Further History-Denialism from Jerry Coyne

Further History-Denialism from Jerry Coyne November 3, 2015

It boggles my mind and frustrates me when anyone engages in denialism, whether in science, history, or any other area. But when someone who has worked hard to combat denialism does it, it can seem downright baffling.

But Jerry Coyne has done precisely that in the past, and continues to do so. In a recent blog post on statistics which the BBC shared about popular opinions in the UK concerning Jesus, Coyne wrote:

What’s more galling is that the BBC is taking what “many scholars believe” as the gospel truth—pardon the pun—despite the fact that close scrutiny gives virtually no extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus. I’m still convinced that the judgement of scholars that “Jesus was a real man” comes not from evidence, but from their conviction that the Bible simply couldn’t be untruthful about that issue. But of course we know of cases where myths grew up that weren’t at bottom derived from a historical individual.

How can someone who sees the problem with this kind of conspiracy view about experts in science when articulated by creationists, not see it when articulated by himself about experts in history? Perhaps the answer may be found in his dogmatic adherence to a false dichotomy between religion and science. Coyne has shown himself in the past to have a greater allegiance to his atheism than to critical thinking, dangerously coupled with the assumption that to be an atheist means one is by definition a critical thinker, and if one is religious one automatically is not. If a text ended up in the “Bible” then it is by definition dubious, never mind that when it was written it had no such status. If something is the view of religious believers, it is suspect, no matter if it is also the conclusion of secular historians.

Biologists face a tougher time from denialists than historians typically do. And so that ought to make them sympathetic to those who argue against denialism in other fields, rather than leading them to join their ranks.

I’m reminded of this SMBC cartoon on that last point…

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  • SocraticGadfly

    My own thoughts on the leading “academic” Jesus denialists: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-academic-shortcomings-of-jesus.html

    • Neko

      Robert Price is a wingnut? Oh my.

      • SocraticGadfly

        Yeah, seeing him as member of that white rights group on Facebook was a bit of an eye-opener.

        • Neko

          Is he a member, or did he just comment?

          • SocraticGadfly

            From what I remember, he was, at that time, a member of the group. I had seen, before that, his repeated demands that Obama be impeached, but didn’t realize he was “that.”

            That’s why it’s both ironic and hypocritical that he’s teaching at a black seminary/divinity school!

          • Neko

            I find that rather chilling. I’ve read very little of Price, but I thought he was supposed to be among the more respectable mythicists. Apparently not.

          • Herro

            Neko, Price isn’t a racist. Don’t trust Gadfly’s fallible memory 😉

          • Neko

            Who am I to judge. But Ted Cruz? Mike Huckabee? At the least I find Price’s political preferences entirely dubious.

            Also, I see Price is a spirited voice in the anti-PC zeitgeist for which I have little sympathy.

            The question remains, is all that an excuse not to read “The Historical Bejeezus,” even if I could overcome the chagrin of ordering such a title?

          • SocraticGadfly

            Neko, read my response to Herro

          • Neko

            I’ve been reading with interest. But I didn’t mean to start a kerfuffle!

          • SocraticGadfly

            Oh, you started nothing … no worries. As for your question? I would say “read carefully.” Per my first blog post, while Price is the one of the denialists who does have an academic position, the Johnnie Coleman seminary is also an unaccredited organization

          • Herro

            If he was at the time a member of that group, surely you would have mentioned that, and not just that he had left a comment on that site.

            And how is leaving a comment on a site like that a bad thing? I’m sure James McGrath has left many comments on creationist/inerrantist/fundie facebook sites, does that discredit McGrath? Could you post for us what Price actually said?

          • SocraticGadfly

            Why do you say “surely”? And, I already said above that he’s called repeatedly for Obama’s impeachment. And, as for you trying to claim I’ve got “fallible memory,” I know that his comment there was NOT pro-African American rights. Per your analogy, I’m sure McGrath does not leave pro-creationist comments on creationist pages.

          • Herro

            >”Why do you say “surely”? ”

            Because why would you settle for just mentioning that he made a comment on a site like that, if you could point out that he actually “liked” it?

            >”I know that his comment there was NOT pro-African American rights.”

            What was his comment?

            >”Per your analogy, I’m sure McGrath does not leave pro-creationist comments on creationist pages.”

            And I’m sure Price doesn’t leave pro-racist comments on sites like that.

          • SocraticGadfly

            How are you sure? Did you go looking yourself? As for me, the fact he was a member of such a site was enough.

            You can just keep digging your “apologist” trench further, or you can open your eyes more. Your choice.

          • Herro

            >How are you sure?

            Because I know that he isn’t a racist.

            >Did you go looking yourself?

            Tried looking for it but couldn’t find it.

            > As for me, the fact he was a member of such a site was enough.

            That’s not a fact.

            >…or you can open your eyes more. Your choice.

            Open my eyes to what?

          • SocraticGadfly

            Also, he “likes” HUCKABEE on his Facebook page. VERY strange for an atheist.

            https://www.facebook.com/robert.m.price.77?fref=ts

            So, put your claims about my fallible memory in a pipe and smoke it.

      • SocraticGadfly

        He “likes” HUCKABEE on his Facebook page. VERY strange for an atheist.

        • Gakusei Don

          Dr Price explains why he likes Huckabee in his article “Atheists for Huckabee”. Though Price dislikes many things about Huckabee, he lists some of the things he does like, including Huckabee’s stance against the science of climate change. From here: http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/zblog/?p=41618

          “Huckabee would shelve Global Warming fears, which is certainly okay with me, since I strongly suspect the whole thing is yet another Progressivist scheme to control, i.e., screw up, the economy.”

          • SocraticGadfly

            In other words, he’s full-on Tea Party. This doesn’t prove that he’s also a quasi-racist, but it makes it more likely, per the Bayesian probability that Carrier so loves.

          • Neko

            I’ve been thinking about this and realize I shouldn’t have been surprised about Price. It’s a truism that the atheist-mythicist cult is essentially conservative and ideologically-driven. It’s also given to machismo, misogyny and intolerance.

            Demagogues like Trump and Carson thrive on the politics of resentment. Having again been spending time in the oppressive environs of anti-religion mythers I’m reminded of the sheer resentment and bloodlust coursing through the rhetoric. They will not be satisfied until they’ve crucified Jesus all over again.

          • Herro

            >”It’s a truism that the atheist-mythicist cult is essentially conservative and ideologically-driven. It’s also given to machismo, misogyny and intolerance.”

            How is that a truism? :S

          • Neko

            In the sense that it’s often noted.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Having again been spending time in the oppressive environs of anti-religion mythers I’m reminded of the sheer resentment and bloodlust coursing through the rhetoric. They will not be satisfied until they’ve crucified Jesus all over again.

            Well said.

          • Neko

            Thank you.

          • Herro

            >”In other words, he’s full-on Tea Party. This doesn’t prove that he’s also a quasi-racist, but it makes it more likely, per the Bayesian probability that Carrier so loves.”

            This is just idiotic. Robert Price is no racist. Here is a quote I found after a minute on google:

            “We categorically reject racism and embrace the wonderful, glittering diversity of the human race in all its variations. I know I do. I always have.” (http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/zblog/?p=44)

          • SocraticGadfly

            Try reading that whole piece. Right after that, Price jumps immediately into Islamophobia, for starters. Yes, Islam’s not a race, but, in part over that, he keeps worrying that people think he’s racist.

            But, even before he gets to that point, he never says all races are equal …. just that they have “diversity.”

            And, so, it’s not just over Islamophobia, that has him have to continue to deny he’s a racist:

            https://www.facebook.com/robert.m.price.77/posts/10152963724872331

            Nice try. Price works to be careful in his language, but leave just enough dogwhistles on this and other issues. And, he was this way long before he became an atheist.

          • Herro

            >”But, even before he gets to that point, he never says all races are equal …. just that they have “diversity.”

            So I have to find a quote of him saying specifically “all races are equal” to convince you that he isn’t a racist?

          • SocraticGadfly

            No, you have to find a quote like that to convince a lot of people he’s not a racist, not just me. Per that Facebook link I posted, isn’t it clear that I’m far from alone?

            I guess not, not to you.

          • John MacDonald

            Price isn’t a racist. He’s good friends with Dr. Hector Avalos, for example.

          • Neko

            I just read this and am aghast. A mythicist AND climate-change denialist all in one! Yes, it’s all a liberal conspiracy, Doctor. Absolutely.

          • jjramsey

            Looks like Robert Price has a case of crank magnetism.

          • Gakusei Don

            Dr Price comes across as a bit of a contrarian, with aspirations of graduating to becoming an old fashioned curmudgeon. It’s a career path I wouldn’t mind for myself. I can’t comment on his Global Warming skepticism despite him not being a GW scientist, but I am aghast at his support of Acharya S.

          • Neko

            You are too even-handed to aspire to a curmudgeonly career. Trust me on this.

      • SocraticGadfly

        He was a wingnut on all sorts of issues even before he became an atheist. From when he was still a Baptist minister: http://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/01/004-the-bible-corrected

        • Neko

          I rarely read First Things but thought they were above publishing cheap liberal-bashing. Guess not.

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    Coyne would be “heartened” if 40% of the British public were mythicists, as long as their opinions were not based on ignorance. Presumably, Coyne is satisfied with the level of “knowledge” displayed by those commenting on his blog.

    • John MacDonald

      It’s massively uninteresting to poll the masses as to whether Jesus existed or not, because they are not familiar enough with the evidence on either side of the historicity debate to make a judgement either way.

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        Agreed.

  • The Eh’theist

    I’m not sure how solid the questions were, as there were others about Jesus in the results that got nowhere near 40% for the options that would have appealed to mythicists. I think some may simply have been trying to indicate belief that some of the stories about Jesus were mythical, or that the idea of Jesus as God was a myth.

    As for the BBC comment, I think it may have been attributing similar motives to the BBC as some of the American media when reporting on faith issues such as having a pastor “explain” the Kim Davis situation rather than constitutional scholars or experts on the history of religious freedom.

    I think many of the statements by Archbishops of Canterbury over the last decades have shifted expectations for believers in the UK, such that most are comfortable believing while understanding the Bible to have developed in a more natural manner. Without a benchmark of the typical understanding of such things among “the common people” misunderstandings can occur from outside the culture, and it’s likely what has happened here.

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    The Ascension of Isaiah is a crucial text for Carrier’s argument. It is not so much that this text provides particularly strong evidence for Carrier’s theory as that it supposedly makes his theory initially plausible. If you took away the Ascension of Isaiah, there would really be no reason to even consider Carrier’s theory as a possibility.

    The AoI is similar to various stories that were written around the same time, about biblical figures who are taken up to heaven and receive some sort of revelation. A good example is 2 Enoch. In this account, Enoch is taken up through different levels of the heavens until he reaches the highest level. One significant aspect of the story is that when Enoch reaches the highest level, he is transformed so that he shines with the brightness of the angels.

    In the AoI, Isaiah is taken up through various levels of the heavens. When he reaches the highest level, he is transformed so that he resembles the angels. Furthermore, he meets Enoch at the highest level.

    The revelation that Isaiah receives is that Christ will descend through the layers of the heavens. As Christ descends, he undergoes a transformation which is the opposite of what Isaiah and Enoch experience. Christ loses his radiance as he travels to the lower levels.

    It is quite clear how the idea of Christ’s descent originated. Contrary to Carrier’s claim that it was modelled on the descent of Inanna, the journey is just the reverse of the journeys undertaken by Isaiah and Enoch. The author of the AoI is simply playing with a literary motif that became popular at the end of the first century.

    It looks as if Carrier has based his entire theory on a piece of evidence that has more or less arisen by accident.

  • Lo!

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/reasonadvocates/2015/11/03/jesus-never-existed/

    Is it different when it’s the same website you’re posting for?

    • I wasn’t even aware of that blog. Patheos hosts a great many, as I am sure you are aware. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

      It provides a great illustration of the point. Someone who doesn’t know how to spell Israel nonetheless is happy to repeat internet bunk about which ancient authors supposedly ought to have mentioned Jesus, yet don’t.

      The list is old news, and has been shown to include people who lived before Jesus’ time. But if I had been aware of the post, I would happily have included it as another example of the kind of nonsense that people who claim to be freethinkers nonetheless gullibly embrace.

      • Come on, James. Don’t misspell a word immediately after correcting someone’s spelling! 🙂

        Good points, anyway.

      • jjramsey

        It gets better. He links to pseudohistorical claptrap about solar mythology and cites approvingly Robert Price’s “interesting theory that Josephus might be the same person as Joseph of Arimathea.”

        • Neko

          Also, the “Charles Manson is like Jesus” angle is a new highlight of fundie atheist fervor.

  • Merari

    Name one person who met Jesus, wrote about it and is mentioned outside of the bible.

    • What relevance does “the Bible” have, seeing as it is a compilation in which first-century writings were included after the fact? Surely the relevant point is that Saul of Tarsus had met Jesus’ brother, and that normally that kind of attestation is sufficient to render the historicity of an individual probable?

      • Merari

        The bible is the claim and it may not be used as evidence of itself.

        You’re being deliberately dishonest when you call the bible a compilation of writings. While trivially true, you know full well that the bible has been edited multiple times in order to have all the books within it conform to each other.

        It has been edited as a whole, in order to have it state a single message.

        Any origin it may have had as a collection of books has been lost.

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          The Bible is evidence of whatever it was that motivated its authors to write it. I assume that you don’t dispute that. If you reject the conventional theory that explains what that motivation was, then all you have to do is to propose an alternative theory. I would be interested to hear what your theory is.

          Do you think, for example, that Jesus was originally considered to be a celestial being who had never lived on Earth?

          • Merari

            Same as with all religion. A desire for money, power and sex.

            We see very clearly with modern day religions like Scientology and Mormonism and a myriad of other modern cults and movements on all major continents that they always, always start as a scam.

            Personally, I am agnostic as to the existence of Jesus. I don’t know if he did or did not exist. There is no evidence he existed, there will after all this time likely never be any evidence, so the answer is probably unknowable.

          • So you would agree then that, since Plato held (and Socrates purportedly held) views about religious matters, we should doubt Plato as evidence that there was a hstorical Socrates? Or is it only about Christianity that you have such qualms? Even in the case of Mormonism and Scientology, you have yet to deny the existence of Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. Why is that?

          • Merari

            Thou shalt not use a red herring argument.

            Since your entire schtick is being deliberately intellectually dishonest, I refuse to discuss this matter any further with you.

            I hope you have a good day.

          • Young-earth creationists dismiss mainstream scientists as intellectually dishonest. Do you genuinely not see the problem with treating a whole field of scholarship as “schtick”?

          • Jim Jones

            If neither Plato not Socrates ever existed, exactly how would the world be different?

            As for Joseph Smith & L. Ron Hubbard, you make my point. Paul was just another lying con man who invented a religion for money, power and ego gratification. With a few twists of fate, you’d be just as convinced that Glycon the snake god was the true ruler of the galaxy and Alexander was his prophet, and that the Jewish magician was a myth and his promoter, Paul, a liar.

            All you need to dispute this is evidence. Got any?

          • Umm, your view is that Paul invented a religion without adherents to it knowing he had done so, then persecuted the adherents, then converted to the religion he had invented or at least pretended to do so?

            Seems far less likely than what professional historians and scholars conclude, not to mention being unnecessarily complex.

          • Jim Jones

            So, you brought up Joseph Smith & L. Ron Hubbard and now you claim that the LDS and Scientology don’t exist? Because professional historians and scholars conclude that would be “unnecessarily complex”.

          • Mark

            The meme that Paul ‘invented’ a ‘religion’ is completely unscientific, you should just drop it. He followed a particular messianic claimant same as Lubavtichers do now.

            There are no ‘new religions’ anywhere in sight, just old religion; the temple is still fragrant with roasted lamb and Paul appears to be following its calendar.

            ‘Recognizing’ a messiah is in no case any kind of conceptual change; it’s doing what messianic tradition tells you to do.

            Of course, given an actual messiah, some innovation will be needed to make sense of the concrete facts, which can be spectacular — e.g. Jesus’ crucifixion, Sabbatai’s blasphemous outbursts and conversion to Islam, Menachem Schneerson’s death in bed.

            It is reasonable to say a new religion did came to be, and that Paul had something to do with this, but the Roman destruction of the temple had still more to do with this, as did the passage of time without messianic arrival. –Paul expects Jesus’s arrival within weeks, he doesn’t have time to make a religion – which would involve e.g. ideas of religious upbringing; that his believers might e.g. have children is barely on his radar screen.

          • Jim Jones

            Before Paul, something. Some stories, some messianic wishing, some name (The Way perhaps?) probably all rather contradictory. After Paul, a much stronger belief but still of a nonphysical savior.

            Compare that with Alexander and his Glycon.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            A non-physical saviour? So you appear to be endorsing Carrier’s theory. Does this mean that you regard Rom. 1:3 as a reference to a “cosmic sperm bank”?

          • Jim Jones

            Any evidence that this is not a forgery?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            So you’re not into cosmic sperm banks? The fact that your theory requires Rom. 1:3 to be an interpolation is duly noted.

          • Chris Mosser

            // Even in the case of Mormonism and Scientology, you have yet to deny the existence of Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. Why is that? //

            Personally speaking, it’s because it’s a bad analogy. Mormonism isn’t a religion ABOUT Joseph Smith, it’s a religion he started. That doesn’t really appear to be the case with Christianity.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Normally, the claim that there is no evidence for Jesus would be too fatuous to be worth addressing. However, Jerry Coyne – who should know better – has said more or less the same thing; so perhaps it does warrant a response.

            The first Gospel was written about forty years after the time when Jesus lived. This Gospel was the product of a movement which seems to have originated at just the time when Jesus apparently lived. The Gospel can be explained either in terms of continuity with this movement or in terms of discontinuity. To assume continuity is not to assume that everything in the Gospel is true; rather, it is to assume that the Jesus of the Gospel account is not a completely different kind of entity from the one on whom the movement had been centred during the intervening period. In other words, the original Jesus could not have been regarded as an entity that had only ever existed in the heavens.

            In my opinion, the burden of proof rests entirely on those who argue for radical discontinuity. Unless you can meet that burden of proof in your attempt to explain the Gospels, they will continue to stand as evidence for a historical Jesus.

          • Merari

            Luckily I never said Jesus did not exist, I said I am agnostic on the matter.

            Your argument is incredibly weak. It is rather like asserting that Indians are descendants of Jesus just because the convicted con-man Jospeh Smith “read golden tablets out of a hat”.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Consider the following scenario: for 40 years everyone thinks that Jesus is a celestial being who never lived on Earth. Then, rather suddenly, everyone starts believing that Jesus was a man who existed within living memory. My argument is that this scenario is implausible and anyone claiming that it happened bears the burden of proof. Is this the same argument that you found “incredibly weak”?

          • I agree that a sudden shift in belief is implausible. However, I cannot rule out the possibility of competing views that coexisted for a period of decades before one prevailed.

          • John MacDonald

            If that is the case, then why didn’t Jesus mythicists survive as a heresy?

          • John MacDonald

            And why were the early opponents of Christianity unaware of the tradition that Jesus was originally a myth, as this could have been an attack point for them?

          • I don’t think we have enough information to determine what traditions the early opponents of Christianity might have been aware of and what they might have used to attack Christianity.

          • John MacDonald

            That could have been a funny criticism of early Christianity, though: “You silly Christians can’t even agree on whether Jesus was on earth or not!” The Christ Myth theory isn’t even mentioned historically until the late 18th-century France, in the works of Constantin Francois Chasseboeuf de Volney and Charles-Francois Dupuis. If it was a real thing, it’s odd there would be no mention of it until the 18th century.

          • During much of that period, mentioning such a theory might have been very bad for one’s health.

          • John MacDonald

            That’s true.

          • But not in the earliest centuries, and during that time there were movements which illustrate the deep discomfort many had with a now-divine Jesus having dwelt in human flesh in the human realm. And yet somehow none of these docetists remembered that a few decades earlier the entire religion supposedly didn’t think Jesus had been on Earth at all, and that the problem could be avoided simply by returning to that earlier stance?

            It doesn’t seem likely to me. Especially when we see that earlier options that we know existed, such as adoptionism, persisted into later times and continued to be attractive to some, and were not ignored but deliberately rejected by the others.

          • Maybe that ship had already sailed.

            If some sort of mythicist scenario is true, then the Jesus who died on earth supplanted the celestial Jesus because he sold better. Preachers of the earthly won more followers than preachers of the celestial Jesus because the earthly Jesus was more appealing. There wouldn’t have been any going back.

          • Neko

            Since mythicists argue that Paul’s Christ was celestial, and Paul “sold” well enough to have defined the religion still practiced today, your argument is a bit of a stretch.

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t think preachers choose their message based on what sells the best, but rather on what they believe in.

          • I think that many preachers (as well as many other people) have the capacity to convince themselves that what sells is what they really believe. For example, I am skeptical that either Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel became Christians after objectively investigating the evidence in the way that they claim they did. However, I don’t doubt that they both believe that’s what happened.

            I suspect that the development of beliefs in early Christianity was very much an evolutionary process. Small mutations occurred every time the message was shared and stories were told, and those mutations that were useful in propagating the faith survived and those that were not dropped out.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Vinny, I am gratified when others use my metaphors, but this one probably isn’t very useful for a saltationist.

          • John MacDonald

            Strobel did seem to end up appealing to some of the most conservative authorities possible!

          • Mark

            This level of accumulation of ‘Maybe …’s is what we call wishful thinking.

          • John MacDonald

            That makes sense. You made my argument much better than I did – lol

          • John MacDonald

            Another point you could have made is that minimalists didn’t deny the existence of Moses until relatively late.

          • Mark

            Neither position would be more dangerous to one’s health than the other in the first and second century.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            As John has pointed out, a long transition would bring its own problems. For one thing, the “original” belief about Jesus would surely have been very agreeable to the Gnostics. It is very surprising that it wasn’t preserved, along with the other Gnostic heresies that endured for centuries.

            Furthermore, if the historicist Christians were in the habit of destroying all evidence of the original belief, as Carrier has argued, it is surprising that they preserved the letters of Paul. They idea that they preserved the letters but carefully edited out the offending passages – another Carrier suggestion – is highly implausible.

          • Wasn’t Marcion accused of editing Paul’s letters to get them to say what he wanted them to say? Why should it be highly implausible that others did so well?

            I don’t know whether anyone was in the habit of destroying evidence of disfavored beliefs, but I think we can be confident that such evidence was often not preserved.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            The issue is whether Paul was known to have believed something that was completely at odds with “orthodoxy”. If there was a period when historicist Christians and “celestial” Christians co-existed, then Paul would presumably have been cited as an authority by the celestial Christians. Or perhaps it wasn’t known which side Paul was on. In that case, Carrier seems to know something that was no longer understood just a few decades after Paul was writing.

            Be that as it may, the longer the historicist and celestial Christians co-existed, the more surprising it is that we have no surviving evidence of the original belief.

          • As I understand it, the evidence trail for Paul begins around the time of Marcion. How we could determine that he was or wasn’t known in any particular way a century earlier?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            It would surely be surprising for the winning party – the historicists – to preserve the writings of the enemy – i.e., Paul. In reality, it isn’t surprising, because the “threat” posed by Paul’s letters exists only in Carrier’s imagination. This is, after all, a purely hypothetical scenario.

            I think that my point still stands: we are entitled to assume a continuity of belief between the originators of the movement and those who wrote and circulated the Gospels. It is quite easy to turn a minimally historical Jesus into the Gospel Jesus. All you have to do is add one story at a time to a developing tradition. On the other hand, you can’t gradually change a purely celestial being into a historical figure; it has to be done suddenly.

          • Why would it be surprising? If the winners couldn’t erase all record of the losers, the best course would surely be to co-opt their traditions. The Romans did that with the gods of the peoples that they conquered. The Catholic Church absorbed pagan traditions and holidays.

            You are of course free to assume whatever you like, and I can see how it makes your life easier. On the other hand, I cannot see how you are entitled or justified by anything other than wishful thinking.

            I think it more prudent to simply acknowledge that our sources are too problematic to answer all the questions that we have rather than to make absurd claims to certainly about things we cannot know..

          • Mark

            The existing sources are quite adequate to show that we have to do with a standard, almost unrelentingly orthodox or ‘normal’ Jewish messianic movement, and to show that postures of philosophical doubt that selectively seize at any and every straw pertaining to this one single topic are pure Jesus detox neurosis that can only resolve itself by the sufferer’s finally giving up and returning to the church.

          • Neko

            Ha ha that is funny!

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            If the winners couldn’t erase all record of the losers

            According to Carrier, the winners had a remarkable power to erase evidence. An awful lot of it has gone missing. This makes it all the more surprising that enough evidence has slipped through the net to show with 99.992% certainty that Jesus was not a historical figure.

            In reality, of course, there is not a scrap of evidence to show that anyone believed in a heavenly crucifixion. You may be able to conjure up all sorts of scenarios in your imagination which you are then unable to rule out, but a freedom from this affliction should not be mistaken for wishful thinking.

          • I am not persuaded by the affirmative case for mythicism either, but I can see that the case for historicity is hindered by the sparsity of evidence as well. That is why you are forced to rely on an absurd assumption of continuity in belief when what little evidence there is points to diversity and evolution.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume continuity when there is a lack of evidence for discontinuity. But let’s be clear that continuity allows plenty of scope for change. Consider evolution. A creationist will baulk at the apparent discontinuity between a land-living mammal and a whale, while disregarding that in the sequence connecting the two, each step is barely distinguishable from the one preceding or following. And once you are thinking in those terms, you will no doubt consider the miraculous creation of a whale to be no more implausible than the transformation of a land-living mammal into a whale.

            This reminds me of an argument concerning the Gospels. Supposedly, the discontinuity between the Gospel Jesus and any actual figure on whom he might be based is so great that one would be equally justified in postulating a jump from a celestial Jesus to a historicised Jesus.

          • I think we can infer continuity if expected evidence of discontinuity is lacking, but I don’t think the mere lack justifies any assumptions. However, I don’t see any lack of such evidence. There are discontinuities between John and the Synoptics, among the Synoptics, between the gospels and epistles, and among the epistles. Paul’s letters make it clear that there were competing claims within the movement as well as with outsiders. Everything I see suggests that beliefs were in flux from the beginning.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I think you will find that the assumption of continuity is quite indispensable. The sun that rises in the morning is assumed to be the same sun that set yesterday. Occasionally, the assumption of continuity can lead us astray. Imagine that you are being questioned by a market researcher and two people carrying a large board walk between you and the researcher. If the original researcher was replaced by someone else while that was happening, would you notice once the people carrying the board had passed out of the way? In fact, this experiment has been carried out, and very often people don’t notice.

            It is entirely reasonable to assume that there is some continuity between the Gospel Jesus and the original Jesus. That doesn’t mean that the assumption couldn’t be overturned by evidence, but it would certainly require evidence to overturn it. The differences between the Gospel accounts may justify the assumption that none of those accounts are particularly representative of the original Jesus, but I see no justification for the claim that the original Jesus was not a human being.

          • That the sun that rises in the morning is the same one that set the night before is not an assumption. It is a conclusion based on a great deal of evidence. There is lots of evidence of discontinuity when it comes to the gospels and none whatsoever when it comes to the sun.

            If your point is that the sun might only have the appearance of continuity, I will be happy to concede that I cannot prove that I am not living in the Matrix where everything I perceive is a computer generated illusion. Even then, I don’t need to assume continuity; the appearance of continuity is sufficient for all my purposes and I can ignore the Matrix hypothesis on the basis of Occam’s Razor.

            Although I think it perfectly plausible that some part of the gospel Jesus corresponds to a historic person, I can’t see how it is reasonable to assume it given how much of the tradition is consistent with invention and borrowing.

            I may not be persuaded by claims that no historical Jesus existed, but I don’t find them any sillier than claims of certainty about things that the historical Jesus said and did. Moreover, I find it hard to take seriously people who make the latter claims when they criticize people who make the former claim.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            You have missed my point. The assumption of continuity was a guiding principle before humans ever existed. The continuity of the world is not just something that has been demonstrated by scientific investigation; it has been a crucial factor in the evolution of all living creatures. The cat assumes – or behaves as if it assumes – the continuity of the world when it still pursues a mouse that has disappeared behind a sofa. To put it simply, assuming that there is continuity works.

            Now, it could be that the assumption of continuity is wrong in any particular instance. It might be the case that a brother isn’t really a brother, or that sperm came from a cosmic sperm bank rather than the usual channel. Those who wish to speculate that things are not as they seem are free to do so.

          • Yes. The cat pursues the mouse, but it also pursues the string and the laser pointer. I suppose we can describe it as an assumption of continuity, but I cannot see why we wouldn’t call it a useful adaptation rather than a guiding principle.

            I think that the assumption of continuity is at best a useful working hypothesis. If it can be verified with evidence, great. Then you have got a conclusion that can carry some weight. If not, then it is simply speculation. Elevating it to a guiding principle is only going to fool you into thinking that you know things that you don’t really know.

            Moreover, in the case of the Jesus of the gospels, we have more than adequate reason to question whether any such assumption is warranted.

          • Mark

            According to Lieu, Marcion, ch 9, there is surprisingly little detailed accusation of interpolation or cropping in Marcion’s Apostolikon that cannot be attributed to ordinary textual variation. Irenaeus and Tertullian of course complain that he is missing all the bogus letters and is thus ‘mutilating’ the Apostle etc etc. as usual. Intuitively, by the way, it is much easier to float a new bogus letter than to interpolate into an old one, since no other copies exist of the new one.

            It is certainly true that the topic is torture because all the evidence is subject to a peculiar selection. Even our possession of the text of Josephus is basically an ecclesiastical decision.

          • Mark

            Can you ‘rule out’ the possibility that the universe began ten minutes ago?

          • Go fish.

          • Merari

            I have never discussed anything of the sort.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            The reason why I mentioned that scenario is that the person proposing it claims it is the only viable alternative to a historical Jesus. In other words, if you reject this scenario, then you must concede that Jesus existed.

          • Merari

            I have to do no such thing.

            Thou shalt not provide a false dichotomy.

            Once more, I am agnostic as to the existence of Jesus, I don’t think the question is answerable and that’s a perfect;y sane position to have.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            It’s not my dichotomy. Richard Carrier thinks that his myth theory is the only viable one and that the failure of his theory would entail the existence of a historical Jesus. What do you think of Carrier’s theory, incidentally?

          • Merari

            I don’t have accept what Richard thinks about anything.

          • Neko

            Duh. You’re a parody troll.

            Google told me the Hebrew word Merari “means sad, bitter or strong.”

            Close enough to “sullen, rude and low information” for me. Heckuva job, Merari!

          • Merari

            Since you’ve now resorted to ad homs in lieu of an actual argument, this conversation is over.

            I accept your admissal of defeat.

          • Neko

            How many times has this conversation been over? That you’re for real stretches credulity.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            You don’t have to accept his theory but you do have to offer an alternative. So far you haven’t done that. I don’t consider your assertion that the early Christians were motivated by the desire for power, money and sex to be adequate grounds for doubting the existence of Jesus.

          • John MacDonald

            It’s interesting that a cult that was born out of a drive for power, money, and sex, created a religion of meekness, poverty, and abstinence. lol

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            That’s a very good point, John. I shall have to mention that to Merari if he responds. I don’t know whether he will, though. He seems to take offence easily.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not sure why people get so offended while blogging. It’s just an opportunity to share ideas and debate a little.

          • Merari

            And the alternative I have offered is that there is not enough evidence to make a conclusion either way, which is why I am agnostic on the issue.

            If we look at modern day religions and cults we see that all of them, 100%, started as scams. There is no reason to assume this was different in the past.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            There is a fatal flaw in your argument. You claim that the early Christians were motivated by the desire for power, money and sex, but as John has pointed out, their religion was one of meekness, poverty and chastity.

            But even if one were to suppose that their motives were questionable, it would still be necessary to show how that entails the non-existence of Jesus. Suppose that the followers of Jesus deliberately invented the idea of his resurrection – I don’t believe that, of course, but let’s consider it as a possibility. Their claims to have seen the risen Jesus would be unverifiable – and according to the scenario, fraudulent – but there would still have been an actual person who was said to have returned from the dead.

            That is one scenario. So far you haven’t offered anything. You need to do better.

          • I think that you may be confused about the meaning of “agnostic.”

          • Merari

            Christians have always been the ones who were persecuting, murdering and opressing. It has never been any other way.

            Quit it with the non-existence already. One more time of deliberately misrepresenting my argument and this conversation is over.

          • Neko

            You wrote:

            Christians have always been the ones who were persecuting, murdering and opressing. It has never been any other way.

            More evidence that you’re a parody troll.

          • I am starting to think you are a troll. Could anyone really be this ignorant about the history of Christianity? And the whole “ending the conversation” only to comment again? Classic troll.

            What would it take to get you to learn at least a few basics about the religious tradition you hate so much? I have no objection if you dislike it, any more than if you dislike anything else. But what you have posted is the equivalent of disliking Obama because he is a Kenyan-born Muslim coming to take your guns.

          • John MacDonald

            “But what you have posted is the equivalent of disliking Obama because he is a Kenyan-born Muslim coming to take your guns” – You probably weren’t trying to be funny, but that was pretty funny lol

          • Oh, I was indeed trying. 🙂

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Let me have a go at stating your argument. The fact (if it is a fact) that all religions start with a scam raises a sufficient level of doubt for us to be unable to determine one way or another whether Jesus existed.

            This is a very poor argument. Firstly, we have a reference class problem with a vengeance. What do you mean by religion? A completely new religion? A breakaway movement? A cult? Are you referring to all religions throughout history, or modern American cults?

            Secondly, there are still facts that need to be explained. You may include fraud as a factor in your explanation, but you still have to provide an explanation. Declaring that something is fraudulent is not the same as explaining it.

          • Merari

            No, these things are not related.

            All religions start as a scam and there is no evidence Jesus existed. Both of these. At the same time.

          • John MacDonald

            “All religions start as a scam” – There are no such things as miracles or magic, so yes, there is an argument to be made that people are being, and always have been, duped by phony sleight of hand. As Seneca said, “religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.” I think too though that religion is often “evidence-less” wishful thinking (God cares what I do; there is an afterlife; etc.). The bottom line is that people are, and always have been, gullible and superstitious.

          • John MacDonald

            No. Moses really did go up a mountain and receive the ten commandments on stone tablets from God! Really! Would I lie? I’ll give you a Twix chocolate bar if you believe me!

          • Mark

            Why would you think there is no evidence Jesus existed? Doesn’t Paul think Jesus existed?

          • Merari

            One may not use the bible to prove the bible, that is circular reasoning.

          • Jim

            Yeah I agree with you … and physicists shouldn’t be allowed to predict the Higgs boson because … well … they are physicists and are biased towards applying particle physics mathmatics.

          • Merari

            Today I learned you don’t know what the scientific method is.

          • Jim

            Great that you picked out that my comment does not represent the scientific approach very well. Now if you can next link my misconception of the scientific method linearly to your misconception of how NT historians carry out their work, then you will have learned a second thing today.

          • Mark

            What do the authentic letters of Paul, which are Jewish documents from the middle of the first century, have to do with “the Bible” canonized by Christian ecclesiatics a few centuries later?

          • Merari

            Well, for one they are one and the same. There are letters of Paul outside of the New Testament? That is news to me.

          • Mark

            The later inclusion of Romans, Galatians etc. in the NT has no more to do with the letters themselves than the inclusion of the book of Daniel in the larger so-called Christian Bible does. Paul’s letters are no more usefully characterized as ‘Christian’, when attempting to understand them historically, than the book of Daniel or Enoch or Genesis for that matter. Later, developed ecclesiastical Christianity used the letters of Paul, same as it used the book of Daniel.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            The Bible is reliable. How do we know that? It tells us about the life of Jesus. How do we know that there *was* a life of Jesus? The Bible tells us.

            I don’t remember anyone making that argument. And you have failed to explain why the documents that were eventually brought together to form the Bible should not be regarded as evidence.

          • jjramsey

            Also, it seems that Merari’s line of argument from modern day religions and cults being 100% scams can backfire badly. A scam religion implies that someone is doing the scamming. For Mormonism, the scammer would be Joseph Smith, who existed. For Scientology, the scammer would be L. Ron Hubbard, who existed. For Christianity, the scammer would be Jesus of Nazareth, and if he is presumed sufficiently similar to the former two scammers, wouldn’t the implication be that he existed as well. Not really what Merari was aiming at, is it?

            🙂

          • No evidence provided for the claim about the present. No awareness that historical and cultural differences regularly provide good reason for thinking that things were indeed different in the past.

          • John MacDonald

            There are things that raise suspicion. Joseph Smith never found any golden plates, and people who aren’t Muslim find it completely dubious that Muhammad ascended into heaven. 2000 years ago Christianity could have been a power play. Seneca said religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers. And there is a historical analogy for this: Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek) is a Graeco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. It certainly seems suspicious that the disciples were around for the sheer number of miracles that Jesus supposedly did, since they would have been close enough to him to know he couldn’t perform miracles (since there are no such thing as a miracle). That said, a skeptic could just as easily argue that the people of that time were very gullible and superstitious, so Christianity was successful for that reason. For instance, Herodotus records miracles in his historical works, but no one thinks Herodotus was trying to deceive anyone.

          • John MacDonald

            I’ve always been curious about what religious people think atheists are supposed to make of Jesus. You’ve got a worldview where there are no such things as miracles (atheist), combined with a story of a guy followed around by a bunch of disciples doing a massive amount of miracles. Would it not be the most natural understanding for the atheist to conclude that Jesus was just another charlatan faith healer surrounded by an entourage who new the miracles and magic were fake?

        • Neko

          You wrote:

          While trivially true, you know full well that the bible has been edited multiple times in order to have all the books within it conform to each other.

          You think the all the books of the Bible conform to each other? Read it sometime.

          • Merari

            It says something about the hop-scotch of myths bundled in the bible that even centuries of editing and revision could not iron out all the inconsistencies.

            There are thousands of ’em.

            Luckily this does not affect my argument in any way. It’s still a book which has been edited and revised as a whole, thereby destroying any semblance it may once have had as a collection of books.

          • Neko

            Look here, “Merari,” you can’t have it both ways. The Bible’s status as a “collection of books” is artificial, and the texts do not “conform.” In fact one of the perennial complaints of internet mythicists is that the gospels are “contradictory.” So your argument is that the facilitators of the canon tried ever so hard to redact for consistency but that they were really bad at it? You’ll forgive me for finding this theory unpersuasive.

          • Merari

            I can have it any way I please.

            To pretend that the bible is a collection of books each with their own voice is trivially correct but in reality deliberately misleading, since it has been edited and altered to fit a single narrative.

            If you’re not going to accept this exceedingly easily verifiable historical fact then we really have nothing to discuss. I refuse to engage the deliberately dishonest.

          • Neko

            No, I don’t accept your simplistic premise, and if you take your ball and go home, boo hoo.

          • Merari

            That’s perfectly fine, it’s your perogative to be as dishonest as you please.

            And it is mine to refuse to engage someone who will not play fair.

          • Neko

            Because I disagree with you I’m not playing fair? I see.

          • Mark

            The text of Hebrew scripture that e.g. Luther translated he got from the rabbis. It is only a “verifiable historical fact” that this text was “edited and altered to make it fit” with e.g. the gospels and other Christian narratives, if it is a “verifiable historical fact” that the mazoretes tuned the text to fit it with the gospels and other Christian narratives.

            No, actually, it didn’t happen. You are letting religious polemic get in the way of the struggle to describe the historical development.

          • Merari

            The bible was first compiled and composed during the council of Nicaea.

            Since you’re being deliberately dishonest, this conversation is over. Have a good day.

          • Neko

            Oh my God! You are wildly misinformed.

          • Mistaking the Da Vinci Code for a history book, I see…

          • Merari

            Being dishonest again, I see. Ad hom this time.

          • You are simply wrong about Nicaea and the Bible. How is it dishonest or ad hominem to point this out?

          • John MacDonald

            “Composed” during the council of Nicaea?

          • Merari

            The first composition of the bible in its current form from the source material was made during the Nicaea council, correct.

          • Incorrect. You complained about my Da Vinci Code reference, but your research skills are clearly no better than Dan Brown’s.

          • Mark

            You think the Christian church has control of the Masoretic text? That would be a new level of conspiracy theorizing. Or maybe your theory is that the NT is a rabbinical plot …

          • Jim Jones

            Indeed.

            Bible contradictions http://bibviz.com – Entire bible or each book.

            Contradictions in the Bible http://contradictionsinthebible.com/

            Contradictions in the Resurrection Account http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2012/04/contradictions-in-the-resurrection-account-2/

            Contradictions in the New Testament http://www.skeptically.org/bible/id2.html

          • Mark

            Are you thinking anyone present here will be surprised by ‘contradictions in scripture’? This is kindergarten material.

      • Jim Jones

        Give Paul’s self admitted mendacity, why do you trust him? If anyone knew Jesus it was Peter. Yet if you search the epistles for information on Jesus conveyed from Peter there is … nothing.

        Further, Paul was (we assume) well able to travel to Jerusalem in Jesus’ time to see and hear him. Why didn’t he?

        • The term Paul uses in Galatians does have connotations of getting information from Peter. And how exactly do you supposedly know that Paul did not see or hear Jesus? Where do you think he was located? But, as someone who opposed the movement, I’m not sure what you think would have attracted him to travel there to hear Jesus, had he lived somewhere else.

          Do you just not know what the relevant sources say, or do you not care?

          • Jim Jones

            Seriously? He knows Jesus is a real boy and still thinks he’s a ghost?

          • What on earth are you talking about? I am starting to get the impression that you are a troll. If you aren’t interested in having a clear, rigorous, scholarly kind of discussion of this topic, you are in the wrong place.

          • Jim Jones

            I’m not the one making preposterous claims with no shred of evidence.

          • Actually, you are, and so I guess this comment answers my question.

            If you at any point wish to stop trolling and engage in serious discussion of this serious academic topic, please let me know. Until then, goodbye.

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          So what if Paul had said, “Peter told me that the Lord disapproved of divorce”? Answer: Peter received that by revelation and then passed it on to Paul.

          There is no point in asking for more evidence which would be explained away as blithely as the existing evidence.

    • jjramsey

      There’s a sneaky cheat in your demand. If you had asked, “Name one person who met Jesus and is mentioned outside of the bible,” then the obvious response would have been James, brother of Jesus. Then the jig would be up, since what mythicists have had to offer against the prima facie evidence that Jesus had a brother named James has been fanciful speculation, tendentious readings of the relevant texts, and so on, that defy parsimony.

      • Jim Jones

        Where’s the evidence for James? And what about Jesus’ twin brother, Judas called Thomas? Isn’t he just as good for your purpose?

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          The evidence for James is that Paul mentions him in his letters. Presumably, you reject this evidence on the grounds that Paul was a “lying con man”. How do you know that Paul was a lying con man? Answer: just look at Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard.

          I must assume that you have an overwhelming and irrational desire to believe that Jesus never existed. This is the only thing that could explain your bizarre comments.

          • Jim Jones

            > How do you know that Paul was a lying con man?

            He says so in what we assume are his letters.

            > I must assume that you have an overwhelming and irrational desire to believe that Jesus never existed.

            I’m astonished to find that he didn’t. I had always assumed he did, however the weight of evidence is clear. The “overwhelming and irrational desire to believe” Is in the minds of his ‘followers’. Most of those also believe that neither the angel Moroni nor Xenu the galactic ruler exist. I admit to an “overwhelming and irrational desire to believe” that they are right in this instance!

            If you want to change my mind, find some evidence.

          • Mark

            Various first and second century sources speak of some ‘Jesus’ guy (1st c. Aramaic “Josh”), call him Christ/Messiah/Anointed, link him with Palestine, and affirm that he was killed by the Roman authorities, the crucifying empire. If you can’t see how these facts lead rational secular people to infer “There must have been some Jewish messianic figure named Josh who ended badly; the enthusiasm seems somewhat to have outlasted his death though…” – not with so-called complete certainty, but as the obvious thing to say – then you have a /really/ serious Jesus detox problem.

          • Jim Jones

            And these “first and second century sources” are where exactly? We have 20th century sources for Harry Potter, the boy wizard. Shall we all goto Scotland?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I am intrigued by the invitation to convince you that Jesus existed. This seems to be the latest mythicist tactic. Having failed to produce a remotely convincing theory of Christian origins, mythicists now simply declare that they are unsatisfied with the evidence for a historical Jesus and are waiting patiently for something better. They are like the many creationists who wait to see convincing evidence of evolution but despair of ever seeing it.

            Given your belief that Christianity began as a very deliberate fraud, it seems that your patience could never be rewarded. If we had a letter from someone who was never part of the early movement but who mentioned in passing that he had met Jesus, this could still easily be dismissed as fraudulent.

          • John MacDonald

            There is nothing new in this. Ehrman in “Did Jesus Exist?” points out that Price says the ball is in the historicist’s court to prove Jesus existed, and Ehrman structures his argument accordingly.

          • Jim Jones

            > “Having failed to produce a remotely convincing theory of Christian origins”

            We don’t need one. There are hundreds. The problem is an embarrassment of riches. It takes almost nothing to start one of these magic stories, and no time. Example: Cassie Bernall – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassie_Bernall

            That took 2 days. The Jesus myth had at least 100 years.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            We don’t need one. There are hundreds.

            Does that mean that you have not just one convincing theory of Christian origins but hundreds? Or does it mean that you don’t need a convincing theory because you have hundreds of (unconvincing) theories?

          • Jim Jones

            Seriously? You can’t come up with even one theory of creation? You don’t see any parallel in, say, John Frum or Ned Ludd . . . or Robin Hood?

          • John MacDonald

            I think it might be fun to try to defend your position. Here’s my attempt:
            Of course Paul was a great liar for the cause. We read:

            1 Corinthians 9:19: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; 22 to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23 Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.”

            And, to solidify his position, Paul told the outrageous lie about the risen Jesus that: “After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time (1 Cor 15:6),” as if that many people hallucinated Jesus at the same time!

            And like a true liar, Paul had to reassure his listeners that he was not lying:

            “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.… (Rom 9:1).”

            “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. (Gal 1:20).”

            As Shakespeare wrote, methinks he doth protest too much!

            To understand Paul as a liar, we need to understand that lying was permitted in the Hebrew religious tradition if it was done in the name of God. Consider this comparison about the permission of lying in the bible:
            http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/lie.html
            As we can see, it is perfectly reasonable to consider Paul a liar!
            So how did I do? lol

  • How do secular historians establish the status of the gospels “when written”? Would the earliest evidence of the purposes to which they were put be relevant?

    • That is relevant, as is the broader historical and cultural context, and the information we have about the developing “Christian” tradition prior to their composition.

  • Jim Jones
  • SocraticGadfly

    In for a penny, in for a pound. I’ve also compared Jesus denialists to Obama birthers: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2015/03/richard-carrier-other-jesus-denialists.html

  • Matthew Green

    James, I fully respect Coyne as a scientist and an educator. However, I am disturbed by his embracing of both mythicism and of his views that science and religious faith are hostile to each other. At least his is how I understand his views. If this understanding is right, I feel regret for him. I am not a mythicist and I don’t feel that science and religion are necessarily in conflict, only certain dogmas and doctrines are in conflict with science. Coyne has evolved into something of an ideologue who is more interested in ridding the world of naturalism’s enemies than he is in promoting good science. He’s gone down a road that Dawkins has gone down. I am wondering if he considers Dawkins something of a has-been with shoes to fill and Coyne thinks he’s just the man to put them on. 🙁

  • John Thomas

    The latest Pew Research report is on atheists.Thought that you might be interested: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/05/7-facts-about-atheists/

  • John MacDonald

    Regarding what we know about the historical Jesus, Paul says the cross was a stumbling block for most Jews, because they expected a messiah would be a military conqueror. But Jesus was never thought of in this way, so when he was identified as a messiah by his followers they must have had something else in mind. Paul, as a Jew, had no problem with a crucified messiah, and accordingly said ”Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3).” The scriptures Paul saw Christ as fulfilling in the passage in 1 Cor 15:3 were most likely Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. For example, in Acts, the conversion of Ethiopian Queen Candace’s eunuch is an example where the original Christians were seeing the messiah through the lens of Isaiah 53. The eunuch “who had charge of all her treasury” was on the road to Jerusalem and was reading the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah (53:7–8), when Philip approaches him saying “Do you understand what you are reading?”. (Acts 8:30). After interpreting the text, Philip convinces the eunuch to declare “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and immediately baptize himself. So there must have been some Jews who interpreted the messiah as suffering and dying, through the lens of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. Because Paul saw Jesus’ death as crucial to his messiahship, Paul saw Jesus’ death as atoning for the sins of the world (1 Cor 15:3), and to be the “firstfruits (1 Cor 15:20)” of the general resurrection. Paul was close to the first Christians who knew Jesus, so maybe his views reflect what the original followers about Jesus also thought about him as well. Maybe the historical Jesus thought that it was his place to suffer and die, to fulfill Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. Maybe the cross was not a stumbling block to the original Jewish followers of Jesus because they did not see him as a military messiah, and that they, and Jesus, believed he was supposed to suffer. Maybe this is why Jesus thought the end of the world was coming, because he thought it would come with his death where he would be the “firstfruits” of the general resurrection. It’s just hard to believe Paul came up with this interpretation all on his own.

    • John MacDonald

      And this goes along with what we see in Mark.

      Likely the clearest Prophecy about Jesus is the entire 53rd chapter
      of Isaiah. Isaiah 53:3-7 is especially unmistakable: “He was despised
      and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like
      one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

      The only thing is, as Spong points out, Isaiah wasn’t making a prophesy about Jesus. Mark was doing an exegetical reading of Isaiah. So, Mark depicts Jesus as one who is despised and rejected, a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. He then describes Jesus as wounded for our
      transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The Servant in Isaiah, like
      Jesus in Mark, is silent before his accusers. In Isaiah it says of the
      servant with his stripes we are healed, which Mark turned into the story
      of the scourging of Jesus. This is, in part, is where atonement
      theology comes from, but it would be silly to say II Isaiah was talking
      about atonement. The servant is numbered among the transgressors in
      Isaiah, so Jesus is crucified between two thieves. The Isaiah servant
      would make his grave with the rich, So Jesus is buried in the tomb of
      Joseph of Arimathea, a person of means.

      Then, as Dr. Robert Price says

      The substructure for the crucifixion in chapter 15 is, as all
      recognize, Psalm 22, from which derive all the major details, including
      the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b), the
      dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Mark 15:24//Psalm
      22:18), the “wagging heads” of the mockers (Mark 15:20//Psalm 22:7), and of course the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you
      forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Psalm 22:1). Matthew adds another quote, “He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now if he desires him” (Matthew
      7:43//Psalm 22:8), as well as a strong allusion (“for he said, ‘I am the
      son of God’” 27:43b) to Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20, which underlies the whole story anyway (Miller, p. 362), “Let us lie in wait for the
      righteous man because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life: for if the righteous man is God’s son he will help him and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture that we may find out how gentle he is and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”

      As for other details, Crossan (p. 198) points out that the darkness
      at noon comes from Amos 8:9, while the vinegar and gall come from Psalm 69:21. It is remarkable that Mark does anything but call attention to the scriptural basis for the crucifixion account. There is nothing said
      of scripture being fulfilled here. It is all simply presented as the
      events of Jesus’ execution. It is we who must ferret out the real
      sources of the story. This is quite different, e.g., in John, where
      explicit scripture citations are given, e.g., for Jesus’ legs not being
      broken to hasten his death (John 19:36), either Exodus 12:10, Numbers
      9:12, or Psalm 34:19-20 (Crossan, p. 168). Whence did Mark derive the
      tearing asunder of the Temple veil, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38)?
      Perhaps from the death of Hector in the Iliad (MacDonald, pp. 144-145).
      Hector dies forsaken by Zeus. The women of Troy watched from afar off
      (as the Galilean women do in Mark 15:40), and the whole of Troy mourned as if their city had already been destroyed “from top to bottom,” just as the ripping of the veil seems to be a portent of Jerusalem’s eventual doom.

      So, it is possible that the original understanding of Jesus was as a
      suffering, dying messiah, and so the cross was never a stumbling block
      to the Jews who originally followed Jesus – even though this is not the
      understanding of “messiah” that most of the Jews of that time had.

      • John MacDonald

        Here are 2 interesting blog posts from Vridar arguing some of the Jews of Jesus’ time may have been expecting a suffering messiah:

        http://www.vridar.org/2015/08/26/suffering-messiah-is-a-very-jewish-idea/

        http://vridar.org/2014/08/02/was-paul-really-persecuted-for-preaching-a-crucified-christ/

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        The crucial question you have to ask about Isaiah 53 is whether it refers to someone who is being abused by demons in outer space.

        • John MacDonald

          I’m pretty sure it doesn’t – lol

      • I disagree on a lot of these points. Isaiah 53 is rarely mentioned in the New Testament, and the only reason you think it is an impressive match to Jesus is because of centuries of Christians claiming that to be the case. But all it actually says is that one person (or perhaps a group personified as an individual) suffers for the sake of others. It fits well the way Christians interpreted the suffering of Jesus, but it does not work as the inspiration for the details about him, since it simply doesn’t match up in that way.

        Your claim, “Jesus was never thought of in this way, so when he was identified as a messiah by his followers they must have had something else in mind. Paul, as a Jew, had no problem with a crucified messiah” is also problematic. How do you know that Jesus was never thought of in this way? What evidence do you have that the Davidic anointed one was expected to do something other than rule, restoring his ancestor’s dynasty to the throne? And why does the fact that Christians dealt with the cognitive dissonance of Jesus’ execution by “finding” it predicted in Scripture lead you to the conclusion that the thing that caused the cognitive dissonance in the first place was “no problem”?

        • John MacDonald

          Then what scriptures do you think Paul is referring to when he says “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURE (1 Cor 15:3)?” I think he is referring to Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22.

          • It is entirely possible that it is either or both of those, but that would require that a narrative be known to him rather like what we find in the Gospel passion accounts, since the connections are not at all obvious. And so it is surprising that people like Spong and yourself accept uncritically the claim that there is a close match between the texts and what Christians asserted/narrated, when in fact it seems to critical scholars that Christians were clutching at straws in an attempt to find ways of explaining what happened to Jesus.

          • John MacDonald

            I think it’s more than possible. Paul says “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3).” The scriptures being referenced here clearly seem to be Isaiah 53. For instance, we read that “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).” It seems this perspective from Isaiah 53 is also reflected elsewhere when Paul writes “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Rom 4:25).” But if you think there is another scripture besides Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 that Paul could be referring to in 1 Cor. 15:3, then please name that scripture.

          • John MacDonald

            Spong’s points out that when Jesus was arrested, all the disciples “left Him and fled (Mark 14:50).” This embarrassing occurrence probably wouldn’t have been recorded if it wasn’t true. So, Jesus probably died alone, and there was no account of his crucifixion written. So, when it came time to come up with an account of the crucifixion, it was done by exegetical analysis of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. I tend to think that instead of this being done after the fact, Jesus just always did interpret himself in light of the Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, and lived his life accordingly.

        • John MacDonald

          I’m not sure why you are always so resistant to the idea that the New Testament writers were sometimes making exegetical use of the Hebrew scriptures to create the New Testament literature. After all, everyone agrees that Matthew presented Jesus as the new Moses. And it is often so obvious. Mark comes right out at the beginning of his gospel and says: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; AS IT IS WRITTEN IN THE PROPHETS.” Mark then immediately INTERPRETS John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wildernes in which Elijah lived. The Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit is a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior. ****** I mean, it’s just so obvious that this exegetical use of the Hebrew scripture is going on. lol

        • Jim

          Thanks for your info on the usage of Isa 53 in the NT. I’m wondering if Paul could have been thinking along the lines of Torah (as the scripture source) re Jesus as a sacrifice, as possibly hinted at in 1 Cor 5:7?

          • John MacDonald

            Seeing Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 behind the crucifixion narrative in Mark is the wave of the future in New Testament scholarship. See for example the table on the top of page 89 of the recently released Jewish Annotated New Testament: https://books.google.ca/books?id=DZRJ5zXUI2QC&pg=PA93&lpg=PA93&dq=the+jewish+annotated+new+testament+gospel+of+mark+crucifixion&source=bl&ots=pWb4my13aI&sig=j2hJGVO_72M7_LXn-2Di4TwZCBU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAWoVChMI2p3v78qEyQIVwlY-Ch2IlwAA#v=onepage&q=the%20jewish%20annotated%20new%20testament%20gospel%20of%20mark%20crucifixion&f=false

          • John MacDonald

            You have to scroll up a few pages to get to the table on page 89.

          • Jim

            Agree that those two OT chapters are likely how the writer of Mark developed his gospel. On the other hand since Paul was a pharisee, he could have come to the conclusion of Jesus as a sacrifice via a different scriptures (Pentateuch). Although I don’t know for sure.

          • Mark

            > Seeing Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 behind the crucifixion narrative in Mark is the wave of the future in New Testament scholarship.

            Or the ‘wave’ of the last 20 centuries.

          • John MacDonald

            And yet Dr. Ehrman and Dr.McGrath reject the idea that Isaiah 53 was used in an exegetical way to create the crucifixion narrative.

          • Mark

            They don’t think the crucifixion itself was made up in order to validate Isaiah 53 or Zechariah 12 or the like. Nothing makes any sense unless a) someone started attracting messianic hopes following the usual raft of opaque prophetic passages – that was something that happened all the time – and then b) the actual messianic candidate was actually crucified by actual Romans – that presumably happened quite a bit – and then c) some (presumably few) of his followers start finding a ‘meaning’ for this in the prophets – that takes special properties in the followers.

            It is pleasing to someone who wants to reject the claims of the church to reject a) or b) but it introduces total chaos into historical cognition. Moreover this is so obvious that anyone who shows signs of doubting a) and b) is certainly in a specifically religious or post-religious trance.

          • John MacDonald

            What are your thoughts on the comments in the bottom of the “Scripture Fulfillment” table on the top of page 89 of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” in the link I posted above?

          • John MacDonald

            I think “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” presents two poles of possibility for interpreting the crucifixion in Mark. The editors say either “(1) actual incidents were being interpreted through scriptural lens, or (2) the events were suggested to the writer through the use of favorite biblical texts (JANT, pg. 89).”

          • I am glad I didn’t rush to reply, because you reached the point I was going to make, namely that in some instances it is plausible to view Scripture as the starting point for the whole story, in others it makes better sense as the lens through which actual historical events are being viewed and interpreted. That is crucial. There is nothing implausible about early Christians, confronted with the crucifixion of the man they were convinced was the Davidic anointed one, turning to Isaiah 53 and using it to make sense of what happened. But imagining them starting with Isaiah 53 and then coming up with a crucified Messiah is less plausible by far.

          • Mark

            The crucifixion itself is not one of the things that the writers are thinking was suggested to Mark by Hebrew scripture. People are only /that/ stupid on the internets.

          • John MacDonald

            Mythicists would probably remind us that Psalm 22 is one of the models for Mark’s crucifixion narrative, including the
            implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b)

          • Mark

            Yes, that’s the point. Mythicism is the induction from a series of judgments

            Surely Mark (Paul, etc.) made up X to validate prophetic passage A
            Surely Mark (Paul, etc.) made up X’ to validate prophetic passage B

            to

            Surely Mark made up the crucifixion to validate prophetic passage Z

            Unfortunately the transition to this proposition deprives us of any explanation of the preceding facts and basically of everything.

          • John MacDonald

            So the answer that what was being done was just the Euhemerizing of a mythical god doesn’t jive with you? lol

          • John MacDonald

            “Intertextuality” as a genre of writing in the New Testament presents an interesting problem. There are two poles of interpretation, with a lot of room in between. On one end, we could argue that in an intertextual narrative like Matthew’s Jesus infancy account the gospel writer started with information about the historical Jesus and then added some material to make it seem like the story about Moses from the Old Testament. On the other end, we could say that the gospel writer simply wanted to rewrite a story from the old Testament and apply it to his times, in which case there is no reason to think there is any reliable information about the historical Jesus at all in the intertextual narrative. And there is a lot of room between these two poles. When we present the problem in this way, it becomes a hard and sophisticated problem to try to determine what part of the intertextual narrative (if any) presents information about the historical Jesus. This is the problem that comes up when the issue of “Intertextuality” is introduced as a New Testament genre. The question is: What criteria or method do we use to determine which part of the “Intertextual” narrative is giving us information about the historical Jesus? Can we assume that any part of the “Intertextual” narrative is representing the historical Jesus? If the intertextual narrative says that Jesus did “such and such,” does this mean the historical Jesus actually did it, or was this characterization of Jesus just the author’s way of rewriting the Old Testament story (and the historical Jesus never did it)? Even if a part of the narrative is actually representing the historical Jesus, how could we know that? This is why “Intertextuality” as a literary genre seems to make reconstructing the historical Jesus more problematic in my eyes. It looks like one big mess.

          • Mark

            The crucifixion isn’t only known to us as part of narratives of the life of Jesus. The earliest extant references are from the authentic letters of Paul, which don’t attempt such a narrative.

          • John MacDonald

            Paul said “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3).” This could either mean that the details and/or event of Christ’s death fulfilled scriptures, or that Paul learned about Christ’s death through an allegorical reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.

          • John MacDonald

            Carrier argues for the second of these 2 options in “On The Historicity Of Jesus.”

          • Mark

            Yes, of course. But he has to impute an unattested Celestial Christ theory to Paul. By contrast, the usual theory just requires that we impute a massively attested 1st c. Jewish messianism to Paul. There is no evidence of any religious rupture in Paul, no sign that he is anything but an ordinary 1st c. Jew, perhaps with training in Jerusalem, as tradition says.

          • Mark

            The table at the top of page 89 is completely standard material. Haven’t you ever seen a reference Bible? Mark wouldn’t be doing his job – explaining how the crucifixion fits with the messiahship of Jesus – if he weren’t padding the text everywhere with prophetic cross-references. But you need a) messianic hopes attached to a real person, who was then b) taken out by the crucifying power, the Roman empire, to explain why Mark is engaged in this particular sort of ransacking of Hebrew scripture.

          • John MacDonald

            So how do you tell the difference between historical events being told through a scriptural lens, and a-historical events being invented to fulfill scripture?

  • Paul E.

    Besides the religious aspect of this discussion, I think there is a very basic lack of understanding about what it is that historians do, and how they go about doing it. Add to that a vague contempt for the soft sciences and you get these kinds of misunderstandings.