Article on the Elusive Jesus

Article on the Elusive Jesus December 26, 2014

Valerie Tarico interviewed me, as well as Raphael Lataster and Neil Godfrey – for an article she wrote for The Humanist. The article’s title is “Savior? Shaman? Myth? Ink Blot? Why Christianity’s Main Man Remains So Elusive.” Since the article needed to be trimmed for publication, Tarico has posted the complete full-length version on her blog.

Have a read of it/them, and let me know your thoughts!

Image via Valerie Tarico


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  • Neil says:

    Much of the ancient history I learned in high school — about the Hittites, the spread of Indo-European languages, the Amorite invasions — is now known to be wrong.

    -How so?
    I found Neil’s responses to be remarkably clear and elegant.

    • Neko

      Perhaps Neil Godfrey will summon the integrity to clearly and elegantly inform Ms. Tarico that he is not a Biblical scholar.

      • I didn’t think anyone could think Neil is a Biblical scholar.

        But I guess my expectations were too high.

        • Neko

          Unsatisfactory [you updated, so this refers to your first sentence]. As it happens I read the comments under Valerie Tarico’s piece. Sure enough, someone writes:

          Thanks for bringing together these 3 scholars for the discussion. Much appreciated.

          I don’t suspect Tarico of misleading people out of calculation but out of sloppiness and perhaps even obliviousness. However, the fact remains that by identifying the participants in her round table as “Three Bible scholars” Tarico is misleading people, in addition to undermining what was left of her credibility on this subject after the last round.

          [edit]: In her Comments section Valerie Tarico admits that she deliberately described Neil Godfrey and Raphael Lataster as “Bible scholars” because, after all, “the academy, for the reasons I listed, has blind spots that might keep academics from seeing that the emperor has no clothes.” I was wrong to give Ms. Tarico the benefit of the doubt. She is a scandal.

          • Hey, Neko –
            I think this comment is disingenuous. I said very specifically in the comment you quote that I called them scholars based on the popular definition of the word, and I pasted an example from an online dictionary. I included them in the article for the other reasons I described, and from which you quote a fragment.

            When Neil pushed back at my use of the word, I pulled up a dictionary definition, read it, and chose to leave it: This from Merriam-Webster: a person who has studied a subject for a long time and knows a lot about it : an intelligent and well-educated person who knows a particular subject very well: someone who has been given a scholarship: a person who attends a school or studies under a teacher : pupil 2 a : a person who has done advanced study in a special field b : a learned person

          • Neko

            That’s funny, because I just called you disingenuous for using Webster as a shield for your highly dubious decision to dub non-scholars scholars. It looks like we’re at an impasse!

            By the way, I checked my desktop dictionary, and definition #1 would be:

            a specialist in a particular branch of study, esp. the humanities; a distinguished academic.

          • Neko

            Ms. Tarico,

            I notice you’ve removed “Bible scholars” from your subhead. For what it’s worth, I asked an academic friend of mine whose opinion I value highly what he thought of our disagreement. He thought I had been “harsh.” If I was unfair to you, my apologies.

          • Thank you. It is not my intent to be misleading. I asked a gathering of friends last night and was interested that people around the table disagreed in how they understand/use the word scholar. They split along the lines we have discussed here, with some saying that the word connoted a commitment to inquiry and others saying it required a vocational, academic position.

          • Neko

            I’m surprised at the difference of opinion. It looks like I was wrong in my assumptions, and otherwise, of course, take you at your word.

            Thank you for your good-natured response. I wish you a happy and prolific New Year!

          • I was surprised too, though obviously with a different set of assumptions. I thought Neil was being modest, and then the Merriam-Webster was the first definition I pulled up, so I just left it. I wish in hindsight that I had listened more closely–although I still can’t for the life of me figure out a better term.

            Happy New Year to you too.

            If it’s any comfort I don’t have any intentions of being prolific on this topic, nor do I in any sense think of myself as either a scholar or journalist; simply a news and opinion writer seeking to stir conversation on topics I think are important. I do have a deep interest in challenging the extraordinary status accorded to the Bible, which is seen by so many in our society as the literally perfect word of God. To my mind, idolizing Iron Age texts perpetuates Iron Age ignorance and violence. But mostly of late I am focused on cultural transitions around family formation and childbearing.

          • Neko

            Ha! By “prolific” I wasn’t referring to more on mythicism, though since I’m obviously interested in the debate that would be fine by me. (I never thought I’d find James McGrath, Neil Godfrey and a channeler of Earl Doherty all in the same interview, that’s for sure.) Rather, I got absorbed in your blog and noticed you seem pretty prolific already, so I meant “Carry on!”

            I sympathize with your dilemma over what to call Neil Godfrey and your concern to avoid any word with disparaging connotations. I guess I would go with “blogger and Jesus studies aficionado” (not optimal, I admit) and call Lataster a “doctoral candidate in religion and author.” Though if succinctness is an issue, I can do no better than your “three approaches.”

            To the extent that you’re battling religious fundamentalism, all I can say is Amen. Biblical literalism is crazytown and a plague. However, I don’t share your baleful view of the Bible, or at least not of the New Testament (I know so little about the Old). Even though Christianity developed into such a violent force of domination, at the source, as you know, it’s about liberation from domination. So…I prefer rapport to rejection.

      • If you look at Neil’s blog, you will find that he informed Ms. Tarico that he was uncomfortable with the description.

        • Neko

          I actually speculated that he had done so. But I’m glad I looked, since this is the disclaimer:

          (* As everyone who knows me knows I am not a “professional scholar” but my request to change this moniker was politely declined for mainly editorial reasons and the option to use the term in its most generic sense. My status is nonetheless clarified in the article anyway.)

          Seriously? Open fire! (Though obviously not at Neil.)

          • I would say that Neil’s trepidation was well founded.

          • Neko

            I went back and read “didaskelion’s” informed howl of protest and Tarico’s response, which opens “Perhaps I should start by defining the word scholar as I understand it and use it.”

            It seems we are awash in a sea of signs signifying whatever.

          • That is how Tarico’s response opens, but it continues with the Merriam-Webster definition, which seems to justify her use of the word regardless of what those in academia might wish its definition to be.

          • Neko

            Come on, Vinny! It’s not just “people in academia.” It’s disingenuous to use the most generalized definition of a word that in our culture has a very specific connotation. Doesn’t Tarico write for Slate and the like? She’s a member of the chattering classes! Give me a break.

          • Nick G

            FWIW, I wouldn’t have used the word because of its ambiguity, and would have withdrawn it when asked by Godfrey. But what a song and dance about an issue of status! Perhaps there was nothing else about the article you could find to object to.

          • Neko

            You miss the point. It’s not simply about status, but about accuracy and expertise. Haven’t you been hanging around this blog awhile? Aren’t you aware of the ideological wars informing the historical Jesus debate and the consternation among professional historians at the freewheeling productions of internet mythicists? A writer like Tarico, who appears superficially acquainted with this stuff, might have a little humility instead of (evidently) taking it upon herself to compensate for the failings of a profession where “both the existing evidence and scholarly conventions have been shaped by a long legacy of religious belief, authority, and power.” Breaking boundaries, eh? How rad!

          • Nick G

            No, I don’t miss the point. I just think you’re making a rather absurd amount of fuss about it; and my guess is that most historians, most atheists and most Christians would agree.

          • Neko

            My guess is that you’re wrong.

          • The belief that this theory has been held back because of academic bias or creed, as I know people have pointed out in other venues when this has been raised, is ridiculous. Even the faintest familiarity with continental European research into the historical Jesus since the 1850’s, the Jesus Seminar etc.. etc.. should have indicate to her and her readers that something really wasn’t correct with this picture. The fact that several scholars did argue that Jesus did not exist (and that their arguments mirror many of their modern counterparts) over a century ago, and was abandoned after sustained academic critique, just does not get a mention. It is like it never happened. Either Tarico does not know this (and in which case why then take it upon herself to opine about a subject that she knows so little about, and even then presume to be in a position to critique!) or it has been purposefully sidelined because this would upend the narrative that is trying to be painted.

            Does she have any idea of the affiliation of most SBL members, or the faculty members in New Testament departments of secular Universities (from my experience in the U.K. a sizeable number (I wouldn’t want to claim majority) of N.T. scholars outside of seminaries are atheists/agnostics/ have some sort of vague spiritual sense..). If she wants to learn about the state of the field from the 1940’s-80’s in the U.K. she should read F.F. Bruce’s biography- for over a decade he was reckoned to be the only prominent evangelical N.T. scholar in Britain!).Sadly this is a misleading trope. It is common in online forums, and was issued in the Salon article, and it is sadly shocking that since then this error has not been brought to her attention. There is really very little to distinguish it from the creationist claims that evolution is only taught because of vehement secularism that is imbedded in academia that they are now unloosening, or global warming deniers that they have been ignored because of the range of illusory vested interests that keep the academia biased/silent.

            The wacky fringe of such minority positions all put out this same charge. It is sadly shocking to see someone who is a leading light in the skeptical community repeating it so brazenly (and again apologies for my forthrightness, I am sure that I could couch it in more diplomatic language- but I need to get off to bed now, and I rather think I have spilled enough keyboard ink on this topic and will leave it to others to pursue.)

          • Neko

            Actually you’ve been a model of restraint. It is I who have been, to use your gentle term, “forthright.”

            Good night!

          • How do you propose to demonstrate that a word lacks a connotation that is included in the dictionary definition? I appreciate the problem you have with her use of the word. It is in fact the same problem that Neil had. However, if you are going to impugn a person’s character, I think you need more than you have got. Call me old fashioned if you like.

          • Neko

            As it happens I have an old “Miriam” (Merriam) Webster Collegiate Dictionary, and definition #1 says: One who attends a school or studies under a teacher. I ask you. Does anyone in the United States of America understand “scholar” to refer to the kids zoning out at their desks at the local high? The only such connotation today would be ironic. However, the definition I got off my desktop computer is the primary meaning of the word in the 21st century: a specialist in a particular branch of study, esp. the humanities; a distinguished academic.

            I deny that I impugned Tarico’s character. I initially gave her the benefit of the doubt. But after reading her defense my bs meter was spinning for all the reasons I’ve mentioned throughout.

          • I’m sure you meant “She is a scandal” in the most complimentary way possible.

            Unfortunately, I don’t know how every person in the United States understands the word “scholar,” but I suspect that those alternative definitions are there for a reason.

          • Neko

            Not to be Ms. Obvious, but language changes over time and from place to place.

            However, “She is a scandal” is perhaps a tad overexcited. I’ll strike it. But that’s all you get!

          • Language does change, but that seems to me to be a reason to be tolerant of differences in usage rather than dogmatic.

          • Neko

            I’m amused that you throw the hairiest of eyeballs toward Paul of Tarsus, but when it comes to one Valerie Tarico, who has offered the most transparent evidence as to her thinking and motivations, it’s all good, man.

          • I don’t think there is enough evidence to establish Paul’s sincerity and I don’t see the justification for assuming it. By the same token, I don’t think you have come anywhere near establishing Tarico’s insincerity.

          • Neko

            OK, so be it.

            Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking. Sure, I don’t know Hebrew, koine, Latin, Coptic, Syriac (or Mandean), and I’ve never taken a New Testament course in my life (though I did study Paradise Lost in college; that’s got to count for something). But I read a lot of books about Jesus, and though I lack Neil Godfrey’s facility and range, I can reel off some stuff, or at least bluff, about the baptism of Jesus and whatnot. I guess that makes me a “Bible scholar”!

            Whoo-hoo! I feel more prestigious already.

          • Whatever gets you through the night.

          • Thank you for pushing back on my behalf.

          • Don’t mention it.

            I think you were in a no-win situation. Any term that you used to describe Neil that gave him any credit for his depth of knowledge was sure to draw flack. You might have been safe with “fatuous blowhard,” but nothing more complimentary than that.

          • Neko

            That’s sheer bs. I offered “blogger and Jesus studies aficionado.” Clumsy, but hardly akin to “fatuous blowhard.”

          • I was being facetious.

          • Neko

            Obviously. But your meaning was clear. Or were you also being facetious when you said that Ms. Tarico was in a “no-win situation”? Were you not suggesting that this disagreement amounted to churlishness over Neil Godfrey?

          • I think that she was in a no-win situation. Had she called Neil an “expert,” there would have been howls of protest. “Jesus studies aficionado” is not patently pejorative, but I don’t think it gives him sufficient credit for his proficiency. I doubt there is any term that would make everyone happy.

          • Neko

            I’d say Neil is an expert in mythicism, though not in Jesus studies, but that is based on my relatively slight exposure. (The formatting at vridar gives me a headache, so I rarely visit, and patheos is hideous and crashes my browser, so my lurking and visits here have become more infrequent.) So you’re right, no term would make everybody happy, but one should strive for accuracy.

            I saw that Neil complained that this thread was devoted to ad homs instead of sparring with his ideas. I find this ironic. Mythicists have an ongoing grievance that they’re misrepresented. The complaint against “3 scholars” is likewise a protest against misrepresentation. I, like most people, want to see a fair game. Stuff like this gets in the way of getting to the ideas. That’s a problem I have with the mythicists: bad writing, bad design, bad faith, bad manners–it all gets in the way.

            Meanwhile, I see Neil has now been banned. I realize McGrath and Godfrey have a history, but it’s too bad it’s come to this.

          • That’s life in the blogosphere.

          • Paul E.

            I find it all a bit strange. I don’t know the history between the two, and I’m not familiar with Godfrey’s research. I am fascinated, though, by the methodological possibilities mythicism may bring to the table. Sometimes a complete break with a current paradigm is the best way for new breakthroughs, even if the current paradigm ultimately is confirmed. What little I saw from Godfrey here (and I haven’t paid a lot of attention, I admit), has been about arguments and methodology and, while maybe a little tetchy and defensive, hasn’t been all that bad by internet standards. There must be a fair amount of bad blood from the past. I agree with Neko, it’s too bad.

          • Some of the exchanges got pretty testy, but even then, I’m not sure it was all that bad by Internet standards.

      • He did. Here is our exchange. You can blame me and the Webster dictionary.

        Thanks, but if it’s ok I’m going to leave it: : a person who has
        studied a subject for a long time and knows a lot about it : an intelligent and well-educated person who knows a particular subject very well

        From: Neil Godfrey
        Sent: Wednesday, October 01, 2014 3:43 PM
        To: Valerie Tarico
        Subject: Re: Desperately Seeking Jesus
        Hi Valerie —
        I understand you need to sacrifice nuance etc but I think you might have suggested I was a “scholar” at one point? Only in an amateur sense.

        • Neko

          Well, I don’t blame Webster. I blame you. Because in the interpretive community that includes most of the world, a scholar is understood to mean a professional academic active in research and writing who vets their work in peer-reviewed publications. Despite your presumption in pronouncing on who gets to be called a scholar, Neil Godfrey (and even Raphael Lataster) aren’t scholars, and you should retract.

          As an aside, I wonder what Godfrey should be called. He’s more than a blogger but not a scholar. Bloscar?

          I trust you asked Godfrey if it was OK to post his private email (and address!) on this blog. Regardless, it was unnecessary. As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, I speculated that Godfrey had in fact notified you about his credentials, and when I read his disclaimer at vridar I didn’t for a second doubt the veracity of what he wrote. I admire the honesty in his message, but I had faith, so to speak, that he had done the right thing without seeing the evidence.

          Incidentally, you do the atheist movement no favors by the kind of ideologically-motivated dishonesty the mythicist movement is routinely accused of deploying.

  • Neko

    Valerie Tarico’s subhead tells us that “Three Bible scholars debate the question.

    So now Neil Godfrey is a “Bible scholar.”

    • It’s even stretching it a bit to call Lataster a Bible scholar. But then making it seem like there’s a scholarly debate going on about Jesus’s existence is all part of the trick.

      • Guest

        The mind boggles. This is deceptive. I cant believe that she is trying to pull this same trick again. Did the Humanist magazine let this get through??

      • Nick G

        Tarico makes quite clear that “the consensus position” – she uses that very phrase – is that “Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic preacher” – hence, a real person; and that mythicism is compared by some to creationism and climate denial. She says, in regard to an earlier article:

        Some critics claimed I had called Jesus a myth. (I hadn’t. In general I think it wise to defer to the opinion held by a majority of relevant experts, while bearing in mind that paradigm shifts do happen.) Several said I had taken a quote from Bart Ehrman out of context and used it as evidence for something he doesn’t believe. (I had, and I owe Ehrman a sincere apology.)

        So she defers to the majority expert opinion, and apologises for a previous error. Seems fairly straightforward. If there’s a “trick” involved here, I don’t think it’s Tarico who’s playing it.

        • Mark

          Nicks- no-one says she pretends that mythicism is the consensus position, or that she has carried on misrepresenting Ehrman so what on all earth are you bringing that up for?

          What several people have now commented upon is that she is tricking people by applying the title “scholar” to bloggers. It is quite simple, and it IS deceptive/ and or shoddy. She did it the last time with Fitzgerald and now she has done it again. Once is unfortunate, twice is foolish. I suspect though that she genuinely believes that these people scholars (although obviously Prof McGrath is a scholar!). This just shows she has evidently such a loose grip over this field that she should have no business trying to integrate herself into this conversation. Each time it is just a bumbling, garbled and distorted mess.

          • Nick G

            I don’t agree that she is tricking anyone, or trying to. I think commenters here are being rather prickly and pompous about the title “scholar”, and are trying to represent Tarico as dishonest when she’s not. She says quite clearly that Godfrey is a blogger, and anyone who follows the link to “Lataster teaches” will see he’s a PhD student, not an established academic.

          • I agree that people need to lay off implying that she is deliberately trying to deceive. I think that she sadly genuinely believes that they can be called scholars. The problem is not with her integrity, but with her ability to accurately interpret the field and the evidence. This shouldn’t necessarily be a problem (I remember overreaching myself in a couple of my early versions of peer-reviewed articles!). This is the job of editors to question the legitimacy of the piece for publication and how the information is being presented.

          • What is your preferred term for someone who has an avocational interest in a field of study and has spent considerable time exploring the available scholarship and writing related commentary?

          • At the risk of getting involved here, I think we can get bogged down in a debate about terminology that will just keep going round and round. I believe that the use of “scholar” is unfortunate, and looking at the views above- and apparently even Neil Godfrey himself!- would indicate that several others share this unease. Normally the PhD is taken as the verification that someone is a scholar. Yes a person can be scholarly without it, but normally you would expect publications in recognized scholarly venues or the like, or for someone to announce that another person can be taken to be a “scholar” to themselves have a firm grounding in the field so they, well, can be able to tell!

            Merely having an avocational interest in a subject surely does not suffice. By this schema all sorts of people who have dedicated themselves to minority positions on a whole host of topics from WW I and II, global warming, pharmacy, economics, (and yes, even creationists, and 9/11 conspiracy theorists) are scholars and should be receiving write ups from journalists. The story that atheists activists and bloggers think Jesus wasn’t real probably wouldn’t sell. “Duh!” would likely be most peoples’ response. But say “scholars” are now questioning his existence, well that is different- which you must surely know. People here seem to presume that you were aware of this, and intentionally mislead or sensationalized the article, and it is this that seems to be on the receiving end of their opprobrium.

            To take the example of the first person who you highlighted (Fitzgerald), which I and I think several people have pointed out to you now, was unfortunate. This, as well as several other factors in that Salon piece (and I am not intending on being impolite, believe me) rather suggests that you are not, despite your laudable interest in this topic, in actuality in a position to determine who is a reputable incisive scholar and what is a cogent argument that has been unduly disregarded by the academia and is your duty to bring to the public’s attention. As for your first point in that article (contemporary silence about Jesus) PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE read my comment below ( ) So, for example, if you (or the person you interviewed and mistakenly thought to be familiar with ancient history) was trained in Classics or ancient history there is no way that this bogus argument would ever be made, let alone have the label “scholarly” be attached to it. But that is the danger in being so ready to conclude that such people who fall outside of conventional academic circles/training, because of their avid interest in a topic, are scholars. You are left almost entirely vulnerable to be passing on nonsense, yet believing it to be fact or legitimate.

            There is little I can do I suppose other than to plea for you to take more care. I suppose though whatever position you take on this you will receive censure and claims that you have misled people or have not understood the issue, so fair enough I guess. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But I think there are some rather substantial problems that need redressing.

            (Again apologies if any of this was impolite or coming across in a polemical tone- thank you for taking the time to engage with people that are critiquing your piece).

          • Dilettante?

          • Thanks. Just in case anyone was wondering why I stuck with scholar.

      • Neko

        This Lataster guy is off my radar. Another admirer of Earl Doherty? Shoo. I never did finish The Jesus Puzzle. The book was mighty tendentious and life is short. Later I thought it best to wait for Carrier to channel Doherty through his self-proclaimed genius. But 700 pages! Did his editor exist only in the celestial realm?

        Meanwhile, I remember taking issue with Valerie Tarico’s casual journalism during the last kerfuffle. IIRC she gave David Fitzgerald an inordinate amount of attention in that column. (I lasted a lot longer with Puzzle than the 3 minutes I endured of Nailed.) She also offered then, as she does this time, her insight as a professional psychologist that we historicize myth. Though she also concedes that we mythologize history. OK!

  • Just Sayin

    Jesus is not elusive. On the contrary, many strive mightily to hide from Him.

    • Nick G

      No, they don’t.

    • Neko

      The historical Jesus is quite elusive!

  • Nick G

    From the article:

    McGrath: There’s no harm in making comparisons, but
    when it comes to influential figures – leaders of nations for instance –
    we should expect the evidence to be greater than for an individual who
    was not wealthy, minted no coins, and as far as we know may not have
    been literate. Not all figures leave behind the same kinds of tangible

    That’s true, of course, but by the same token, the confidence we can reasonably have about the existence and biographies of influential (at the time) figures is generally much greater than for individuals who were not wealthy and minted no coins, especially if they left and are mentioned in no contemporary written records. (It’s quite reasonable to have more confidence in the existence of Claudia Severa and Sulpicia Lepidina, Roman women living at the settlement of Vindolanda in what is now northern England not long after Jesus’s lifetime, than in Jesus.)

    Edited to add: Come to think of it, it’s reasonable to have more confidence in their existence than in that of any inhabitant of the Roman Empire not mentioned on coins or monuments.

    • The evidence for Jesus is actually greater in terms of number of “neutral” (although that is a problematic word, but anyway…) references and closer in time to his life than for pretty much any other compatible figure from antiquity that I can think of- although this is a message that gets erroneously drowned out by the online mythicist gang.

      • Nick G

        By “compatible”, I take it you mean “comparable” (if not, I don’t understand you). But who do you mean by “comparable figures”?

        • Sorry yes I meant comparable.

          E.g. popular though institutionally unconnected Jewish figures (of which Josephus mentions dozens) and popular Graeco-Roman religious and philosophical figures from the 1st century B.C. to 1st century A.D. Pretty much all are only talked about 70-200 years after their death, and often by only one or two sources. We can collate around a dozen references to Jesus within the first 50-100 years from Graeco-Roman sources (and of course some are of greater worth than others!), which is actually a remarkable size and closeness in date for antiquity. In actuality the question should be why Jesus gets so much attention so close to his death and why mythicists proponents have been so successful in deluding their followers to think is a cogent argument. Hint: I think it comes down to the sad lack of training that our Western schools now give to Classics, ergo leaving an historically illiterate public that are susceptible to fine sounding, though entirely vacuous, arguments from amateur online activists.

          I had posted this here before, so apologies for those people who have already read it, but it perhaps bares repeating:

          Lets give this silly, and repeated, suggestion that because Jesus is not mentioned by contemporary historical sources that this indicates that he does not exist some extended consideration. (In a debate with Zeba Crook, Richard Carrier has stated that this argument should not be given the weight it often is by the way…)

          We need to realize that any person in antiquity who would not likely be recorded about in physical assets such as coins, epigraphs (etc…), that we are dependent upon literary documents to know about their existence. These are extremely rare from antiquity. We probably have less than .001% of all literature from Classical period currently extant. Apart from a few examples, and most of these during specific events such as the Athenian-Spartan conflict, the Second Punic War, or the upheavals during the fall of the Roman Republic, we do not have sources from the time on people in Classical history. We have almost nothing written from the time about dozens of Roman Emperors who ruled one of the largest and most literate societies pre-enlightenment Europe. We only hear of great generals, such as Scipio, decades after the event. Perhaps we might suggest that he didn’t exist too? Great philosophers who mingled with Emperors, politicians and business men, who would have had infinitely more influence (and connections with literate people) than the itinerant failed messiah figure Jesus in rural Palestine with twelve regular followers! How much do we know of them from the time of their lives? Practically nothing.

          People like the founders of Stoicism and Epicureanism; their writings were part of every educated Romans’ libraries and had followers (like Christianity) in every major city. So there must be thousands of copies of their writings? No. Apart from three letters of Epicurus almost nothing. Alexander the Great who conquered the whole known world. Well, we must have thousands of reports about him from Nope. We can fit it on about half a page of A4. Consider the “Loeb Classical Library” that has been published by Harvard University Press for over a hundred years. It translates and publishes all the major works from Classical Antiquity. Over 1,000 years of writing, during which time the West enjoyed its first Golden Age of literature. How large is this corpus of material? It can fit into two bookcases (!)- and they are double the size they need to be: each volume supplies the Latin/Greek as well as an English translation.

          Read Professor Robert Garland’s “Celebrity in Antiquity: From Media Tarts to Tabloid Queens” and Graham Anderon’s “Sage, Saint and Sophist: Holy Men and Their Associates in the Early Roman Empire”, try to note down in a spreadsheet how close the extant records we have for apparently well-known people in antiquity (including actors, philosophers, religious charismatics etc”) are. All are pretty much written about decades, mainly hundreds of years after their lives, and are almost always only referenced in one solitary source.

          Look at the Jewish historian Josephus’ works. He lists many Jewish leaders who were equal to Jesus in fame. Who else records them? No one, just Josephus. (by the way no-one mentions Josephus for centuries, supposedly this BIG Jewish commander and how client of the Emperor himself, he must never have existed a well!).

          The destruction of Pompeii, a large city, completely destroyed. An event comparible in terms of shock to 9/11. This must be recorded EVERYWHERE. Only no. It isn’t. Only one source from near the the time talks about it. Decades and NOTHING but silence about a supposedly huge event. So perhaps it, and all these other figures, are just made up too, or perhaps people like these non-trained mythcists need a new argument.

          One interesting exercise to show how ancient fame vis-a-vis ancient literary records works is to compare Jesus with Cato the Younger. Cato was probably the most famous person by the time of Christ. We even have two classical authors saying they are fed up having with having stories of his live being constantly recollected by everyone. Now how many biographies of his life now exist? One, by Plutarch who wrote it over a hundred years later! This is a very good indicator of that this argument from silence needs to be put to bed, not given the oxygen of media attention- especially by free-thinkers(!!).

          Lets not be ignorant about this. Mythicists would have a field day producing books, blog posts, and having their readers high-fiving them if it served the atheist cause to turn their “methods” to question such ancient figures and events’ existence – yet they think that historians are only wrong about this one figure. It is online amateur activism parading itself as reasoned scholarship.

          The fact that Jesus is talked about by a dozen pagan references within a hundred years is remarkable. But this is a narrative that is sidelined, and just as illegitimately so as when Christian apologists sideline the evidence of competing traditions within the Gospels, or when creationists try to explain “show me the missing links” Both are reprehensible, and both show complete ignorance of how to properly approach and understand the field.

          (Also there is a an extra biblical reference to Jesus around 70-80 C.E from Mara Bar-Serapion.)

          • Nick G

            There’s little there I’d disagree with; although I pointed out on another thread, in response to a comparison of the (written) evidence for Jesus and Tiberius, that it makes a difference whether the main sources we have for a life wrote as historians – giving their sources, for example – or as apologists; and how connected individuals were with other people and events. Incidentally, do you happen to know how big the “two bookcases” would be? Where does this come from?

          • Well neutral history is something of a modern/enlightenment idea, and it would be hard to try to distinguish an ancient historian from an ancient apologist- even if they gave you their sources. A good introduction to history and myth in this regard is the now classic study by Paul Veyne “Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths”. Obviously this is a huge topic, but it is not as simple as it can be portrayed in such online venues between secular accounts of the Emperors being history and the Gospels being myth. For both the reality is likely somewhere in the middle. The topic of Gospel genre and sources is also hugely contested, but most scholars now (to the chargin of mythicists) hold them to be ancient biographies (or bios) rather than fables, myths or allegories. A recent PhD thesis might be of interest to you in this regard:

            Other work by Richard Burridge, Richard Bauckham, Peter Williams, and Andrew Pitt’s forthcoming study, will also be of interest to you if you haven’t already been studying them.

            The two bookcases come from my personal experience of working in a university that has the entire collection of Loebs, and which is in two bookcases. They are large bookcases, The image on here will give you an idea:

            And remember more than half what you are seeing (each volumes contain English translations, introductions, and indexes etc…), the huge time span that this collection covers, and the fact that a lot of the volumes are actually divisions in a particular authors’ body of works, e.g. Cicero, Plutarch and Philo etc…).

          • Nick G

            Thanks very much for the references, and the image – rather larger bookcases than I’d imagined, in fact! But I take note of what you say about much of it being translations etc.

            it would be hard to try to distinguish an ancient historian from an ancient apologist- even if they gave you their sources.

            Well the mere fact that they did so would be a very significant difference from the gospels. So would a well-founded belief that they used contemporary written sources, as it is thought Tacitus did in writing his histories (the Acta Senatus, Acta Diurna, and contemporary letters). As far as I’m aware, no-one claims this for the gospels.

          • With the Gospels you are correct that they are unlikely to be using written sources, but the claim would be more that they used oral traditions. There is a lot of study that has been, and is going on, into whether the features of the Gospels show signs of such oral traditions, and people such as James Dunn, Richard Bauckham, Peter Williams, and about a dozen other historians and sociologists have put forward very compelling evidence (including lots of interesting charts, which is quite unusual in this field) of this, and in one case even in the apostolic fathers and their recollections of Jesus’ teachings. As for whether they are eyewitnesses that is another story however. That this eyewitness expectation was a criteria for Jesus tradition stories can be seen from Paul’s letters as well as the opening of the Gospel of Luke, and the writings of Papias. So we have good evidence that they were indeed primed to seek out eyewitness accounts and believed this to be an important control on the accounts of Jesus’ life. So lets not (in case this was your conception?) think that the early Christians were just happen to have any old story relayed . There was apparently criteria- and with the emphasis on eyewitness perhaps superior to the sources of historians such as Tacitus. Although, again, I am sure we can have a rather lengthy discussion on all of this!

          • Actually there are several lines of evidence suggesting that written sources were used. Comparison among the Synoptics suggests it, and Luke says as much explicitly. But beyond that, Maurice Casey has made a case for Aramaic sources having been used, and there has been other source critical work as well.

          • Thanks for this.

            Sorry I had thought to mention the comparisons between the synoptics suggesting this.

            Yeah but the Aramaic theory (although this is not my field granted!) has been unravelling at a rather alarming rate over the past two-three years hasn’t it?

          • What do you mean by “the Aramaic theory” and in what sense do you consider it to have been “unravelling”? The truth is that, at any given time, the number of New Testament scholars with a truly extensive knowledge of Aramaic is dishearteningly small, and so my impression is rather that topics related to Aramaic and the Gospels tend to eiher be ignored, or treated inadequately.

          • I am thinking in particular of Sang-Il Lee’s recent work “Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context: A Study in the Interdirectionality of Language”, (as well as Loren Stuckenbruck’s and a few others’ studies).

            Unraveling is too strong, so thanks for calling me out on that. Perhaps noting that studies have recently been published that caution against fully embracing the traditional view of the presence of possible Aramaic/Semitic sources in the early Christian tradition. In any case they have been enough for me to tread carefully with regards to this particular issue- though undoubtedly (as you intimate) others are in a better position to reach an informed position on such matters.

          • Well, there are lots of uncertainties – figuring out when one has evidence of Aramaic sources, Aramaic oral traditions, an author who is bilingual, or any number of other scenarios, is rarely something that it is possible to do with a high degree of certainty.

            Which study by Stuckenbruck are you thinking of?

          • Nick G

            Are any of these sources thought to be contemporary with the events described?

          • If you mean were they written while the events were happening, then no. But Mark 13, if it was not written in the 40s, derives from a source that took shape in that period, since it reflects the Caligula crisis. Many would date the Q source similarly early.

          • Nick G

            Thanks. But sources written at the time, even if partial (like those Tacitus would have had access to), and those written ten years later, are very different things – particularly when those ten years involved intense and complex socio-psychological processing of memories and oral accounts of the events concerned, as those after Jesus’s death presumably did.

          • I would be interested to know how many instances we have in antiquity of accounts of people and events being written within a decade of their occurrence or their death. I’d also be interested to know whether you have the same viewpoint about the modern era. If someone wrote the first account of the life of Princess Diana today, more than 17 years after her death, would it necessarily be completely unreliable, or for that matter, necessarily less reliable than some of the things written in the immediate aftermath of her death?

          • Nick G

            What I’m talking about is the contemporary written sources available to a writer, as I think I’ve made quite clear. Anyone writing about Princess Diana now would have access to abundant contemporary written (and audio-visual) accounts. The opinion of relevant experts appears to be that Tacitus, who wrote about Tiberius, would have had access to the contemporary Acta Senatus (the minutes of the Senate, since he was a senator) and Acta Diurna (a kind of daily government gazette, written on stone or metal for public display, then archived), and letters to and from Tiberius himself, which would also have been archived. What is more, at least some of his audience would have had similar access, which would provide some check on how far he could safely slant his account.

          • Well, of course we can do better in an era that has the kind of writing and recording possibilities and practices that we do today. And in ancient times, when something was of interest to literate people and was written about quickly, that is better. But if our era were more like the first century, and we envisage a case that is not atypical in that context, do you think that no one would be able to research and write a book about Princess Diana that would be correct in broad outline as well as many specific details?

          • Nick G

            I can’t see the point of that comparison, because the “context” doesn’t work: our era is not like the 1st century, and it makes very little sense to say “Well suppose it had been, but Princess Diana had lived the kind of life she actually did”. The whole point about Diana Spencer’s life is that once she became involved with Charles Windsor, it was lived in the constant glare of publicity, with many of the specific details made available to billions of people. But to the general question: can a biographical account where the chain of sources was exclusively oral for a decade or more be relied on to be “correct in broad outline as well as many specific details”, I’d say no, in the absence of archeological corroboration. It may be, but it may not. There are numerous studies showing just how unreliable eyewitness acounts are and the reconstructive nature of memory, and cases like that of John Frum, a religious figure who lived (if he did) within living memory, but of whom it was quite uncertain in the 1950s whether he was a real person.

            My whole point in the original comment above was that our confidence in the existence and biographical facts about individuals in any era should depend on the kinds of information we have about them, whether through digging up contemporary material remains (as for Claudia Severa and Sulpicia Lepidina), or via written accounts which have survived (almost always, in the case of the 1st century, as copies of copies of copies). For the latter, the questions of when and by whom the account was written, and what the writer’s sources were, are central. I compared Jesus with Tiberius because they were contemporaries, and that comparison was (mis)used by John Dickson in this article, which you quoted from in this thread. As you know, I find mythicism implausible, but the case against it cannot rely on spurious claims that our knowledge of Jesus is as secure as our knowledge of figures such as Tiberius.

          • Indeed, and I find most attempts to compare Jesus with the kinds of figures who erected monuments and minted coins to be frustrating, whether they be made by those trying to prove Jesus did exist or those trying to prove that he did not.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I think the assertion that Mark 13 refers to the Caligula crisis is rather tenenous, at best.

          • Nick G

            Eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable – especially years after the event. Of course, written sources can be misleading as well, but if contemporary, they do have considerable advantages.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “hold them to be ancient biographies (or bios) rather than fables, myths or allegories.”

            The genre “ancient biography” covers a huge amount of literature, and there are definitely ancient biographies that contained myth and fables (and just to make clear, I believe the Gospels have both historical remembrance and myth intertwined into them)

  • Avenger

    Lataster speaks of the “minimal” myth theory, according to which the original Christian belief was replaced almost overnight by something completely different. Only traces of the original belief are left, and these are visible to amateurs but not to biblical scholars.

    Does “minimal” refer to the number of assumptions made, or their credibility?

  • Since Neko has posted the last phrase of an extended comment I made at my own website, I would like to post the comment in full. It addresses both why I used the word “scholar” for Godfrey, McGrath and Lataster, and why, after stating the consensus position, I included all three perspectives in the article.

    “Perhaps I should start by defining the word scholar as I understand it and use it. This from Miriam Webster: ‘a person who has studied a subject for a long time and knows a lot about it : an intelligent and well-educated person who knows a particular subject very well; a person who attends a school or studies under a teacher: pupil; a person who has done advanced study in a special field; a learned person.’ Credentials can indicate knowledge, but the two are not the same, and I don’t think that someone has to hold a Ph.D. or professorship to be called a scholar.

    That said, I agree that much specialized knowledge can be acquired only through in-depth study and that a superficial treatment of a complex subject can lead to conclusions that are patently false. To the extent that there exist valid methods for deciphering complex realities–methods that have predictive validity, external validity, falsifiability, etc.–credentialing and status in the academy provide useful indicators of expertise. Or perhaps better said, credentialing and status in the academy provide useful indicators of whether “expertise” has real world relevance. The hallmark of this is the hard sciences.

    To the extent that measures of validity are not available, academics sometimes create a culture of convention that may have very little to do with external realities. The most extreme example of this is theology, which I perceive as an exercise akin to mapping the landscape of Middle Earth. But I would say the same thing about much literary criticism, for example.
    Academic conventions can create convergence and the illusion of knowledge even when evidence exists to show this knowledge false. The fields of economics and psychology both contain wide tracts of thought in which academics have generated “just so” stories without recognizing that they were doing so. By “just so” stories, I mean intricate, systematic, and seemingly scientific methods for analyzing information and reaching hypotheses that turn out to have no basis in reality.

    Antiquities scholarship broadly and the quest for the historical Jesus specifically lie somewhere on a continuum between hard science and theology. As an outsider, they appear to be junctures at which there is limited evidence and a lot of convention and conjecture. In the case of Jesus studies, both the existing evidence and scholarly conventions have been shaped by a long legacy of religious belief, authority, and power.

    I agree with you that McGrath (and I’m sure many others) are better credentialed than Godfrey and Lataster and Fitzgerald. The question to my mind, is whether the academy, for the reasons I listed, has blind spots that might keep academics from seeing that the emperor has no clothes. That is why I chose to focus this article on how scholars (I’m open to a better word here) approach this and related questions.”

  • RRAnduxar

    Is it just me or does this picture resemble Jonathan Cahn, the author of The Harbinger. LOL I mean… I know it is just a picture, but my 12 year old son brought this to my attention and after listening to his testimony of how he was born in a very particular date and stuff like that, I kind of find it creepy.

  • TFCC