Daniel Gullotta on the Obscure but Historical Jesus

Daniel Gullotta on the Obscure but Historical Jesus August 24, 2015

Daniel Gullotta has been busy online defending the historicity of Jesus against internet pseudoskeptics who don’t understand how historical studies works, and so draw problematic conclusions. In a recent blog post he explained why it is unsurprising that Jesus doesn’t get mentioned by his contemporaries. And then he engaged David Fitzgerald in a debate on the Miami Valley Skeptics podcast. Be sure to see his blog post about the debate as well, where he clarifies some things which, in the process of speaking for recording, he didn’t say what he intended to.



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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Pft. Everyone knows Jesus was just a composite of other mythical figures. Horus said so, himself:


    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Phil, I think the inventors of Jesus must have had a copy of Richard Carrier’s book. How else could they have managed without such a comprehensive guide to the details that would need to be incorporated into the myth – everything from Homeric parallels to why the Messiah needed to die.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Richard Carrier is a Time Lord. He went back in time and created a Jesus myth so he could sell books in the future exposing it.

        • Cecil Bagpuss


  • arcseconds

    I have just listened to Fitzgerald’s interview on the Miami Valley Sceptics podcast.

    Not a lot of new stuff there, pretty standard for the more academically informed mythicist. I guess it is further data of how the more informed mythicists think.

    The discussion about the historicity is heavily bound up with extraneous things, such as confessional schools ejecting their scholars, and the large amount of clearly mythic material in the Gospels. At one point one of the presenters says that “if Socrates turned out to be mythical,it wouldn’t affect my life at all” (*) — the impact on your life is totally irrelevant to what the evidence says about their existence, of course. And someone (I think it’s Fitzgerald, but I will check) says at one point that the non-existence of Jesus would spell the death knell of Christianity.

    So again it seems fairly clear that this topic, for many in the sceptics movement, is really not at all a disinterested matter of looking at what the evidence is in some ancient texts, but rather something strongly connected with the goals of the movement itself.

    More to the point of what sense can be made of the historical data, Fitzgerald seems impressed by the supposed multiple Jesuses and multiple Gospels alluded to by Paul. He appears to think that the Jesus figure emerged in multiple places at once, one version was picked up by Paul, and was eventually harmonized (sort of) into the figure we know from the Gospels. This is the one thing that was novel about his position to me.

    He dismisses the “James the brother of the Lord” statement with the usual hand-wave at Paul using ‘brother’ in a different sense elsewhere, and appears to think that settles the matter (he even pooh-poohs Ehrman for stating that Paul mentions Jesus’s brother). It’d be nice if mythicists admitted that this at least is a difficulty for their position.

    Plus he keeps saying even if we admit Jesus exists, we have to admit the evidence for his existence is quite bad. In fact, he’s apparently reasonably happy with agnosticism, and seems to almost regard historicity as a viable position: admitting that the evidence isn’t great evidence seems to be his bottom line.

    He does talk about Ehrman, le Donne, and others with respect, but gives the impression that there is only a tiny handful of mainstream scholars writing anything worth reading, and doesn’t mention that they are universally historicists.

    As usual, the notion that Jesus was made up is treated as a kind of default option that can be had ‘for free’, so that raising problems for historicity means that mythicism is proven.

    I know you’ve reviewed his book, James, and I think I even read it, but I can’t remember what you said about it. I thought it worth jotting down my thoughts now… I’ll re-read your review after I’ve listened to the debate.

    (*) not an exact quote, but close.

    • Thanks for sharing these thoughts! I look forward to your new reflections on his book, or my review of it, in light of the debate.

      • arcseconds

        I forgot to mention that the most interesting part of Fitzgerald’s interview for me was when he mentioned his arguments with an apparently pagan girl he was attracted to back when he was a Southern Baptist consisted of Southern Baptist God vs. Earth Mother theological debates (he characterised this as ‘flirting’. I wonder whether that was how she saw it.)

        He made some comment about Christianity’s age, and she pointed out that Hinduism was thousands of years older. He was initially about to argue with this, but then he stopped and realised that he had no idea how old Hinduism was. This was apparently his scales-fall-from-the-eyes moment, he started fact-checking in earnest, and Christianity never looked the same to him again.

        This was interesting to me because I’m always interested in conversion stories, but specifically because we learn the following things:

        *) there’s widespread ignorance about major world religions among college-going southern baptists, and I’m sure it isn’t limited to them.

        (I want to say, ‘c’mon, who doesn’t know that?’, but maybe this is another thing that I just assume everyone knows but then reality turns out to disappoint me once again, thanks a lot reality)

        *) Fitzgerald was an argumentative, evangelical Christian who was very sure of himself and has turned into an argumentative, evangelical atheist who is very sure of himself (this sort of thing seems quite usual: however much people want to say conversion makes them into a new person, frequently we find much about them is exactly the same).

        *) It’s another story where just one weakness exposed in a rigid worldview is enough to unravel the entire thing. I think this is further evidence that we are doing the right thing by arguing vehemently with fundamentalists. If his sparring-partner had no further contact with Fitzgerald over the period that he was completely reworking his worldview, it might not be apparent at all to her that she was instrumental in his change.

        Apart from that, I just found the entire incident rather surprising in ways I can’t easily articulate. I suppose it’s a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ kind of thing: the idea that a pagan would willingly hang out with an argumentative, evangelical, and (in all probability) kind of arrogant Southern Baptist is odd to begin with, and then there’s the idea that a well-known historical fact about Hinduism is the downfall of someone’s Christian fundamentalism. Even if it’s news for you, it seems easy for such a Christian to dismiss it as bronze-age pagan polytheism of the kind Christianity supplanted.

        • PorlockJunior

          “maybe this is another thing that I just assume everyone knows but then
          reality turns out to disappoint me once again, thanks a lot reality”

          Absolutely! Reality has a lot to answer for.

          Lately I have updated the old Pharisaical prayer “I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not as other men” to be more realistic:
          “I am peeved, Lord, that Thou hast made so many people stupider than I am.” I mean, is it fair? Is it constructive? Am I not dumb enough often enough?

          • arcseconds


            Am I being chastised? I do believe I’m being chastised!

            I don’t think I’ve encountered that prayer before, but googling did bring up this delightful poem

          • PorlockJunior

            Heavens to Betsy, no! I identify with the sad discovery, time after time, that the obvious thing isn’t obvious to everyone else.

            And I try to lay the blame where it belongs, with the Creator of all the dopey people; not excluding, of course, my standard (not meaning you) for how dopey a person can be when he’s in the mood for it.

            Thanks for the poem. Food for thought.

  • arcseconds

    Listened to Daniel Gullota’s interview on the Miami Valley Skeptics podcast. It’s a good interview: the Skeptics interview him sympathetically and respectfully. Gullota’s background (he has theology degrees and he’s attending Yale Divinity school) suggest that he’s probably Christian, but this was never treated as an issue, nor even mentioned in the interview. Also, one might think that Fitzgerald had set the stage for this interview (even given that it was some months prior). He had cast some aspersions on the biases of mainstream scholars, particularly ones with Christian affiliations. Also, not only was here there first, but he’s clearly a movement atheist and therefore has some tribal affiliation with the Skeptics. Plus one of the Skeptics has strong mythicist leanings.

    Actually, in some ways it’s a pity questions like Christian biases weren’t raised, as I think that’s a sticking point for many atheists and other secular sorts, and if it had been raised as a point of respectful discussion I think Gullota’s answer might have been instructive.

    One of the Skeptics, I think it’s the mythicist although to be honest I can’t easily tell the voices apart and there’s like five of them or something, did raise some points from Carrier and others, which were worth hearing. I did think the tone of his “is this not true?” at the end of outlining the point was a little confrontational, but that’s a small enough point.

    One of the Skeptics, and I’m pretty sure it’s the one that acknowledges he’s more convinced of historicity, has a classics background, and he provided some interesting input into the discussion. I do wonder whether the classics background means he’s more able to see that NT scholars are not doing history in a radically different way to classics, and as a result is not so inclined towards scepticism (let alone credulity towards a fringe view) about the consensus conclusions than his friend.

    Gullota did a very good job, I thought. He answered all the questions thoroughly, and I certainly learned some stuff from his answers, especially about Marcion. The one thing I wish he had covered though is to make it clear that Jesus historicity is the consensus of professional scholarship in the area. He prefixed nearly everything he says with “I think that”, and only mentioned “and other scholars” once or twice (and not “all other scholars”). A casual listener to both debates could easily come away with the impression that mythicism is a viable position within the academy.

    In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in either interview that indicates that Carrier, Doherty and Fitzgerald are outsiders to the academy, and are probably best considered amateurs (allowing Carrier as a bit of an exception), whereas Ehrman, le Donne, and Gullota are insiders, and that much of what Gullota says is a matter of consensus within mainstream scholarship, and everything he says would be considered to be a valid position for a professional scholar to take.

  • arcseconds

    OK, finally got around to listening to the debate. I would have liked to have read Gullotta’s blog post where he explains a few more things, but it seems he’s moved his interest from early Christianity and the ANE to Mormon origins and North American religion, and has deleted his blog as a result. Unfortunately the Internet Archive last archived the site on the 1st of August 2015, 23 days too early to be of use to me!

    Anyway, it was an interesting interchange. The format was designed to get away from a debate format, and have them both answer some pre-prepared questions, and some questions from the audience. They also got a chance to respond to one another.

    It was amicable and respectful, and one of the striking things was that Fitzgerald basically agreed with every point Gullotta made.

    A pattern that was repeated a couple of times during the episode was that Fitzgerald would make a somewhat provocative claim that would seem to support mythicism (at least to those sharing the presuppositions, more on that below), Gullotta would say ‘hang on a bit’, and issue a corrective, which wouldn’t normally deny the claim outright, but cast it in a different light so that it no longer looked so supportive, and then Fitzgerald would backtrack (partially, at least) and say ‘yes, I agree’.

    So for example, Fitzgerald reiterated the usual mythicist point about there being so many ‘secular’ historical Jesuses, like a healer, a mystic, a military zealot. Gullotta says that well, actually, there’s a scholarly consensus on an apocalyptic preacher, and the other interpretations are marginal and popular (in the sense of not being scholarly). Fitzgerald basically agrees with this and says “yes, that’s one of the better ones”.

    But given that Fitzgerald agrees that the secular scholars are the ones to engage with, and in fact brings up this point strongly himself, this seems to totally undermine his point here. With the opponents he himself agrees that are the only ones worth taking seriously, there isn’t this kind of plethora of totally different Jesuses. There are different takes on the apocalyptic preacher, sure, but not armed zealots.

    (Plus, of course, no mention is made of the plethora of mythical Jesuses by Fitzgerald, and Gullotta doesn’t bring up this point either.)

    Another example: Fitzgerald in his opening statement does start out by asking why if Jesus did such amazing things, including miracles although he hedges a bit on this and suggests revolutionary teachings would be enough to get him noticed. Gullota later makes the point that actually there’s little reason to think that a lower-class preacher in a backwater of the Empire would make a big impact. Fitzgerald then mostly agrees with this (again, undermining his earlier statement) but says that some could be expected to record Jesus, particularly as other messianic figures were recorded that are ‘less interesting’.

    Gullota complains that this is subjective, and says he finds some of them more interesting. However, he also points out that the other messianic figures conducted armed revolts. While I suppose interestingness is always in the eyes of some beholder, conducting armed revolts seems like the sort of thing that we could expect most people in most times to find more interesting than some street preacher.

    Much of the rest was really just more agreement: they both agree that neither Tacitus nor Josephus are really germaine, as all they can tell us at most is that Christians believed that Jesus existed at those times. Fitzgerald thinks the Testmonium Flavium is a complete forgery, and Gullotta isn’t really sure one way or another. They both accept Tacitus. There was some discussion about the gnostic Jesus, and a semantic argument about whether early Christianity counts as mystery cult: Fitzgerald accepts Gullotta’s compalints that it probably wasn’t modeled on mystery cults, it wasn’t restrictve and there wasn’t any mystery that you could get deeper in, and Gullotta agrees there are similarities like an initiation rite and a ritual meal. Fitzgerald still wants to call it a mystery cult, though.

    And this seems basically Fitzgerald’s strategy:make a lot of noises that sound good to people receptive to mythicism on the one hand, while conceding every substantive point to the historian on the other. So while formally he agrees with Gullotta about nearly everything, he still continues to informally echo the notions that the silence is surprising, that the miracle-working Jesus is absurd (and this is somehow still germain to the discussion) that the plethora of scholarly Jesuses is an embarrassment, that the plethora of different early Christian cults is somehow strange, that the Testimonium Flavium is a hoax, that there’s something essentially fishy about all of this.

    Gullotta, despite being nice and polite throughout, did end on a strong note, saying that having these discussions in popular forums like podcasts and non-scholarly conferences, all connected with the athiest movement, is ‘dangerous’, and that what mythicists really need to do is do the hard yakka and get themselves doctorates and get their papers into SBL if they want to be taken seriously.