A Professor on His Mythicist Former Student

A Professor on His Mythicist Former Student December 24, 2014

John Dickson writes in response to Raphael Lataster’s recent article:

As his former lecturer, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that Raphael’s 1000 words on Jesus would not receive a pass mark in any history class I can imagine, even if it were meant to be a mere “personal reflection” on contemporary Jesus scholarship. Lataster is a better student than his piece suggests. But the rigours of academia in general – and the discipline of history, in particular – demand that his numerous misrepresentations of scholarship would leave a marker little choice but to fail him.

Click through to read the whole thing.

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  • Dixon thinks that Lataster would get “a very poor mark in any historical Jesus class in any university” for asserting that the Gospels are anonymous writings. I thought that was the mainstream consensus.

    • Read Martin Hengel,Richard Bauckham, Simon Gathercole, A. D. Baum (etc…). It is probably still the consensus that they were anonymous, but the most recent research that has actively studied the topic have pulled back from this conclusion. To just state “they are anonymous” so bluntly might very well be acceptable in online discussion forums (which, sadly, I see happen repeatedly), but I agree with Dickson that in a scholarly setting this comment should be marked down. It should have been qualified.

      Anyway- happy Christmas!

      • I’ve just posted on that topic, again a much too brief treatment, but hopefully it will generate some useful discussion: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2014/12/are-the-gospels-anonymous.html

      • the_Siliconopolitan

        Is a newspaper article a scholarly setting now?

        And anyway, why is it now necessary to pay attention to minority views, when Mythicists are usually accused of ignoring the mainstream? Is this a case of “Heads you win, tails I lose”?

        • A minority view should never be overlooked (and in this case it is significant that the most recent scholarship that has dedicated itself to this topic is leaning in a certain direction). The issue is the above view on the Gospels is scholarly, methodical, reasoned and peer-reviewed. Mythcisism is (apart from Carrier) amateuristic, self-published and often grotesquely misinformed. It is like screaming hypocrite if someone accepts reading a scientific paper on a minority report but wont advice reading some amateuristic screed on blog. The problem has never been because it is a minority position…

      • Bauckham is your “go to” guy? Bauckham is a once born Christian, raised Anglican, stayed Anglican, and has been attempting ever since to discover ways to defend whatever naive, narrow, and comforting theological views he first fell in love with at his mother’s knee or his clergyman’s knee. His sermons which were posted on his personal website are repetitive and boring, hypnotic repetition, drumming ideas into the ground, which makes me wonder just how self-hypnotized he has been by his childhood religious ideas, the very sound of such theological sayings and terms, which makes him feel that they mean so much more than any other religion’s ideas, or even more than secular ideas of tolerance, freedom, equality, and common sense. I like his love of his fellow man and of the planet, but lots of people share such love in many religions and even non-religions. But Bauckham is unwilling to state outright that they have as great a chance at heaven as “Christians” do.

        The Gospel writers were eyewitnesses? In the earliest Gospel strata we have is Mark (as Bauckham agrees) and Q. But the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection was not central to Q. While Mark ends merely with the tale of an empty tomb, and no post-resurrection appearance stories. I guess Mark thought those stories of “Peter” [sic] were not worth incorporating. In the three later Gospels is where we see stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and even a growth in the number of alleged words and sermons delivered by the post-resurrected Jesus, from Matthew (some sentences, but more than in Mark which had none) to Luke (tremendous growth, along with a bodily ascension tale) and John (also a lot of words given the added ending to John): http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2010/03/word-about-growing-words-of-resurrected.html One might add the late addition of alleged words spoken by the post-resurrected Jesus to the end of the Gospel of Mark, based apparently on those other later additions in Matthew and Luke-Acts.

        Bauckham’s mathematical ability is as questionable as his reasoning. Prof. Goldacre and his blog commentators pointed out a statistical error Bauckham made when calculating the frequency of some names, fascinating little read:


        To which I would add that based on the list of names of Jews living in Jewish communities scattered throughout the whole Roman Empire there is the question of how quickly or slowly the frequencies of such names changed each century and in each location. Some names maintained a relatively stable frequency over a long period of time in specific locations, from 330 BCE to 200 CE, a 530 year period. For instance, one report said we possess 247 names of Palestinian females from the 530 year period just mentioned. That’s on average only 2.1 names per year that we know about during a 530 year period. We also know that during this 530 year period the names of Mary and Salome remained among the most popular, and scholars have even supposed that the popularity of Mary and Salome may be due to their being the same names of members of the famed Hasmonean royal house that ruled the “holy” land after the Greek overlords were kicked out. So anyone familiar with the long popularity enjoyed by some names in Palestine would be likely to include them in their story.

        And as one reviewer summed things up:

        Many will remain unconvinced by the alternative model of a “Formal Controlled Tradition” that Bauckham proposes in this book… The evidence fails to sustain Bauckham’s hypothesis of a fixed body of Jesus tradition formulated by the Twelve in Jerusalem and mediated directly to the author of Mark through the apostolic preaching of Peter. Without accepting Bauckham’s dubious claim that Peter’s appearance at the beginning and end of Mark represents a literary device for identifying the work’s authoritative witness, it is very difficult to affirm the other alleged indication of the author’s reliance on Peter’s testimony, which are ambiguous at best. Equally questionable are the historical conclusions Backham draws from Paul’s Letters about the formal transmission of Jesus traditions. The level of institutionalization thus ascribed to the Jesus movement in the earliest stages of its development strains credibility.

        Likewise, Bauckham’s hypothesis about the Beloved Disciple as the eyewitness author of the Fourth Gospel will not convince many. Often resting on unproven assumptions, the argument frequently invokes highly conjectural explanations of textual evidence that are not easily affirmed. For examples, most will find fanciful the attempt to account for the infrequency and obscurity of references to the Beloved Disciples by appealing to the author’s need to establish his credibility as a perceptive disciple before disclosing his identity as the actual author of the Gospel.

        Even if we were to accept as probable many of the conclusions Bauckham draws from the Gospels, there still remains a larger question that weakens the argument of the book. If it is true that the Evangelists attached such importance to eyewitness testimony, then why are indications of this not more obvious and explicit? In response, Bauckham claims that ancient readers would have expected the Gospels to have eyewitness sources and so would have been alert to the subtle indications provided by the text. This explanation ascribes to the Evangelists and their readers a full measure of literary sophistication and an informed familiarity with the canons of Greco-Roman historiography. But this seems to far exceed what we can claim to know about the first eyewitnesses and those who listened to their testimony. [Dean Bechard of the Pontifico Instituto Biblico, Rome–final paragraph of his review of Richard Bauckham’s, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Review published in Biblica, v.90, fasc.1, 2009, p. 126-129.]

        • You know Ed, I remember when I read some of your comments and found them interesting, even occasionally insightful. The first paragraph of your piece (and then cherry picking negative reviews- even blog comments) rather has the tone of a irrational rant. I know of no academic treatise that doesn’t have problems or hasn’t received critique, especially one that has been given extensively consideration as Bauckham’s has. You will also know most scholars, even those that disagree, think very highly of the work and its argument.

          I have actually met and spoken to Bauckam- although albeit briefly. I also know people who know him very well and they are all unanimous in telling me (even those from whom praise rarely is given) that he is a first class scholar, and one of the most incisive people they have ever met. He is also a fellow of the British Academy for goodness sake and has academic credentials the length of his arm. He definitely does not deserve the hack-job you just tried to pull off above.

          and he is NOT my “go to guy” on this as it happens 🙂

  • SocraticGadfly

    He totally mischaracterized Paul with his “celestial Jesus” and ignoring Galatians 4:4, Lataster does.

  • Raphael’s idea is shipwrecked on the rock of 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, the earliest datable statement of Christian belief, in which Paul unmistakably rules in his dependence upon human sources for his knowledge of an obviously historical Jesus. This is such an obvious and widely commented upon issue that I am at a loss to explain Lataster’s claim.

    -Try as I might, I can nowhere see Dickson’s implication in the text of 1 Cor 15:1-5.

    • Gakusei Don

      For a start, when Paul writes that the resurrected Jesus “was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve” (1 Cor 15:5), unless Paul got that information from scriptures or a vision, he must have received it from a human source. That seems to be part of knowledge that Paul refers to in 1 Cor 15:3, where he writes “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received.”

      • While I think it completely plausible that Paul learned of appearances from human sources, all that establishes is that others besides Paul had visions of the risen Christ. It does nothing to establish that any of them ever met the earthly Jesus.

        • Gakusei Don

          True, but the implication is that the statement “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received (1 Cor 15:3)” is that this included information from human sources.

          • Paul uses the same language earlier in Corinthians in reference to the Last Supper as something he “received from the Lord.” I think the likelihood of a human source is pretty obvious, but I think that Paul may have convinced himself that it had been revealed to him and I think he may have wanted to convince the Corinthians that it had. Given that’s what he wanted the Galatians to believe, I think we have to acknowledge that possibility here as well.

      • That’s a reasonable interpretation of what Paul says, though it’s not explicit in the text.

  • My guess would be that in the overwhelming majority of historical Jesus classes in secular universities, the professor wouldn’t bat an eye at seeing the gospels described as “anonymous” by a student. Therefore, it is Dixon who is misrepresenting scholarship on that point.

  • Grog

    I am astounded at Dickson’s naivete. He criticizes RL for asserting that the gospel authors are anonymous, conjuring up a false analogy, and offers basic recitations of standard apologetics. The student has surpassed the teacher it seems.

    • Even if one can criticize Dickson’s way of putting things, suggesting that Lataster’s poorly-worded and incoherently-argued attempt to dismiss scholarship with misleading claims and soundbytes is superior is obviously false.

  • Nick G

    Dickson’s comparison of the evidence concerning Jesus and Tiberius is tendentious in the extreme. Contrary to his implication, there are other significant sources than Tacitus for Tiberius’s life, including Tiberius’s contemporary Velleius Paterculus. Moreover, Tacitus identifies his contemporary, written sources (the minutes of the Senate, the Acta Diurna, Tiberius’s own letters) – that is, he writes as a historian, which the gospel writers do not. Furthermore, Tiberius’s existence, along with some of his actions and associates, are confirmed by the existence of inscriptions on monuments, and in his own case, of coins. It is true that as James McGrath has said recently, mythicists do not help their case by exaggerating; but nor do “historicists” help theirs by absurd comparisons of the evidence concerning the life of Jesus with that of far better-attested contemporaries such as Tiberius.

  • GodisLove

    This Ralph Lataster is a product of scientism, from which he got from Richard Carrier. This guy fails both on historical arguments and philosophical arguments. On page 169 of his book, he claims that the ontological argument for God’s existence will give a different God than the moral argument for God’s existence. How earth does that follow? And it appears that he doesn’t given any arguments for atheism.

    • the_Siliconopolitan

      What’s wrong with a scientific outlook on life?

      • GodisLove

        You should not have an only scientific outlook. Science is but one way of knowing something to be true. There are other methods. This is not an argument against science. Scientism goes beyond science and into a philosophy. It is self-defeating. Science should be one of many ways of looking at life but it’s not the only way.

        • John Cabel

          What is the other way?

  • biilyjoe

    It is my esteemed opinion that Lataster does not exist.