Written Thoughts on the Ehrman-Price Debate

Written Thoughts on the Ehrman-Price Debate October 23, 2016

I shared many of my thoughts about the Ehrman-Price debate verbally in the conversation afterwards. But there are more points that I jotted down during the debate and/or thought of afterwards, and so I’ll share them here. Hopefully a video of the debate will eventually become publicly available online at some point.

First, I really do think that Ehrman made some of the key points with particularly impressive precision and succinctness. The point about it not being plausible that “brother” means “fellow Christian” in Galatians when referring to “James the Lord’s brother,” since he is contrasted with Peter, a Christian. The unlikelihood that the early Christians, if they invented a Davidic messiah from scratch, would invent that he was crucified.

One of his opening points – that a figure being conformed to an ideal type has no bearing on their historicity, since we see it happen time and time again to historical figures – is also crucial, and has some interesting aspects that are worth highlighting. First, one can think of other examples. Princess Diana was conformed to the “ordinary girl marries handsome prince” type even though she didn’t fit it, and in fact had more English noble ancestry than Prince Charles. Second, conforming individuals and stories about them to familiar patterns was an aid to memory, and so even though it distorted information in the process, it is not simply bad news to the historian. It is better for information to be preserved through such transformation than for it to be lost.

Although Ehrman’s point about having multiple independent sources was made in a way that reflects the consensus about the Synoptic Problem, it doesn’t depend on it inherently. If Matthew used Mark and Luke used Matthew, and John used any or all of them, we still have independent sources. Among our extant literary sources, Mark and Paul would represent independent witnesses. But because we have good reason to conclude that Matthew did not simply invent all of the teaching of Jesus he adds to Mark’s account from scratch, we would still have a third witness in the form of that oral tradition. Be that as it may, as was highlighted during the debate as well as afterwards, there is material that fits well the religious, geographical, and linguistic context of Jesus. If certain authors show a lack of direct awareness of the time of Jesus, pre-70 religious concerns, and the language he spoke, then that is all the more reason to view details that are precisely accurate – for instance, accurately recording the distinctive way Galileans pronounced certain words – as evidence that the author has access to earlier sources.

Many of the questioners at the end asked “how do we know?” and seemed to think that a lack of absolute certainty is a reason for simply believing nothing, or anything. But that is a standard denialist tactic, one that attracts only lazy thinkers. For everyone else, the hard work of analysis of evidence, and the probabilistic conclusions that result, are or should be the basis for our views of the past.

I was as disappointed as Ehrman that Price’s notion of what it meant to say that Jesus was an ordinary individual reflected not the perspective of modern historians, but the outlook of liberal Protestant clergy from more than a century ago. When Price made reference to Kenneth Copeland and Joseph Smith, however poor the analogy in certain respects, such individuals do illustrate how people who fail to impress those outside their circle of followers nevertheless can achieve a significant following and substantial influence. The choice is not between a Jesus who walked on water and one who strolled by the sea. The historical Jesus is a human individual of a well-documented sort that exists in the world today: the kind of charismatic individual who so impresses certain people that they believe they have encountered the divine through contact with that person and experienced miracles such as healing. There is nothing historically implausible about this at all.

Price was at his strongest when he emphasized that (contrary to Ehrman) scholars do propose that there may have been interpolations and alterations even when we do not have evidence in the extant manuscripts. What I think Ehrman should have said is not that no one ever proposes such things, but that (1) when there is no strong evidence either in the manuscript tradition or in the style and other features of the text, few are persuaded by such proposals, and (2) when a scholar consistently treats all material reflecting a view that they disagree with as later interpolation, it is appropriate to accuse them of special pleading.

It was interesting to hear Price speak appreciatively of the older view (associated with Bultmann, Reitzenstein, Schmithals, and others) that pre-Christian Gnosticism has influenced the New Testament. Ehrman was absolutely right to say that the texts we have were composed later, and that this view has gone out of fashion. Now, as someone who has been working on the Mandaeans, I do think that some aspects of these older views merit being revisited. But even if Mandaean literature preserves some very archaic traditions, there is simply no way to read them as the background to the New Testament, given how much later they came to be in the form in which we now have them, and given that the Mandaean texts themselves suggest that their movement started out in a non-Gnostic form. And so reading Gnosticism as the explanation to everything in the New Testament simply doesn’t work. (For a funny story about the “pan-Gnostic theory” see this earlier post.)

The appeal to much later texts was even more egregious when Price suggested that the story of Jesus’ baptism was borrowed from Zoroastrianism. In his book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man where he makes that claim in more detail, he cites the Dinkard, which is from almost a millennium later than the time of Jesus.

Given that Price is a Trump supporter, his dismissive statements about the academy, saying that the consensus of scholars means nothing to him, reminded me of Trump’s refusal to say that he’d abide by the outcome of the election. Scholars should by all means try to challenge the consensus. But when we can’t persuade our peers, it is not insignificant, and while by all means we may continue to believe that we are right and continue trying to make our case, we should not ever be dismissive of the collective insight of our peers in the academy.

I was also struck by Price’s attempts to characterize the community of academics as strict gatekeepers of something akin to orthodoxy, and himself as a radical and a rebel who won’t play by their rules. In fact (apart from his propensity for publishing in the Journal of Unification Studies in recent years) he has published for the most part in the same kinds of venues as others would. He may be a gadfly, and the academy needs such individuals and hopefully appreciates their importance. But he has not abandoned academia for something else, nor has it driven him from its ranks.

Those are probably enough thoughts. I’ll just conclude by saying that I appreciated the suggestion made by one of the people who asked questions at the end that celebrity or pop star might be a closer analogy than superhero comics. People think that they have seen Elvis even though he died. Perhaps because nowadays religious figures tend to be placed in that category to the exclusion of others, we forget the extent to which an ancient prophet was social critic, pop star, often a musician but at the very least a poet, and much else besides.

One last thing. Let me add that I appreciate the fact that Price, like myself, finds it interesting to explore other kinds of literature, including Lovecraft and comic books, and that (also like myself) it occasionally leads him to wear interesting costumes:

Robert M. Price

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  • Jarosław Stolarz

    There are different gatekeepers in science. For Thompson it was Ratzinger. For Walter Bauer it was German. For modern phisics it was Isaac Newton. His definition of time and his authority was to strong for Leibniz and others till Einstein.

    In Poland Catholic Church is a gatekeeper. Without Church permission we can’t make a DNA tests of our first dynasty – local rulers or vikings. That is the question.

    Histiricity of Jesus is still an open question.

    • Mark

      The opposite is the case. When the ‘gatekeeper’ is Stalin, and the penalty is the gulag, you will find scholars taking ‘mythicism’ and ‘no historical Jesus’ seriously, and expounding it in textbooks. Once Stalin was dead, everyone stated the obvious, which is that there was a real such person, but one about whom fabulous things were said; this happens all the time.

      • I really wish I had bought some of the Communist-era books about the New Testament that I came across in Romania. I never imagined that I would want to share photos of pages as illustrations of the use of mythicism as Communist propaganda.

        Never leave a book you are inclined to buy on the shelf – that is the moral of this story!

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    …we have good reason to conclude that Matthew did not simply invent all of the teaching of Jesus he adds to Mark’s account from scratch….

    1) Do you find it inconceivable that the author of Matthew could invent anything ‘from scratch’? For, unless one accepts as historical the resurrection of the dead saints, or the dream of Pilate’s wife, then somebody at some point made them up. Why posit the existence of some unknown earlier fabricator, when the author of Matthew is just as able to serve in that capacity?

    2) Like Matthew, The Gospel of Thomas also includes teachings of Jesus not found anywhere else. Must we definitely conclude that these also derive from an oral tradition tracing back to the historical Jesus, or at some point are we willing to concede that it’s entirely possible for people to have either invented teachings, or wrongly attributed to Jesus the teachings of others? And if so other writers, then why not Matthew?

    • No historian disputes that Matthew, like pretty much every author, has invented things. But his use of Mark gives us some indication of whether or not he has invented everything, doesn’t it?

      • DJ

        It only tells us that he didn’t invent the material he borrowed from Mark, right?

        Why would Matthew’s use of Mark tell us whether Matthew used other sources as well?

        • Scott Paeth

          Because we also know that he used Q, ergo, he’s used at least TWO sources besides himself. I think the burden is on those who think he made it up to demonstrate that as likely.

          • DJ

            As you know, others would dispute Q. Even so you can just rephrase my question:

            Suppose we know Matthew used Mark and Q. Why would we think Matthew had a source for any of the material found in Matthew which is not derived from Mark or Q? Knowing that he had two sources is not the same as knowing that he had three or more sources.

          • Peter Riad

            because #biblescholarlogic

            Bible scholars don’t just seem unable to comprehend math and probability calculations, they also seem unable to grasp simple logic and fallacious arguments.

          • Scott Paeth

            #Biblescholarlogic — Otherwise known as “doing textual analysis.”

          • Scott Paeth

            James can correct me I’m sure if I’m wrong about this, but my understanding is that Q is still a central aspect of the four-source hypothesis, and the fact that Luke and Matthew share the Q material in common, without sharing many other things in common, is what leads to the conclusion that Q is a free-standing source, as opposed to Matthew having access to Luke or Luke Matthew.

            As to your second paragraph. If we could demonstrate that he had access to Mark, Q, and Bob, you’d ask why we didn’t assume he made up the rest. If we could demonstrate he had access to Mark, Q, Bob, and Fred, you’d ask why he didn’t make up the rest. If we could demonstrate that he had access to Mark, Q, Bob, Fred, Mary, Jane, Nacy, and Charlie, you’d ask why we don’t assume he made up the rest.

            Again, I continue to think that the burden is on you, in light of the evidence available, to show that that he DID make it up. Not on me to prove that he didn’t.

            And James, once more, if I’ve got the current state of the discussion wrong in this respect, or if you think that I’m misunderstanding the nature of the debate, please let me know.

          • Peter Riad

            Irrelevant. What matters is whether the sources are credible as historical documents, not how many of them. A hundred fictitious sources for a book don’t change the fact that it’s still a book of fiction. The imaginary sources for the gospels is just a red herring to the historicity debate. Unless, maybe, you think zombie apocalypses, flying monsters, a man riding 2 donkeys, mass genocide of babies that no one has heard of, a fictitious genealogy stretching to a fictitious Abraham, can count as historically reliable information.

          • Scott Paeth

            Well fortunately, we don’t have to speculate on whether the sources are credible as historical documents, we’ve got THOUSANDS of historians and Biblical scholars, all of whom are well-trained in their disciplines, who can attest that they are credible as historical documents.

            You not wanting to believe something is not equivalent to it not being true. But then, the rest of your comment attests that you aren’t really a serious discussant to begin with, just a crank. Goodbye.

          • Peter Riad

            “Thousands” of historians and biblical scholars who are well trained in their disciplines can attest that a document that doesn’t exist, that no one read, and that no one has a clue what it might have contained, is a credible historical document? Oh yeah, sure bub. And you call me a crank? Lol.

          • Scott Paeth

            So, you’re not denying that historians and biblical scholars argue that. You’re just arguing that they are making assertions about the fictional document that exists in your head, rather than the actual documents we have. Correct? Yes. Yes, I am calling you a crank. I mean, read a single solitary book. Sheesh!

          • Peter Riad

            Were you dropped on your head as a kid or something? That would be the only explanation for your appalling lack of reading comprehension, failure of logic, and lousy reply.

            There are no fictional documents in my head. The only fictional documents are in your head and your fellow believers in all those imaginary gospel sources like Q, M, L, etc that dont actually exist and have no physical evidence for their existence.

            And yes, I have read a lot of books. Actual physical books that exist. Unfortunately, unlike you, I have yet to develop the talent to read imaginary books that don’t exist, let alone evaluate their historical reliability.

          • Scott Paeth

            OK, well, thanks for sharing. I need to go wipe your spittle from my glasses.

          • Peter Riad

            I will give you an imaginary napkin. You’re welcome

          • Scott Paeth

            Gee you’re swell. Crazy and totally wrong, but otherwise, you know … just swell.

          • Peter Riad

            Lmao. Crazy and totally wrong because I think a document that doesnt exist, actually doesn’t exist? I guess I just don’t have a wild enough imagination like you biblical “scholars”.

          • Scott Paeth

            Crazy because you’re engaged in unhinged rhetorical excess. Wrong, because you don’t understand anything about Q, how it functions in the literature, or why people utilize it.

          • Peter Riad

            Alas, not all of us can be experts in imaginary fiction like yourself. Must take a special kind of genius to be able to carry out all sorts of literary analysis on a nonexistent item. Maybe next time, you will be arguing for imaginary sources behind the Harry Potter books.

          • Scott Paeth

            On the one hand, everything you’ve said thus far demonstrates that you don’t know what you’re talking about — I mean, literally every word, including “and” and “the” — but at least you’ve just come out and admitted it. Too bad you’re too ignorant to really understand what it is you’re saying.

            But snark aside, can you really note tell the difference between a source that historians and literary analysts can infer from an existing text and a “fictional” text? Because the distinction is really not that hard, and you look like a damn fool every time you call it “fictional” or compare it to Harry Potter.

          • Peter Riad

            It does seem to touch a nerve when I state that your area of expertise is a fairytale. I guess it must suck to be in your position and not having any tangible skill or real knowledge in any field actually useful to humanity. Perhaps you should have gotten a PhD in Harry Potter. At least it’s entertaining.

            Let’s say for the sake of the argument, I grant your premise. I will accept that those source texts exist. Now let’s see what they would look like. What would M source for example contain? It will contain events like Herod’s massacre of infants, the Roman guards at the empty tomb, the zombie apocalypse in Matthew 27.

            What would L source contain? A genealogy that stretches all the way to Adam, the raising of the son of the widow at Nain, a census by Augustus of ‘the whole world” in which people were required to return to their ancestral hometown of 1000 years in the past.

            What would the signs source behind the gospel of John contain? Raising Lazarus from the dead? Turning water to wine? The healing at the pool of Bethesda?

            Yes, you are right. Those hypothetical sources are completely accurate and reliable historical accounts and not at all in any way fictitious. You have me convinced.

            Then again. What do I know? I’m a lowly university grad with 2 degrees in the field of science. I’m not an expert fictionologist like yourself.

          • Scott Paeth

            It doesn’t touch a nerve; it’s just stupid. But I do take comfort that you, being totally unqualified to judge, aren’t in a position to decide what my expertise in my field is. That would be like relying on Donald Trump to discuss who’s qualified to govern.

            Everything after your first paragraph, which is pure invective, is just further demonstration that you are totally ignorant of the field you are trying to discuss. Get an education, then you can have this conversation with people who are actually qualified.

            But of course, troll that you are, your own total ignorance doesn’t stop you from sounding off. That’s what makes you a troll.

          • Peter Riad
          • Scott Paeth

            Yeah, that’s just the kind of classy response that’s guaranteed to convince me that you’re not a troll. Every post by you gets stupider. I sure hope you take the time to educate yourself about what you choose to opine on in the future. But for my part, I can’t waste any more effort on your trolling. Bye Felicia.

          • Peter Riad

            Going back to reading your imaginary sources? Don’t let the imaginary door hit you on your way out. Ciao bub

          • Mark

            Inference to a quelle document has zero to do with ‘biblical studies’ in particular, but is characteristic of classical studies.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            I’ve pre-orderd a copy of Q. Amazon was fain to take my money.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            Would a single one of those biblical scholars be willing to entertain the notion that the Jesus depicted in the gospels is allegorical, not historical?

            I, for one, can accept the conclusion that he was historical.

          • Scott Paeth

            Entertain it? Sure. Just ask James. But entertaining it means considering whether it conforms to the evidence, which it does. Again, James can give you copious details.

          • I have talked about all these things more than once. There is even an article of mine that addresses the question of allegory specifically in relation to mythicism, and the fact that it is an earlier religious approach to scripture that has been criticized by scholars precisely because we have so many centuries of evidence for the use of allegorical interpretation to make any text mean whatever one wishes.


          • Scott Paeth

            Re-reading, I realize that a typo entered my response. I meant to say that the evidence DOESN’T confirm it. Of course, I may have understood Matt’s intent. I understood the idea of “allegorical” to be equivalent of “mythical” in Matt’s usage, but perhaps he had something else in mind.

          • Mark

            Our topic is the historicity of Jesus, not the validity of particular episodes. A rational, secular causal explanation of the existence of the gospels – the content of which no secular person can accept since it involves miracles, demonic possession, etc. – requires one to posit a ‘historical Jesus’, the crucifixion, the gentile ‘mission’, etc etc. This is the best explanation of the collection and/or invention and promulgation of the stories. And it is what all secular enquirers uninfluenced by the sewers of the internet accept. You keep confusing questions about the merits of the gospels as evidence for religious beliefs, from the question how to comprehend them causally. If you grant that the gospels are nonsense, you still need an explanation of this nonsense; it is straightforwardly anti-intellectual to think otherwise.

          • Peter Riad

            There are gospels of romulus, hercules, theseus, and many others. Should we assume there is a historical romulus or hercules to explain them? Every story in the gospels serves the religious propagandistic and apologetic agenda of its authors. And that means the authors thus have a motive to invent it. There is no need to assume there was a historical core for the gospels. If someone wants to claim there is a small historical kernel that was expanded into an elaborate myth in the gospels, the burden is on them to show why this is more probable than the elaborate myth being fabricated out of the vivid imagination of the gospel authors (or their hypothetical sources if you believe in that).

          • These are the kinds of comments that are written by people who have never read what historians have to say about the sources related to Jesus, to Romulus, to Hercules, to Theseus, and to others. Simply saying “we have sources about fictional figures” as though you are saying something significant is a very clear sign that you have no idea what historians and other scholars in relevant fields are talking about, and have been for a very long time. What would it take to get you to actually familiarize yourself with scholarship, instead of merely saying “Jesus…Hercules” or “Jesus…Harry Potter” with no acknowledgment that one can substitute any two names in those sentences, and it will mean nothing unless you discuss the texts and what historians have to say about them, assessing the extent to which the figures, the evidence for them, and the genre of literature in which they are mentioned is in fact comparable or not?

          • Mark

            You are as usual ignoring the specifically Palestinian Jewish character of the content. This means that analogies with Theseus are simply out of the question; you might as well say Don Quixote never existed, so why should Jesus have existed? How is it that when these texts seem to be surfacing clearly, in the 2nd century, in Asia Minor and elsewhere, they are all in gentile greek speaking hands … but are all about Jerusalem, of all places, a century earlier, and still more about a Jewish backwater like the Galilee? No number of Theseus analogies will bring us one step closer to really causal understanding.

          • arcseconds

            Contrariwise, saying the Gospels evolved out of earlier stories about dying and rising gods, suffering servants, Zoroastorian baptism stories, etc. then that is a historical claim, and requires proof.

            Mythicism doesn’t come for free, it has to be argued for like any other claim.

          • Peter Riad

            You actually think a real guy actually walked on water, exocrcised demons, turned water to wine, healed the sick, raised the dead, and then resurrected himself on the 3rd day after his crucifixion, and that the gospels are accurate eyewitness reports of this?

          • arcseconds

            You know, it never ceases to amaze me how mythicists seem to be completely unable to separate the question of Jesus’s existence from the question of whether he performed miracles.

            Even Fitzgerald, who has at least read the relevant scholarship widely and interacts with bona fide scholars, and frequently seems to understand this point, has occasional lapses where he starts ranting on about miracle-Jesus, as though that was what the debate about.

            If you are somehow under the misapprehension that secular biblical scholars are arguing for a Jesus who performs miracles, you know even less about this area than I thought.

          • Peter Riad

            on the contrary, i understand very well. and that’s precisely what makes jesusologists like you look ridiculous. You claim the supernatural and miraculous stories didn’t happen but insist without good reason that there is a tiny historical core to the gospel stories. The gospels are wildly and deliberately fictitious, full of legends and myths, and show no attempt at all to report historically accurate information. Yet historicists assume for some reason that there is a small historical core being embellished, as opposed to accepting that the gospels in their entirety are fiction. That’s what Price alluded to , the assumption that there was a mundane historical clark kent behind the super man myth. His point is that just like there is no mundane historical clark kent who was the basis for the superman myth, there is no reason to assume there was a mundane historical jesus behind the mythical christ figure of the gospels.

            On the other hand it’s easy to see why historicists are desesparate to salvage anything out of the gospels. If they toss them out then they are left with nothing at all to reconstruct a historical jesus from

          • arcseconds

            If you understand this, why were you asking me whether I believed in all the miracles?

            Was it a pointless non sequitur?

            ‘For some reason’ sounds like you are ignorant of even the basics of the case for historicity. Perhaps you should go and inform yourself at least to the point where you can give a recognisable summary in a few paragraphs before you conclude that the position is obviously false and only held by incompetents?

          • Peter Riad

            oh i know the case for historicity very well. and i can tell you in the field of science the logical fallacies and incompetent logic of the argumens of ehrman and casey would be laughed out of an undergrad tutorial, let alone a masters or phd thesis.

            and by the way, even jesusology scholars themselves are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the method of criteria used to extract “historical” information from the gospels is a failed and untenable methodology. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck. The gospels read like a work of fiction from the beginning to the end. They are full of myths, implausibilities, contradictions to scientific and historical facts, convenient plot elements that just happen to occur at the right place and time, etc. All of which are hallmarks of invented fiction, not remembered history or oral tradition. and no one has been able to prove even a single gospel story as more probably true than not.

          • This just shows that you are not familiar with the countless studies that have shown details to be more probable than not. By all means address point by point why you are not persuaded. But do not do what evolution-deniers do and pretend the evidence doesn’t exist. That may work in other places on the web, but it ought to be obvious why it will not work here.

          • Peter Riad

            on the contrary, i read some of those studies, and none of them are convincing. Why don’t you tell me the one fact about jesus you think to be the most likely to be historically true? I’ll look into it and let you know why I disagree.

          • I don’t see any advantage to asking you to read (or more likely hastily skim) a few of the many studies on a topic of my choosing, when you purportedly have read studies on certain historical questions already and we can begin with those?

          • Mark

            Jesus was probably in Galilee from time to time. This is something we wouldn’t know from any source but the gospels. Even on the most hyper-skeptical view of their content, they’re still good for stuff like that.

          • arcseconds

            If you know it very well, then it would have taken you just as much effort to write a short summary than what you did write, which is just repeating what we already know along with unsubstantiated claims.

            The fact you did not makes me think you cannot.

            I put a similar question to young-earth creationists from time to time, by the way. So far none of them have come up with anything that sounds remotely like the scientific case. They all just fall back on creationist talking-points about hurricanes assembling jumbo jets.

            If you can’t get a summary out of someone, they either don’t understand what they’re arguing so vehemently against, or they are avoiding having a proper discussion and are only interested in spouting their own propaganda.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            It’s a false dichotomy that Jesus must be either all mythical or all historical. The gospels present a picture of Jesus — his ‘bio’, his deeds, his philosophy. Each element may be inspected and judged on its own as well as a whole. Most mythicists recognize historical elements, while nearly all historicists acknowledge mythical ones.

          • arcseconds

            Mythicists by definition do not recognise that any elements go back to a historical Jesus, and so all elements are ahistorical in the sense they’re attributed to someone who never really had them, because he didn’t exist.

            It’s true that the position doesn’t rule out these stories happening to someone else, and getting re-atributed to a mythic figure. I think I may have heard this argument from someone before, either a mythicist or a sceptic, but I’m pretty sure say Price, Carrier and Fitzgerald think the story is basically fictional throughout, don’t they?

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            Yes, I’d say the common thread of mythicism is: the gospel accounts are reflective of neither a single historical person nor his deeds & teachings. As so many of the gospels’ ‘historical’ elements can be linked to things found elsewhere, we either have a series of uncanny coincidences, or pseudo-historical pastiches. But as scholarly doubt of the veracity of the NT goes back two hundred years, a wide range of views fall under the rubric ‘mythicism.’

            Price, following Brodie, has attempted to show how everything in the NT could have been sourced from the OT. Carrier believes that Jesus was entirely mythical, and all early Christians believed He was crucified in Heaven. But Carrier is a bizarre person with a bizarre way of interpreting both manuscripts and the world, and his views hold sway in limited circles only. I have no idea what Fitzgerald thinks, as I consider him an unlettered hack not worth taking seriously.

            Lena Einhorn’s “Time Shift” hypothesis posits that the gospel story was intentionally backdated two decades, and she identifies Jesus as the historical “Egyptian” messianic claimant, The Baptist as the historical Theudus, etc.

            There’s growing support for the idea that Mark (or rather, an UrMarkus) was written as allegory of the evangelism of the real-life Simon Magus — with subsequent redaction, and Matthew and especially Luke, intentionally historicizing the account. In tandem with this, the Pauline Epistles are seen as pseudepigraphic products of the Marcionites, with Paul an idealized Simon Magus. Hermann Detering, building on the work of 19th Century Dutch and German scholars, is the foremost proponent of this theory today.

            Robert Eisenman has linked the first Jewish-Christians to the Ebionites at Qumran. This sect anticipated a Joshua redivivus messiah who would liberate the Jews, and may have identified one of the historical messianic claimants as him. Eisenman sees the first gnostic, Pauline Christianity as an attempt to undermine insurrectionist ebionite messianism, with the Roman Petrine sect descending loosely from the Jewish-Christian.

          • Mythicism denotes the view that there was no historical Jesus. The view that some material in the Gospels is mythical, legendary, and otherwise non-historical is simply mainstream scholarship. The two are not the same, since the latter is a conclusion drawn on the basis of a careful, detailed, piece by piece study of the evidence, while mythicism is a procrustean bed into which the evidence is made to fit no matter how much it resists the attempt.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            I find it droll that you would insinuate that theologians such as Baur, Bauer, Loman, Pierson, van den Bergh van Eysinga, et al., did not conduct “a detailed, piece by piece study of the evidence.”

          • Well, they certainly cannot be faulted for lack of detail. But that alone does not make someone’s conclusions persuasive. A Richard Carrier blog post tends to be incredibly detailed, after all.

          • Mark

            The evidence is quite different now than it was in the 19th c and even the pre-war 20th c; evidence that existed before looks different now. It is also not irrelevant that anti-semitic phobias are gone. Pre-war theories of the origin of the rabbinical movement are also very different from contemporary accounts.

          • arcseconds

            These all sound like proposals that require large and entirely unnecessary assumptions, don’t they?

            Do they solve any large problems that the standard account does not?

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            That’s a very good question, and for the sake of brevity, I’ll answer that numerous historical and logical quandaries, which Apologetics also attempts to address (or, the mythicist might argue, sweep under the rug), are resolved by this approach. It may at first glance seem to complicate things, but the guiding principle is to find the simplest explanation.

          • arcseconds

            Well, if you’re not going to even attempt to summarize these supposed quandries, I remain unconvinced that there are any that need resolving by such unlikely-sounding hypotheses.

            Thinking that Mark isn’t talking about the person he says he is talking about, but rather about a figure who is far less well attested to (with only one source in the late 1st century) seems rather far-fetched to me.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            I’d be happy to elaborate point-by-point. I will provide one example to start. In the gospels, Jesus is brought before a hastily-convened Sanhedrin on charges of heresy. As He is crucified, He cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In Josephus, James is brought before a hastily-convened Sanhedrin on charges of heresy. As he is stoned, he cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Hegesippus). In Acts Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin. As he is stoned, he cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” So we either have three separate but uncannily similar events, or we have one event which was intentionally obfuscated.

            A great deal of ink was expended to refute and disparage Simon Magus, indicating he was a very significant figure — and a threat to the Roman sect. The parallels between Simon Magus and Paul are too replete to ignore. For example, we know from the epistles and Acts that Peter and Paul clashed. We know from the Pseudo-Clementines and other sources that Peter and Simon Magus clashed over many of the same issues and in the same locales. So, again — sheer coincidence or obfuscation? That Paul = Simon Magus would be a major embarrassment for the 2nd Century Catholicizing church, so minimizing Simon Magus and bifurcating him from an assimilated Paul, makes sense.

          • Out of curiosity, why does the more obvious possibility – that authors depicted Stephen and James as following Jesus’ example – not even get a mention in your comment? And why does the manuscript evidence which makes it a real possibility that the words attributed to Jesus in some manuscripts of Luke were not originally there, not get a mention?

            Can you see why almost all scholars view mythicism as an attempt to dogmatically impose simplistic options onto complex data?

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            Well, of course, that doesn’t seem the ‘obvious’ answer to me at all, and I’d be happy to explain why. However, while I’m trying here to present — not even argue, just present — the actual mythicist positions & views, in a good faith effort to promote understanding on both sides, I don’t feel that is being reciprocated.

            It’s funny that you accuse mythicists of imposing ‘dogmatic’ solutions upon data — what dogma exactly? It also seems you alternately criticize mythicists for overly simplifying, then overly complicating, things.

            I’m not sure of the scope of the universe of “all scholars” in your argumentum ad populum fallacy, but if they almost all are believers, who must a priori presume an historical Jesus, then I think we have your answer.

          • Things tend not to seem obvious to people who have not devoted the necessary time to studying them. And things tend to seem obvious to people with no experience of them that would seem implausible to someone better acquainted – such as the Christian conspiracy throughout the secular universities to presume or promote a historical Jesus. Only someone unacquainted with the field, and completely unaware that the conclusions of historians have been a problem for believers, could even claim the things you do in your last comment.

            And so that is precisely what happens with all these kinds of views that are held dogmatically – i.e. with determination that is not built on nor justified by study and evidence. They at times make things unnecessarily complicated when they seem simple to the experts, and in other cases, oversimplify into false binaries things that academics recognize as having a broader range of options.

            Does that make things at all clearer to you?

          • arcseconds

            It seemed obvious enough to me!

            I don’t think you need much sophisticated understanding to think that either the authors or the people they writing about are copying one another are perfectly plausible explanations.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            Alles klar, herr Kommisar! Unless I, like you, devoted my life to memorizing the Bible, insulated in my echo chamber with my fellow unquestioning believers, I can’t possibly grasp the nuances of it all. Got it.

            I stand before your precious altar, and I pour the holy water upon my feet.

          • What a bizarre response to give to someone who is advocating for the methods and conclusions of secular historical scholarship, which stands at odds with classic Christian dogma.

          • Mark

            You seem to be under the impression that critique of scripture, which dates at least to Spinoza, and has been in full swing for almost 200 years, has something to do with mythicism, which (in the present period) is more in the character of a new agey balm for wounded ex- fundamentalist brains. The view that Luke and Acts, at least in the forms known to us, are second century works doing some kind of second-century intra-christian politics, is held by reputable scholars; it is one of the available views but it has nothing whatever to do with mythicism.

          • arcseconds

            Like James, it seems to me that there is no genuine problem here with the attributions of “forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

            We know that ancient authors made up statements that seemed appropriate, and in the context of the Gospels and Acts this is perhaps not unlike a modern-day biopic or novelization of someone’s life.

            So here are three scenarios that seem quite plausible:

            1) Luke made this whole saying up himself, and was so pleased with it, he also put it in the mouth of another martyr in another book. Hegesippus took this saying from Luke. (note that this statement is not in Josephus, your phrasing could be read to suggest it is.)

            2) One of the three said it, which stuck around as a thing important early Jesus-devotee martyrs said and got attributed to the other two.

            3) Jesus actually said it, and his disciples copied him.

            None of those seems remotely problematic, and (1) actually seems pretty likely to me.

            You, on the other hand, are trying to suggest that what this really indicates is that an obscure event happened to someone else, that was intentionally (!) obfuscated and retold three different times about three different people, none of whom was the original event.

            None of the three scenarios above require any additional assumptions over what we already have good reason to believe: that Jesus and James and Stephen existed and were executed, that Luke and Acts were written by a single author who was aware of two of these executions and wrote about them both, that Hegesippus had access to Luke, and that authors at this time were inclined to make up stuff that fits.

            Whereas you are asking us to believe in another event, not directly attested to, and to believe that this event has been deliberately obscured, but rather than just not written about, has been retold (deliberately?) three times. These are all elements that there’s no direct testimony to. They also, as far as I can see, solve no problems, but just create more.

            Why put any weight at all on the Clementine literature? It is written much later, with the earliest source being dated to the late 2nd century, and the full literature coming into being in the 3rd or 4th, as far as I can work out. Perhaps there is some connection, but surely the Clementine literature deliberately conflating Paul and SImon Magus is more likely than the Clementine literature preserving something closer to real history, and the earlier literature of Acts and presumably the epistles of Paul being clever fictions written to obscure the truth.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            Thanks for responding so thoughtfully. What to make of the Pseudo-Clementines? We have an historical event in Josephus, elaborated on in the Recognitions. For me, that leans towards veracity of the latter.

            All evidence points to Simon Magus and Paul being intentionally bifurcated, rather than conflated. Acts is a deliberate attempt to neuter & subsume the Pauline/gnostic church, which c. AD 150 was more widespread than the Roman sect; Acts was a kludge to meld the two rival (Petrine & Pauline) sects.

          • jekylldoc

            Well, Acts can be a kludge attempting to meld two branches without Simon Magus being the same person as Paul. You make some interesting points, without having the space to put together an overall picture and assess its strengths and weaknesses.

          • jekylldoc

            For the sake of clarity, I think the “quandaries” that mythicism draws the most credibility from are
            1) the lack of discussion of Jesus’ biography in Pauline epistles;
            2) the lack of outside historical confirmation not obviously subject to strong reasons for suspicion.
            I am not saying they are decisive, but it is certainly awkward for the historicist paradigm, and has yet to be decisively answered. What I would consider a decisive response would be a single hypothesis which both economically explains the evidence and gives rise to further lines of investigation which mainly find confirming details.

            Some of the main historicist responses, and other defenses for historicism, have been subjected to pretty effective critiques. However, in my somewhat limited acquaintance, no mythicist alternative even comes close to doing as well. So I continue to listen from the sidelines.

          • arcseconds

            What is awkward about (2)? There’s no reason to expect a first-century apocalyptic preacher to be attested to outside the tradition he founded.

            Mythicists do tend to insist on this, sure, but I think there’s several things that are going on here, none of which have any genuine pertinence to the debate.

            Firstly, mythicists often presume the Jesus they’re denying exists is the miracle-working Jesus of the Gospels, and that their opponent is a traditionally-believing Christian. You can see this all the time in online debates, see Matt’s recent characterisation of James as an ‘unquestioning believer’. It’s such a deep running assumption that even when they’ve superficially accepted that they’re dealing with secular history, they can default back to this. Fitzgerald does this from time to time in debates. So their insistance on this point seems to be informed to some extent by the idea that someone would have noticed Jesus raising people from the dead and healing the sick, or at least at the crucifixion someone else would have noticed the sky turning black and the dead rising. But this isn’t the position of a secular historian.

            They are also usually not terribly well informed about ancient history. They don’t seem to understand the paucity of information we have about the ancient world, and are bringing expectations more appropriate to the modern era to the table. Most figures in the ancient world are not well documented. There is not a lot of material on Pilate, for example — the only contemporary references I think are a couple of passages in Philo.

            The other aspect of this is that historians, particularly ancient historians, don’t have any trouble accepting the existence of a person on the basis of a single reference. There are anglo-saxon kings that are only known from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, just as one example.

            (I think here, too, mythicists are perhaps more familiar with evidence in science, at least to the extent that they understand experiments should be repeatable.)

            There’s also untoward suspicion given towards early Christian sources as historical sources. The feeling is that they have to be approached with immense suspicion about everything they say. Because the virgin birth is made up, it means anything can be made up. And it seems to go even further than this: anyone who is a confessing Christian is treated as though they are incompetent to speak to the matter, from Paul to James McGrath. Even ex-Christians like Ehrman are attributed this kind of bias!

            (But we normally have material written by people who could be suspected of bias. Socrates is described by his disciples, for example, Emperors and kings by their subjects, the anlgo-saxon chronicles by anglo-saxon monks (who couldn’t be expected to portray Vikings in a dispassionate way, and are pretty credulous towards miracle stories), American history by Americans, etc.)

            Finally, I think there’s a mistake being made inferring from the fact that if we did have a letter from a non-Christian who met Jesus we’d have better evidence than we do now, that there’s something inadequate about the evidence we have now. But while this might make mythicism a thousand times less likely, it doesn’t necessarily make historicism much more likely ( .000001 is a thousand times smaller than .01, but .99999 is not a thousand times bigger than .99).

            The lack of biographical detail in Paul, well, it’s maybe a little bit odd, but it’s much more odd to be asserting he doesn’t believe that Jesus existed as a historic individual when he asserts Jesus has a mother, etc. This is an example of conspiracy-theory thinking: something that at most is a slightly unusual molehill is made into a mountain, and taken as proof of an incredible theory.

            I think the absence of biographical details is adequately explained by the notions that the recipients of the letters already know Jesus’s biography, that Paul’s purpose isn’t at all to relate the biography (and why should it be?), and that Jesus’s biography is probably not actually Paul’s strong suite, because he never knew Jesus personally, and that in this phase of the Jesus movement (or at least Paul’s branch of it), because for Paul the important event is the crucifixion and the resurrection, not any other biographical details of Jesus, Jesus’s biography simply isn’t that important.

            Also, it seems to me that there’s a problem here for mythicism, too. If there was some need Paul could fill by talking about Jesus’s biography, and Jesus is just a made up figure, why haven’t the necessary details been made up? It seems to me that either way, the absence of these details in Paul is better explained by Paul’s aims and perhaps his position in the Jesus movement, not by the historicity or otherwise of Jesus.

            I also wonder how odd it really is. I mean, if I were discussing, say, a philosopher who I only knew second hand, would you really expect me to dwell on her biography? At any rate, the fact I do not is in no way evidence that I’ve made her up.

          • jekylldoc

            arcseconds – I think those are sensible and cogent responses. The only thing I disagree with about your post is the “what’s awkward about that?” conclusion. The very fact that you need to get into considerable complexity to explain a refutation means there is a problem posed, and that this problem leaves some room for alternative explanations, if they can be made to fit the data sufficiently.

            In my mind the point is not to jump to the conclusion, but to engage the posed problem with vigor and care. There was a popular treatment of Zheng He’s exploration fleets, called something like “1433” (can’t find the reference on Wiki. Edit: 1421 by Gavin Menzies) which turned out to use seriously bad historiographical methods but hid behind slightly paranoid allegations of academic stonewalling for a while. The reason for its popularity was not its challenge to orthodoxy but just the inherent interest of the problem. One might make the same observation about Jared Diamond’s conclusions on the Greenlanders in “Collapse”, which reflected the orthodoxy of the time.

          • arcseconds

            The very fact that you need to get into considerable complexity to explain a refutation means there is a problem posed…

            Absolutely not! It is frequently the case that when a putative anomaly is raised by a fringe sceptic, the explanation as to why there is no actual problem here is a complex matter. A complex explanation does not mean that the explanation is not quite sound, or even certain.

            You might want to look at Clavius Moon Base, a site dedicated to the Apollo missions and debunking the moon landing hoax claims. Practically every single explanation they give is somewhat complex; this does not mean that any of the moon hoax ‘proofs’ is a genuine problem.

            Or consider creationist arguments about radiometric dating. Radiometric dating is a complex area, so the explanations tend to be complex, but this does not mean there’s any genuine doubt about any aspect of it.

            Complex explanations often seem dubious to those who hear them, particularly if they’re inclined to doubt the area. And there is some sense to be made of that on a rational basis, because a complex explanation has more things that can possibly go wrong with it. But I think this is largely psychological: they can seem overwhelming and difficult to understand, and there’s always the ‘how do you know that?’ response.

            I am specifically denying the lack of non-Christian attestation is a problem, and I actually spent little time explaining that. The is nothing really to explain: we would not expect an itinerant apocalyptic preacher in first-century Palestine to be noted by the historians of the era. What I spent my time on is why I think mythicists think it’s a problem.

            As far as Paul’s failure to mention much about Jesus, well, I admitted that is perhaps a little strange, and requires some explanation that is inevitably a bit speculative and hand-waving. But it’s only a little strange: to my mind it falls within the real of author idiosyncrasy.

            We can’t always expect a compelling explanation as to why an author discusses certain things and not others. I read an introduction to Wittgenstein once written by a fairly well-known contemporary analytic philosopher who had an explanation for Wittgenstein’s cryptic and compact style: he was dyslexic! Naturally this is a nonsense, and it would be better to give no explanation.

            (And, as I said, Paul’s omission of anything about Jesus’s biography is not actually particularly well explained by mythicism, either. If he’s decided to give a heavenly figure an earthy biography himself, then why doesn’t he make up details beyond the rather vague ones he does give? If he got this from earlier members of the Jesus movement, why didn’t he enquire about Jesus’s biography from them? )

            As far as ‘jumping to conclusions’ goes, when there’s a simple explanation that explains the phenomena that we see, that fits in with what is known about the time period, and does not require any massively unlikely hypotheses or special pleading, and is accepted by all professional scholars in the area (except for a tiny fringe), then I don’t see any reason not to accept the conclusion, but I would not describe accepting a conclusion on this basis as ‘jumping’ to it.

          • jekylldoc

            arcseconds – you point out persuasive reasons why complex explanation to refute does not indicate legitimacy of supposed evidentiary problems. I agree that evidentiary issues are often inherently complex, and they do not imply any weight for an unorthodox approach.

            I think what I had in mind is more of a gestalt about the particular issues. Lack of outside testimonial is not particularly difficult – you give more than adequate examples of others of greater significance, by typical historical standards, with no attestation or very little. What I had in mind is more like the following: suppose I had some reason to think Joshua, or Moses, or even Elijah, was a character with no historical figure behind it. If there was outside attestation, like the Pilate Stone for Pontius Pilate, that would pretty much settle the issue. Maybe not definitively, but it would weigh very heavily in discussion of the reason for preferring one hypothesis or the other.

            “In my highly informed opinion there is no reason for doubt” is not a discussion of the reasons. It is helpful to outsiders like me, but it is not discussion of the reasons.

            The Pauline objection is probably even somewhat substantive. Again, I don’t in the least consider it definitive, but it has some weight – it creates some room for discussion. For example, the very lack of mention of miracles by Jesus frames Jesus as a different figure from the one presented in the Gospels. The only thing miraculous about Jesus that Paul ever refers to is the resurrection, and his evidence on that includes his own vision, treated as equivalent to one of “the appearances.”

            There are, as you observe, many reasons why Paul might not have had an interest in, or knowledge of, Jesus’ ministry. One that is, in some sense, possible is that there was a cult beginning to form around a myth, a story more like Isis and Osiris than like Simon Bar Kokhba. And when you look, lo, such mythological figures exist. If Paul was part of such a cult, certain kinds of results follow, and lo, some of those seem to be present.

            In the end, not enough of them are to be found, and not enough of the obvious problems can be refuted, for me to take the mythicist version very seriously. But I would say, when the details are being assembled and discussed, the Pauline Epistle problem is a major “anomaly” or (slightly) unexpected fact, to be dealt with.

            The reason I use the term “jumping to conclusions” is that my first introduction to the historicism/mythicism debate was Carrier’s blog post in response to reading Ehrman’s refutation of OHJ. Now, as Carrier points out, there are areas of sloppy discussion and actual errors in Ehrman’s work. Maybe that is common among historians – I am familiar with problems found in work by John Keegan, for example, and a review of a minor, fringe book would not be expected to include thorough work. But still, the impression left is “jumping to a conclusion”, that is, assembling convenient material around the conclusion Ehrman came to (honestly enough and with good reason) rather than patiently arguing the issues.

          • Jim Little

            “Carrier believes that Jesus was entirely mythical, and all early Christians believed He was crucified in Heaven.”

            As in an ‘angel-man-Lord’ as many biblical texts allude to?

            eg. Zechariah 1:8-11

          • Mark

            This sentence is almost unbelievably confused. We believe in a real guy who, like the rest of us, didn’t raise the dead or turn water into wine. The problem is to explain the existence of communities in Rome and Asia Minor that retail those stories about Palestine.

          • Peter Riad

            I’ll dumb it down a bit so you can grasp the point. Gospels portray a completely mythologized miracle working godman. Historicists insist there is a mundane average joe underneath the mythologized godman. There is no reason to believe that is necessary. People in antiquity believed in the historical existence of many mythologized godmen who nevertheless did not exist, like hercules or romulus or even moses. Therefore it is not necessary for there to be a historical human jesus to justify the belief of christians in the existence of a divine mythologized jesus.

            Historicists need to show why it is more probable that jesus was the exception to the rule and not another example of that same pattern.

          • People in antiquity also mythologized historical figures that were important to them, as you would know if you had any acquaintance with the relevant sources, or perhaps you know this but are deliberately being dishonest. Neither scenario reflects well on you. When you combine either ignorance or dishonesty with insulting people, it gives the impression that you are nothing more than a common sort of troll that we have seen on this blog in the past. As you would know if you had bothered to inform yourself about the prior discussion of this topic in the internet, never mind specifically here on this blog.

            By all means continue to comment here, but kindly change at least one of the things that is giving the impression of trolling. If you don’t care to be well informed or honest, then at least be polite. But I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to manage both.

          • Peter Riad

            Thank you for that very insightful and informative response. Of course historical figures were mythologized. Everyone knows that. The difference is that with Alexander the Great, Augustus, Lincoln and others, the myths are secondary additions to a solid core of historical information. Take away the myth and you still have a significant historical core. Jesus is more like romulus, Hercules, Superman, Harry Potter, etc. The myth is the core of the story. Take away the myth and there is nothing left. Didnt the Jesus seminar conclude that at most only 5% of the quotes of Jesus in the gospels may be historical?

            And speaking of the issue of politeness, I haven’t heard your apology to Fitzgerald for your condescending insults to him.

          • Mythicists always assert that Jesus is more like Romulus than historical figures. But they never demonstrate it. And they always like to make the points of comparison rulers and the wealthy who tended to leave behind more evidence, instead of comparing like with like.

            I am not sure why the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions carry so much weight with you, but they rated somewhere between 15-20% of the sayings as likely to be close to what Jesus actually said. If one includes sayings where the precise wording is thought to owe more to the later church, but the gist is thought to reflect the kind of thing that Jesus said, then the percentage is higher. And if one did not share the theological agenda of the Jesus Seminar to find a non-apocalyptic Jesus, the percentage would be higher still.

          • Paul E.

            When I first ran across mythicism online a couple of years ago, I thought it was a really interesting idea that could have some methodological benefits (even if its conclusions were pretty obviously improbable). At the time, I thought your attitude to mythicism was overly defensive and polemical. After having seen the consistent types of comments and arguments you have to deal with on this topic, I now get it. Mea culpa.

          • Mark

            The texts under discussion appear in Asia Minor and Rome in the second century. Why are they talking about peasants in Galilee? The texts have ‘mundane sub-average province’ written all over them. How did this come about? You are vilifying and mocking people who are seriously interested in this question, and your motives are transparently religious and alien to the material.

          • Jim

            “I’ll dumb it down a bit so you can grasp the point.”

            I didn’t realize that there were even lower levels than the manure-for-brains (MfB) comments you have made so far.

            It must be tough on family members and friends of people with MfB. I’m confident though, someone with MfB, as yourself, if following a simple two step program of (i) reading the pertinent literature and (ii) comprehending said literature, this can go a long way in helping your arguments appear cogent. It is even possible that if you are very diligent in following this simple two step program, people won’t even be able to detect that you previously had MfB.

          • Peter Riad

            Nothing but insults? Very insightful. Go crawl back into whatever rathole you creeped out of and leave this discussion to adults.

          • Jim

            Deepest sympathy to your family and friends, and hopefully they’ll hang on to the hope that maybe one day you’ll be free of your MfB condition.

          • Peter Riad

            While i doubt my family and friends care what some random halfwit on the internet says, i will be sure to pass on the sentiment

          • jekylldoc

            This is just ad hominem irrelevance. You are arguing for dismissing all Biblical sources because we don’t believe some of their material is literally true. But we have plentiful examples of other figures who are historical but have invented material attached to their stories. So scholars have a complex problem to solve, which your false dichotomy makes no difference to.

            Pretty typical argumentation by mythicist advocates. You start out picking on one minor point you disagree with, about whether Mark likely had oral tradition sources, and spiral down quickly into clamoring about your prejudices. The mythicist scholars who are serious must wish every day that people like you would stay out of it.

          • DJ

            “If we could demonstrate that he had access to Mark, Q, and Bob, you’d ask why we didn’t assume he made up
            the rest. ”

            Rather than “made up” I suppose I would say that what is unique to Matthew is probably original to Matthew.

            “If we could demonstrate that he had access to Mark, Q, Bob, Fred, Mary, Jane, Nacy, and Charlie, you’d ask why we don’t assume he made up the rest.”

            We don’t assume that anyone had any more sources than (1.) they tell us they had or (2.) we otherwise have evidence that they had.

            “Again, I continue to think that the burden is on you, in light of the evidence available, to show that that he DID make it up. Not on me to prove that he didn’t.”

            I’m not sure why you are bending over backwards to make the methodological assumption that people have more sources than the ones they mention and the ones we can find evidence for.

            If we took your methodology seriously, we would suppose that all of Matthew’s sources had sources of their own and so on. Clearly the position that makes the fewest assumptions while explaining the data is that Matthew’s apparently original material is his own creation.

          • Scott Paeth

            By “original to Matthew” do you mean “things that Matthew either witnessed or heard first hand” or do you mean “things that Matthew got from a source unique to him. Because if the latter, that’s standard NT scholarship on the issue.

            I understood your objection to be that everything that didn’t come from Mark was made up by Matthew, and that Luke got what he shared in common with Matthew FROM Matthew, rather than from a fourth source (Q). My response was in relation to that, specifically that Luke and Matthew seem to have some things in common and some things which are unique to them. The question would then be “If Luke got everything from Matthew, why did he take what he took, and where did he get the stuff not in Matthew?”

            Again, James can certainly correct me on the details in this, but my understanding of the 4-source hypothesis is that it’s the simplest way of explaining the textual similarities and discrepancies. I’m hardly “bending over backward” to support what is the wide-spread scholarly consensus on the issue.

          • DJ

            The options for Matthew’s apparently unique material are:

            1. He made it up
            2. He witnessed and recorded it
            3. He got it from someone else

            Same goes for Mark and Luke for that matter.

            Now, I took it that you were saying for Matthew’s material that is NOT from Mark (and Q if that theory is correct) derived from a second (or a third assuming Q) source.

            What I’m saying is that if you have a passage which isn’t found in Mark, and can’t be traced to another source like Q, you shouldn’t assume that he had a source. That’s the same as saying Matthew’s apparently original material is by Matthew. So then the two options are the made it up or he really witnessed and recorded the material. I think there are strong reasons to think the latter is not a reasonable option. That’s not what I wanted to get into though. The point is we should go with (1) or (2) unless there is good evidence for (3).

          • Scott Paeth

            OK, this clarifies the point at dispute. But I’d say again, when you have someone who is drawing from multiple sources (Mark and Q) or at least “other” sources for the large portion of his material, then it makes more sense to see him as an editor than as an “author” in the sense in which we have it today, or a “redactor.” Given the textual history and what we know of the transmission of these documents, it makes more sense to think of Matthew as representative of a “school of thought” or tradition than being one guy who EITHER witnessed it firsthand OR made it up.

            But I will grant you this: If Matthew is drawing from a tradition, it could have been an oral tradition as much as a textual tradition, though again, since we’ve got evidence of other texts floating around, a textual tradition seems more likely.

          • arcseconds

            Not assuming he had a source is not the same thing as assuming he didn’t have a source.

      • Peter Riad

        Even the stuff that he plagiarizes from Mark he still edits to suit his purposes, e.g. the passion story, the burial, and even having Jesus awkwardly ride on two donkeys instead of one to fulfill what he understood the prophecy said.

      • Matt Cavanaugh

        Not inventing everything is not the same as not inventing anything. I’m still not clear on how you determine that, for example, Matt. 27:19 was fabricated but Matt. 18:21-35 must derive from some source.

        • By comparing sources, in those cases where we have them, but in others, by looking closely and with skepticism at the details and evaluating whether the balance of probability is that it was likely invented, that it is unlikely to have been invented, or we simply cannot tell. There is no magic wand that a historian can wave over a detail and have it change color to indicate historicity or ahistoricity. There is no alternative to the painstaking analysis of each piece of evidence.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            There are no sources to compare in this instance; you merely postulate a missing M-Source. That leaves you with your scrutiny and skepticism, and I was curious as to what about the special Matthean material leads you to believe it derives from a putative earlier source, rather than being fabricated by a known fabricator.

            Similarly, would analysis of

            Blessed is the lion that a person will eat and the lion will become human. And anathema is the person whom a lion will eat and the lion will become human

            lead to you attribute those words to Jesus, or a fabricator?

          • I am not postulating a specific source – I was trying to answer the broader question about how historical scholarship proceeds.

            In the case of the lion saying, one would need to draw a conclusion about whether the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on the canonical Gospels and merely a significantly later derivative work, or whether it preserves early independent tradition. One would also need to ask whether it fits the Palestinian context of the historical Jesus and makes sense as an expression of the point of view we encounter in other material that has a firmer historical basis in the sources. But perhaps most importantly, if we can’t figure out what the saying is likely to have meant, then that may hinder us answering some of those other questions. 🙂

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            What specifically would lead one to conclude that GThomas is derivative of the canonical gospels, and not vice versa?

            Would the “Palestinian context of the historical Jesus” be the criterion, then, for assessing the veracity of the teachings unique to Matthew?

          • One of the biggest factors that has led many scholars to conclude that Thomas is dependent on the canonical Gospels is its awareness of details that are redactional elements in the New Testament Gospels.

            There is no one criterion that allows one to simply declare things historical or ahistorical. The likelihood of authorial invention, the presence or absence of features characteristic of that author’s compositions/redaction/emphases, etc. One has to make an overall assessment of probability based on a consideration of all relevant evidence.

            In terms of the broader context, we have intersections between texts such as 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and Matthew 24 which indicate that at least some of Matthew’s distinctive material – even at points which he overlaps with Mark – is older than Matthew and independent of Mark. One cannot assume on that basis that all of Matthew’s distinctive elements are older, and some seem clearly to be Matthew’s invention. But it does show why one ought not to simply assume that anything distinctive in Matthew, or any Gospel, is always best explained as that author’s invention.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            1 Thess. 4-5 and Matt. 24 ‘intersect’ because both attempt to cover the embarrassment of Mark 13:30. You’ve tied your early dating of the material in Matt. 24 to an obvious late interpolation — Paul writing in the 50’s wouldn’t need to explain why so many of Jesus’ generation had died before the coming of the End Times — which may well have been drawn from that exact passage.

            I also notice that you continue to avoid giving strait-forward answers to my strait-forward questions posed earlier.

          • That is the opposite of what 1 Thessalonians says. And two authors having the same concern does not explain the detailed agreement in imagery.

            What straightforward questions did you ask that have straightforward answers which I supposedly refused to give?

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            Copying would.

            1) What about the sayings of Jesus unique to Matthew leads you to believe they originate from the mouth of Jesus?

            2) Do you believe the sayings of Jesus unique to GThomas originate from Jesus, and why?

          • Mark

            Did McGrath affirm that “the sayings of Jesus unique to Matthew … originate from the mouth of Jesus”? Maybe he deleted it.

          • I think he must know by now that that is not what I said. Each saying must be evaluated on its own merits.

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            But because we have good reason to conclude that Matthew did not simply invent all of the teaching of Jesus he adds to Mark’s account from scratch, we would still have a third witness in the form of that oral tradition

            That indicates you believe one or more of those teachings were not invented by Matthew, thus either invented by someone else, or actually said by Jesus. It’s curious that you continue to avoid saying which of these teachings you believe are real, or why.

          • You did not ask for a comprehensive survey of the sayings attributed to Jesus in Matthew and my own assessment of their authenticity. You seemed to be trying to generalize about them en masse.

            Talking about sayings being “real” seems very odd…

          • Matt Cavanaugh

            You say there was a dude known as ‘Jesus’ who said such sorts of things, once upon a time. According to you, at least some of them attributed to Him (you’ve dodged saying which) must’ve have ‘really’ been said by Him.

          • Mark

            What is surprising is that Paul himself kept up with it, even though his messiah kept not making his parousia. The threat is not ’embarrassment’ but real disappointment. He presumably kept going because he thought his spectacular moral effect (as he saw it) on the unwashed Greeks was somehow miraculous and a sign.

  • redhatGizmo

    How mighty have fallen, I remember the time when Christian apologetics like to throw around that nonsensical buzzword ‘Resurrection is Best attested event in history’ and now Jesus became ‘Best attested Palestinian Jew of first Century’, Really whats next ‘Best attested Jew of Galilee’? or ‘Best attested Jew of Nazareth’ or ‘Best attested Jew of Gamaliel street,Nazareth’ lol. Price was right it is a modern Euhemerization.

    • Peter Riad

      He is the best attested Jew in all of fiction!

  • John Thomas

    I don’t agree with current brand of mythicism endorsed by Carrier and now by Dr. Price in this debate. There is this overdependence on Earl Doherty’s thesis that Jesus was a heavenly being who suffered his sacrificial death in the lower spheres of heaven in the hands of the evil spirits, subsequently resurrected by God and that this event being later historicized in gospels. I don’t see any evidence for that from Paul’s epistles. The only brand of mythicism that make some sense to me is whether original Jesus story was conceived as a parable about the ideal life of righteous man (Son of Man) of God who performs actions (teachings and miracles) enabled by Spirit of God (like Moses, Elisha, Elijah, prophets) who will be hated by the world and thereby suffer on behalf of being righteous (like Jeremiah, Isaiah) and dies, but God doesn’t abandon his righteous ones in final scheme of things, but raise them up in three days (Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-3:10, Hosea 6:2) and this story was later historicized. But Paul’s epistles (assuming that epistles in the current form we have never underwent any interpolation from the point it was written) do point towards a specific historical figure rather than a general figure of Christ as far as I can see it.

    • Peter Riad

      How would a parable figure come to be believed as historical?

      • John Thomas

        It is a fine line to decide whether a figure is just a character in a parable or a historical person. For example, in the parable of Good Samaritan, when Jesus says that a man goes from Jerusalem to Jericho, was Jesus saying that story from his personal experience of some guy he has met before or whether he is saying a story about an imaginary person to make a point about who an ideal neighbor would be.

  • arcseconds


    I’ve just started watching the videos you linked to earlier where Bart Ehrman goes to talk about Jesus becoming God to Coral Gables Congretional Church.

    And I’m starting to notice some patterns… one is the bad pun from John 15:5 ‘I am de vine, you are the branches’, but another is his fairly explicit use of the classic criteria of authenticity.

    My impression is that these criteria have taken rather a lot of flak in recent years. I’m pretty sure Goodacre doesn’t have much time for them, and Le Donne and Keith don’t like them much either. And even though you’re mildly supportive of them, it’s not without caveats, and you don’t just trot out “it passes the criterion of dissimilarity!” as though it settles some matter, and nor do you use them as a starting point for novices.

    Ehrman, on the other hand, instructs the audience in Coral Gables almost explicitly in the criteria, and he does explicitly refer to them as being matter-settling things or thereabouts in his debate with Bass.

    Is this just done for pedagogical purposes, do you think, or is Ehrman a bit more old-fashioned on this matter than others?

    • Ehrman is most certainly old fashioned in his methods, although I’m not sure that the criticisms that have been raised have been universally accepted, and so Ehrman is by no means alone in this. You’re right that I find myself in a mediating position, advocating for a use of the criteria as tools of historical reasoning rather than a kind of lab test that gives guaranteed results. I actually will have an article coming out in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus which moves from a focus on a particular tradition into the broader question of methods that you raise here.

      I actually like the “I am de vine” pun. 🙂

      • arcseconds

        The pun is so awful it’s good, but I think what I like even better is how he trots it out so gleefully for audience after audience 🙂

  • SocraticGadfly

    Price, IMO, on the politics, is close to being a racialist, if not one; he’s far more than just a “Trump supporter.” I also find it interesting that, re Lovecroft, at times, he appears to believe that the Old Ones might exist. A Jesus mythicist, but a Lovecroftian literalist!

  • John MacDonald

    I’ve been reading Robert M Price’s new book “Bart Ehrman Interrupted (2018),” and I just wanted to share a bit of it. Price writes:

    Mythicists infer that the author of these [Pauline] epistles was writing at a time when Christians believed in a celestial Man of Light who had not appeared on the earth to teach and heal and die on a Roman cross, but who had been ambushed and slain by the demonic entitirs (fallen angels, archons, elemental spirits) inhabiting the lower heavens. As we read in various surviving Gnostic texts, this death would have occurred in the primordial pas (Price, BEI, 98).

    In the “primordial past?” I think not. Paul says that the drama of Christ’s death/burial/resurrection is to be understood in the context of the crucified/resurrected Christ being the “first fruits” of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age (1 Cor 15:23), which was happening RIGHT NOW (IE, around Paul’s time).

    • Gary

      I think for once, we actually agree. Overall, I think Price is a nice, likeable guy. But I really think he has created a niche for himself, as a big fish in a small pond (I.e. an actual academic in the mythicist pond), that perhaps doesn’t really believe what he espouses, but does it to secure himself a place in the small pond. A secure job, and position. What more could an academic want?

      • John MacDonald

        Price actually can’t find a job. He’s been ostracized for his mythicist posititon.

        • Gary

          What? Center for Inquiry fired him?

          • John MacDonald

            I meant he can’t find a teaching job.

    • John MacDonald

      Regarding Price’s assertion about the “Primordial Past” interpretation of Jesus, might not Price reply (although he never says this – I’m just speculating) that Christ’s crucifixion took place in the “primordial past,” and Christ’s resurrection took place in the time of the writer of the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed? No, Price cannot argue this. Paul clearly states as the core of his gospel that: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, AND THAT HE WAS RAISED ON THE THIRD DAY according to the Scriptures,… (1 Corinthians 15:3).” So, combining this comment with the one I posted above, Price’s “Primordial Past” interpretation is excluded from being a hermeneutic model/framework for Jesus.