The Historical Consensus About Jesus

The Historical Consensus About Jesus September 9, 2014

A commenter on the blog made the assertion that scholars are somehow deferring to popular opinion when it comes to the existence of Jesus. The suggestion is so ludicrous that I thought I had best address it, and am sharing it here as well. Here’s what I wrote:

The notion of being “unbiased” is naive. We all have biases, and what is great about the way scholarship works is that it provides methods and a community of experts who can limit the impact that individual biases can have.

I’ve never seen anyone use popular opinion as an argument in my field. Do you have a reference? What we have is an enormous body of scholarship, skeptically investigating the details asserted about Jesus in our earliest sources, in scholarly articles and monographs. The historicity of every single one has been challenged. The fact that the consensus remains that some details are probably historical is what you need to be looking at. The historicity of Jesus cannot be dealt with in the abstract, any more than evolution can be. It is a theoretical framework for making sense of a range of pieces of evidence in relation to one another. That is why mythicists and creationists tend to say both that “there is no evidence” and to think that showing that one particular piece of evidence is problematic means that the entire theoretical framework must be invalid. But that isn’t how scholarly investigation of the past works. The question must always be, what theoretical framework makes the best sense of all the evidence, or as much of it as possible. And of course, those who have not dedicated their lives to the study of that evidence are unlikely to make sound judgments about such matters.


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  • Mark Erickson

    If that is what he meant, then it would be ludicrous. But it’s not. Here is what he wrote: (again, it is disappointing you are again not providing the words you are responding to)

    What I would really like to see is an article that takes an unbiased approach at actually discussing the claims of the professors who are demonstrating theory against the existence of a historical Jesus that the scriptures are based on. I am not an expert in antiquity but their arguments seem to hold merit and the general consensus against their theories appears to be, “the popular opinion disagrees.”

    He is referring to the most common response biblical scholars give, that Jesus is a historical person is the scholarly consensus. (I just asked him, but if I’m wrong, I’ll never comment here again.) UPDATE: I’m right:

    His response to first coming across the Jesus history/myth debate is very common.

    I would like to read an actual article that discusses and perhaps provide professional comments on the theories that are being brought up.

    For instance, ignoring your diatribe, where are the serious responses to Carrier’s article at Bible and Interpretation? Where are the actual responses to Ben Goren’s challenge?

    • Neko

      I made it through exactly the first paragraph of Carrier’s article at Bible and Interpretation before getting ticked off. He’s obviously referring to the British (?) radio show chat with Mark Goodacre, which I listened to at the time. Let’s say Goodacre cited the wrong epistle for Paul’s use of “those who were in Christ before me.” So what? He may be reflecting the supposition that Paul did get the gospel from those in Christ before him, unless one believes that Paul “received from the Lord” a gospel uncannily similar to the gospel passed on by the followers of Jesus. If Goodacre did cite 1 Cor 15 it was simple error. Does Carrier really think Goodacre doesn’t know his stuff? Frankly I’m dubious about parts of Carrier’s story. Why? Because from what I’ve read, he’s not above distortion and exaggeration.

      • Mark Erickson

        Read the whole thing or just keep quiet.

        • Neko

          Yeah, you can guess my words to you.

        • arcseconds

          Yes Sir Sergeant-Major Sir!

          • Gary

            You wouldn’t be SA by any chance? They are the only religion I know that has a “Sgt Major” lead off their services.

          • arcseconds


            I was expecting someone to bring me up on the fact you don’t call non-coms ‘sir’.

            “DON’T CALL ME SIR! Do you see any stars or bars on this uniform?! I work for a living, private, you will address me as SERGEANT-MAJOR!”

          • Gary

            Actually just associating military and religion. I have this strange vision of, “This is my bible, this is my gun”, in the first few days of seminary school. I think I am going crazy. Maybe TSA drill sergeant. Guess I’m going to hell.

          • arcseconds

            ‘This is my Bible, there are many like it, but this one’s mine’

            (Transportation Security Authority? do they have drill sergeants?)

          • Gary

            Sorry, thought you’d know The Salvation Army. This is my bible, this is my gun, this is for preaching, this is for fun. Revision of Marine Corps song. They also have Sergeant Majors is SA (just personal experience, they do tend to be alittle authoritarian, without real authority. I must say, I mostly liked interfacing with Gunny’s in the Marine Corps. Now they are some real leaders! And they actually get shot at.

          • arcseconds

            Well, you’re confusing me by using two different acronyms for the same organisation. I know who the Salvation Army are, and that they have brass bands, and they often have halls with good acoustic properties, but other than that I don’t know too much about them. I must admit when you first said ‘SA’ my immediate thought was Sturmabteilung.

          • Gary

            The official title is The Salvation Army. Don’t know why. Just to over-emphasize its importance maybe, like in football, a player says they are from The Ohio State Buckeyes.
            “Sturmabteilung”… Now I know the source of the confusion. Sorry about that.

          • Mark Erickson

            Warm fuzzies: This is one of my favorite sayings! But I’ve forgotten the source.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            A Warm Fuzzy Tale, by Claude Steiner, 1969.

          • arcseconds

            I can’t remember either. Maybe Full Metal Jacket? It kind of sounds somewhat endearing (in an ‘underneath the rough exterior’ kind of way), though, and the drill sergeant in that film was a monster.

            I understand that ‘I work for a living’ is a traditional non-com thing to say to people when distinguishing themselves from commissioned officers.

            I almost certainly don’t have it worded quite right. I made up the bit about the stars and bars… seems to me that usually refers to the Confederate flag, not to officer insignia, but in my head the Sgt. Major does refer to officer insignia, and I don’t remember how.

            I’m also not entirely convinced this really is a single line… I may have concocted it from two or more similar scenes. But if you think it’s a line from somewhere too, that makes me feel a bit more secure about it. Multiple attestation, anyone?

      • Jim

        My evil twin is haunting me with this question: Is there a rational reason why Carrier doesn’t have an academic position? *hears inner voice whispering* silence my precious, me thinks a squeaky wheel always gets the grease. 🙂

        • Neko

          It’s only a matter of time before Harvard recognizes Carrier’s genius, decency and generosity of spirit. You heard it here first.

          • John Bebbington

            Ben Stein is making a film about his failure to obtain tenure. It’s to be called “Repelled”.

        • John Bebbington


          To whom do you recommend the atheist Carrier should apply to teach New Testament studies when some Christian Universities in the US require their staff (even science teachers) to sign a standard Statement of Faith before they allow admittance?

          Rather than attack the man why not deal with his thesis?

          • Bethany

            Non-Christian universities? There are a lot of them.

          • Why on earth would he apply to work at a Christian university?

          • John Bebbington

            If it’s Christian it’s not a university. (Runs for cover).

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Hmmm. So Notre Dame, for instance, is not a university?

          • Jim

            I think Bethany is right. There are many History Faculties across the US that focus on historical studies not related to NT (which is just a narrow area of focus). I don’t know RC, but I’m not sure why he would want to pursue NT history as his focus as this isn’t related to his doctoral thesis. But if he is seeking a faculty position to teach NT studies, he might consider trying the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 🙂

          • Of course, insulting the mental competence of your potential future colleagues may not endear you to a search committee…

          • Jonathan Bernier

            And why would he apply to teach New Testament studies when he’s not a New Testament scholar?

        • Jonathan Bernier

          In fairness the academic job market isn’t exactly a picnic these days. Speaking as a relatively recent grad on the market right now. I’m not a Carrier fan, but I don’t think this is a particularly probative matter.

      • John Bebbington


        The only other place the phrase “in Christ before me” occurs is Romans 16:7 and in that chapter there is no statement by Paul that he learned anything at all from the apostles mentioned therein.

        Carrier’s story is correct; I heard it with my own ears. He greatly respects Goodacre and was simply very surprised to hear a scholar of Goodacre’s eminence misquoting scripture.

        • Neko

          Thank you for your response. Yes, I’m aware of Romans 16:7 etc. and Paul’s insistence that he received the gospel straight from Jesus. What I meant and did not well convey is that I can understand how Goodacre might have made the error. Does anyone really think Goodacre doesn’t know 1 Corinthians? Please.

          I also think it churlish for Carrier to have opened his piece with that anecdote, and it may even undermine what follows (which I have yet to read) since it frames the debate in terms of the academy and its alleged failures, instead of, as mythicists insist, an alternative theory based on a scientific methodology. In another post you ask “Rather than attack the man why not deal with his thesis?” You might ask that of Carrier himself, who is known for his mean-spirited ad hominems. I agree it would be better to discuss his ideas, but it’s hard, for me, anyway, to get past Carrier’s tendency to hit below the belt.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Please look up the word “historicism.” It does not mean what you seem to think it means. And that’s the fundamental problem here: these arguments, insofar as they merit the term, are being put forward by people who do not even understand the rudiments of historiography. They tend as a result to lack logical validity or empirical soundness. There are as wrong-headed as creationism. As such New Testament scholars are precisely as obliged to respond to these arguments as biologists are to creationist arguments. Frankly, Prof. McGrath is being charitable in even deigning to engage with such silliness.

      • Mark Erickson

        I will gladly admit I got my suffix wrong. I used a technical term incorrectly. And I will edit it. (Done) But my error is trivial, whereas James has misunderstood (again) and not corrected his error (again). Any words for him?

        By the way, have corrected your misspelling of non sequitur on your blog yet? Or published my critical comment? On post about Valerie Tarico’s article.

        • Guest
        • Jonathan Bernier

          What error did James make?

          And no, the error is not trivial. This use of the word “historicist” recurs through mythicist literature, and all it does is demonstrate to me that mythicists have no idea what they are talking about.

          You are right: I misspelled “non sequitur.” That, however, is actually trivial. As for your comment, there is nothing to publish. I have no pending comments on the blog.

      • Mark Erickson

        Here’s the link to fix non sequitur and/or publish my comment.

    • Bethany

      Have you (or the original objector) read Ehrmans’ “Did Jesus Exist”? Besides the positive arguments for Jesus’ existence, it does talk about why some of the mythicist arguments are wrong.

      There’s also this series of interviews with Ehrman (there are 7 parts, there’s some other blog posts in the middle.)

      • Mark Erickson

        Thank you. I will read the interviews. I have not read “Did Jesus Exist?” although I have read as much as I can of Bart’s writing online and seen several of his videos. You can read about its problems from Richard Carrier on his blog and from Earl Doherty’s series on Vridar. Ehrman is rightly held in high esteem in general, but that book seems to be his low point as a scholar.

      • Mark Erickson

        Oh yes, I had read those. But I had forgotten that Bart said “we NT scholars tend simply to assume that he existed, without feeling any real compulsion to “prove” it. But as I looked into it, I found there was a lot of literature on the other side of the question”. Thanks!

      • Mark Erickson

        Oh, the hits just keep on coming! “This led me into a deep interest in the history of early Christianity – something that, regrettably, most NT scholars – not just textual critics — are blissfully ignorant about.”

      • Mark Erickson

        No more howlers in part 2, 3, or 4, but in part 5 he says Paul wrote that Jesus had twelve disciples. In fact, Paul never uses the word for disciples and rather randomly calls one group of people who saw visions of the risen Jesus “the twelve”.

        Which reminds me of a huge problem I have with Erhman. He wrote a best selling textbook on the NT. And he decided to start the textbook with the Gospels, because he wanted the students to know who Jesus was before they read about him in the Epistles. This is unconscionable. Can you imagine in any other historical subject starting a textbook with a group of later sources with the explicit goal of bringing that information as background to a group of earlier sources?

        • Can you imagine in any other historical subject starting a textbook with a group of later sources with the explicit goal of bringing that information as background to a group of earlier sources?

          What a strange point. Wouldn’t that entirely depend upon the nature of the sources?

          • And one can also ask where mythicism would be if it never appealed to the Ascension of Isaiah, the Talmud, Origen, or Epiphanius.

            I could well imagine a textbook about the Civil War including letters from soldiers written during the war after an overview of the war written a few decades later, providing the reader of the textbook with information that the letter-writers took for granted. I would expect it to point out the chronological issue, and to mention that not everything in that overview could be presumed to be known to the soldiers who wrote the letters.

            Mythicists seem to have grasped onto a scholarly principle – that earlier sources, being closer to the events, are preferable – and twisted it into something bizarre, which treats sources from the same tradition, written a few decades later, as being utterly incapable of including information that was around decades earlier.

          • Exactly!

            Which leads us to this kind of drivel:

            [Paul]rather randomly calls one group of people who saw visions of the risen Jesus “the twelve”

            So apparently, rather accept that the twelve and the disciples very probably refer to the same group, we should think that Paul is randomly inventing groups, that presumably nobody had ever heard of before, without any kind of explanation. Riiiight…

            You’re a scholar Dr McGrath, so I’m sure you can help me out here, did Paul have some first century random name generator website to help him do this, or do experts think he had some numerical version of Tourette ‘s syndrome?

          • Here’s something I wrote a while back, before I had a blog, trying to assess the historicity of the Twelve:

          • Mark Erickson

            James, you are strawmaning again. The comparable situation for mythicism is to bring Valentinian gnosticism into Paul’s work. (I know you will now accuse mythicists of doing this. Fine, I’m sure some have. I roundly condemn them!) And I never said anything remotely similar to “never appealing” to a group of sources.

            “after an overview of the war written a few decades later” Presumably, this overview used contemporary, extant sources. I’m not aware that we have copies of Q, M, L or whatever. And the letter would not be the earliest source material about the Civil War that existed. Or would the letter writer be the only source we have for the Civil War! I do enjoy demolishing your grasping at straws, but at least try to construct a counter-example that is relevant.

            Another straw man. The earliest sources in Jesus’ case, Paul’s letters, are vastly more important than the Gospels, all likely written after the destruction of Jerusalem in a vastly different milieu than the 50’s AD. I am not making any claims about historiography in general, just the historiography of Jesus.

            “which treats sources from the same tradition, written a few decades later [the Gospels], as being utterly incapable of including information that was around decades earlier [the Epistles].” Of course the Gospels can include information from the Epistles! I’m talking about the reverse. Is reading or writing or both a problem for you?

          • I was not talking about the Gospels including things from the epistles. I was talking about the bizarre mythicist notion that information that came to be written down in the Gospels could not have been around during the time when the epistles were written. I am talking about taking the equivalent of an account of the Civil War, written down after it ended, and using it to help us contextualize the letters written while it was going on, but which because of their genre do not give us the kind of information that the later narrative account gives us, but were not therefore unaware of the events of the war just because some of them may not get a mention in a letter.

          • Mark Erickson

            Of course the information in the Gospels *could* have existed in oral traditions or lost writings from the 50’s or even the 30’s. Who exactly says otherwise? The question is about the evidence that supports that hypothesis.

            Your Civil War example is so pathetic. When you discover a photograph of Paul, let me know.

            Getting back to the main point. Is it defensible for Ehrman to start a textbook with the Gospels so that students explicitly “read the Gospels into the Epistles”?

          • This is a strange response. Who suggests that photography was possible in Paul’s time? Who suggests that the only reason we believe there was a Civil War in the United States is because we have photographs? The point was that there might be good reason to give students a narrative about the conflict as a whole, before giving them letters written during the war, because letters do not typically give you the kinds of details or the narrative framework you need to understand the period. It would be a very confusing approach to insist that the letters must be read without knowledge of the war gleaned from sources written after it had ended, which is when overviews of wars tend to come from.

          • Mark Erickson

            I’ll let my response stand. How about you:
            1) Update this post to say you misunderstood what the commenter was saying
            2) Say whether you think NT textbooks should begin with the Gospels for the explicit purpose of bringing that knowledge to the Epistles.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I see no reason why Prof. McGrath should state that he misread what the commenter was saying, because he didn’t. The commenter stated that the standard response to Jesus mythicism is to appeal to popular opinion. Prof. McGrath read that to mean that the commenter meant that the standard response to Jesus mythicism is to appeal to popular opinion. Now, it’s quite possible that’s not what the commenter meant, but it’s definitiely what he wrote. And if it’s what he wrote then it’s not a misreading. It’d be rather a miscommunication on the commenter’s part. And why Prof. McGrath should apologize for someone else’s mistake is quite beyond me.

            I also don’t entirely understand your psychological need to get Prof. McGrath to concede that he misread something written by someone other than yourself, especially when it is demonstrably the case that he did not.

          • Mark Erickson

            Sure. In this case, is it defensible to teach students the Jesus of the Gospels in order to bring that knowledge into their reading of the Epistles?

          • Chronologically, Jesus’s life, ministry, and death precede Paul’s career. So yes, I think it’s perfectly defensible to start with the gospels (and what they might tell us about this) and then move onto Paul. Thinking about the textbooks I’ve been looking at recently for planning my own NT course, I think this approach is actually pretty standard.

            Of course, you shouldn’t read back into Paul’s letters theological concerns that reflect a later time, but isn’t that about your treatment of the material rather than your arrangement of it?

            So overall, I’d say it’s legit to set out a textbook according to the chronology of the events as you think they happened, rather than treating the sources in the order they happened to be written.

            Edit: Correct me if I’m wrong here (haven’t read it), but doesn’t Carrier tackle the gospels before the letters in his latest book? As I say, I haven’t read it, so just going from the table of contents I’ve seen…

          • arcseconds

            It also seems to be pedagogically useful particularly in this case, as Jesus is not exactly an unknown figure, but students’ understanding is very likely to be quite different from the understanding of historians.

            In fact, I would think, perhaps not unconscionable (attacking hospitals and schools! holding prisoners without trial! and teaching later sources before earlier ones!) but certainly inadvisable to just launch into Paul and not address the students’ understanding of Jesus.

          • Mark Erickson

            You can address the students’ understanding of Jesus first. Of course that is pedagogically sound. Bart says “We start by studying the context of the New Testament: The Greco-Roman world. This gets short shrift in the class, since time is so short and we need to move on to the New Testament.” Great. But then he says he goes to the Gospels because “students can’t know anything about Jesus without first studying the Gospels.” Not okay.

          • arcseconds

            How could presenting Jesus do anything other than draw upon the Gospels? I mean, surely in a time-pressured class, you should be teaching as closely as you can to the scholarly consensus (and where there is no consensus, teach at least a couple of different views that receive strong support amongst scholars). Surely a main teaching goal of an introductory class would be to get the students to understand (at an overview level) the current scholarly view on Jesus, and the picture(s) painted by scholars draws on all the material available.

            I can see that you could make a distinction between ‘presenting Jesus’ and ‘studying the Gospels in depth’, but there’s a continuum here, is there not? And given that you’ll have to use the Gospels anyway, it might be more efficient to teach them all first, rather than chopping and changing.

            Honestly, I can’t see any reason for this rule of yours that one shouldn’t present later material earlier in the class. And neither can anyone else, apparently. Is it something you’ve made up just now?

            That’s not to say I can’t see some merit in designing a class like that, but I can see merit in any of these ways of structuring a course:

            1) present the chronology of historical events as now understood by historians, no matter what material went into their construction.
            2) present the sources in chronological order, maybe building a picture of the history as you go. If later sources cast different light on earlier events, then revise the picture you’re generating.
            3) present the sources in the order in which they’re discovered. An evolving picture of this nature might mirror the scholarly picture as it actually developed over time as new material was discovered.

            (2) and (3) are more suited to advance classes, in my opinion. (3)’s practically a historiography course.

            EDIT: there could, of course, be many other ways of structuring the material that would not necessarily involve presenting the sources in any kind of chronological order.

          • Jim

            Sorry to bug you with this question, but is there anything actually wrong with following the order of the NT canon in an introductory NT textbook even though the NT isn’t in chronological order? I think that a reasonable number of, BE’s students for example, are already somewhat familiar with the NT gospels and Pauline letters before even enrolling in his course, so his ordering of chapters is not necessarily some subliminal plot to confuse and manipulate the students.

            I guess I can’t see any logic behind Erickson’s second question and thought I would run this question by you since you are putting together a NT course.

          • Well, the NT course I’m putting together is just for high school students, so I’m what I’m doing isn’t of the same kind of scope or level as Ehrman.

            But leafing through a couple of books I’ve got to hand, yeah they do take loosely this approach. I suppose you’d want to treat Paul’s genuine letters separately from letters not considered genuine, but I’d guess (as someone who has never written a textbook) that overall you’d order the textbook according to what you think works pedagogically, as the ever-wise arcseconds suggests.

            I’m pretty sure that my old uni introductory textbook on Buddhism (Harvey) starts with a jog through of the Buddha’s life, even though gospel-style narratives of the Buddha’s story aren’t the first Buddhist texts, nor are they nearly as early as the gospels are, relative to the life of Jesus. [edit: just checked, and yep, it does]

            I don’t see much logic to Erickson’s question either. I think what he’s getting at isn’t that we shouldn’t “read the gospels back into Paul”. But as I’ve said above, that’s about how you treat Paul’s letters, not where you stick them in a textbook.

          • And of course, mythicists take the legitimate principle of avoiding reading back into earlier sources things only found in later ones, and pervert it into their own principle that one should try at all costs to get the Gospels to disagree with Paul, even when there is concordance between them. And so basically they try to make the Jesus, the Twelve, the supper, the crucifixion, and everything else in the Gospels that Paul mentions, something that was somehow radically different from what Paul himself was talking about. To return to the analogy that I have been using here on the textbook question, it would be like saying that when letters written during the Civil War mention a confederate flag, it cannot be the same thing that the narrative account of the Civil War mentions, since that was written decades later.

          • Yeah, you do end up with this weird situation where Christians who were likely Paul’s contemporaries are supposedly using the same words, but applying them to completely different entities.

          • Mark Erickson

            What words are you talking about?

          • Lots of them! Start with “Jesus”, and then build yourself a vocab list.Really it’s any word that in the mythicist thesis, has to move from having a spiritual or non-physical meaning, to later being interpreted in physical or historical ways.

            Under mythicism, would you agree that you have two groups of Christians apparently using a shared language, but actually using the same words to mean radically divergent things, so that these two groups (who were part of the same movement and who must have co-existed for a time) are seemingly talking past each other?

            I’m not saying, of course, that words can’t change their meanings, or that one word can’t be interpreted in different ways by members of the same group. I just don’t see much evidence that Christains were debating the meaning of these words (at least, not in ways that would support mythicism).

          • Mark Erickson

            That’s not an answer. I’ll go into why below.

            No I do not. By two groups, I assume you mean Paul’s
            churches and the Jerusalem church. The pre-70 AD extant writing about these two groups all comes from the NT letters, both Pauline and non. I don’t think these letters represent two groups talking past each other because of different definitions. The conflicts are pretty clearly about doctrine and practice. So I agree that there is no evidence that these two groups were debating the meanings of the words in the letters. Maybe the Jerusalem church had definitional problems with Paul’s group, but there are no extant writings from them, so we don’t know.

            “*later* being interpreted in physical or historical ways.”
            That’s right. The physical or historical ways came later with the Gospels. These Christians produced Acts, a purported history of the post-Easter period. Compared to the epistles, the terms used in Acts are not so much different definitions as different words and concepts altogether. Disciples vs. apostles, personal visions of Jesus (revelation) vs. Jesus interacting in the world (speaking), etc. In addition, it is very likely that Acts represents divisions among Christians of the late first or early second century period rather than accurate historical information about any disputes pre-70 AD.

            So, what words are you talking about?

          • So, what words are you talking about?

            Basically any word were you would have to say that it had a different meaning for Paul than it did for “historicist” Christians. Perhaps “language” is a better way of thinking about it?

            Jesus is a good example. You mentioned “the twelve” above. But also, presumably, you agree that when Paul talks about Jesus being died, buried, betrayed, this had a different meaning for later “historicist” Christians? Similarly, when Paul indicates relationships between Jesus and other figures known to Paul in his letters, and we find these relationships echoed in “historicist” Christian writings, that these relationships had completely different meanings to Paul than they had for “historicist” Christians?

            I certainly don’t mean that the two groups are Pauline churches and the Jerusalem church (that would be hugely problematic, for various reasons): the two groups I have in mind are “mythicist” Christians and “historicist” Christians.

            My question for you would be where you date the latest “mythicist” texts and the earliest “historicist” texts?
            The interval between these times (and any texts dated between or at a similar time to them) would be where the two groups seem, to me, to have been talking past each other – on the assumption that mythicism is true.

          • I think that you would be better off avoiding Civil War analogies because one thing my reading has taught me is how problematic accounts written several decades after the fact can be. The history books are filled with hoary old chestnuts that were first reported several decades after the war, which not only cannot be corroborated in the earliest sources, but which those sources actually call into question. In the South, the cult of the Lost Cause mythologized Robert E. Lee, while in the North, the postbellum political power of William Sherman and Ulysses Grant shaped the way that the history of the war was written. In the last few decades, much that was once widely accepted has been called into question.

            In every conceivable way, the Gospels pose much greater problems than the histories written in the decades after the Civil War. While many of the discredited stories about the Civil War can be traced back to original eyewitnesses, nothing in the Gospels can be. While we have primary source material for the Civil War written from a wide variety of perspectives, we have no primary source material for Jesus and the later sources all come from insiders in the movement. From what I can see, the discrepancies between the Gospels and Paul’s letters are much greater than the kind of discrepancies that cause historians to question stories about the Civil War that were first recorded several decades after the fact.

            Of course we cannot expect to have the kind of source material for Jesus of Nazareth that we have for the Civil War, but that is why we shouldn’t be claiming to know much of anything with any certainty about him. It is not a question of basing conclusions on sources that we don’t have. It is recognizing the problems with sources we do have.

          • I’m not persuaded that you are right to say that “nothing in the Gospels can be traced back to original eyewitnesses.” While the authors may not themselves have been eyewitnesses, the notion that eyewitnesses vanished almost immediately and simultaneously everyone began fabricating new material completely at odds with what eyewitnesses had seen and heard, seems highly improbable.

            But my point was to make an analogy related to order in a textbook, and that point stands. Historians prefer sources as close to the events as possible, to ones written later. But that doesn’t mean that it makes pedagogical sense not to read something slightly later first, and it certainly doesn’t mean (despite the mythicists who claim otherwise) that we should try to make the earlier and later sources seem to mean different things when they seem to be corroborating one another.

          • The notion that everyone began fabricating new material does seem a little silly to me as well. However, the notion that some people began inventing fantastic stories seems to be entirely consistent with what we observe in the Gospels. Moreover, the notion that the fantastic stories got told and retold because they were much more interesting and much more effective evangelistic tools than what had actually happened seems to be be consistent as well.

            If in fact Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans for sedition, the usual practice would have been to crucify a bunch of his followers making it probable that many of the eyewitnesses did simply vanish. Among those followers who got away, it seems perfectly probable that some of them did take his crucifixion as proof that he wasn’t whoever it was he claimed to be and that they wouldn’t have wanted to draw attention to the fact that they had ever been his followers by telling stories about him. It seems not at all improbable to me that the oral tradition developed with very little input from actual eyewitnesses.

          • It is certainly likely that some of the eyewitnesses simply left the movement with the execution of Jesus. But if they all had, it is unlikely that anyone would have come along under those circumstances and turned Jesus into a crucified Messiah. It seems more likely that some who were persuaded that Jesus was the chosen one before the crucifixion found ways of maintaining that belief despite the crucifixion, and that the conviction of such individuals, however few in number, was a factor in others joining it. And so a scenario in which there is very little input from an inner core of followers seems to me less likely.

          • It seems more likely that some who were persuaded that Jesus was the chosen one before the crucifixion found ways of maintaining that belief despite the crucifixion, and that the conviction of such individuals, however few in number, was a factor in others joining it.

            As reasonable as that hypothesis may be, the movement spread because those others convinced still others that Jesus was the anointed one by virtue of rising from the dead. We can see from the gospels that the spread of the movement depended on the invention of fantastic stories about Jesus’ life to bolster the contention that he was God’s chosen one and we can see from the epistles that it depended on working out the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and packaging it into a sellable message. Most of that spreading and invention and packaging was likely to have been done by people who weren’t eyewitnesses to the things that Jesus said or did.

            If the things that eyewitnesses actually remembered Jesus doing and saying were as effective in spreading the movement as the stories that non-eyewitnesses invented and the meaning they attached to his death and resurrection, we might reasonably expect some actual memories to have survived decades of oral tradition to be recorded in the gospels. But how can we know this to be the case? Even if we conclude that Paul believed in a historical Jesus, he gives us no indication that memories of the things that he actually said and did played a role in the spread of the movement.

          • We can only assess the likelihood, given the evidence, and the people Paul had access to. When he says that people in the churches he planted should follow his example even as he follows Christ’s suggests that he at least believed he had relevant information.

          • That leaves us with the usual circularity problem. Paul never says that any of the people he knew had any of Jesus’ teachings to pass along. (Conventional wisdom has it that James wasn’t a follower of his brother during his life time.). So unless we have already established that the gospels reflect genuine memories of the historical Jesus rather than the inventions of non-eyewitnesses, we cannot draw any conclusions from the fact that Paul had access to people named in the gospels.

            I have no doubt that Paul believed that he had relevant information, but I also have no doubt that he believed that the things he learned from the scriptures or by revelation constituted relevant information.

          • When he consulted with Peter and James, we have good reason to believe that such individuals were well-poised to actually know things. However much Paul may try to distance his authority from those figures, we cannot come up with a realistic depiction of his knowledge without them. And so, when we then find that things which Paul attributes to a “word of the Lord” or “not I, but the Lord” turn up in the Gospels, there seems to be good reason to regard the one as confirming the other.

          • The problem is that Paul never indicates that he has much knowledge of the historical Jesus. He seems to know that Jesus was born of a woman, but that is hardly anything he needed Peter or James to tell him. Beyond that, there is nothing unrealistic about Paul inventing things and claiming to have gotten them by revelation.

            I don’t doubt that Paul learned things from Peter and James. I just don’t see that he gives us any basis for identifying which things those were beyond the fact that others had claimed to witness appearances before Paul did. Even if I had some basis for thinking that James or Peter were responsible for some specific part of Paul’s message, there is no reason to think that they weren’t just as capable as anyone else of inventing things and attributing them to revelation. It still doesn’t get me back to the historical Jesus.

          • If it gets you (as it seems to) back to there having been a historical Jesus, about whom you are not confident that we can tell what was invented about him and what is authentic, then you have at long last made it from the fringe to the scholarly mainstream, and all these conversations have been worth it.

          • The fact that Paul met a guy named Peter and a guy named James who claimed to have visions of the risen Christ before him doesn’t do much to support the inference that those visions were connected to a historical Jesus. There may well be a good argument for his existence out there somewhere but until the scholarly mainstream becomes less enamored with its own consensus, I’m not betting on it to come up with one.

          • When we are talking about James the brother of Jesus, and Peter one of Jesus’ disciples, we have reason to think they knew more than just things they saw in dreams or visions.

            Why is it that you make comments like this, as though none of our previous discussion had taken place? Are you trying to convince me that those conversations are not worth having, because you are going to ignore them?

          • I made the comment because you seemed to think that I had somehow changed my position. If you are going to make comments that challenge me to restate my position, please don’t whine when I do.

            If it were possible to establish that either Peter or James communicated anything more to Paul than things they saw in dreams or visions, that would be different. Unfortunately, Paul never indicates that he knows anything like that which means that he doesn’t give me reason to think that anyone else did.

            That wouldn’t mean that there was no historical Jesus, but it might mean that the movement was based on the interpretation placed on the dreams and visions rather than anything specific that Jesus taught.

          • My question to you is whether historians can legitimately conclude that Paul, given his interaction with individuals like James and Peter, was in a position to know that Jesus was a historical figure. You seemed to acknowledge that. Your last comment seems to hint that this could be likely. I know that you hate actually drawing conclusions, but isn’t that bare fact one where the balance of probability is clear?

          • I have never doubted for a minute that Paul was in a position to know whether Jesus was a historical figure. My problem has always been that Paul never clearly tells me anything that indicates that he knows this to be the case. You are very fond of pointing out that historians establish that people existed in the past by using records of the things they said and did. Well I’m simply pointing out that the fact that Paul doesn’t give me any record of the things Jesus or did makes me think that he doesn’t give me much evidence that Jesus existed. That doesn’t prove he didn’t. It just doesn’t help me establish that he did.

          • So you think it is plausible that, when Paul said that Jesus was born of a woman, born under the Torah, descended from David according to the flesh, he is more likely to have meant something other than what those phrases appear to mean?

            Why must you insist on a dogmatic agnosticism even about matters on which the balance of probability is clear?

          • I think that it is frequently the case that the things Paul says mean something other than what they appear to mean and so do you. For example, when Paul says that certain thing were revealed directly to him by God, you thing it more likely that he means that he received them from his predecessors while I think it may be more likely that he means that he invented them himself.

            Regarding the specific things you have noted, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are intended to communicate some theological truths about the risen Christ rather than historical information about Jesus of Nazareth, but that isn’t a point upon which I have a strongly held position.

            What I am saying is that even if you take them at face value, those statement could be just as true of any number of legendary, mythical or fictional characters. As long as Paul believed those things to be true as a result of visionary experiences of a heavenly being, they don’t give me any real evidence that those visions were connected with an actual historical person.

          • If you make up (as mythicists do) that Paul only claimed to know things through visions, and that others said the same, then that might be possible. But why do you think this made-up nonsense is more likely than what Paul actually says, and what other early Christian sources confirm?

          • OK. I’ll bite. Where does Paul cite a source other than scripture or revelation as a source for his understanding of Jesus and the gospel?

          • The only place where Paul insists that he is not dependent on another human being is in Galatians, emphasizing that his sending and his Gospel do not depend on the Jerusalem authorities. He emphasizes that he did not consult with them before beginning his work, but also emphasizes that he did later consult with them, and that they accepted his call. Only someone who believes in miracles or who is doing a bit of mythicist trickery would claim that his list of key events and people in 1 Corinthians 15 is something he received by divine revelation, and which turned out to correspond to what others were saying. And when someone isn’t committed to mythicist obscurantism, they are unlikely to view it as more probable that Paul invented the Lord’s supper and managed to have it embraced by the rest of Christianity, than that Paul means the same thing in 1 Cor. 11 as he means in 1 Cor. 15 when he talks about passing on what he also received. And unless one is committed to mythicist obscurantism and misrepresentation, one is unlikely to judge it more probable that Paul invented words of Jesus and contrasted them wit his own teaching, than that he actually knew something about Jesus’ teaching on divorce which later made its way into the Gospels.

          • I didn’t ask you where Paul insists that he is not dependent on other human beings. I asked you where he cites a source other than scripture or revelation. Apparently, he doesn’t, and that isn’t something that mythicists “made up.” Thank you for confirming that.

            I am not aware of anyone who claims that Paul got the list of appearances by divine revelation. In an earlier comment, I specifically referred to Paul knowing that Peter and James claimed to have witnessed appearances before he did. I have also said frequently that I consider it likely that Paul learned things from Peter and James. However because Paul never says what those things were, I don’t know that they were based on their memories of the historical Jesus rather than on their own visions and revelations.

            Is it your position that Jesus really did say “This is my body which is given for you”? If not, then someone invented it and managed to get others to embrace it? Why would it be any crazier for Paul to have done so than anyone else?

            Unless you think that Jesus really said all the things that are attributed to him in the gospels, then you must believe that people invented things and attributed them to Jesus. Why would it be improbable that Paul invented things as well which he attributed to his revelation?

          • It is bizarre that you think that my examples of places where Paul is citing tradition he received, unless you twist the text in the manner that mythicists love, is me saying the opposite of that.

            We do not know whether Jesus said the words attributed to him at a final meal with his disciples. It may be unlikely, whether because we actually have variations on the celebration of the Lord’s supper (as in the Didache) or because it seems based on other evidence that Jesus did not comment on the significance of his death. It is entirely possible that the celebration draws on things Jesus said, reinterpreted in light of the crucifixion. Many things are possible in this particular case, but how does uncertainty about authenticity (not certainty of inauthenticity) in this case justify claiming certain inauthenticity on something as universal in our early sources as that Jesus was an actual human being? Or the things that you conveniently ignore from the 1 Cor. 15 tradition: that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried?

          • Where does Paul say that he received anything “by tradition”? In 1 Corinthians 11′ he say he says he is passing on what he received “from The Lord.” Now it may be perfectly reasonable to think that he got it somewhere else, but he is claiming that he got it by revelation.

            In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures, which is a theological interpretation of an event which Paul would have viewed as something he knew by revelation rather than tradition. Once again, it may be perfectly reasonable to suppose that he heard about the crucifixion from someone, but that isn’t what he is citing as a source.

            If our early sources are highly problematic, the fact that they agree on some point may not mean much. They are pretty consistent about Jesus rising from the dead, too.

          • Treating the way it was received by Paul as something different from how it was passed on by Paul is something mythicists read into the text, not something it says. And I thought we had already established that it involves extreme unlikelihood or miracle for Paul to have happened on a view of what Jesus had experienced, and a list of people who had had religious experiences, either through imagination or through dreams or visions.

            The texts consistently indicate belief that Jesus had been born, crucified, and died in the way other people do, and that the resurrection the early Christians believed in was something they hoped and expected to be the experience of all other human beings at the end of time. Historians are obviously going to set aside an actual resurrection as an extremely unlikely occurrence, to say the least. But you want to also dispute that they even all believed the mundane details that preceded it, even though you said that they all believed the last point. It is your dogmatic refusal to accept that the texts most likely indicate what a range of early Christians believed about Jesus, which in the case of the mundane details they were well poised to know, that is so frustrating.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            There’s also Birger Gerhardsson’s work to consider. For those unfamiliar, fifty years ago Birger Gerhardsson (who just passed away last year, RIP) showed I think pretty conclusively that Paul’s language here is the language of passing on oral tradition. This he did by studying Paul’s language within the history of Greek word usage and the broader Jewish tradition. There are difficulties with Gerhardsson’s work, but I don’t think this is one of them. I think it next to impossible to disagree with him on this matter.

            And btw, Vinny, apropos of my recent, and quite independent statement that this sort of discussion can be quite frustrating, note Dr. McGrath’s comment above. It seems to me that Dr. McGrath handles his frustration on the matter better than I do, which probably speaks to his greater amount of teaching experience. Few things improves one’s patience than working with undergrads! But frustrating it can remain.

          • Neko

            Huh? I thought 1 Cor 15: 3-5 is (widely) considered to be “pre-Pauline.”

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I’m not sure I’ve heard that before, but I wouldn’t rule it out. And I’m not primarily a Paul guy, so it’s not like I know the secondary literature inside and out. In any case, as Dr. McGrath points out below, it’s very strange to think that Paul passed it on in a way different from the way that he received it. And the problem that Vinny must confront is that it is doesn’t explicitly state that he got it from someone else neither does it explicitly state that he got it via revelation. And note that the connection with 1 Cor. 11 is tenuous: it’s far from evident that Paul has revelation in mind when he talks about having words of the Lord. And the connection with Galatians is also tenuous, as there he says that he did not get his gospel from anyone, but his knowledge of Jesus’ life is not necessarily the same as his knowledge of his gospel. And in any case, in the very next chapter he tells us that he met with James and Cephas, who were according to 1 Cor. 15 eyewitnesses to Jesus, so if we know that he was in contact with these eyewitnesses why would we not think that he received his knowledge on the matter from any source but them? And why, if we can put so little trust in what Paul tells us in Gal. 2, can we put so much stock in what he tells us in Gal. 1? It all seems to add up to a big old case of special pleading.

            (Please note that I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m agreeing that 1 Cor. 15 just makes no sense under Vinny’s reading).

          • Neko

            Yikes, I guess I overstated the case. I’ve been under the impression that 1 Cor 15:3-8 and Philippians 2:6-11 contained pre-Pauline creeds, in whole or part, and so were received from tradition. (I encountered this view most recently in Ehrman’s latest but have read of it elsewhere.)

            I am aware that mythicists vehemently contest that the James of Galatians 1:19 was the biological brother of Jesus. I don’t even read koine Greek, so that is one swamp I have no business wading into. However, it seems to me that if Paul meant a spiritual brother, he would not have identified James as the brother of the Lord. As to Paul’s grammatical precision more generally, that’s yet another thing I’m in no position to determine.

          • Most scholars (and apparently even most mythicists!) are convinced that Paul did not come up with a list which just happened to agree with information that other apostles had and were sharing. So you are right that there is a majority view that this is earlier tradition.

            On James the brother of the Lord, here are a couple of posts of mine which I would think deal with the question adequately, but apparently mythicists are still happy to pretend that the matter is not clear enough that the probability points in one direction rather than the other:



          • Neko

            Thank you for this; I read the links with interest and accept James the biological brother of Jesus as the most “parsimonious” interpretation of the evidence. This has got to be the most fraught definite article in history.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Phil. 2:6-11 definitely is seen that way, and I’m inclined to accept that view. That’s a significant statement coming from me, because I have a natural antipathy for the sort of source-critical suppositions upon which such arguments rest. As for 1 Cor. 15, I actually legitimately don’t know about whether people think there is a creedal basis there. It’s not my area of expertise.

            As for the “Lord’s brother,” I honestly don’t see how anyone familiar with ancient Greek could think that anything else is going on. At most you might be able to do what Catholic interpretation until quite recently has been wont to do, which is to read it as another close male relative. The source of violence that one must do to the text to make it read otherwise simply confirms what any disinterested reader should have reason to suspect, namely that mythicists are pursuing a conclusion decided upon prior to actually consulting the data.

          • Neko

            Yes, I’m from a Catholic background; the Church’s contortions to prop up Mariolatry are a source of both amusement and consternation.

            I’m curious about your antipathy toward source-criticism. Are you willing to elaborate?

          • Jonathan Bernier

            It’s not an antipathy in principle. I have no doubt that Israelite, Jewish, and Christian writers used sources in their work. My antipathy is towards a certain tendency, now largely fading in the discipline, to think that we can with fine precision reconstruct those sources. I think that most attempts have ended up being purely speculative, in the category of interesting possibility rather than reasonable probability.

          • Neko

            Thanks, interesting to know!

          • On the other occasions where Paul use “received,” he is referring to receiving things from The Lord. He might mean something different by “received” in 1 Cor 15 but I don’t know why we should assume that he is. What he delivered to the Corinthians was not a list of appearances, but the gospel message that Christ died for their sins according to the scriptures, which Paul believed he knew by revelation.

            While it is logical to think that Paul learned about the appearances to Peter and James from Peter and James, Paul says that he had been preaching the gospel for three years before he met them. Unless he is lying about that, he must have known something about appearances from somewhere else.

          • What other occasions are you referring to, where Paul used “received,” and what leads you to interpret them the way that you do?

            Do you have reason to think that Paul’s initial proclamation included details about appearances to others? And if so, doesn’t the fact that Paul had relatives who were Christians before he was provide one possible source that requires no miracles?

          • I have never thought that any miracles were required although I know you love to repeat that charge.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            What is the point of having a discussion with someone who ignores what is written? You completely ignored the point that when 1 Cor. 11 talks about getting words from the Lord it need not mean via revelation, and also that Gal. 1 talks about Paul’s knowledge of the gospel, not necessarily everything that he ever learned about the historical Jesus. Both ways of reading the texts, which frankly probably better reflect current Pauline scholarship than your ways of reading the texts, cut against your arguments.

          • Actually Jonathan, I haven’t ignored the point that Galatians 1:12 doesn’t necessarily refer to everything Paul ever learned about the historical Jesus. I have written several times that I think it likely that Paul learned things from Peter and James (although I would prefer to think that you have overlooked rather than ignored what I have written). Nevertheless, he does not cite them or any other people as a source.

            You may have also overlooked (or ignored) the point I made in another comment concerning 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. Paul was writing to a community that believed that God communicated directly with people through words of wisdom, words of knowledge, prophecy, and tongues. Therefore,when Paul speaks of delivering that which he received from the Lord in 1 Corinthians 11:23, it seems more likely to me that Paul is referring to the kind of direct communication from God that he goes on to discuss in the next passage rather than the reception of tradition from his predecessors, which as far as I can see he never acknowledges in any of his letters.

            I realize that this interpretation may not reflect current Pauline scholarship, but I do not intend that as an to insult any current Pauline scholar.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I neither overlooked nor ignored anything you wrote. I merely do not have time to follow extensively ever person who posts online, here or elsewhere. If you wanted me to look elsewhere then it was on you to point me there. You didn’t. Not my problem.

            That the Corinthian community experienced prophecy does not mean that they did not also receive teaching via human communication. If that is the case then when in 1 Cor. 15 Paul says that he passed on traditions to them then he must mean that he communicated that teaching through other-than-human means. But that makes absolutely no sense of the passage. Now, interestingly, on your reading, Paul would be in a single sentence saying “I received this via divine revelation but passed it on to you via human communication”; in that case, why couldn’t he say in 1 Cor. 11 that “I received this via human communication” whilst in 1 Cor. 12 say “You receive teaching via divine revelation”–especially when the content of what is being received differs in each case, whereas in 1 Cor. 15 the content would be identical. In short, you insist that it has to be all divine revelation or all human communication, but in fact it must be some of one and some of the other. In which case we are back to looking at each case on its own instead of making sweeping generalizations.

            And if he learned things from Peter and James then why couldn’t he have learned the content of 1 Cor. 15–especially when they are both mentioned there? If it is the case that Paul is passing on knowing via human communication; that he uses parallel language to describe receiving that tradition as he does to describe passing it on; if he has learned things from Peter and James; if he mentions them in what he communicates–isn’t it most reasonable to think that he got it via human communication, from Peter and James? The idea of divine revelation is completely gratuitous, not even hinted at. Which is to say, if one values parsimony one will adopt such a reading.

          • Let’s take a step back here Jonathan. You accused me of completely ignoring points that I had in fact addressed. You made this accusation even though you did not have the time to read my earlier comments in order to see whether I had addressed these points or not. Now you wish to excuse your false allegation on the grounds that I failed to point out to you the comments you didn’t have time to read. Your narcissism is fascinating.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Yes, let’s step back for a moment, and this because you have accused me of a personality disorder, namely narcissism. Let us consider the data.

            It is demonstrably the case that in your response to my post you did not address these points, whether by reiterating or referencing what you earlier said. Therefore it is very much the case that in your response to me you did ignore those posts.

            Pursuant to that, the only reasonable reading of my statement that “You completely ignored…” is “You completely ignored in your response to my post above…” Why is it the only reading that makes sense? I will answer with a counter-question: how in the name of all that is good and holy does it make any sense to think that you did not ignore my points because you responded to them before I even wrote them? How can you respond to something that does not yet exist.

            So, it is demonstrably the case that you did not respond to my points in my post. It is demonstrably the case that my post was referring specifically to your response. Therefore I have made no false allegations. Now, since your allegation of a personality disorder are predicated upon those false allegations it follows that the allegation is poorly founded. That’s not to say that I’m not a narcissist; heck, I’m the only child of an only child, a perfect storm of narcissistic tendencies. I’m also a Scorpio in the Western Zodiac and Snake in the Eastern. Really, I’m fated by birth orders and stars to be the king of narcissists, a claim that only a true narcissist would make. But this here, this was not an instance of my admitted narcissism.

          • So, it is demonstrably the case that you did not respond to my points in my post. It is demonstrably the case that my post was referring specifically to your response.

            This claim is demonstrably false as it is undoubtedly the case that the points to which I responded were your points from your comment. It may be the case that I did not parse your comment so as to respond to every word of every sentence nor did I repeat or reference other comments i have made, but that does not make the points to which I responded any less yours.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Well, this discussion is pointless, so I’ll let you have the last word.

          • Paul E.

            You make some interesting points but I’m not sure what the ultimate significance is. Is the point that if Paul is equating his receipt of the gospel to the other apostles’ that it makes it more likely that the other apostles received their gospel from revelation rather than a historical Jesus? Or something else? Thanks!

          • I do think that what Paul writes makes more sense if the context of him matching his revelation against someone else’s revelation. If Paul’s opponents had been claiming to know the authoritative teachings of the earthly Jesus, he might have been forced to address that point directly.

            My other thought is that much of the theology in Paul’s letters may have been his own invention. Paul gives us very little information about the movement’s beliefs and practices before he joined it. He never says what he found so offensive that he was inspired to persecute it. The only thing I can see that he really says is that some of his predecessors witnessed appearances of the risen Christ.

            Might it not be that it was Paul who worked out the meaning of the visions that his predecessors had experienced? Maybe it was Paul who figured out the idea of substitutionary atonement. Maybe it was Paul who worked out how the resurrection fit into God’s eschatological plan. Maybe Paul took some vague stories about a crucified messianic claimant who returned from the dead and packaged them as the gospel message.

            I think that we are basically stuck with Paul as our starting point and that his claim that things came to him by revelation effectively cuts us off from getting back any earlier. There was obviously something before him, but he doesn’t tell us what it was, so for all practical purposes, maybe we should be treating him as the founder of the movement.

          • I think that we are basically stuck with Paul as our starting point and that his claim that things came to him by revelation effectively cuts us off from getting back any earlier.

            Quick question: If you don’t accept the validity of the scholarly consensus that Paul joined a movement dating back to a historical Jesus, then why should I (or anyone else) accept the validity of an argument which takes as its starting point the priority of a collection of authentic Pauline letters? Are the dates of Paul’s letters and the existence of Jesus not part of the same scholarly consensus? Why should I accept the consensus view of scholars in a tricky area like the authorship and relative dating of texts, when these same scholars are apparently not sufficiently competent to notice that they’ve spent the past two centuries writing about a ghost?

          • I don’t accept the validity of the consensus that Paul joined a movement dating back to the historical Jesus because I don’t find the arguments persuasive. I think that you or anyone else should accept the consensus view of relative dating if you find the arguments persuasive. As for me, if the experts are wrong about the latter issue, that simply warrants a greater degree of agnosticism about the former.

          • The argument you give above is predicated on Paul being our starting point, i.e. our earliest source. Uncertainty about this would plainly warrant less uncertainty about a historical Jesus, as we would have less reason to build an argument from silence on the Paul’s supposed failure to refer to Jesus’ life (e.g. if the consensus shifted towards an early date for Mark).

            But this doesn’t really answer my question. Why are you apparently so confident in the relative dates of the NT texts, when you have zero confidence in the wider scholarly consensus that these dates are a part of?

          • I wouldn’t say I’m that confident of the relative dates, but the reasons I’ve seen given seem logical to me and the arguments I have seen for an early date for Mark strike me as speculative. However, less certainty about Paul being earliest doesn’t necessarily create any greater certainty about Mark. It just creates greater uncertainty about who was first. If there were strong reasons to think Mark was first, I think that would strengthen the case for historicity.

          • Again, you haven’t answered my question. I didn’t ask you about your views on the Mark circa ad 40 theory (which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have shared them)

            I asked you why you appear to have confidence in the relative dating of NT texts when you have no confidence in the wider scholarly consensus that these dates are part of: for example, that Jesus existed, or that Paul joined the movement after Jesus’ crucifixion around a.d. 30?

            Saying that you find one set of arguments convincing and one not convincing is barely more than a tautological response. So, specifically, do you think that the scholars who have proposed dates for NT texts are more competent than other scholars? If so how? Do you think that their methods are radically different to those of other NT scholars? If so, how?

            If you aren’t very confident about the dating of NT texts (your answer isn’t quite clear), perhaps you shouldn’t employ arguments that rely upon Paul being our earliest source?

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Spot on, Paul. I have made this point repeatedly to mythicists in e-conversation, and to the best of my knowledge *not one* has responded to the matter (I say “best of my knowledge,” because I acknowledge fully the possibility that I might miss a post written in response to mine. But I do find that, like creationists, mythicists have a remarkable ability to simply ignore critiques of their position). It’s actually really quite bizarre. The idea that Jesus did not exist has never gained any notable followers in the discipline’s history; conversely, the idea that Mark wrote his gospel before Paul wrote his letters, whilst certainly a minority position, is a minority position held by a number of respected scholars. It is passing strange to treat what the most qualified experts consider noncontroversial as controversial and what the same experts consider controversial as noncontroversial.

            The difference in degree of scholarly agreement of course has to do with data and reason. The data is such that a reasonable person cannot exclude the possibility that Mark’s Gospel was written before Paul’s letters, even if she or he thinks it less likely than the possibility that it was written, say, around 68. This is why, although I have my own judgment on the matter, I have reached the point where I don’t think one can build much on the relative order of the NT texts. The ground is too shifting. By contrast, whilst strictly speaking it is possible that Jesus did not exist, the data is such that a reasonable person can and should exclude this possibility. That means one can and should build upon this foundation, and that moreover constantly demanding that one demonstrate that the foundation is solid is akin to constantly demanding that a biologist prove that evolution is a solid foundation in that field of endeavour. After all, a mythicist is just a creationist in atheist drag.

          • Over on your own blog, I noticed you posted about myth and method, and I think what you wrote pretty much reflects my own views.

            The “better” mythicists I interact with (i.e. the ones who at least aren’t obvious trolls) tend to set up this ideal of how we should do NT history. In particular, they say that Paul is our earliest source, so we have to start from Paul. Not only this, but we have to avoid reading later Christian writings back into Paul, we have to let Paul speak for himself.

            Rhetorically, I think this is actually pretty effective. Most scholars would agree that Paul’s letters are our earliest source, so that sounds like a reasonable approach. And saying that we should let our sources speak for themselves likewise sounds like basic good practice. Not only this, but with Paul established as a starting point, mythicists can start to make arguments from silence based on the things that aren’t in Paul (“but Paul never says…”, “but Paul doesn’t seem to know about Jesus being…”.)

            However, the more I think about it, the more incoherent this position seems. Even leaving aside any doubts about an early date of Mark, or the validity of the AFS as they formulate it, the basic problem to me is: How do you establish that Paul is our earliest source, without some reference to other Christian writings that are (by definition) later? I don’t see how you could reasonably assume that any of Paul’s letters were genuinely written by an early Christian other than by looking at these later texts and concluding that it is plausible that we should find a person called Paul writing at a particular time, interacting with particular people, with a particular set of theological concerns?

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Thank you for your kind words are: my post. And I agree with your points here, and think what you advance in the last paragraph is particularly damning, namely that most mythicism rests upon an inconsistent application of the hermeneutic of suspicion. The data supportive of Jesus’ existence are fundamentally suspect but the data supportive of Paul’s existence are taken as given. But if the mythicist responds by saying “Well, maybe Paul never existed,” then the argument from Paul’s silence re: Jesus dissipates, because we then have no way of knowing that his writing predate the gospels. Betwixt and between. But it’s a dilemma of their own creating, by choosing to defend the intellectually indefensible.

          • I don’t know how else to answer your question Paul as I don’t see how being unpersuaded by the consensus of scholars on one point affects my evaluation of the arguments on another.

            I also don’t see anything unreasonable about considering the implications of Paul being the earliest source even while acknowledging that it is a question upon which reasonable minds might differ. Most points concerning early Christianity are much less secure than I might like them to be. I don’t need to be very confident about a premise to consider what conclusions logically follow from it as long as I don’t claim to be very confident about those conclusions.

          • When Paul says that something was tradition he shared with others, and that it was the same whether he or they had proclaimed it, to a community in Corinth in which some said they were “of Paul” but others said they were “of Cephas” or “of Apollos,” I find it less likely that he was simply inventing it all himself.

          • Someone had to work out the theological meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection regardless of how many different people agreed upon it. Is there any reason to think it more likely that Apollos or Cephas did it? Paul seems to have the necessary intellectual gifts.

            Just as Paul was willing to claim that no man had taught him anything when it served his purposes to do so, I would expect him to claim that everyone agreed with him if that suited his purposes.

          • But you seem to think that the very life and death of Jesus is something that someone could have made up (along with his brother). I have no qualms about your justified suspicion that Paul’s interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus may have been his own. But the belief that Jesus had lived and died is the necessary shared assumption in that case.

          • Paul E.

            I’m not sure I follow your argument here. Setting aside the brother issue for the moment, certainly some sort of life and death of Jesus was a shared assumption, but does that necessarily make them more likely to be historical? The resurrection was also a shared assumption. Is that also therefore more likely to be historical? And if the resurrection was understood only as a shared vision experience, not an actual physical return from the dead, then why can that not also be applied to the life and death of Jesus? Would it be your position that the shared vision experiences of the resurrection are more likely to have arisen from a traumatic event rather than from searching the scriptures?

          • Very rarely does one piece of evidence make something likely, if it is considered in complete isolation from other data. Here, I am addressing Vinny’s frequent claim that the evidence does not allow us to decide between the claims of mainstream historians and scholars on the one hand, and the claims of mythicists on the other. I think that the evidence clearly indicates, contrary what mythicists claim, that Paul was referring to an individual named Jesus whom he believed had appeared in human history. That God would raise the dead at the end of history was a shared belief, and the question of how and why Christians claim to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead in advance of the general resurrection is a challenging one. But even that belief in the resurrection is evidence that they were talking about a human being, given what we know of Jewish beliefs about resurrection.

          • Paul E.

            I agree with all these comments, but my concern related to the structure and attempted persuasive effect of the argument presented in your post rather than any one piece of evidence, accumulation of evidence, etc. I think the existence of shared assumption X does not necessarily say anything about the historicity of X. I think an argument based on that structure has only sophistical persuasive effect, and can actually be detrimental to your position when it can be applied, as here, to supernatural shared assumptions that are just as necessary as other, more mundane ones.

          • Well, historians regularly set aside claims about the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean that the figure about whom such claims are made doesn’t exist.

            But I was addressing something specific. Mythicists don’t just deny the historicity of Jesus, they deny that Paul intended to refer to an actual human being who lived on Earth. Since Paul was well poised to know whether there had been a historical Jesus, this is actually a fairly crucial point for them, and Richard Carrier has said in the past that, if Paul thought Jesus was historical, the probability would be that Jesus was historical. And so I was addressing what Paul thought, which is not the same as the question of historicity per se, but is relevant to it.

          • MattB

            hello Dr. McGrath,

            I don’t want to bother you again about this, but I actually found a link to a free online downloadable copy of Richard Carrier’s new book, if you’re interested:


          • Thanks. I actually have a print copy now, which I’ll be reviewing and writing about, probably as soon as I finish another review I’m contracted to write and am working on now.

          • MattB

            Cool. I read it and I must say that I was very disgusted by his attitude and baffled by his bizarre arguments.

          • Hmmm… dodgy illegal file sharing site vs. not giving Carrier any royalties. What would Jesus do?

          • MattB

            He would tell Carrier to stop lying to people about his existence:)

          • That belief may be a necessary assumption, but if the basis for the belief is visionary experiences of a supernatural being, that belief doesn’t really provide me much evidence of a historical person’s existence.

          • And why would you think that the basis for Jesus’ brother’s belief in his life is a visionary experience, other than dogmatic desire to read something into the text that isn’t there?

          • As you know, I don’t find the evidence that Paul understood that James to be Jesus’ biological brother all that impressive and I don’t have any record of James expressing his beliefs on the question. Given the lack of any corroboration from Paul that he thought he knew anyone who had known Jesus personally before the crucifixion, I’m not inclined to place a lot of weight on Galatians 1:19.

          • I am fully aware that you are happy to view mythicist twisting of Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5 as on a par with what scholars consistently conclude that the texts say and mean. I don’t suppose that there is any reason for me to go around with you yet again in this circle you are determined to keep repeating, is there?

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I find it an interesting piece of reception history that just as Catholic exegetes are acknowledging that the best reading of the NT indicates that Jesus had biological brothers a group of atheists is now picking up the old conservative Catholic line that says that these passages do not in fact refer to brothers. Strange bedfellows.

          • Are scholars consistent about 1 Cor. 9:5 referring to Jesus’ biological brothers?

          • Scholars that do not subscribe to Catholic dogma about Mary’s perpetual virginity are consistent on this, yes.

          • Paul E.

            Ok, but “authoritative teachings of an earthly Jesus” on what point? What I wonder is if the equivalence of post-crucifixion revelations makes a historical Jesus any less likely. There was certainly “something” that pre-existed Paul. Under the cognitive dissonance hypothesis, the dashed expectations of the disciples led to their appearance claims and revelatory experiences, which in turn explained the “true” meaning of the disaster of the crucifixion. Under those circumstances, couldn’t Paul logically and legitimately equate his revelation with theirs precisely because they had no teachings on this point until after Jesus’ death? I.e., would there have been any “authoritative teachings of an earthly Jesus” on the meaning of his unexpected crucifixion and resurrection? And if Paul’s version of (addition to?) the gospel was that the true meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection for
            gentiles was that gentiles did not need to become Jews, would that have had anything to do with the historical Jesus’ earthly teachings? I have sympathy for the idea that attempting to find out what Paul got from his
            predecessors and whether that went back to a historical figure is difficult (maybe impossible) but it doesn’t seem to me to be affected much by whether Paul is claiming an equivalence of post-crucifixion revelations or authority from them.

          • I guess I am cynical enough to believe that someone would have “remembered” Jesus having said something on almost any point of controversy had it been believed that such teachings were authoritative. People who were willing to forge letters in Paul’s names wouldn’t have hesitated to claim Jesus as an authority for their positions. Had Jesus’ life and teachings been considered normative during Paul’s day, determining the meaning and authenticity of stories about him would have been a matter of vital concern in every community to which Paul wrote.

          • Paul E.

            Fair enough. I guess on the point of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it seems to me that claims of revelations, and claims to equivalency or authority of those revelations, would not be less likely under a historical Jesus framework that included an unexpected crucifixion than a mythical Jesus framework.

          • That is my understanding as well, but Paul still appears to be claiming that these matters were revealed to him. He is not crediting his predecessors as his source.

          • It would be unwarranted to claim that Paul ended up with a pre-Pauline tradition by miraculous means, even if that were what he was saying. But it isn’t what he says here. You are reading that into what he says, by assuming without justification that what he received, he received differently than the Corinthians received it.

            But whether you think Paul was claiming to have received the information by supernatural means and was lying, or you understand him to merely have been indicating the traditional character of the material, the historian’s judgment that Paul received information from people who knew things about Jesus remains the same. And that includes not only post-mortem dreams, but things like death and burial.

            Obviously you can find ways to avoid accepting the implications of this, as you have consistently up until now. But I do wish that, at the very least, you could begin to grasp why those who have studied the text with greater attention to detail than you have will find unpersuasive your dogmatic insistence that all scenarios are equally probable in light of the evidence.

          • The precedent for Paul receiving something differently than the Corinthians did is right there in 1 Cor. 11, i.e., “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you . . . .” Why is it “made up nonsense” to think that he means the same thing by the use of “received” and “delivered” four chapters later? While it is true that what 1 Cor. 15 includes a list of appearances, the first thing Paul says that he delivered is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” How is it unwarranted to think that this is simply the gospel message that Paul claims he received by divine revelation in Galatians 1?

          • Why are you assuming that when Paul says “I received from the Lord” and “by a word of the Lord” and “not I, but the Lord,” he is referring to something received directly in a dream rather than something that was passed on to him, emphasizing its ultimate source either because that was what was important to him, or because it didn’t serve his interests to highlight his dependence on others for information, or both? Are you genuinely not aware that you are presuming that one possible meaning of the text (and an unlikely one when all things are considered) is the only possible meaning of the text?

          • I know from 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 that Paul was writing to a community in which people believed that they were regularly getting messages directly from God through the Holy Spirit. Words of wisdom, words of knowledge, prophecy, and tongues were all ways that the Corinthians believed that God communicated with people. On the other hand, I don’t find anything in Paul that acknowledges Jesus’ earthly ministry as a way that God communicated with people. So when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:23 that he “received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you,” it seems only logical to me to think that he is claiming the same kind of direct communication from God that he discusses explicitly a few paragraphs later rather than a human transmission of earthly tradition that I never find him acknowledging anywhere.

            Do I think it possible that Paul actually learned the things he delivered from someone else? Sure. On the other hand, I don’t doubt that Paul believed that God communicated with him directly, although I have no way to know whether Paul heard voices or had visions or simply interpreted the ideas that popped into his head as coming from God. Whatever the actual source of his information, I think it likely that Paul wanted the Corinthians to believe he was getting it directly from God and it wouldn’t surprise if he had convinced himself that he had.

          • Neko

            Who cares how he found out that Jesus was born of a woman? The point is, he says Jesus was born of a woman. Why would you suspect Paul of mischief here when what he says is consistent with the expectation that the Messiah would be a descendent of David.

          • If Paul had a vision of a heavenly being and he believed that the heavenly being had once been a man who walked the earth, the fact that Paul thought that the heavenly being had once been born of a woman wouldn’t be any evidence that such a man ever really existed any more than Joseph Smith’s belief that Moroni had been born of a woman would be any proof that such a man existed.

          • Neko

            But you’re treating this assertion in isolation from all the other things that Paul says about the man Jesus and about his former persecution of the followers of Jesus. Or have you determined, as you once suggested, that for propagandistic purposes Paul invented his past antagonism to the movement?

          • I don’t see that Paul says much of anything about the man Jesus and I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from Paul’s persecution of Jesus’ followers. Paul never says what it was about their beliefs he found offensive and history tells us that the victims of religious persecution are often scapegoated for things that have little to do with what they actually believe. I also think that the “I was the church’s worst enemy” shtick is the kind of useful evangelistic device that often gets exaggerated in the retelling.

          • Neko

            Ehrman speculates that women followers of Jesus, who may not have been at risk of execution, originated and circulated the resurrection stories. Hence their appearance in all four gospels at the empty tomb.

          • I would say that “speculate” is the right word. Even if the women were not personally at risk of execution, it still would have been dangerous as the Romans could make note of who came to watch a crucifixion in order to discover the condemned’s associates.

            I think the bigger problem is that the women are such a necessary element in the story. With the men in hiding, the evangelists needed to explain how Jesus came to be buried in a known tomb so there are pretty obvious reasons for inventing both Joseph of Arimathea and the women watching the crucifixion.

          • Neko

            Mark names Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome “among” the women who witnessed the crucifixion “from afar.” They could have melted into a crowd.

            The gospels certainly suggest that Jesus attracted devoted women followers. Luke mentions women (the Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna) who supported Jesus’s ministry financially. Mark notes that “many women” followed Jesus to Jerusalem. It seems entirely plausible that some of these women experienced the presence of Jesus after his execution and so the storytelling began. (The empty tomb appears to be a later device.) Or do you think there are “pretty obvious reasons” for inventing the lot of them?

          • I think the overall fact that women witnessing the crucifixion is a useful plot device is enough to make it very hard to get from plausible to probable.

          • Mark Erickson

            Here is Bart’s quote on his textbook:

            it is impossible, for me, to start with Paul without the students knowing something about Jesus. And students can’t know anything about Jesus without first studying the Gospels. So I start with the Gospels, even though they were written after Paul’s letters.

            Here is Marcus Borg arguing for a chronological NT: (H/t Valerie Tarico).

          • Jim

            I’ve read some of BE’s “Intro to the NT”, and I’ve also read Borg’s “Evolution of the Word”, which contains the NT in chronological order (including his dating of Luke-Acts as early 2nd century).

            My gut feeling is that anyone taking a first year undergraduate course in NT studies comes most likely from a Christian background (why would anyone else want to take an NT course?). Now, sure a small portion of students with no Christian background may possibly take the course to fulfill their non-major electives. No matter what Bart states his rationale was for following the canon order, I doubt if any non-Christian student will really give a shit about the course five minutes after they get their passing credits. Am I far from reality?

            I think Jonathan Bernier speaks reality into the academic situation; the course instructor can/will choose the order in which they cover the topics/textbook chapters. I have rarely found instructors, in any field, actually following the sequence of a textbook as it is written.

          • Neko

            OT, but just curious why Borg puts Luke-Acts in the early 2nd century.

          • arcseconds

            so Ehrman and Borg have two different opinions of how to present the material in two different contexts. Big deal.

            Borg is suggesting a new kind of Bible. Ehrman is discussing an undergraduate course. These are two different things.

            In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that one could consider Borg’s suggestion as a thought-experiment, or as a rhetorical device or structuring concept for his essay to make a point about the early development of Christianity.

            At any rate, if you’re proposing a new kind of edition of a collection of texts, changing the ordering of the texts for whatever reason is one of the most powerful tools in your somewhat limited toolbox. If you’re designing a course, you’ve got different tools. And you may have different priorities.

            I’m sure they’d both agree that anyone studying the New Testament should be aware of what was written when, and I’m sure they’d both agree with the points Borg makes here.

            This doesn’t even tell us that they’d necessarily disagree with each other when talking about an undergraduate course. Maybe they would, but so what? Get two academics in the same area, and you can practically bet that there will be at least three different opinions of how to best present the material.

            Note that Borg does not appeal to some general principle that earlier sources should be presented earlier. If this was some kind of general and obvious principle that it’s ‘unconscionable’ to violate, wouldn’t he appeal to it?

            Instead, he makes specific arguments as to how, say, the comparatively bare-bones Mark being placed before the fuller narrative of Matthew helps to demonstrate the development of the Gospels in particular. Obviously this particular goal could be achieved by having the Gospels in chronological order, but before the letters.

          • Mark Erickson

            I just threw Borg in there because I had recently seen the link and it was related to this discussion. I agree he was making a point about the early development of Christianity. And I agree with his point.

          • arcseconds

            I think everyone here, with the possible exception of Matt Brown, agrees with the point that considering the material chronologically gives you a picture of the development of Christianity which is obscured by the canonical order, and at odds with the usual picture given by traditional Christianity, which in a way doesn’t present a picture of development at all: Christianity just emerged fully-formed from Zeus’s brow. So to speak.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            There’s also the basic distinction between textbook and course. Even if a textbook follows canonical order it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to do so in the classroom.

          • Mark Erickson

            Of course you don’t have to, but would you?

          • Jim

            I know your comment was meant for Jonathan, but why is it so important to you to have the Pauline epistles introduced prior to the gospels in an NT course?

            Six of the seven non-contested Pauline epistles are primarily Paul’s responses to questions that he received (from a church group that he had started) regarding their specific concerns (both theological and practical). At least that is how I see them, so I’m not sure how chronological order is a deal breaker for a HJ.

          • Mark Erickson

            That’s fine, respond away. I get tired of the same old guys quickly. My main problem is the reason Ehrman gave for studying the Gospels first. Even if you take the Gospels to contain historical facts preserved from oral traditions or lost written sources, the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple radically changed the situation and concerns of those who wrote the Gospels. While it is possible they were talking about the same historical man as the Epistles, the context is so different so can’t just import one, especially the newer one, into the other.

            Maybe Bart treats the material more carefully than his comments show. I don’t know. I can only go on what I’ve read.

            The other point is to see how a secular scholar makes such an apologetic move without batting an eye.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I have no idea how what Ehrman does constitutes apologetics. That said, there are some difficulties with your arguments. First off, it’s not a given that the gospels post-date the Jewish War. The majority position on dating the gospels probably puts Mark’s in the early half of the Jewish War, and further there is a respectable albeit minority position that would put date the three Synoptics gospels to before 70, and some would date John’s that early also. Truthfully, although I have my own hunches about when the gospels were written, we really don’t know for sure that they were pre-70 or post-70. I wouldn’t build much off the dates of the gospels.

            In any case, I really have no idea why the Jewish War should be expected to have so dramatically altered the Jesus tradition. Actually, you’ve sort of got yourself in a pickle. You want to say that due to the upheaval c. 70 C.E. the gospel tradition looks very different from what it was pre-70. But if that is the case then how do we know what the gospel tradition looked like before 70? If we have not that pre-70 gospel tradition then we don’t know how different it is from the post-70. If the rejoinder is “Well, we have Paul,” you’ve stumbled upon another pickle, because that only works if we suppose that Paul had access to the Jesus tradition–but that is something that you also want to deny. So the truth is that on your own account we don’t have access to the pre-70 tradition, in which case we have no clue how it might have been affected by the events of c. 70.

          • Mark Erickson

            You are entitled to your hunches, but I’ll stick with Mark et al. all post 70 AD.

            What is the Jesus or gospel tradition? I really don’t follow your logic because I don’t understand the premises. I see Mark inaugurating a new tradition. Certainly he used the epistles as material, but he also created something new.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Then you have missed the point: that’s as much a hunch as anything I’d articulate (and note that I never said what my hunches might be). We don’t know that Mark et. al. is post-70, not really. And in fact, as I said, most scholars wouldn’t put Mark post-70 in the first place. And you missed the other point: regardless of the date, how do you know that Mark inaugurated something new? Only by argument from silence, of course.

    • arcseconds

      Honestly, this deserves the same response as I just gave the the_Siliconopolitan

      One would think with such a prolific and long-lived blog he might have explained himself at some point. So strange he has not.

      Honestly, why do so many people think James’s position on this is some kind of mystery? It took me about 5 minutes with google to assemble those links. I don’t pretend they’re necessarily the best ones, but they do allow you to put together a reasonable picture of James’s opinion on this matter. You’ll note that there are indeed more arguments than just ‘everyone else thinks so’.

      James normally provides links, as he has in the last couple of days. There is also google. There have been endless suggestions for reading material.

      Obviously a single blog comment is a bit too short to do justice for the arguments for historicity. And is James really obliged to trot out a 2000+ word response every time someone says ‘there’s no evidence for the historical Jesus! All the academics are just silly-heads! Here are a list of my demands!’ ?

      As this seems to happen at least once a week, he could be kept very busy doing this, plus I imagine kept extremely bored, and they never seem to convince anyone… so such a demand seems onerous and pointless.

      Whereas expecting people to spend a few minutes of their own time and a bit of their own effort to at least get some kind of a handle on what has been written before rather than getting handed everything on a silver plate (which typically just leads to the same old merry-go-round we’ve seen countless times before) does not seem unreasonable at all.

      • Mark Erickson

        I am not asking for James’ position. I’ve read it, and it does not convince.

        I’ve googled every way I know how and can’t find a historicist response to Carrier’s B&I article. If you can help there, it would appreciated.

        • arcseconds

          So you know full well that there’s more to the argument than simply ‘other people think so’, yet you support someone making this complaint anyway?

          And why the ‘for example’ if you didn’t think the lack of responses to those articles are examples of the general pattern of James not providing further evidence?

          Do you really think that James, or anyone else for that matter, is obligated to provide a detailed response to every single mythicist post on the internet? If not, why do you apparently see it as a failing that such have not been provided in these cases?

      • Mark Erickson

        Those are the best links you can come up with? Thankfully, I don’t think McGrath says the cruxifiction is reason enough to conclude Jesus existed anymore. “Given that history is all about probabilities, how can historians be so certain? The answer lies in a simple fact that casts all serious doubt aside: the crucifixion.”

        • arcseconds

          Yes, given the five minutes I spent on it.

          Feel free to do better! You’ve got five minutes…. go!

        • arcseconds

          The point is, it’s that easy to discover arguments that aren’t ‘other people think so’. Five minutes. Less than that if you just want a single argument. Probably took me two minutes to find the first link.

          • Mark Erickson

            You’re right, lots of them say Paul said so.

          • arcseconds

            You’re expecting some other kind of evidence for someone who left no direct writings behind apart from people saying he existed?

            (Even if there were writings attributed to Jesus directly it would still be possible to deny the author was the same person as got crucified, of course)

          • arcseconds

            Anyway, thanks for finally admitting that it’s not hard to find arguments other than ‘everyone else says so’.

          • Mark Erickson

            It’s not hard to *find* arguments that Jesus of Nazareth existed because Paul said so, it’s hard to be convinced by them.

          • arcseconds

            Not being convinced by an argument that doesn’t appeal to consensus doesn’t mean it’s OK to pretend it doesn’t exist.

            Again, a comparison with young-earth creationists seem apt. They love to say things like ‘I’ve never seen any evidence that doesn’t boil down to carbon-dating!’. If one of them were to announce this, and then say “OK, sure, I knew about deposition rates, but I’ve never found this convincing”, this would not make the initial statement any less a lie.

    • arcseconds

      Consensus is also quite commonly appealed to in the case of evolution, and with good reason. The notion that a community of experts that are even halfway competent with diverse backgrounds could have a near-universal consensus on an important and high-profile matter and yet be obviously wrong about it, so obviously that a layman can see it immediately, is kind of absurd. So either they’re not even halfway competent, or they’re not obviously wrong.

      And if they’re not halfway competent, well, they don’t live in a hermetically sealed chamber, do they? You’d think some of their neighbours would have noticed and complained by now if the entire field was intellectually bankrupt. Unless their neighbours are also incompetent… but strangely no-one seems interested in going after all of science, or all of ancient history.

      No less a luminary than Carrier thinks pointing to such a consensus is a reasonable thing to do, and an objection that the person wanting to challenge the consensus has to meet somehow.

    • jjramsey

      I find it ironic that Carrier writes both this,

      On this theory, Christians did not go looking for proof-texts after
      their charismatic leader died, but actually conjured this angelic
      being’s salvific story from a pesher-like reading of scripture, finding
      clues to the whole thing especially in the conjunction of Daniel 9,
      Jeremiah 23 & 25, Isaiah 52-53, and Zechariah 3 & 6.

      but also this,

      it is hard to see the evidence any other way, once we abandon Christian faith assumptions about how to read the texts.

      One sees Christian mythology in texts such as Daniel, etc., by reading into them. If one reads them cold, there’s nothing that naturally prefigures a cross or dying messiah. Last time I checked, Carrier’s own reading of Daniel 9 was basically just a rehash of a common Christian misinterpretation of it, and it wasn’t too long ago that he was unaware that the scholarly consensus of its interpretation was very much non-messianic.

      Carrier presents a lot of assertions but little evidence in his Bible and Interpretation piece, and what I’ve seen of him leaves me little reason to think that his assertions are trustworthy.

      • Neko

        but actually conjured this angelic being’s salvific story from a pesher-like reading of scripture

        I thought Thom Stark put that one to bed.

  • redpill99

    I know that there is Bible minimalism, and Bible minimalists claim that the United Monarchy and Kings Saul David and Solomon never existed. What is the current scholarly consensus on their existence? Does tel Dan Steele establish David’s historicity ? How do minimalists say Saul David and Solomon did NOT exist?

    • It’s not a tenet of biblical minimalism that specific characters did or did not exist. Minimalism would be better summed up as: biblical accounts are written (whenever they were written) for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the idea of recording accurate history.

      Thus, on the minimalist view, a biblical author referring to some character or event isn’t saying “this person existed” or “this event happened”, but rather making some theological or other point that has little to do with the historical details. Thus, if such an account preserves historical detail it’s as much by chance as by intent; and so the biblical accounts carry only negligible evidential weight regarding questions of actual historical events.

      So, based on archaeology, David possibly existed (what the evidence says is that there were kings which were probably described as being of the “house of David”, from which the historical existence of a founder named “David” is a probable but not certain conclusion), but the united kingdom he was portrayed as ruling probably did not exist and the dates of his rule are uncertain. The minimalist would argue that the biblical writers who mention David probably had no real idea – or explicitly didn’t care – about what he really did and simply made up whatever they needed to make their theological point.

      • redpill99

        um ok. thanks for that clarification. So a Jesus myther could also be a minmimalist in that Jesus stories are only madeup to make their theological point.

        What does mainstream scholarly view on the OT esp archaeology regarding which events and persons are historical? Francesca Stavrakopoulou states most of the OT is non-historical. She denies King David as described in Samuel, as well as Moses and the exodus, as pure fiction.

        here’ is a hit piece

        The Bible’s Buried Secrets: old hat and nothing to do with religion

        Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s King David was a straw man put together in order to
        be pulled down, says Christopher Howse.

        In a thousand years, the consensus among archaeologists will be that Francesca
        Stavrakopoulou never existed. The legend will say that she was a an
        attractive and lively lecturer in religion at the University of Exeter. The
        evidence will be in clear contradiction of this pious myth.

        For a start, the scholars will say, Stavrakopoulou was not a name that
        belonged to the Kingdom of Devon. It must have been projected on to history
        by later Hellenic colonists. Indeed, historians will say (based on written
        records from the 19th century, since 20th-century electronic records will
        have corrupted into nothing) women were not allowed to lecture at
        universities in Devon.

        All I mean is that, though Dr Stavrakopoulou’s television exploration of the
        archaeology and history of 10th-century BC Israel and Juda was agreeably
        Reithian in its mixture of information and entertainment, it had nothing
        much to do with the religious import of the Bible.

        As far as archaeology went, the argument was fairly old hat – really a re-run
        of the 19th-century argument over Heinrich Schliemann and the so-called Mask
        of Agamemnon. The big question then was: did Troy ever exist? People cared
        passionately. The difference is that no one much still worshipped Zeus. They
        do still worship the God of David.

        But Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s King David was a straw man put together in
        order to be pulled down. Every historian or archaeologist on the programme
        had his own theory of what the shepherd-king was really like. Instead of
        inspecting inscriptions on Moabite stelae, they’d find out much more from
        Psalm 23.

      • arcseconds

        Surely the story of David is not only, and perhaps not even primarily a theological story. It seems to me that it also serves as a nationalist/monarchist narrative.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          I find that the Judges-Samuel-Kings accounts actually have a remarkable ring of truth to them. In Judges you have the tribes lacking any centralized leadership, and having strong cultural reasons to resist such centralization. That’s a well-known phenomenon in many cultural groups worldwide. You have warlords (called “judges”) rising to prominent, even an abortive effort to set up a kingdom. That makes eminent sense. Saul is one of those warlords, and his kingdom fails. It’s not much of a kingdom, really: just a glorified warlord enclave in the south. He has a lieutenant who is of dubious loyalty, who eventually manages to bring the tribes together in a very tenuous alliance. But it’s based almost entirely upon loyalty to him personally, such that it crumbles under his son. The truth is that the biblical text itself coheres remarkably with the archaeology on this point: the United Monarchy is an ephemeral thing, a fleeting and perhaps not-so-hot moment in Israelite history. Unsurprisingly, it’s actually treated with a fair amount of ambivalence. Some people look back at it as a golden age, others not so much. The Samaritans, i.e. “northern Israelites,” will have nothing to do with it, even as they embrace Torah. Again, I’m making no claims as to what actually happened, but I do think that the situation is more complicated than minimalists want to think.

          • arcseconds

            That certainly seems a lot more plausible than thinking the whole story was devised to make theological points.

            Some of that narrative (like Samson and the story of David and Goliath) seems like standard kinds of heroic endeavour folktales/myths. Other parts of it (David’s reign, for example) strike me as kind of Shakespeare histories (or tragedies, maybe) or mediæval romances. I think it’s likely to be a combination of a whole lot of different material.

            It seems to me that some people put too much emphasis on the artifice of constructing a text. Sometimes of course people do construct something to say something quite specific: the Revelation of John has at least a bit of that going on. But often the purpose is largely to preserve a story that has been received from the previous generation and is still regarded as important… and perhaps nothing more than that.

            Anyway, surely the right thing to do in these sort of circumstances is to say “well, we don’t know, but here is a plausible story of how this text came to be and what that tells us about the history”.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            One of the best lectures I attended as an undergrad was on the cultural construction of the Holocaust. The professor showed how our whole understanding of the Holocaust is culturally constructed. The class was aghast. Finally a student started to argue that, no, the Holocaust happened. And the professor: “Yes! Exactly! Of course the Holocaust happened. And so the conclusion is that constructions of the past can be true.” It was brilliant. He was showing us that “construction” did not mean “made up.” He then went on to explain that cultural constructions were like buildings: sure, buildings are built, yet they are very real. A seminal moment in my intellectual development. That’s when I realized: the truth is always constructed, yet is nonetheless for that no less true.

          • I think that sort of thing is a good example of exactly what the minimalists find most objectionable.

            What you’ve done there is to take the biblical account, assume it’s basically derived from history, and then reconstruct a history that in absolutely no way whatsoever respects the actual facts about the history of the region discovered by archaeologists.

            Rather than argue the details, I’ll just refer you to an example of how real archaeologists deal with both the physical evidence and the Biblical record: Israel Finkelstein’s recent book on the northern kingdom is here in PDF form (link found via the Meggido expedition site where Finkelstein is director, so I’m assuming this is legit).

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Actually, I did not assume that it’s basically derived from history. You obviously miss the final sentence in which I state I’m making no claims as to what happened. What I did was sketch out a possible historical account. I did none of the work that would be necessary to show that it is any more than possible. If I were to do that work then, yes, I would have to look at such matters as the archaeological material. That would include Finkelstein. It would also include critics of Finkelstein’s work, such as Bill Dever (I assume that in your survey of “real archaeologists” you have read him on the matter, no?). But the archaeological material is only one set of data: the biblical material is another. That statement, btw, makes no claims as to what happened, but merely as to the status of the material. It is data, even if in the end what we infer from the data is that we are dealing with basically a fictional account (a judgment that incidentally would not necessarily at variance with the judgment that there was a Saul, David, Solomon, etc. Just because George Washington never cut down the cherry tree does not mean that George Washington never existed).

          • arcseconds

            I meant to point out that my likening parts of the narrative to Shakespeare and mediæval romances is partly agreeing with you: it has the look (to me) of a historical kernel which has been (over?) dramatized.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            You actually hit upon something important here. Anyone who thinks that in reading literature from 3000 years ago we’re going to get anything resembling the actual words or exact actions of any figure needs to get her or his head checked. If that’s the idea that one is arguing again then fine, I’ll concede that it’s right, but I’d also point out that anyone can beat up someone with a significant mental impairment.

            The comparison with Shakespeare is actually quite interesting. King David is one of history’s great tragic heroes. His story is one of the earliest extant literary explorations of the theme. It is, especially for the era in which it was written, a brilliantly developed psychological piece. That’s literary craftsmanship, not a verbatim transcript. And that’s fine. It doesn’t follow though that there wasn’t a King David, anymore than it doesn’t follow that there was never a Macbeth around whose history Shakespeare built his story (spoiler alert: there was).

          • How about from 2000 years ago? I understand from Dr. McGrath that mainstream scholars think they can determine some of the things that Jesus said and did with a high degree of probability.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            What scholar actually thinks that? First off, most all qualified scholars recognize that Jesus rarely if ever spoke in Greek, such that the gospels are already at best translations. And who today thinks that we can translate the Greek back into the Aramaic or Hebrew? That said, can we achieve a general outline of his life and activities? No question. And we have. As I have said here multiple times, there is broad consensus on this matter, comparable to the consensus that exists around figures of the same time. And BTW, if you are unaware of the quality of the data relevant to our knowledge of the first century CE versus the 10th century BCE then you are unaware of anything to do with ancient history, and exclude yourself as a knowledgeable participant in this discussion.

          • Why must you be so arrogantly obnoxious? I was simply asking you a question about how that difference in quality affected our ability to know what someone said 2000 years ago versus 3000 years ago. Your eagerness to judge others as intellectually inferior to yourself is not an attractive quality.

            The reason I asked is because Dr. McGrath has spoken of the consensus of scholars being sufficient to establish things that Jesus “almost certainly” said and did.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            “Your eagerness to judge others as intellectually inferior to yourself is not an attractive quality.” I think that you confuse cause and effect here, abuser and victim. The entire mythicist operation thrives upon saying that amateurs understand the New Testament better than those with professional training. That is arrogance. It’s not just arrogance: it’s insulting. It states that we who the material best are less capable of handling the matter than those who know it significantly less than we do. The insult is to intelligence, it is an open declaration that New Testament scholars are intellectually inferior and incompetent. And it’s frustrating to be on the receiving end of such arrogance and insult. And I’m not perfect, so my frustration will sometimes come through. I sincerely apologize for that, but I will not apologize for feeling a little bit frustrated when amateurs will not listen to the legion of professionals who are saying that what they are doing just doesn’t work. No more than should a biologist apologize at becoming frustrated with creationist bs.

            As to “what Jesus said and did,” that requires nuance, as I’m sure James McGrath is aware but omitted in the interest of simplicity. That doesn’t mean verbatim or a detailed itinerary. Again, it’s when we reach that level that we see significant scholarly divergence. But at the broader level, the level that means something to historians, that divergence is minimal. I don’t need to know what Jesus had for breakfast on April 13, 29 CE. I do need to know whether he was crucified. And no one disagrees on that. On the things that matter, there is general consensus.

      • Jonathan Bernier

        The danger of minimalism is that it thrives on arguments from silence. I say “danger” because one always runs the risk of being disproved by subsequent discoveries.

        They used to say that there’s no evidence at all beyond the biblical canon for anything related to David. They were right. Then Tel Dan was found. First it’s argued that it’s a forgery. Then it’s argued that all it tells us is that there was a house of David. That former claim is false, that latter claim is true on the most narrowest understanding of historical inference. But what happens if tomorrow we find a royal seal from David’s reign, dated to around the right time? I can tell you what will happen. The minimalists will first claim it’s a forgery. If the evidence disproves that then they’ll say that it’s somehow another David, not the one in the biblical text.

        This isn’t just speculation: it’s how they handle the Merneptah stele. Here we have an Egyptian stele, from c. 1200 BCE, which Egyptologists agree 1) refers to Israel, 2) situates Israel in the highlands of Canaan, 3) calls it not a city or kingdom, but rather a people. Exactly when, where, and what the biblical text tells us about Israel. Suddenly the minimalists are experts in ancient Egyptian, and tell us with confidence that the word isn’t Israel. When that fails they tell us that somehow it’s not the same Israel as the one that the biblical texts place in that location, in that time, with that sort of political arrangement.

        There is also a tendency to play fast and loose with facts. It is often stated that no remains of the Israelite sojourn in the Sinai have been found. It is less often specified what would qualify as such remains and how we would recognize them if we found them. It is further overlooked that there has been little effort expended to actually find such remains. Little surprise that if one does not know what they would look like nor is one looking that one would not find them. Moreover, not as frequently mentioned is James Hoffmeier’s recent work in northern Sinai which has confirmed that the shortest route, along the coast, would have made no sense for the Israelites due to a network of Egyptian fortresses in that region. The southern route that scripture narrates for the Israelites, long ridiculed as completely absurd, actually looks increasingly like the most reasonable, given the realities of the New Kingdom.

        Now, I’m not saying that there was an exodus or a King David. I’ll leave those discussions for the people most qualified in the matter, namely HB/OT scholars. I’m just saying that one wants to be very, very, careful when making arguments from silence, because today’s silence could be tomorrow’s screaming banshee.

        • Kris Rhodes

          //I’m just saying that one wants to be very, very, careful when making arguments from silence, because today’s silence could be tomorrow’s screaming banshee.//

          The fact that a silence might someday be filled doesn’t give us license to fill in the silence with imagined voices prior to that time.

          • arcseconds

            The fact that a silence might someday be filled doesn’t give us license to fill in the silence with imagined voices prior to that time.

            You say this, and yet you maintain that we should strongly consider the possibility of the existence of texts that tell a different story about the Messiah than the texts that we do have.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Couple things to say here.

            First, I’m not aware of having maintained that. I don’t deny the possibility that I have maintained it, but I’m not aware of having done so, and it is not something I would maintain at present. What I would maintain is that any particular confidence in the infeasibility or implausibility of the creation of a dying messiah character is misplaced. There are positive reasons to think such a thing would not have been at all surprising, and positing its having happened explains some things about the evidence we do have.

            Second, stepping around the tu quoque* and getting back to what I said, I wonder whether you agree with me that a worry that a silence might someday be filled doesn’t give us a good reason to maintain that we have a good idea what will fill that silence.

            *Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

          • Kris Rhodes

            (I mean, I would maintain it in the sense that the early Christian texts are an extant example of the very thing, but I know that’s not what you meant.)

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Absolutely. Goes without saying. But given the number of times that silence has been filled in, well, I would never want to make too much out of any silence.

        • ncovington89

          Minimalism doesn’t just use arguments from silence. There are often a number of positive arguments employed as well. For instance, with the Adam and Eve story we have license to dismiss it not simply because we lack evidence for it, but also because we have very extensive evidence confirming the hypothesis that humanity began gradually through a population of individuals, a lot more than two. Minimalism with the new testament is the same: The jesus mythicists (the respectable ones, anyway) argue their case based on a number of pieces of positive evidence, and use various arguments from silence to go alongside this.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I’m not sure you quite know what minimalism is about. Minimalism is not the view that some of the OT is ahistorical. It’s the view that basically all of the OT is a late fictional work, dating largely from the Persian if not even the Hellenistic era. Also, what serious scholar, minimalist, maximalist, or otherwise, actually thinks that there was a historical Adam and Eve? And any scholar, whatever field they are in, who denies evolution is a crank. Heck, Kenneth Kitchen’s “Reliability of the Old Testament,” which is about as maximalist a work as you will find, supposes that there wasn’t an Adam and Eve. That is to say, what you outline is just scholarship, not minimalism.

          • ncovington89

            I’m here using minimalism in the sense of just “very little or no history.” The example I gave is a good way of how you can prove a negative.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Since this is a conversation about biblical studies I use “minimalism” in the way that it is employed in biblical studies. And that refers to a very particular school of thought that emerged within OT studies during the 1980s and 1990s. It is associated most fully with the Copenhagen School around Tom Thompson and Neils Lemche, with Philip Davies usually given honourable mention. The term is almost unknown in NT studies. Your argument re: Adam and Eve is all fine and good, but it has nothing in particular to do with minimalism.

            And that gets to the real problem here: you presume to correct others on their understanding of biblical studies when you don’t even know the vocabulary. I was using the term correctly within the disciplinary context, you were just giving it whatever meaning you wanted. In short, I was speaking from knowledge, you were speaking from ignorance. Yet I’m supposed to submit my knowledge to evaluation by your ignorance? In what word does that make any sense whatsoever? In what world is that reason?

          • ncovington89

            The problem is that you were saying that the denial of certain OT events depends purely on argument from silence, when that is profoundly not true. Proving that an event is myth can involve appeals to positive evidence, as is often the case. You can dodge that with semantics and accusations of ignorance all you want, but it doesn’t reflect well on you to cover your butt that way. The fact is, you were totally full of it concerning arguments from silence.

            And “minimalism” can and should refer to New Testament scholars who are doing the same thing with the new testament that old testament minimalists did to the old testament: both are arguing that there is a *minimum* of historical information in the collection of documents they study, so why not call them minimalists?

          • Jonathan Bernier

            No. I didn’t say that, and I didn’t dodge anything. I was describing minimalism, which in the context of the discussion at hand has a specific meaning. The problem is that you do not know that context and thus that meaning and refuse to accept correction on the matter from someone who is better situated to know both. The problem is ignorance and obstinacy. And I’m not the source of the problem.

            And minimalism is a term basically unused in NT. But if it should mean the same as it does in HB/OT then it would mean what I outlined above, not what you continue to insist that it means. The problem, again, is ignorance and obstinacy, and the problem remains not mine.

  • Mark Erickson

    James, the commenter has confirmed your mis-reading of him: When will you correct your mistake?

    • jjramsey

      Why is it McGrath’s mistake when he interprets “popular opinion” as meaning what it usually means, the collective opinions of the general public?

      • Mark Erickson


  • Benjamin Martin

    What percentage of this “historical consensus” is composed of people who say that Jesus Christ is their Lord?

    • arcseconds

      Can I just ask, what exactly are your aims in commenting here?

      You’ve been posting for a couple of weeks now, and all I’ve seen is grumpy side-swipes, preposterous insults, juvenile graphics, poor understanding of what’s going on, a complete lack of interest in actually entering into discussion with anyone, and an unshakable belief that anyone suggesting that Jesus may have existed, however far removed that is from the traditional picture painted by Christianity, is somehow equivalent to Ken Ham.

      This isn’t going to convince anyone of anything, you’re clearly not learning anything, and you’re just making yourself look foolish.

      So I don’t understand what the point is?

      • Benjamin Martin

        Gonna keep ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room?

        Ham and McGrath are both attempting to apologize for their supernatural belief system by appealing to to natural sciences.

        Since creationism is so laughable, McGrath’s attempt is to create an aura of impregnable rationality evidenced by “consensus” among New Testament scholars believers. (In a social environment where one must profess to being a believer to get elected to national office.)

        The problem being, there is a “consensus” among Scientology scholars believers. as to the historical Xenu.

        McGrath would have us believe that sort of believers’ bias is nothing more than the bias one might find in a metalurgists’ study on a asteroid’s nickel-rich iron compounds.

        • arcseconds

          Well, OK, this shows me that you’ve jumped to conclusions about McGrath’s beliefs, and about the beliefs of people who study the New Testament, and that you’re inclined towards conspiracy theories, and you don’t care to look at people’s actual arguments but rather compare them to scientology as though that proves anything…

          But I kind of knew that already: see above!

          What i want to know is, what are you trying to achieve by blustering on in this fashion?

          For your information, there are atheist biblical scholars. They have roughly the same opinions about the historicity of Jesus as McGrath does. There are also a number of atheist regulars here, several of whom agree (more or less) with McGrath. The 800-pound gorilla and McGrath’s aura-creating wizardry is not evident to them. Maybe the aura is so good it’s snared them all?

          • Benjamin Martin

            A few posts back, McGrath was asked if he considered Jesus his Lord, and then had to be prodded like Peter himself the night the cock crowed, but he finally did confess “my lord Jesus.” I haven’t jumped to any conclusions about McGrath’s beliefs.

            The “consensus” (actually should be called a “majority”) opinion McGrath keeps hawking is made up of theistic believers in the supernatural, with a few “atheist” exceptions as you mention. Keep ignoring that if you wish.

          • Neko

            If McGrath is too captive to Jesus for you, why don’t you go snipe at R. Joseph Hoffmann, who is certainly no believer, or Bart Ehrman, for that matter. Good luck with that.

          • Benjamin Martin

            I agree with Ehrman when he says:

            “Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it…”

            And now, McGrath touts a scholarly consensus on the subject. Does this vaunted “scholarship” come in an instant package, and all you do is add water and mix?

          • Neko

            Your point that NT studies is debilitated by confessional scholars is tedious and conventional. Mythicism was vetted in the nineteenth century and rejected, hence the assumption of the existence of Jesus. If you are so distressed by the notion of Christians studying Christianity, perhaps you should engage non-Christians studying Christianity. Unless your interest is not in the NT but in dissing Christians.

          • Benjamin Martin

            Belief in supernatural qualities of a Lord casts plenty of doubt on any rational scholarship the believer may wrap around himself to appear logical and reasonable about the existence of said Lord.

          • Neko

            Perhaps you can offer an example of how McGrath’s presumed belief in the supernatural Jesus has compromised his scholarship.

            Edit: I should add that I’m not familiar with Dr. McGrath’s religious beliefs, nor do I think it relevant. From what I’ve read of his work, even writing directed at other Christians, he is scrupulous and professional. So if you’re going to make scurrilous claims, back them up.

          • It is ironic that the one thing mythicists are sure Ehrman was right about is the one thing that is clearly wrong. Shirley Jackson Case’s book and others like it must have slipped his mind or not been on his radar.

            But be that as it may, anyone involved in the natural sciences will know that the strength of the case for evolution is not in the books that provide an overview of the subject, but the thousands of detailed studies of individual pieces of evidence which can only be summarized in such an overview. Every detail about Jesus has been examined in articles and monographs with rigorous historical skepticism. Some of those details seem, after such scrutiny, to be more likely historical than not. That is what underpins the consensus view. It is not as though one can make a case for Jesus having existed apart from such studies of the details of the evidence.

            As for the “my Lord Jesus” subject, I made a very carefully worded comment, full of sarcasm, and included that as part of it, confident that the religious believer who wanted a clear affirmation of faith would dismiss it as a sarcastic quip that proves nothing, and the mythicist who wanted a reason to dismiss what I say would cry “aha!” I would love to know whether I was right on both counts, but clearly I was right on one.

            This shows the problem with mythicism, as with creationism and other forms of pseudoscholarly misinformation. They look for statements and snippets of “proof” that can serve as fodder in apologetics, but refuse to engage in the kind of serious, detailed discussion of evidence that a scholarly approach requires.

          • Benjamin Martin

            Sorry, McGrath, you’re fighting a ghost of your own making; I’m not a mythicist. I don’t really care either way if Jesus existed or not. What I critique here is the way you try to apologize for belief in your supernatural perspective by wrapping yourself in the flag of the natural perspective, much like Ken Ham.

            And now I find out that your statement “my lord Jesus” was sarcasm. Unless you’re now being sarcastic about your sarcasm.

            How scholarly.

            Go ahead, let fly with another screed.

          • No, I think I will just say goodbye to you, since your presence here seems to be aimed only at dragging down the level of discussion. I warned you once already, when you were clearly being dishonest, that I suspected you were a troll. I appreciate the confirmation.

            I am under no obligation to speak in a scholarly manner in the casual context of a blog. I sometimes do so anyway.

            If you actually read anything I wrote about my own perspective, you would know that “belief in the supernatural” doesn’t describe how I view the world. But perhaps you have read the many places where I challenge belief in the supernatural, and are deliberately misrepresenting me once again.

            If you ever think that you can join in the conversation in a manner that shows a minimum modicum of sincerity and decency toward other human beings, I will gladly let you come back. Get in touch somewhere other than the blog if so. I hate banning people, but this kind of behavior is unacceptable, and when left unchecked will ruin the experience of discussion on this blog for those who appreciate it for the high level of discourse we try to maintain, whether the discussion is scholarly, frivolous, or sometimes both.

          • arcseconds

            Firstly that was sarcasm — you don’t understand what’s going on around you.

            Secondly, it’s quite a large assumption to suppose that even asserting something like ‘Jesus is Lord’ entails that the speaker believes in the supernatural. There are quite a large number of people who profess to be Christians, but don’t believe literally in miracles, the resurrection, life after death, etc. The number is perhaps quite large, as they’re not always happy admitting that they don’t believe in those things. It’s not just confined to Christianity either: I know Hindus who think the Hindu epics are ‘just’ stories (although they might dispute the dismissive ‘just’).

            Thirdly, you still haven’t answered my question. Is it possible you don’t actually know why you behave like this?

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Correlation does not imply causation.

          Or, cum hoc ergo propter hoc is indeed a fallacy.

          Your argument looks like this: “J believes X and Y, therefore J believes X because of Y.” But can’t J believe Y because of X? Or why need this correlation imply causation at all?

          There is an 800 pound gorilla in the room. It’s your logically fallacious argumentation.

  • And of course, those who have not dedicated their lives to the study of that evidence are unlikely to make sound judgments about such matters.

    But Bart Ehrman says as far as he was aware he was the first to sit down and really examine in depth the evidence for the existence of Jesus.

    I thought you guys were studying Christology, the fourth Gospel, Mandaeanism, monotheism in Judaism, etc etc etc — who among the biblical scholars today have dedicated their lives to studying the evidence for the existence of Jesus? Ehrman effectively said it had been assumed. Seems he didn’t know any of his peers were spending their lives investigating the question either.

    • But Bart Ehrman says as far as he was aware he was the first to sit down and really examine in depth the evidence for the existence of Jesus.

      Maybe Ehrman was wrong on that point? Or at least being a little self-important.

      The mythicist case was discussed when I was at Uni (back in the 90s). McGrath linked to the work of Shirley Jackson case, who was writing over a century ago. Hell, even the old year 7 textbook I use (i.e. written for for 11/12 year olds) starts with a chapter called “Did Jesus really exist”?

      who among the biblical scholars today have dedicated their lives to studying the evidence for the existence of Jesus?

      Fringe theorists, almost by definition, obsess about areas that mainstream scholars more or less take for granted (regardless about whether we’re talking about the NT or some other area). That’s part of what makes them fringe theorists.

      How many New Testament scholars can you name who haves spent their lives studying the evidence for the Da Vinci Code, the Turin Shroud or the Talpiot Tomb? Very few, I suspect. Do you think that people who do produce books on these are therefore more likely to be correct than the NT scholars who by and large ignore them?

      • Jonathan Bernier

        In my experience, when dealing with self-professed mythicists, they consider me naive or because I’m not scandalized by the differences between the gospels, the relatively low amount of explicit Jesus tradition in the Pauline corpus, etc. The problem is that the reason I’m not scandalized by these facts is because they are sophomoric insights whereas it’s been quite long time since I was a sophomore. Put quite simply I worked out the significance of these matters years ago. Expecting me to be scandalized by the differences between the gospels is like asking a mathematician to be scandalized by the existence of irrational numbers. It’s so basic that I don’t even think about it.

  • Anonymous

    Bart Ehrman said in a recent radio interview that almost all New
    Testament scholars are believing Christians and that non-Christian
    scholars such as himself are extremely rare.

    Also, I’d like to
    point out that New Testament scholars aren’t historians. They don’t
    have have PhD’s in history, nor do they have undergraduate degrees in
    history. When New Testament scholars refer to themselves as “historians” they are
    being deliberately dishonest.

    • Can you provide a link? At any rate, it depends what you mean by “believing Christians.” It is quite evident from their work that most scholars who work on the New Testament do not believe that many things depicted as happening in the New Testament actually happened. If you are inclined to hold people’s religious background against them even when it is clear that they are making efforts to follow the evidence where it leads, even if it undermines their beliefs, then I think that is quite reprehensible of you.

      As for the term “historian,” there are plenty of people who write history even though that is not what their degrees are in. In the case of most New Testament scholars and most Classicists, history is just one of the disciplines that we receive training in, when majoring in this interdisciplinary field. So it is self-evidently true that most people who do not have PhDs in history do not have PhDs in history. I didn’t think that was news to anyone. But the fact that scholars in departments of history read the work of and collaborate with scholars of New Testament, the claim that there is misrepresentation is itself a misrepresentation on your part.