Kyrios(biblical term)’ page, which is more complete and includes the understanding that it refers to Jesus in the New Testament.

          • Sorry, apparently I sometimes misunderstand mythicists because I assume they are saying something more sensible or plausible than they actually are.

          • Speaking as one who as argued with Dr. McGrath about James more than anyone, we certainly don’t know that he wasn’t Jesus’ biological brother. I think that hypothesis makes more sense of the totality of the data, but that’s about as far as I can go.

          • Presumably if you think that Origen was in a position to know the precise brotherly relationship between Jesus and James, you must also think (to be consistent) that Origen was in a similarly good position to know whether or not Jesus had a historical existence?

            Clearly Origen did think this, as other parts of Against Celsus show. Therefore Jesus had a historical existence.

            Well that was easy after all. What’s next?

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Mr. Goren: every commentator I’ve ever read on this verse takes kyrios to refer to Jesus. Before you adopt such a condescending tone on the matter you had best demonstrate why you are right and they are all wrong.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I’m interested in the fact that you call “Kyrie” a variant of “Kyrios.” That is really a quite strange way to describe the matter. You do understand what is going on grammatically, right? I mean, given your authoritative talk about the Greek text I am correct to assume that you are proficient in the language, no?

          • Jim

            So does anyone know where the hell this Ben Goren dude screwed off to?

            It’s been a day now, and he hasn’t answered my simple question. He mentioned something about me not being able to prove that aliens aren’t controlling our thoughts at this moment so that proves that Paul didn’t know anything that Jesus said, or something like that.

            I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, because at least both aliens and Paul resided at one time or another in this universe, so I guess he gave it his best shot. Gotta admire him for that..

          • Jonathan Bernier

            In fairness, Mr. Goren cannot prove that evidence which might exist doesn’t exist. It’s actually impossible. And so if he cannot do so that means nothing. That said, neither can he build as much he would like upon arguments from silence.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Do you have a record of Ehrman saying Jupiter was a historical person?

          • Ben Goren

            It’s in the middle of the speech embedded here:


            His new book is about how Jesus became a god. He introduces the idea that it was common for people of the time to understand how humans could become divine, and gave three examples. After or just before death, the gods may lift the mortal into the heavens, as with Romulus. A god might impregnate a mortal and produce human offspring, as with Hercules. Or a god might take human form, as Jupiter did to father Hercules. Jesus, according to Ehrman, is an example of the second — but all three he gave as examples of how real humans could become gods.

            Now, if you’ll excuse me…anybody see where I put that mouthwash…?


          • Neko

            Oh my, that was funny. When you’re done with the Listerine why don’t you go over to Ehrman’s blog and ask him why he thinks Jupiter was a real human. Pretty please.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Are you talking about 24:28?

          • Mark Erickson

            He never said “real humans” but just “human beings”. They could be fictional humans, as Romulus and Hercules’ mother were.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            How do you know that Justin Martyr existed?

    • Ian

      Eucharist in mithraism: we have no suggestion prior to Martyr of a mithraic ritual whose details resemble the eucharist*, so it appears first in the first apology, early second century. We have no evidence of the ritual in contemporary mithraic inscription. We do have some evidence of blood rituals, however.

      Eucharist in early christianity: we have earliest evidence of the ritual in Paul, mid-first century, it is described more fully a decade or so later as a novel theologization of a central Jewish ritual, the religion which early christians claimed they had derived from and from which they most commonly referenced and quoted.

      Martyr accuses mithraism of copying from christianity (he accuses them of copying from Judaism as well, in other places, incidentally).

      It seems a stretch to me to argue.

      1. Mithraism had the ritual first.
      2. Christianity derived its ritual from mithraism then came up with a story about how it came from Judaism.
      3. Martyr knew enough about the history or detail of mithraism to be able to correctly identify that plagiarism had occurred, and unintentionally gave the game away.

      As opposed to.

      1. Christianity derived the ritual from Judaism, as it claimed, adding theological interpretation based on the theology of a dying messiah it was building.
      3. Mithraism may have had some ritual with some similar features (they may actually have stolen the whole thing, or it may be the slightest of superficial similarities, such as the drinking of blood, say: either way is fine for this argument).
      4. Martyr (who as far as we know was not a mithras devotee at any point) hears of these similarities and uses this to claim they had stolen and corrupted the eucharist.

      Seems to me a more logical interpretation of the facts. We know this thing happens a lot. Plenty of accusations that pagans are carrying out ‘black mass’ through history. No reason to assume they are, or even if they are (such as self-aware satanic groups reacting against Christian hegemony) that their ‘black mass’ was the original.

      Edit: * clarified this sentence to be clear I’m not disappointed that nobody drew a link between eucharist and mithraic ritual before Martyr, just that we have no evidence of a ritual we could say “look, that is something that is very similar to what Christians ended up doing”.

      • I think the argument might be that the idea of a blood drinking ritual would have been at least as offensive to Jews as the idea of a crucified messiah, making it reasonable to look for some source outside of Judaism.

        • Ian

          Except that Christians didn’t actually drink blood did they? They arrived at drinking wine interpreted it as somehow representative (and fairly quickly thereafter a variant of transubstantiated) of blood. To argue that the initial tranche of christians would have been offended to interpret the wine as being representative of blood seems a stretch to me.

          It takes reading the transubstantiation idea back into the NT texts. When Jesus is said to have said “this is my blood” when taking the cup of wine, I’m not sure why any non-catholic would read him as meaning “this is literal blood I want you to drink, in defiance of the most cherished laws of our forefathers”.

          Besides, Ben didn’t make a general point. I’ve seen before that Ben thinks that Martyr’s accusation that Mithras worshippers had stolen the eucharist is evidence for believing Christians stole it from Mithras worshippers.

          • I don’t think that many people would invent a ritual based on eating symbolic excrement because the idea of eating real excrement is so disgusting. By the same token, if Jews would have found the idea of eating human flesh and drinking human blood similarly disgusting, it is not unreasonable to posit that the idea was borrowed from some place else. As to Ben’s specific point about Justin Martyr, I have never given the matter much thought.

          • Ian

            I think I probably agree, on reflection.

            There is at least one Christian sect that interprets the commandment to “drink from your own well”, as instruction to consume their own (non-symbolic) urine. And that is literally the most pertinent thing I can think of to add to the topic. 🙂

            My point about Martyr was better, I think!

          • Inferring a source for something Paul wrote based on something written a century later does seem a tad speculative.

          • Neko

            Do you think Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 11:23-26? If so, why would he import/confirm another stumbling block for Jews even to pander to Gentiles, assuming it was a pander at all?

          • According to Galatians 3:7, Paul’s job was to preach to the Gentiles and Peter’s job was to preach to the Jews. If most of Paul’s converts were Gentiles, a stumbling block that only made Peter’s job harder might not have given him any cause for concern.

          • Neko

            Ha! I guess I saw that coming. We have the Eucharist today because Paul wanted to draw converts and stick it to Peter. I don’t know. It lacks gravitas. Not to mention, evidence. Also, wouldn’t Paul the Pharisee no matter how cosmopolitan be as revolted by ritual cannibalism as any other Jew. That would suggest that receiving the Lord did not carry such connotations. On the other hand, Gospel of John suggests the ritual was quite controversial, which I suppose could mean that at the least it was controversial in the author’s time.

            In short, I don’t get it.

          • It is certainly reasonable to think that Paul shared Jewish sensibilities, but he was willing to abandon circumcision and dietary laws in order to reach pagans. Reinterpreting a pagan ritual to apply to Jesus may just be sliding down the slippery slope.

          • Neko

            Put that way the idea becomes more palatable, so to speak.

      • Scott P.

        First, the Mithraic ceremony described by Justin isn’t anything like the Christian Eucharist. He says that Mithraic worshipers use water (instead of wine) and that they speak ‘words’ (i.e. not the same words that Jesus used). So all we are left with is a sacred meal (found in many religions, including Judaism) and bread (an utterly unremarkable element).

        Moreover, it’s very unclear that Mithraism predates Christianity — the evidence is very thin.

  • Ian

    This whole ‘debate’ seems to me to be foolish, because everyone is talking past each other.

    The historical question should be this: what happened that lead to the founding of Christianity?

    We have a movement that first appears in the historical record in a bunch of texts and writings written by that movement. The movement eventually grew into a world-changing religion.

    What happened before those first texts? How did the movement get to the point of writing those texts?

    We have two secular, historical hypotheses:

    1. The movement started as the followers of a Jewish messianic pretender who was executed. Following his execution they developed a celestial mythology around him, and the significance of his life, death, and afterlife. (Man->Myth)

    2. The movement started as a cult centered around a celestial being, who was later given a biography as a Jewish rabbi, and came to be seen as having had a human life at a specific point in relatively recent history. (Myth->Man)

    The question of whether Jesus was a historic figure is only of concern to ideologues, imho: it should be a feature of the hypotheses, not the motivation for the question.

    So starting a ‘historical Jesus ‘challenge’ by saying ‘define, exactly, this Jesus figure’ seems bizarre and tendentious. Because that’s not the point of the question, imho. In arguing for hypothesis 1, we might come up with a whole bunch of things we want to claim about Jesus, but they aren’t necessary to the hypothesis: they are derived from the evidence and the argument.

    If we were to find some evidence that hypothesis 1 was correct, but that the historical figure bore even less resemblance to the Jesus Christ of later Christianity than we think now, it wouldn’t mean that the ‘mythicists’ were right, hypothesis 1, the ‘historicist’ hypothesis would be strengthened.

    Most internet mythicists think the battle is over the existence of a historical figure that is recognizable from Christian theology, but that is still a theological question. The historical question is between hypothesis 1 vs 2. Which is why the discussion only ever goes downhill into acrimony.

    • The problem is that the argument for 1 seems often to come down to “We know that 1 is true because of what we know about who the man was and what he said and did.” I don’t find this persuasive as I find our sources for this knowledge so problematic. I think I might be convinced by an argument that some broader phenomena is better explained by a human being at the beginning, e.g., his life story becomes more supernatural with each successive gospel suggesting it projects back to an actual person. I think that the crucified messiah problem is such an argument; just not that strong a one.

      While I don’t think that hypothesis 2 can be eliminated, I think it may look much stronger than it really is because of the arguments that are offered for 1.

      • Ian

        Do you not think that each successive gospel becomes less realistic. I’m not saying Mark is exactly objective history, but the pattern seems as you describe you’d like it to be.

        Also, arguments for 1 are going to be partly made up with “the historical person that could be posited to be at the root of this process is reasonable”, just as an argument for 2 has to show that the pre-historicised cult should have been reasonable for its early followers.

        • I do see that pattern in the gospels, but making the argument requires greater expertise than I have.

          I think that lots of reasonable different historical persons could be posited. All that is really necessary is that he annoyed the Romans enough to get crucified. Everything after that might be the product of the interpretation placed on his death by a visionary or two. I don’t think that it is possible to determine how who he was or what he did contributed to the visions.

          • arcseconds

            I think we can add ‘he was a preacher of some kind’.

            If he wasn’t at least a preacher, too, but rather (to pick an extreme example contrary to the Jesus of the Gospels) executed for attempting an armed insurrection, then I’d say we’re now at the point where we’d have to say the figure in the Gospels does not relate a real figure at all, however exaggerated, but rather a composite of some kind, and the current mainstream account of how the Gospels came to be needs such significant modification that we can say the earliest part of it at least is pretty wrong.

  • Mark Erickson

    Please do take the challenge. First, because you have plenty of time to do it. Second, because (presumably) there are many people who will read it who are on the fence about a historical or mythical Jesus.