The Brilliance of Mythicism

The Brilliance of Mythicism April 10, 2017

I’ve sometimes heard people deride young-earth creationists, mythicists, and various others as “stupid.” But that is grossly unfair. Whether someone is wrong need not and often does not correlate with their intelligence or lack thereof. Indeed, it can require astounding mental acumen to find ways to defend one’s viewpoint against impressive counter-evidence.

For an extreme illustration of this, one might consider John Nash’s “brilliant madness.” But one can also look at the back and forth between Richard Carrier and his critics such as David Marshall and Colin Green. Richard Carrier is wrong, but that is not the same thing as being lacking in intelligence.

George Wells, who was once a proponent of mythicism but to his credit changed his mind, passed away recently. Mythicism has continued to be promoted mainly by those outside of academia, such as Frank Zindler, precisely on blogs, as well as by academics in unrelated fields. Illustrative of this is the “Big Think” article last year that said that growing numbers of scholars are questioning the existence of Jesus – and yet the names they provided were Richard Carrier and Joseph Atwill! It is misguided to accept the claims of such articles, or to uncritically listen to fringe voices while rejecting an overwhelming scholarly consensus. But even intelligent people are misguided at times.

Mike Bird shared this quote from Rudolf Bultmann:

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed in unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community. But how far that community preserved an objectively true picture of him and his message is another question.
Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, pp. 17-18.

Certain mythicist views are rightly described as “completely crackers.” But once again, neither madness nor wrongness is the same as lack of intelligence.

Ben Stanhope made a video engaging with mythicist claims made by Jaclyn Glenn:

And here is a recent video engagement with Richard Carrier’s math (the transcript of which can be found here):

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  • John MacDonald

    The problem with a “theory” is that no matter how creatively or meticulously it is argued, you only need one significant piece of recalcitrant evidence to invalidate the whole theory -rendering everything else argued in the theory as irrelevant. Dr. Robert Eisenman, for instance, creatively and meticulously argues his point of view, but the problem is the scientific dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls invalidates his theory.

    Carrier says in “On The Historicity Of Jesus” that the only recalcitrant evidence historicists potentially have is the “James the brother of the Lord” passage, which Carrier explains away as meaning James was a non-apostolic baptized Christian, not the sibling of Jesus. The problem for Carrier is that if you don’t find him compelling on this point, nothing else he argues matters (in terms of substantiating his theory).

    Another potential deadly virus in the mythicist body is Dr. McGrath’s recent argument that Paul knew of the Gethsemane incident. If Paul knew of the earthly life of Jesus, mythicism and all their other arguments don’t matter.

    • arcseconds

      This isn’t quite correct, or at least, it’s misleading as you’ve stated it. It’s true that Galatians 1:19 is much easier to explain on historicity than it is on mythicism.

      But the argument that “brother” means something other than a literal brother (or some other relationship James could only have with another flesh-and-blood human being) is not independent of the rest of the argument. And it’s not completely outlandish for this to be the case. So if we found Carrier’s argument otherwise much more convincing than historicity (and he of course does find it convincing), then we might be prepared to say “well, this doesn’t mean what it looks like it means” too.

      For example, if we were dealing with a Horus temple, and we found a historical person being called “Brother of the Lord” where “the Lord” apparently meant Horus, then we would probably look for another interpretation of this title rather than conclude that Horus was a historical individual.

      (And in cases which look more like a ‘critical experiment’ we can say it’s actually the same sort of judgement, it’s just that one of the probabilities involved is so low as to be completely outlandish. For example, someone could still argue that Venus orbits the earth even though we can see it fully illuminated sometimes by giving up the idea that light travels in straight lines. No-one (as far as I know) was prepared to do that. But we were prepared to adjust our view of how light travels when there was sufficient epistemic gain.
      )

      In other words, the extent to which you find Carrier compelling on “the Brother of the Lord” depends on how compelling you find him on the rest of his theory.

      • John MacDonald

        If you have a theory that contends someone in history never existed, and there is a passage in a letter that makes the offhand remark that they met the individual’s brother (and the overwhelming consensus of relevant experts agree that this is what the letter says), then for all intents and purposes the theory is not credible.

        • arcseconds

          Yes, but the overwhelming consensus is based on thinking that Carrier hasn’t otherwise made a convincing argument. Thinking that this means a regular sort of brother is not independent of thinking that there’s no good reason for thinking there could be something else going on.

          If mythicists had provided a better argument, then people would be (certainly they ought to be) open to revising their idea about what this passage means.

          The fact that Paul mentions this in such an offhand manner makes it certainly makes it very difficult to deny that James himself exists, the alternative being that Paul is engaging in some kind of postmodern gonzo journalism thing where he portrays himself as interacting in humdrum ways with people who don’t exist. In other words, the alternative is Paul anachronistically pursuing a modern form of fiction.

          But James not being the brother of Jesus only requires “brother of the Lord” to be metaphorical somehow, perhaps a kind of title or membership of some group, which is not as far-fetched as Paul as a gonzo journalist, as we do have other examples of “brother” being used in these sorts of ways.

          As we don’t have any particularly good reasons for thinking Jesus must be entirely mythical, as it stands this is the clearest single piece of evidence for historicity, but the mythicist interpretation is not utterly bizarre, it’s just a rather long stretch with nothing compelling working in its favour.

          • Just for the sake of precision, we do have “brother” and “brother in the Lord” used to indicate group membership, but not “brother of the Lord.” That, combined with the fact that the phrase differentiates James from Peter who would be one of the brothers in the metaphorical sense, is what makes the mythicists’ claims about this so very unlikely to be correct.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, it is very unlikely as it stands.

            We either need a compelling reason to think this can’t be the correct interpretation (e.g. thinking ‘the Lord’ can’t have brothers of the regular sort for some reason, like he didn’t exit) or to find “brother of the Lord” being used elsewhere in a way that has to be interpreted metaphorically.

            It might be worth re-iterating the point I’ve made in the past, which is even if “brother” here doesn’t mean “child of the same parents”, the next most likely possibilities also entail Jesus actually existed: e.g. cousin, adopted brother, really close friend, etc.

            Even if it means some kind of inner circle, I still think “brother of the Lord” is more likely to arise as the label of people with a relationship with a historic individual, i.e. people he treats as brothers, or something like that.

            Are there any examples historically of real people who are called brothers of a mythical character even in a metaphorical sense? This would seem to me to be a strange kind of relationship to talk of, even metaphorically. For a start it seems presumptuous, implying equality. Taking a mythical figure to be one’s metaphorical parent seems far more likely and is historically attested to fairly frequently, I think. There’s the Christian Father, obviously, but also Zeus Pater, and Magna Mater, and probably many others.

          • Marja Erwin

            “Are there any examples historically of real people who are called brothers of a mythical character even in a metaphorical sense?”

            Hong Xiuquan claimed to be brother of a by-then-mythologized Christ.

          • arcseconds

            Interesting.

            However, he is basically claiming to be a heavenly being himself, which makes some sense: by claiming brotherhood you’re claiming to be on the same level as Jesus, so you’re also a divine being. So for this to be a relevant parallel, James would have to be thought of as an incarnated celestial being too…

          • Paul E.

            Good question. I think the general mystery cult usage of “brother” and “brotherhood” as signifying membership in a group (as I think Doherty interprets “brother of the Lord”) means that everyone is a brother of everyone else. I’m not aware of any group in which you become specifically a brother of the mythical being or whatever. Of course, Galatians throws in the metaphorical parent thing as well (“so that we may receive adoption as sons”), so Doherty says well, if Jesus was a son of god, and we receive adoption as sons of god, then we are all “brothers of the Lord” by adoption. So do mystery cults have this kind of thing going on, too? It would be interesting to see if there is anything in the literature on this.

          • arcseconds

            By the same token, “enemies of the Crown” is a way of referring to traitors, and criminal cases are always “Crown vs. Smith”, so all crimes are treason.

            Just because Doherty’s prepared to take two different metaphors that far and harmonize them doesn’t show that Paul or any other early followers of Jesus would have been prepared to assert that they’re all Jesus’s brothers and sisters.

          • Paul E.

            I agree; that’s why I think it would be really interesting to see if any mystery cults had any similar concept of brotherhood with the mythical being.

            I also have never seen anything Doherty has done with Onesimus being a brother “in” the Lord, which is phrasing more specific to group membership.

          • John MacDonald

            Let’s do a thought experiment: If a young mythicist reading the authentic Pauline epistles found a passage that said “Jesus, having only ever existed in outer space, was crucified by demons there,” would this one passage invalidate the historicist position and render irrelevant all the rest of the historicist arguments?

          • John MacDonald

            It’s like the card game Euchre. If you had a “right bower” card to play from the authentic Pauline epistles that said “Jesus was never on earth and was crucified by Demons in outer space,” that would trump everything and mythicists would win the game. But since no one has that “right bower,” historicists still have the “left bower” of the “James the brother of the Lord” passage, so that trumps every other card the mythicists have to play, and historicists win the hand.

          • arcseconds

            I don’t agree that it necessary would trump everything, but otherwise you seem to be agreeing with me: strong evidence for mythicism would force us to reinterpret Galatians 1:19. Galatians 1:19 doesn’t utterly invalidate mythicism, it only does so because the case is otherwise unconvincing.

          • Neko

            Hi, I’m so glad to see you guys are still at it. Please remind me of the arguments against interpolation of Gal 1:18-19. I get the mythicist resort to interpolation is annoying, but why is the consensus satisfied “of the Lord” is authentic? Mark?

          • John MacDonald

            Mythicism is like a bargain basement lawyer mounting a defence against murder. They have manipulated everything to provide an elaborate and detailed alibi, but the problem is the prosecution has the accused’s prints on the murder weapon, and the DNA of the accused under the victim’s finger nails. It really doesn’t matter how elaborate a show mythicists put on, because the smoking gun (the James, the brother of the Lord passage) stands against them. The important thing is that Carrier keeps on selling the illusion that mythicism is a real argument, because he has no other form of income. It would be terrible if Carrier had to get a real job, but he probably never will, because the masses love sensationalism!

          • arcseconds

            I’m not really sure, but I don’t think any respected scholar thinks the rate of interpolation is very high (I looked into this last time I was arguing with Vinny), so you can’t just handwave and say it’s an interpolation, you need to mount an argument. Mythicists as far as I’m aware don’t really have an argument for this, and obviously the fact it could be the case that it’s an interpolation isn’t compelling on its own, and just saying it is because that way mythicism can be true is even worse.

            And Carrier doesn’t argue for an interpolation, so perhaps he realises that this argument is weak.

            I would suggest it’s even less likely to be an interpolation than the base rate, as for a start we have independent arguments for Jesus’s existence, and the chance, if he existed, that he had a brother involved in the early movement in the church is actually fairly high, such things are common enough. But moreover it concurs with Mark’s statement that Jesus had a brother called James, as you said, and he is also a figure in Acts.

            Even if it is an interpolation, there’s still a good chance that Paul actually met James, and James actually was Jesus’s brother. The interpolation itself may be preserving this knowledge, but even if it was just assuming this on the basis of Acts, it might still have got this right. There weren’t that many apostles called James, so Paul might not have specified, someone made an assumption which one it was, and got it right by chance. If we knew this was the case, we shouldn’t find it so compelling, but on the other hand if we’re often too pursuaded by strong arguments we often aren’t sufficiently pursuaded by many weaker ones that point in the same direction.

          • Acts does not identify James as Jesus’ brother.

          • Something being “common enough” doesn’t make it likely. For example, brothers going into business with each other is common enough, but that doesn’t make it likely that any particular person is in business with his brother. Mark does indicate that Jesus had a brother named James, but he thought that Jesus was crazy.

          • How does his brother thinking he was crazy make mythicism likely, much less more likely than the conclusion of almost all historians and historical scholars?

            And why does this question need to be posed to you over and over again, without you ever acknowledging that historical evidence makes some conclusions more likely than others?

          • Where did I say that mythicism was either likely or much more likely than any other conclusion? I acknowledge that historical evidence frequently makes some conclusions more likely than others. Unfortunately, there are also times when the historical evidence is so problematic that it is foolish to express much certainty.

          • arcseconds

            Well, of course, did you really think I was arguing that we should just assume this because it’s common?

            We don’t normally (and shouldn’t) require extraordinary evidence for commonplaces, though. Two independent sources agreeing on anything is already a very good situation for an ancient historian, and two sources agreeing on a commonplace would, I think, normally would settle the matter unless there were other considerations like a third source, equally as good, saying something inconsistent.

            I don’t think Mark specifically says James thought Jesus was crazy. But I wonder why you bought this up if you don’t think it’s relevant to the evidence that Jesus had a brother? Is it just extraneous gossip?

          • I didn’t think that you were just assuming, but you did write that “the chance, if he existed, that he had a brother involved in the early movement in the church is actually fairly high, such things are common enough,” so it seemed you were placing some weight there.

            I mention Mark reporting that Jesus’ family (which I assume included James) thought him crazy for the same reason that I pointed out that Luke/Acts doesn’t identify James as Jesus’ brother: I think that it goes to the issue of the extent to which Galatians 1:19 is corroborated by other early writings. Matthew and Mark both report that Jesus had a brother named James who seems pretty clearly not to be a follower of his brother. Josephus also reports that Jesus had a brother named James, but says nothing to indicate that he is associated with his brother’s movement. Acts tells of a James who was prominent in the early movement, but doesn’t identify him as Jesus’ brother. Only Galatians 1:19 identifies the James who was prominent in the movement as the brother of the Lord. Without that passage, we have no early evidence that Jesus’ biological brother was a leader of the Christian movement in Jerusalem.

            This does not, of course, prove that James wasn’t Jesus’ biological brother, but I don’t think much certainty is possible.

          • John MacDonald

            Just playing harmonizing Christian apologist for a second, Maybe James was critical of Jesus while Jesus was alive, but then had a conversion experience after Jesus died and became prominent in the movement by the time Paul met him.

          • That is what conservative apologists like to claim, although I am not aware of any early traditions to that effect. There are a couple of apocryphal works that make James part of the movement prior to the crucifixion.

          • John MacDonald

            One potential problem with your interpretation is that there is no reason to think Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. In Mark, the rejection of Jesus by his family serves a theological purpose, showing that Jesus conforms to the “Prophet Archetype.” In Mark we read:

            4Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household.” 5So He could not perform any miracles there, except to lay His hands on a few of the sick and heal them. (Mark 6:4-5)

            So the rejection of Jesus by his family might simply be a Markan invention, and so doesn’t contradict Paul.

          • I think that I’m arguing lack of corroboration in Mark more than contradiction. I do find Luke/Acts more problematic. Having used Mark as a source, its author knew that Jesus had a brother named James. Nevertheless, he declines to identify the prominent James in Acts as Jesus’ sibling.

          • John MacDonald

            Vinny said “Having used Mark as a source, its author knew that Jesus had a brother named James. Nevertheless, he declines to identify the prominent James in Acts as Jesus’ sibling.”

            By way of analogy, Paul doesn’t further qualify who Cephas was when he mentions him, since it would have been understood who Cephas was. Maybe Luke thought the same of James, and so didn’t bother to identify him as Jesus’ sibling.

          • It’s not impossible, but I don’t think that it is the most parsimonious explanation.

            At the beginning, Acts names James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus. Later, the son of Zebedee is killed. After that, Acts refers to a James without any other designation. It is more parsimonious to interpret this as the earlier identified son of Alphaeus whose father is not longer mentioned because there is only one James still in the story, rather than a third James who is being introduced into the narrative without distinguishing him from the earlier one.

            In his prologue, Luke suggests that he is writing his account because he found earlier accounts in adequate. Given how often he follows Mark, when he declines to do so, I think we have to consider the possibility that he disagrees with Mark.

            It is far from conclusive, but I do think that it weighs on the other side of the balance.

          • John MacDonald

            So your theory is that Luke had a special source that disagreed with Mark on this point?

          • It’s possible. He disagrees on the name of one of the apostles. He might have known different different names for Jesus’ brothers.

          • John MacDonald

            Why would Luke choose to believe his special source over Mark?

          • I suppose he thought it was more accurate, but I’m not sure why you are calling it a “special” source.

          • John MacDonald

            So there is no reason to make a big deal about Luke not mentioning James as Jesus’ brother, because he may just have arbitrarily chose a different source over Mark (perhaps because Luke didn’t like Mark’s idea of Jesus’ family thinking he was crazy).

          • Matthew didn’t like that idea, but he still named Jesus’ brothers.

          • John MacDonald

            So maybe Matthew and Luke handled the situation differently. Luke never read Matthew, so there is no reason to think the two would have treated the situation the same.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not really feelin’ your argument Vinny. lol

            (1) You seem to make a big deal about Jesus’ family thinking he’s crazy in Mark, but there is no reason to think this represents historical reality because Mark thought of this as Jesus being representative of the ‘Prophet-Archetype.’ Jesus’ family thinking Jesus was crazy serves a “theological” purpose in Mark, so there is no hermeneutic reason to think this characterization is historically accurate:

            4Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4)

            And if it is true, it is perfectly reasonable to think James converted some time after the incident when Jesus’ family thought Jesus was nuts, either before or after Jesus died.

            (2) Luke may have had a problem with the characterization of Jesus’ family as thinking Jesus was crazy in Mark, and so tried to minimize this by eliminating the direct reference to James as Jesus’ brother in his writing.

            *** So I really don’t think there is any reason to object to the traditional formulation of James as being Jesus’ brother.

            If you have a trump card, I think it’s time to bring it out! lol

          • I’m not sure what you think it is that I am arguing. As I said above: “I mention Mark reporting that Jesus’ family (which I assume included James) thought him crazy for the same reason that I pointed out that Luke/Acts doesn’t identify James as Jesus’ brother: I think that it goes to the issue of the extent to which Galatians 1:19 is corroborated by other early writings.”

            My point is solely that there isn’t much (if anything) in the early writings outside of Galatians 1:19 to support the idea that the biological brother of Jesus was a leader in the early church.

            I know that everyone here thinks I am a mythicist, so everything I write is interpreted as a defense of mythicism. I’m not.

          • John MacDonald

            So you think Galatians 1:19 is an interpolation, or how do you read it?

          • I think that interpolation is a possibility. I also wondered whether it isn’t sort of a nickname like James the Just, Simon the Zealot, or Philip the Evangelist, which is used for convenience to distinguish between people who have the same name without depending on the unique characteristics of the person so identified.

          • arcseconds

            Good point!

            As we all know, there’s an established practice of assigning nicknames on a totally arbitrary basis, using random tables of properties and relations, and they bear no relationship to any property of the name-bearer, so nothing whatsoever can be inferred from a nickname.

            Philip was actually an evangelist, and John the Baptist baptised people, but this is just coincidence. Buffalo Bill was a buffalo hunter, Typhoid Mary actually caused typhoid, but again, coincidence.

            these guys? Coincidence.

            (And, of course, anything you can think of has a chance of happening that rivals the straightforward explanation.)

          • I see little reason to think that Simon was zealous in any different sense than anyone else was. I suspect that others were evangelists in the exact same way that Philip was. By the same token, I suspect that Paul meant the same thing by “brother”in Galatians 1:19 that he meant every other time he used the word, I.e., spiritual brother.

          • You think Paul never used the word “brother” in its more ordinary sense?!

            You think that if a word appears in a phrase with a particular sense, that it always has that meaning even in the context of a different grammatical expression?!

            Are there no limits to how far you will stretch in an effort to avoid admitting that the evidence points in a particular direction?

          • Neko

            When hyper-skepticism comes full circle to credulity…

          • arcseconds

            There are two Phillips in the early Christian movement, one of whom was one of the Twelve, and was called Phillip the Apostle, and the other did have a rather successful evangelizing career, and was called Philip the Evangelist.

            Philip the Evangelist’s first job actually wasn’t evangelizing, but food distrubtion.

            But no doubt the rest of the 7 ‘deacons’ (which presumably also is meaningless, somehow) also went on to have just as successful evangelizing careers, either lost to history or preserved in later tradition, and anyway every single early follower of Jesus was a fantastic evangelist (and thus church tradition is entirely to be believed when they attribute evangelist careers to saints). No doubt Philip the Evangelist’s career was just recorded as a typical example, not because it was exceptional (and of course, ‘the Evangelist’ moniker has nothing to do with him even being typical of an evangelist, either: they selected ‘the evangelist’ as a nickname from the Early Christian Random Nickname List, and rolled a dice to see who would get their careers recorded in Acts, and Philip just got lucky both times).

            Because otherwise we’d have two Philips with apparently meaningful nicknames, and as we all know, nicknames are entire without meaning.

            Same for James son of Zebedee. This means what ‘son’ normally means in the New Testament: the exalted representative of a divine being, Zebedee in this case, traditionally represented as having a giant spring instead of legs and an enormous moustache, and having the divine portfolio of sending people to sleep at night.

            And in fact all of the disciples were sons of Zebedee in this case, just as they were all brothers of the Lord, and uncles of Robin. It’s just that James (and John) happened to get assigned ‘son of Zebedee’ as their nicknames when the ECRNL was consulted.

            http://magicroundabout.com/Time-For-Bed-Said-Zebedee.asp

          • Both Philips were evangelists. Nonetheless, “the Evangelist” could be used to identify a specific person. By the same token, even though James the son of Zebedee was also a brother of the Lord in a spiritual sense, “brother of the Lord” in a spiritual sense could be used to identify a different person named James.

          • Can you explain what “brother of the Lord” in a spiritual sense would mean, how it is different from “brothers” in the sense that James and Peter were, since the one terms was something they had in common while the other distinguished them, and how you determined based on the textual evidence and relevant contextual and linguistic evidence that that is what the term meant?

          • I don’t think that brother in a spiritual sense is any different than the sense in which it applies to James and Peter. I think they are spiritual brothers with the Lord in the same way. That “brother of the Lord” is used to distinguish one man named James from other men named James need only be a matter of convention.

            Consider Philip the Evangelist and Philip the Apostle. They were both evangelists in the same sense of the word. Nonetheless, in a culture without surnames, the word was used to distinguish between them as a matter of convention.

            There are several reasons why I suspect that this is what may be going on: (1) Paul’s complete lack of interest in the earthly Jesus; (2) the absence of any other indication that Paul thought anyone he knew had had a relationship with Jesus prior to his resurrection; (3) Paul’s rejection of biological relationships as a basis for distinguishing among Christians i.e,, “neither Jew nor Gentile, man nor woman”; (4) in the context of his dispute with the pillars in Jerusalem, Paul wouldn’t have used a designation that suggested James had some greater status; (5) Acts does not identify this person as Jesus’s biological brother.

          • The question is how the designation “the Lord’s brother” distinguishes James not from other Jameses, but from Peter. You cannot avoid addressing this central question forever, and expect those who are trying to reason with you to believe that you are taking the conversation seriously.

          • Why would Paul want or need to draw a distinction between James and Peter?

            My hypothesis is that the reason Paul uses the designation “brother of the Lord” is because there were several men named James who were part of the movement at the time Paul made his earlier trip to Jerusalem and the Galatians might have otherwise been uncertain which James he met.

            Isn’t that pretty much why such designations are used? Simon the Zealot is distinguished from Simon Peter. James the son of Aphaeus is distinguished from James the son of Zebedee. Philip the Evangelist is distinguished from Philip the Apostle.

            Even if Paul is using “brother” in a biological sense, the simpler explanation for his doing so to identify which James he met rather than to distinguish between James and Peter.

          • In Galatians Paul says he met with Peter/Cephas and James the Lord’s brother. He uses similar language in 1 Corinthians. In both instances, the phrasing makes clear that James is the Lord’s brother and Peter is not.

          • So you figure that Peter’s not an apostle either?

          • What?! Do you not understand what Paul wrote, what I am writing, or both?!

          • 1 Corinthians 9:5 says “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas.” If Paul is indicating that Peter is not a brother of the Lord, isn’t he also indicating that he’s not an apostle?

          • You don’t think that the second and third instance of και have the sense of “even”? If not, then how would you make sense of the sentence?

          • arcseconds

            Phillip the Apostle does not seem to have had anywhere near the evangelist career that Phillip the Evangelist had, except according to later tradition where the two figures were confused.

            Was James the son of Zebedee actually the son of Zebedee? Presumably we can only have crippling doubts about this as ‘son of’ doesn’t always mean a literal son, it might be a nickname and nicknames typically don’t mean anything at all, and Zebedee is a figure in a book which may well be giving an earthly life to spiritual beings.

          • Gary

            Of course, there’s also Jude, Judas Thomas, Twin, Didymus, brother of James. Who is then, brother of Jesus?

            “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to them that are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ:”

            Too bad the author of Jude didn’t write “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James and Jesus”!

            Of course, the author of Jude probably wasn’t really a “Jude”. So drawing any conclusive conclusion is a hazardous endeavor.

          • John MacDonald

            Vinny said: “I also wondered whether it isn’t sort of a nickname like James the Just, Simon the Zealot, or Philip the Evangelist, which is used for convenience to distinguish between people who have the same name without depending on the unique characteristics of the person so identified.”

            This is very interesting. On a related matter, I am doing research on a book where I will argue Robert Kennedy wasn’t really JFK’s brother, but rather “Brother of the President” was just a nickname – in the sense you outlined above. Will you be available to consult, Vinny? lol

          • You are quite the wit John.

          • Neko

            Re the controversy over which Jesus and which James Josephus meant, I wish to share an interesting observation by commenter Paul Tanner in a Tim O’Neill thread (one in which you, VinnyJH, were a participant). O’Neill admitted this Tanner guy had poked a hole in his refutation of Carrier’s argument that the Josephus reference is Jesus the son of Damneus. (I vaguely recall R.Joseph Hoffmann making the same claim as Carrier.)

            In short (according to one James VanderKam) Tanner points out that “the Ananias in Antiquities 20.205 is Ananias son of Nedebaeus, rather than Ananus son of Ananus.”

            At the link search for “Paul Tanner”:

            http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-jesus-myth-theory-reponse-to-david.html

          • Thanks. That is interesting.

          • Neko

            Appreciate the expansive reply. Yes, I was thinking of Vinny! He’s been skeptical for a good long while of “brother of the Lord.”

          • arcseconds

            Given that there is no such passage in the known authentic Pauline epistles, obviously the answer is “no” and the mythicist is experiencing a delusion (or possibly an extremely forced translation: see The Thinker’s arguments over γίνομαι).

            If a mythicist found what appears to be a hitherto-unknown letter apparently from Paul with this passage in it, then we have a bunch of questions.

            Is it really from Paul? The presence of this passage might well count against such a judgement.

            Is this really the correct translation? Could it be understood another way?

            Should it be interpreted as a literal statement, or is Paul being metaphorical, or possibly even sarcastic?

            Is it an interpolation of some kind?

            Is it a forgery? We have a recent example of a forgery apparently done on broadly ideological grounds in the form of the “Jesus’s wife” passage, so this is hardly unthinkable.

            Finally, if we remain convinced that it is Paul, and he’s serious, then that would force a reconsideration of Paul’s relationship with early Christianity.

            It would be powerful support for Carrier’s thesis at least as far as Paul’s idea of Jesus goes, and it would force us to reconsider what Galatians 1:19
            means (just as I’ve been saying) but it might not mean we conclude that mythicism is correct. We would have to deal with the fact that Mark is not saying the same thing as Paul any longer. The outcome could be that we just don’t know what to make of the evidence any longer.

          • Is it an offhand remark? I think that it serves the very specific purpose of identifying for the reader which James it was that Paul met on that first trip to Jerusalem. After all, it was a common name and their appear to have been several Jameses associated with the movement. I can’t see any reason to think that Paul was trying to distinguish James from Peter.

          • John MacDonald

            Carrier obviously sees the problem here for the mythicism thesis here because it really doesn’t make sense to call James a “brother of the lord,” because it is seemingly distinguishing him from Cephas. It is because of this Carrier goes into textual contortions in “On The Historicity Of Jesus (582-592)” claiming Cephas is not a “brother of the lord,” but rather only non apostolic baptized Christians received that title (James being one of these, according to Carrier’s model). It’s really quite brilliant, if wrongheaded, as Dr. McGrath said in the OP.

          • I think that my explanation is simpler. There are a number of men named James in the early sources, and the readers of Galatians might not know have known which one it was that Paul met on his first visit to Jerusalem. Therefore, some further designation was supplied.

            I don’t think Paul would have attached any significance to James’s biological relationship to Jesus, so I think that he wouldn’t have pointed it out unless it served some purpose.

          • John MacDonald

            Carrier’s interpretation is pretty easy to refute. Carrier says Paul stayed with the apostle Cephas for fifteen days and saw no one else except for James, the non apostle baptized Christian. The simple retort is that if Paul stayed with James for 15 days, he would have seen lots of non apostle baptized Christians. So it is clear “brother of the lord” does not mean non apostle baptized Christian, because Paul would have met many of those when staying with Cephas – whereas Paul claims he only saw James.

          • John MacDonald

            Ehrman’s reply to Carrier’s interpretation of “The Brother Of The Lord” passage is also instructive here. Ehrman writes:
            ———————————————————————————————————————
            Carrier provides an important bit of nuance to the claim that in Galatians 1:18-19 Paul is not talking about a literal blood-brother of Jesus named James, but a kind of spiritual brother. In Carrier’s view, Paul uses the term “brother” to apply to someone who was baptized as Christian (and therefore sympatico with the heavenly Christ) but who was NOT at the same time an apostle. And so James was not an apostle, but was a “baptized Christian” (i.e., “brother”). But Cephas, from whom he is differentiated in the passage, WAS an apostle (and therefore NOT merely a “brother”).
            And so that’s why Paul says what he does. When he went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, he met with Cephas and James, the brother of the Lord. In other words, he met with an apostle and a non-apostolic person who could be differentiated from the apostle because he (a) was not an apostle but (b) was in a close relationship with
            the heavenly Christ as a baptized person. That solves the problem, right?

            Well, it may seem to do so, until you actually look closely at the passage and think about it a bit. First thing to say: nowhere in Paul’s writings, in the rest of the New Testament, or in any writing of all of early Christianity is there anywhere that you find a two-pronged definition of “brother” as someone who was (a) baptized but (b) not an apostle.

            Moreover, what would make someone think that this is what Paul means by “brother”? In fact, when Paul uses the term brother, he simply means to all those who have been baptized into the body of Christ. They all belong to the same family. They are brothers *with* Paul. Notice: Paul himself was an apostle. But the Christians are *his* brothers. That means he is *their* brother. That means he is both an apostle and a brother, not an apostle and therefore not a brother.

            Think about it a bit further: brothers and sisters are all related to one another by a close bond. Are we supposed to think that Paul would not call Cephas his “brother in Christ”?

            But there is even a stronger argument that this unusual definition cannot be right. It involves what Paul actually says in Galatians 1:18-19. I’m afraid this is a killer from Carrier’s argument. Recall Paul’s exact words:
            18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.

            Whom did Paul visit and see? Cephas. And no other apostle EXCEPT James the Lord’s brother. In other words, James is the only other apostle Paul saw, except Cephas. He is telling us that James is an apostle. But he is also the Lord’s brother. And so Carrier’s definition (brother = baptized person not an apostle) simply doesn’t work. What differentiates James from Cephas is not that he, unlike Cephas, is a non-apostle. What differentiates him from Cephas is the fact that he, unlike Cephas, is actually Jesus’ brother.

            It requires this kind of detailed examination to show why Mythicists’ views can’t be right. A claim they make in three lines can easily be taken apart. But it takes three paragraphs to do so. Claim after claim. And that’s why I find it difficult to deal with them at length. But in the end, their arguments simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.
            ———————————————————————————————————————————
            Ehrman is quite correct here. And, as I said, Paul spending two weeks with Cephas would mean Paul in all likelihood would have encountered many more non apostolic baptized Christians than just James that he mentions. Since Paul says he “only” met James, that suggests “brother of the Lord” does not mean what Carrier thinks it means.

          • arcseconds

            “brother of the Lord” is probably there to disambiguate which James he is talking about, but overall the remark strikes me as quite offhand to me. It’s almost parenthetical. The most important point is that he met Peter, the next point is that he clarifies he didn’t meet any other apostles, and the point about meeting James seems just a clarification on whom he didn’t meet.

            It doesn’t seem all that important to him that he met James.

          • John MacDonald

            On this issue, Dr. Ehrman says: “I’ve shown why that doesn’t work in Galatians 1:18-19, where James is called Jesus’ brother. It’s because the term is used to *differentiate* James from Cephas, to identify him in a way that clarified his distinctive relationship with Jesus, indicating what he was that Cephas was not. But no one can think that Cephas / Peter was not also Jesus’ “brother” in this spiritual sense. So the interpretation doesn’t work.”

          • arcseconds

            Personally I think it’s more likely to specify which James he is talking about.

          • John MacDonald

            It’s like in sports. They’re all on the same team: Christianity. Cephas was like the coach of the team, Paul was a star forward, and James was a sometimes overlooked minor league defenceman. So Paul writes to fans that he arrived and conferred with the coach, Cephas, and also saw James, who was a minor league defenceman in case the fans were not familiar with him. There was no reason to qualify who Cephas was, because all the fans were familiar with him.

          • John MacDonald

            Oh, and by the way fans, James happens to be related to the team owner Jesus!

          • arcseconds

            Exactly! I’m totally using this analogy from now on.

          • I am aware that Ehrman has written that, but I don’t find it persuasive. Given the attitude towards the Jerusalem apostles that Paul expresses in Galatians, I don’t think he believed that any of them had any distinctive relationship with the Lord that warranted clarification. On the other hand, if the Galatians knew of more than one James in Jerusalem at the time of Paul’s first visit. it would be reasonable for Paul to clarify which one he saw.

          • John MacDonald

            When attempting to retrodict a theoretical framework onto history (such as mythicism or historicism), we need to assign weights to the various pieces of evidence. Instructors do the same thing in evaluating student work, for instance, when each of two student essays are given weights of 25%, and a final exam is given a weight of 50% of the total mark. It is much more important for the student to score well on the final exam than on one of the essays. In history, for instance, it is “much more important” whether Paul met Jesus’ brother James than it is whether Mark engaged in typology in constructing his narratives (the presence of typology is “trivial” by comparison). In this way, establishing that Paul knew Jesus’ brother renders all the other mythicist arguments null and void because they are trivial by comparison.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, but that Paul met Jesus’s brother is established in part because we see no reason why Paul couldn’t have met Jesus’s brother, including that there’s no compelling case for mythicism.

            You’ve just given an example which could force us to reconsider this.

          • John MacDonald

            That’s like saying that the proposal that Paul actually encountered the risen Jesus is established, in part, because there is no reason that couldn’t have happened! I think not! lol

          • arcseconds

            You can’t think of any reason why this couldn’t have happened (or, is extremely unlikely to have happened, to put it more precisely)?

            If you really did think that meeting resurrected dead people is just as plausible as meeting someone’s brother, then why wouldn’t you conclude that Paul really did meet the risen Jesus?

          • John MacDonald

            You said “that Paul met Jesus’s brother is established in part because we see no reason why Paul couldn’t have met Jesus’s brother”

            So I replied as a counterexample of what you said “That’s like saying that the proposal that Paul actually encountered the risen Jesus is established, in part, because there is no reason that couldn’t have happened! I think not!”

            I obviously said this in jest because I, like you, think it’s silly to think Paul encountered a real live ghost.

          • arcseconds

            You don’t genuinely believe that, but you don’t seem to be joking about it being a counter example.

            We think it’s silly that he met a real life ghost. We don’t think it’s silly that he met someone’s brother. So it isn’t a counter-example: they are different cases, one is silly, the other not. We do in fact have a reason for thinking Paul couldn’t have really met a ghost on the road to Damascus.

            If it were the other way around, we would have the opposite judgement.

            If we didn’t think it silly to meet ghosts, and in fact quite ordinary, we would be much more inclined to believe that he had met one. If we thought it was silly to have met Jesus’s brother, we would be much less inclined to believe that he met him.

            If we had good evidence that Jesus lived a hundred years prior to Paul, it starts to get a bit silly to think Paul met his brother. So we would be less inclined to believe Galatians 1:19.

            (If Origen said he had met Jesus’s brother, we wouldn’t be inclined to believe that, so we would look for another explanation for the statement other than he really had)

          • John MacDonald

            I can’t remember what we were disagreeing about? My original point was that if we accept Paul met Jesus’ brother (which all the relevant experts in the field agree happened), then mythicism is refuted for all intents and purposes because this particular piece of evidence carries enormous weight when considering how mythicism and historicism are respectively retrojected onto Christian origins. Will you agree with that?

          • John MacDonald

            And would you agree that the historical model we are talking about is some manner of “Historical Idealism,” whereby, in this case, Mythicism (the thesis Jesus never existed) and Historicism (the thesis Jesus existed) are two competing theoretical frameworks that are, respectively, retrodicted onto “Christian origins” in order to classify and explain that phenomenon?

          • arcseconds

            I don’t know what this means apart from seeing what theory does better justice to the evidence, exactly what happens in science. I would not call theory-choice in science ‘scientific idealism’,

          • arcseconds

            Well, we’re back to the beginning again.

            I don’t agree with how you’ve stated it, as it sounds like we know that Paul met Jesus’s brother independently of the evidence for mythicism, so we don’t need to pay any attention to mythicist arguments whatsoever, as we know it’s not true as Paul met Jesus’s brother, thus any mythicist position is refuted.

            But in fact, the judgement that Paul met Jesus’s brother is not independent of the evidence for mythicism. If we had really good evidence for mythicism, then we would have to revise our view as to whether Paul met Jesus’s brother. You’ve given an example yourself: if we found really good evidence to think Paul thought Jesus was an entirely celestial being, we would have to rethink whether he really met Jesus’s brother, or thought he had. So it seems you agree with me about this, or at least you did a few hours ago.

            So part of the reason why we’re confident that Paul met Jesus’s brother is that mythicism isn’t compelling.

            I would agree that the current case for mythicism is refuted for all intents and purposes, because the arguments are not at all compelling, and don’t stand up to a mundane reference to meeting someone’s brother (who’s likely existence at this point in time is also supported by other documents). But we do need to take account of the (lack of a) case for mythicism to make this judgement.

            That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for some new evidence to arise that means we’d have to revise our view. I think it’s very unlikely that such evidence will arise, if it did it would make any historical reconstruction quite bizarre (e.g. turns Paul into a gonzo journalist). But it doesn’t involve a logical contradiction, and nor does it involve the level of bizarreness that would be required for us to be wrong about geocentrism or macroevolution.

          • John MacDonald

            I really don’t think you understand philosophy of history, because your responses thus far seem completely devoid of an understanding of sound historical method. But I’ll bow out to see if anyone else wants to weigh in.

          • arcseconds

            It’s perfectly ordinary philosophy of science, though.

            Also, you seem to agree with me on the substantial point: if better evidence for mythicism came along we’d have to re-evaluate what Galatians 1:19 means. So if I’m making some huge methodological mistake, then so are you, which makes for a baffling sort of criticism. But this seems so basic to sound treatment of evidence, that if historical methodology says otherwise I’m afraid I don’t think much of it.

            Anyway, unless you can be more specific, then this criticism is not helpful to me, as I have no idea what my error is, nor what to do about correcting it.

            Maybe it’s just that I’m not using historiographical lingo, or something?

          • John MacDonald

            You took me seriously? I was just making a joke. I don’t even think there is such a thing as “philosophy of history.” I’m still not sure what we are disagreeing about. lol

          • arcseconds

            Oh, OK, you got me 🙂

            (There is such a thing as philosophy of history, and it’s true I know little about it. Maybe I should do something about that…)

            Let’s drop it. At this point it just seems to be just that I prefer my way of putting things than yours, which doesn’t seem like a particularly substantive matter…

          • John MacDonald

            Agreed!

          • If we are thinking historically, we don’t accept that Paul met Jesus’ brother; we assess it as probable. Unless we assess that probability as 100%, we haven’t refuted mythicism.

          • arcseconds

            Nothing but a logical impossibility should be given a probability of 0, yet we still accept that, say, jumbo jets fly.

          • The evidence that jumbo jets fly is so overwhelmingly greater than the evidence that Paul met Jesus’ brother that it is hard for me to see he point of that analogy.

          • arcseconds

            It’s not an analogy for Paul meeting Jesus at all, but rather to point out that insisting on probability being 0 before one says something is rejected means that you never reject any empirical statement, including statements like ‘Jumbo Jets fly’.

          • I think we can assess the probability that jumbo jets fly as sufficiently close to 100% as to be justified in rejecting empirical statements to the contrary.

          • arcseconds

            That’s not what you said earlier, of course, you said 0, not ‘sufficiently close to 0’. Those are two different things, and they are very different things when it comes to Bayesian epistemology, as Bayes’s theorem will never improve on a zero (as it involves multiplying by that zero): a Bayesian agent who assigns a zero to a proposition is literally committing themselves to that proposition being absolutely impossible, and no amount of data will convince them otherwise.

            The question therefore is how close to zero do you need to be, and is the probability of Jesus’s non-existence in the ‘sufficiently close to zero’ area.

            For practical purposes the consensus of relevant experts has in fact decided that it is sufficiently close to zero to not take account of the possibility of Jesus’s non-existence.

          • If you prefer, I will amend my statement to read “Unless we assess the probability that Paul met Jesus’ brother as sufficiently close to 100% that we are justified in ignoring contrary possibilities, that particular fact is not sufficient to refute mythicism.”

          • arcseconds

            Right, but that’s a much lower bar, and John appears to think that it is in fact OK to ignore mythicism as a genuine possibility at the moment.

            Certainly that’s what I think, and it’s what the academy in practice thinks.

          • Mark

            The probability that Paul met Jesus’ brother as sufficiently close to 100% that we are justified in ignoring contrary possibilities.

          • arcseconds

            with the caveat that ‘brother’ might well not mean full brother, but rather half-brother, cousin, adopted brother, etc. Those happen often enough that the probability is non-negligible.

            All of which are relations that entail the existence of the other relatum, of course.

          • With all due respect Mark (which of course means that I am about to say something disrespectful), I think that comment demonstrates your inability to make probability judgments.

          • Mark

            Probability judgments are subject to several interpretations, as expressions of subjective confidence – in which case they are subject to no constraint but consistency – attributions of frequency, etc. etc. You might look into the question of the interpretation of probability, as standard philosophical topic since the 19th c. If you mean a subjective, private degree of confidence such as might be revealed in a bet, it is impossible for any judgment about a single proposition taken in isolation to “demonstrate the inability to make probability judgments” This is a (trivial) theorem.

          • “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less”

          • Mark

            No, your case is “When *I* use a word, I don’t have to mean anything at all”. This is shown by your belief that there is a coherent construction on which a probability judgment about an isolated individual matter of fact could be understood to exhibit any probabilistic incoherence whatsoever. That you think an isolated judgment can show this really does “demonstrate the inability to make probability judgments”.

          • Life is too short to play this game.

          • Mark

            You’ve got that right, yes.

          • arcseconds

            Incredible! The only people who are capable of making probability judgements are the ones that agree with you. What are the chances of that, I wonder?

          • I think it odd that you would interpret my comment that way as it was directed to one specific probability judgment made by one specific person. I don’t think that judgment and my own exhaust all the possibilities.

          • arcseconds

            One specific probability judgement that the academy implicitly agrees with, so virtually all professional biblical scholars are incapable of making probability judgements. Perhaps there are a few who are historicists but think mythicism shouldn’t be ignored as a possibility? If so, I’d be indebted if you told me who they are.

            But no professionals, including any who continue to think mythicism is a going concern, nor their collegues in related disciplines, seem to have noticed that biblical scholarship is full of people incapable of making probability judgements.

          • I do find that biblical scholars are wont to express some questionable probability judgments. Ehrman is certain Jesus existed beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt based on Galatians 1:19, but he isn’t certain that the text of Galatians is reliable.

          • arcseconds

            How unreliable does Ehrman think the text is? The manuscript tradition does not support the notion that the texts are very unreliable. The error rate is somewhat high, but most of the errors are trivial: spelling mistakes and single-word alterations that don’t change the meaning of the text in any material way. Thinking that the rate of meaning-altering interpolations is as high as 5% would seem extraodinarily high, but that still means the base chance of Galatians 1:19 not being an interpolation is 95%.

            An error rate for significant errors of 1% per verse would mean that even a short text such as Galatians almost certainly contains at least one significant error, and yet any verse considered alone is very reliable.

            And of course no-one actually thinks that every verse has an equal chance of being an interpolation.

            I agree that Ehrman is putting this a bit strongly here, but I don’t think it’s evidence that he is simply incompetent at probability judgements.

            He may have got swept up in his own rhetoric, or he may be trying to guard against people treating possibilities as things they can reasonably believe in a popular work, he may be rounding 99% up to 100% (I think everyone does this: no-one’s really capable of taking into account slight deviations from absolute certainty all the time), or he may genuinely think that a 1% doubt isn’t actually a reasonable one. It’s certainly not reasonable to believe that something that has a 1% chance of happening has actually happened, so it’s not as if he’s way off base here, if that’s what he thinks.

          • I am not aware that Ehrman has ever put a number to it. This is what he said in a 2008 debate with Dan Wallace:

            Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know.

            Logically, any uncertainty about the text of a document necessarily creates uncertainty about the facts derived from that text.

          • arcseconds

            But what level of uncertainty? If we don’t know that, we can’t tell whether Ehrman is really doing anything inconsistent here.

            Wallace is an evangelical, and apparently quite conservatively religious in his approach to the Bible, so the main thrust of Ehrman’s remarks is, I would guess, against the notion that we have perfect copies of the original manuscripts.

            It’s entirely possible for Ehrman to believe that there’s a high chance that the text of Galatians has at least one significant alteration somewhere, yet believe that any given verse is very likely to be as Paul wrote it, as I have demonstrated. He could even believe Galatians 1:19 is more likely than average to be original.

            Or he may even think it’s pretty unlikely to contain a significant alteration at all. He’s only said these things are possible, not that they’re particularly likely. I think he’d be overly optimistic if he thinks it’s got a high chance of being pretty much word for word as Paul wrote it, but this passage doesn’t rule that out.

          • In Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman asserted that Galatians 1:19 made the existence of a historical Jesus certain “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt.” I cannot imagine any reasonable interpretation of his remarks in the debate that could be consistent with that degree of certainty.

            It is true that Ehrman made the remarks in the context of a debate, which would suggest that he may not have been as precise as he might have been in writing. Specifically, Ehrman was responding to Wallace’s assertion that he expressed greater skepticism about the reliability of the texts in his popular works than he did when interacting with other scholars. Even granting him some leeway, however, I think it hard to harmonize that statement with the one in the book.

            Whatever one thinks the baseline to be, uncertainty has to be greater in those cases where an obvious motivation for interpolation exists. Had Paul not specified in Galatians which James he met, any copyist in the chain of transmission might have thought it useful to insert “the brother of the Lord” for the sake of clarity. A slightly less innocent motive might be a copyist who was part of a community that traced its origins back to someone named James, and who wished to boost the stature of his community by identifying that James as the brother of Jesus. Personally, I wonder whether Paul would have wanted to say anything about James that might have boosted his stature in the context of the disputes that Paul is describing.

            As far as I know, Ehrman has no specific reasons for
            thinking Galatians 1:19 any more likely to be authentic than any other verse. When I raised the issue in a question on his blog, he only cited the lack of variants in the manuscripts. That he would consider this sufficient to support certainty beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt given his general uncertainty about the texts strikes me as a very poor probability judgment.

          • This reflects a complete failure to grasp the nature of textual criticism. Some parts of texts show signs of deliberate tampering, but most show none. Many words show signs of copying errors, but in most cases we can deduce in a straightforward way what the original form almost certainly was. If you have been treating a polemical barb made against a conservative Christian about the text as a whole, in the context of a debate, for a measured statement about the details of the evidence as understood by scholars, then that explains why my attempts to converse with you about the historical Jesus in the past have been a cause of so much frustration to me…

          • I am not treating Ehrman’s remarks as “a measured statement about the details of the evidence as understood by scholars.” I am treating them as <ihis of <ihis position. He was explaining why the position he takes in popular works is consistent with the position he takes in scholarly works:

            What I have said to my colleagues is that we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine as the earliest text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t know if we can get back to the original text. And I stand by both statements. We don’t know what Paul originally wrote to the Galatians, and we have no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us any further back than we have already gotten and our earliest evidence is from the year 200, 150 years later. So can we know for certain? No. We can’t know for certain that the text is reliable. You might want to think it is. You might want to hope it is. You might want to say there are intelligent people who say it is so probably it is. But think about it. There are people copying these texts year after year, decade after decade.

            While it is true that this statement was made in the context of a debate with a conservative scholar, it is consistent with everything I have seen him say and write elsewhere.

          • arcseconds

            I have already discussed at some length how those statements may be understood, and I have admitted that Ehrman is putting it perhaps a little strongly. Did you read that? Because you’re writing as though you have not.

            There is absolutely no contradiction in thinking that the text of Galatians contains significant deviations from Paul’s original text, and that any given verse is extremely likely to be original (or only deviates in insignificant ways).

            Here is another way of making sense of Ehrman without thinking he is blatantly contradicting himself: he thinks the text is reliable enough to say that every verse is beyond reasonable doubt original or close enough (removing ‘a shadow of a’ as strictly unwarranted but fairly mild hyberbole) but that this stops short of absolute certainty.

            You raise scenarios that might result in interpolation, but if you were a counsel for the prosecution and the defense raised the possibility, without any proof, that the evidence had been tampered with or planted by some made-up enemy with invented motives, would you just say “oh well, that sounds like reasonable doubt to me, I guess you win?” Of course not: the obvious reply is that these are doubts but without proof they’re not reasonable doubts.

            What probability should we assign to the existence of a group or individual that someone has just made up, and for which there is no evidence whatsoever? Surely the only reasonable probability to assign is a negligible one. If we were to say that your copyist who decides to clarify has a 1% chance of existing, and the Jamesist sect has a 1% chance of existing, and the inner group that is referred to as “brothers of the lord” has a 1% chance of existing, and there’s a 1% chance that Paul is a gonzo journalist who thinks Jesus never had an earthly existance but says he met his earthly brother anyway, and there’s a 1% chance that ‘brother of the Lord” was inserted by anti-Jamesists who use the phrase ironically then we can make it as certain as we like that Galatians 1:19 was an interpolation, just by multiplying cases using the power of our imaginations. And by the same token we’d be as certain as we like that one of: the helpful copyist, the Jamesists, the gonzo Paul, the sarcastic anti-Jamesists etc. must exist, although we wouldn’t be certain which one.

            And of course one could pull the same trick with any verse one likes.

            That’s obviously absurd, which is why we shouldn’t take the existence of arbitrary actors with arbitrary qualities seriously when there’s no proof whatsoever that they’re real.

          • If I were a prosecutor, the burden of proof would be on me to establish the chain of custody for any evidence that I sought to admit. If there were significant gaps of time for which I could not account, the defendant would not need to prove that someone had tampered with the evidence to preclude its admission. In a civil trial, where the burden of proof is preponderance of the evidence rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, the standards are less strict, but the burden is still on the party offering the evidence to establish the foundation.

            In the case of Galatians, we have a gap of 150 years between composition and our earliest manuscripts. When arguing with conservative Christians, Ehrman recognizes the uncertainty this creates, but he ignores it when arguing with mythicists.

            You are correct that we could look at any verse imagine possible reasons why it might be an interpolation, but I don’t see anything absurd in doing so. For many, we could find corroborating verses that would reduce the probability of interpolation. For some, we might conclude that they really were offhand remarks making it more likely to be original. Unfortunately, there would also be some where we would just have to accept uncertainty.

          • arcseconds

            Everyone admits there is uncertainty. McGrath admits there is, Ehrman admits there is. This is not news. No-one thinks it’s absolutely impossible for there to be helpful (but misinformed) commentary added later.

            The question is what level of uncertainty. For there to be a problem with thinking that Galatians 1:19 shows Jesus exists to the level of beyond reasonable doubt requires showing that the level of uncertainty is above the point that the doubt is now reasonable.

            So you need to show not that it’s possible for it to be tampered with, which is true of every verse in the Bible, every sentence in every ancient document (and every piece of evidence ever admitted in court), but that it’s got some reasonable chance of having being tampered with.

            You don’t seem to recognise that there’s a difference between possibility and the point at which a doubt becomes reasonable, so you treat inventing a story which isn’t impossible as raising a reasonable doubt. The legal system wisely doesn’t think these two things are the same thing, and nor should you.

            (Telling me about some different legal principle which has no applicability in ancient history is not a rebuttal, it’s just avoiding the point.)

            What is absurd is not saying it’s possible there was a sect of sarcastic anti-Jamesists or a very early historicist/mythicist debate with historicists inserting things in to make it seem more likely Jesus existed, or a copyist mispelled ‘Kylie’, but that these possibilities should be given any real weight. If we give them any real weight, then the level of doubt we can raise for any verse is limited only by our imaginations. That is what is absurd: every single sentence in every single document can be established as being not just doubtful, but most likely inserted by this method: if you insist on thinking that the probability is .01 for any given insertion story, you just need to come up with 70 independent stories to make it more likely than not that whatever verse you like has been tampered with. If you think the probability is .001 then you just have to be more imaginative and come up with 700 stories.

          • Suppose that there were a verse in Romans in which Paul
            discussed meeting “James the Brother of Jesus.” Would that strengthen the case for Paul having met the biological brother of Jesus? Shouldn’t we have greater confidence in something that is corroborated multiple times than in something that is supported by a single verse? Wouldn’t three independent references in Paul be even more conclusive?

          • John MacDonald

            So you are arguing that anything that is only attested to in one place is inherently doubtful?

          • No. I am arguing that, all other things being equal, something that is uncorroborated is subject to greater uncertainty than something that is corroborated and that uncertainty decreases as corroboration increases. I would also argue that plausible motivations for interpolation reduce the level of certainty that can be expressed and the absence of such reasons increases it.

          • arcseconds

            It is already corroborated in Josephus.

            Which no doubt you will argue could also be an interpolation, and it won’t trouble you in the slightest that we need to propose two interpolators, both of which happen to act at a point where they can influence the entire extant manuscript tradition.

            I would also argue that plausible motivations for interpolation reduce the level of certainty that can be expressed

            Quite so, and I’ve already come up with six plausible reasons myself, and you have got three!

            Here’s another one to make it a round 10: James was actually called ‘The Lord’ because he was incredibly arrogant.

            Oh, sorry, not for that reason, he was just called that because they needed to distinguish him from James the Spoon and James the Second Cousin of the Great Behemoth.

            Some later interpolator thought this couldn’t be right, it sounded like he was being identified with Jesus Christ, and assumed that some previous editor had accidentally omitted ‘brother of the’.

            Let’s see if we can get the probability of it not being an interpolation down to below 50% by the end of the month!

          • The idea of Christians doctoring the text of Josephus is pretty silly, isn’t it?

          • The idea that everything Josephus says that is inconvenient to one’s preferred viewpoint has been doctored, and the assumption that that doctoring confirms what one prefers to believe, is indeed very silly. The conclusions of mainstream scholarship regarding Josephus having been doctored, on the other hand, are not silly at all.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, apparently, with respect to that particular passage.

          • John MacDonald

            (a) Something attested once can still be “likely,” even if something multiply attested is “more likely.”
            (b) As long as we are psychologizing, we could probably invent a possible reason for interpolation for virtually any passage. But possible doesn’t equal probable.

          • There is something I find perplexing John:

            If I were to say that we shouldn’t rely on Mathew’s story of the guards at the tomb both because it is is uncorroborated and because there is an obvious, plausible motive for its invention, i.e, to counter claims that the body was stolen, no one other than a conservative apologist would bat an eye. Moreover, even many of them would concede that my concerns are reasonable.

            On the other hand, if I suggest that we shouldn’t rely on the reference to “the brother of the Lord” in Galatians both because no other early text corroborates that Jesus’ brother James was prominent in the movement and because there is an obvious, plausible motive for its interpolation, I am accused by mainstream scholars of making a hyper-skeptical assault on historical methodology.

            While I certainly recognize that different factors might lead to different conclusions in each case, my basic concern is the same. I do not understand why it should produce such disparate responses.

          • It is good to see you finally admitting that you don’t understand the source material and the judgments that historians make regarding it!

          • John MacDonald

            lol

          • arcseconds

            Sure, the case would be strengthened.

            But this does not mean the existing case isn’t sufficient. You can always get more evidence for any proposition, no matter how much evidence you had previously. A plausibly-genuine death threat, fingerprints on the murder weapon, no alibi, and relevant prior convictions would, I imagine, be normally enough to secure a conviction. No-one would be convinced by the defense arguing “but we don’t have video evidence! Wouldn’t that make the prosecution’s case even stronger? So surely that means there must be reasonable doubt at the moment!”

            (If we had video evidence, we could ask for independent eye-witnesses too.)

          • John MacDonald

            If refutation only came when we got 100% probability (absolute certainty) against a theory, precious little could be refuted in history.

          • Given the problems with our sources, I doubt that there are many theories concerning the historical Jesus that can be refuted in the sense that I think you are using the word, especially when the basis for the purported refutation is a few words in a text for which the earliest extant manuscripts date to a century and a half after composition. It fascinates me that Ehrman thinks that we can be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that Paul met Jesus’ biological brother when he doesn’t think we can be certain about the reliability of the text of Galatians.

          • Mark

            History is a definite established discipline. It is not characterized by the use of probability judgments, but by simple affirmation and standard modal judgments. Probability judgments have only existed for a few centuries, and nobody know how to interpret them. History has existed for a couple of millennia.

          • Medicine has existed for a couple of millennia as well, but that is no reason to reject advances in understanding.

          • Mark

            Your claim above was that historical judgments are probabilistic in character. This can be refuted readily by reading a few actual works of history. They contain direct assertions and modal claims.

          • arcseconds

            This doesn’t reflect historians’ own judgements about history as an academic study, though. McGrath, for example, emphasizes it is in fact a probablistic discipline, and also stresses that for example little weight should be put on a newly published paper proposing a new thesis, and that people (especially lay people) should wait to see to what extent it is embraced by the community of scholars before thinking it to be true.

            I doubt that any serious biblical scholar would object to the idea that some things in biblical scholarship are virtually certain (e.g. Jesus’s existence and crucifixion) other things very probable (Jesus’s causing a disturbance in the temple, perhaps), other things far more dubious (exactly what happened to his body) and other things that are not very likely to be true at all, and they would know on reflection that anything in a new paper is likely to be in the later category, if only because lots of incompatible claims are made in the literature and they can’t all be true.

            All of these things are typically phrased as direct assertions, and it may be that a historian making those assertions thinks they are all equally probable and highly probable, but I would hope that most historians are a bit more reflective than that, and know that what they propose does not have the same status as the most certain things in the discipline. And I know they do not think that the statements of other historians are highly probable all the time, because they dispute them!

            So the direct assertions disguises rather than informs us about the nature of the discipline, and I think actually the discipline would be improved by adopting more probablistic language. Certainly when explaining it to laypeople it would be of enormous help to distinguish between the practically certain, the probable, and the personal speculation.

            (And I’d say exactly the same thing about science, as well.)

          • Mark

            These are external reflections on the historical texts stated in a language alien to them. The texts themselves are mostly simple assertions; each of these is a claim to know and doesn’t admit a probabilistic construction. Thus just as “Jesus existed but I don’t think he did” is a sort of contra-diction so are “Jesus existed but maybe he didn’t”, “Jesus existed but I don’t know whether Jesus existed”, “Jesus existed but there is a 5% probability that he didn’t”. Despite this, the reflective historian will know that a bunch of her sentences in any given work are going to turn out wrong. This has nothing to do with probability. The only known form of judgment that can take independent particular matters of fact as content and to which the probability calculus applies is the usual subjective ‘bayesian’ / decision theoretic one. This ‘judgment’ amounts to stating what bets you are willing to take. It is a statement about oneself. It makes sense to use such judgments in a public contribution to knowledge in special cases, e.g. where there is an immense accumulation of uniform data and theorems showing that the judgment arising from rational updating through the succession of data tends to become independent of ‘subjective’ starting points. A historian who used such judgments by contrast would basically just be expressing willingness to place independent bets, subject to coherence constraints, which which isn’t doing history.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, I agree that the texts contain simple assertions for the most part, and this is a judgement that’s largely external to the texts. But it’s not external to the writers of those texts: historians in fact assert that their enterprise is a probabalistic one.

            What you are saying here is that when McGrath says, as he frequently does, that history is a matter of probability, I should say “but in your papers you don’t give probabilities, you make direct assertions, so you don’t know what you’re talking about when you remark on this in a blog post: you may think it’s about probabilities but what you write in papers says otherwise”. Why should we think historians themselves are so mistaken about their own practice? And if they are this mistaken when they express themselves on occasions outside of the bulk of their formal history texts, why should we take the way they express themselves in the bulk of their work seriously?

            Apart from actually saying explicitly that the enterprise is probabalistic, there are other pretty strong signs that they do in fact think of their simple assertions in probabalistic ways. For example, they are happy to admit that some of their simple assertions are more certain than others. I’ve already mentioned some examples, but to add another very clear example, McGrath frequently says that evolution is more certain than the historicity of Jesus (which seems like an entirely correct thing to say) .

            And some of the reasoning is explicitly probablistic: e.g. the criterion of embarassment states that it’s unlikely to be the case that someone invents something that they would consider embarassing to their cause. And statements such as ‘such and such is likely’ and ‘such and such is unlikely’ are not uncommon in the literature.

            If we insist on reading the simple assertions as just statements of fact, this all looks bizarre and nonsensical. How can things that are just true simpliciter be ranked according to certainty? How does probabilistic reasoning ever justify asserting something as a simple truth? And we seem to have to treat historians as being entirely deceived about their own practice, if not having some kind of multiple personality disorder, where they sometimes treat history as probabilistic and other times as simple assertion of fact, where these things are as different as chalk and cheese.

            There’s an easy way out of these perplexities: the historians are correct in thinking that it is a probablistic enterprise, the judgement of a historian is never “this is absolutely true” but at most “this is overwhelmingly likely to be true”, and the simple assertions of history texts disguise the probabilistic nature of the enterprise.

            The diguise is thin enough in places: historians say Jesus existing is extremely likely, we can think of this as giving a very high probability to the statement. I don’t think it’s necessarily useful to put precise numerical values, but for purposes of illustration we might put it at 0.9999. Then we can see how it is McGrath can say it’s more certain that evolution is true — he might put that at 0.9999999 or something. For most purposes there’s no trouble with treating something that’s very close to probability 1 as 1, and expressing that as a simple assertion.

            This also shows that your attempt at making nonsense by combining the language of probability with simple assertions does not show a genuine difficulty. If “Jesus existed” is simply shorthand for “It is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus existed” then there is no problem: the statements become some variant of “It is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus existed but it is not absolutely certain, there is a tiny tiny outside chance that he did not”, an entirely unproblematic statement.

            You state that the reflective judgement of a historian is that some of their statements will be wrong “has nothing to do with probability”, but why not? This judgement in fact seems totally reasonable on probabilistic grounds: they think every individual statement has a very high probability (this being the best that making an empirical statement can ever consist in) but (baring weird scenarios like the statements being entailed by one another) the chance of one of them being false increases to certainty as the number of statements increases. In fact if we insist that simple assertions aren’t probabilistic in nature we end up with them involved in paradoxical attitudes like the ones you complain about: they think everything they say is true yet they think some of what they say is false.

            I don’t think it’s always as simple as simple assertions are diguised assertions of high probability. The simple assertion language does allow historians to sometimes (often) reason in a manner roughly analogous to propositional logic: treating judgements as though they are simply true. To some extent this is necessary and useful, as we’re not very capable taking into account uncertainty in extended reasoning. The convention also allows for “what if” reasoning, which has some utility, and also disingenous arguments to be tabled (you must have occasionally seen papers where you wonder whether the author genuinely believes what they’re saying, as opposed to seeing an opportunity to publish a paper).

            Bayesian epistemologists insist that all empirical reasoning is Bayesian / decision theoretic reasoning insofar as it is rational, and I think that view has a lot to recommend it. I don’t think you can just dismiss a major perspective in epistemology and the philosophy of science by saying “it’s just about betting”. Earman would complain you’re taking the window-dressing too literally, down to imaginging Dutch bookies complete with clogs. In fact much of our behaviour is explicable on this basis. We are not actually totally certain of very much in our lives, even though we may say things like “I have a job” we know we don’t know for certain that the company hasn’t tanked and we’re about to get a nasty surprise when we go in tomorrow. So we get income insurance / keep our CV up to date, etc.

            Historians certainly engage in practical behaviour as a result of their historical beliefs. The business of publishing papers is a little complex to analyse in a decision-theoretic manner as it being accepted by peer reviewers is more important than it being true, but sometimes things are a little more direct, e.g. looking for archaeological evidence in a particular location. I expect that this sometimes takes the form of an unlikely bet: I would be very surprised if no historian, ever, had thought to themselves “well, this is quite unlikely to be true, but if it is, I’ve got a career-making opportunity here!” and puts their money down and lets the dice roll.

          • Mark

            “historians in fact assert that their enterprise is a probabilistic one” outside the text. If you enquire what they mean, it will inevitably emerge that they believe there is a way of interpreting probability judgments in any but a radical bayesian way – effectively as a disposition to take bets. The illusion that there is another interpretation of probabilistic locutions for questions like this is very widespread. There is indeed another interpretation, for example, where quantum mechanics is at issue: if I think the probability for this set up is “50% spin up”, then I can be wrong. In history the infrastructure for this is missing. The only known way to take your claim that the historians’ sentences are short for probabilistic judgments is as saying that they’re short for something like “I personally am willing to take remote odds on the proposition that p” This totally disfigures the content of the text it seems to me. Anyway, there are familiar paradoxes in making overt assertion subject to a mere ‘very high probability’ constraint, e.g. it will license me in saying, of each ticket holder, “she won’t win the lottery,” and thus after enumeration surface logic would license ‘so no one will’, though of course there are attempted solutions to this. Radical probabilism like Earman’s is indeed an existing tendency in epistemology, but so is the sort of view I was presupposing above, in which assertion is viewed as containing a claim to knowledge, and is subject to the knowledge rule and so on, combined perhaps with some doctrine of how skeptical contexts affect assertion and claims and attributions of knowledge. Radical probabilism is really a view about rational decision making, the internal states of agents, and the explanation of choices – not about dispute in objective, public discourses. The radical probabilist view can make sense of a kind of ‘objective’ discourse in special cases. History doesn’t seem to be one of them since it doesn’t proceed from the collection of uniform data.

          • Do you consider the probability that Paul meant “brother” in a spiritual sense and the probability of interpolation to be essentially zero?

          • John MacDonald

            Dr. Robert M. Price has devoted most of his career of late to trying to show the New Testament pericopes are actually rewrites of Septuagint and Greek sources – as if this had any bearing on the mythicism/historicism question, which it clearly doesn’t.

          • arcseconds

            This sort of thing seems to be common with mythicists. It seems to be an argument from induction over pericopes: if this pericope is a rewrite of the Septuagint/an esoteric allegory/just a story, and if this +1 pericope is also, and if this + 2 pericope is too, and … and this + n pericope is also, for some large n, all pericopes must be!

            Apart from the usual problems of induction, which would appear to be acute in this case as presumably there isn’t a natural law governing what appears in a text, this ignores the possibility that this sort of material can still be constructed around a historical core.

            (as you can tell, I think Carrier is guilty of this too, and Fitzgerald perhaps also when he gets frustrated at the unliklihood of some passage being true. )

    • Bill Morrison

      Why would one rely on anything written in the Pauline letters? No original copies exist. How can we even know who wrote or later edited or added to them to suit biblical myths?

      • We deduce who wrote them, and how they were edited, based on the manuscript evidence, just as we do with all other ancient texts.

  • Reluctant Skeptic

    My own two cents as someone who was a mythicist Christian long before becoming an atheist: Whether you want to believe there was a Jesus, by the time the Gospels are written, the person of Jesus is so mired in political and dogmatic interpretations that the true Jesus is forever lost to time. This is the mythicist position that I take, that whether or not a Jesus of Nazareth existed, the Biblical Jesus is the stuff of myth and legend. Even the famed Jesus Seminar of the West Star Institute was only able to say that 18% of the quotes of Jesus MIGHT have been actually said by him. And this from scholars who spent their lives studying the Bible. So I do say that there was not a historical Jesus as related in the Bible, or as worshiped today by Christians. But honestly, does it matter? If you were to find out tomorrow that Jesus did not really rise from the dead (pure hypothetical here), and there was irrefutable evidence to this, would it really affect your faith? For Jesus to be an archetype rather than a real person, would that really change the metaphors that you apply to your own lives?

    • What you describe is not mythicism. That a historical figure may be so distorted by extant sources that historians cannot speak confidently about them involves a very different scenario from one that says that the figure is entirely invented, that there is no historical figure that the legends and myths obscure from view.

  • arcseconds

    If we say a mythicist or a young-earth creationist is irrational, then presumably we don’t mean they’re irrational through-and-through, like they can’t make the simplest purchasing decision, make appropriate inferences from a newspaper article, or tell when their child is lying to them, but rather that they’re behaving irrationally when it comes to a particular matter.

    Doesn’t ‘stupid’ work the same way? I.e. by saying ‘Carrier’s stupid’ what might be meant is not that he performs badly on IQ tests or anything like that, but that on the matter in question he isn’t able to operate competently.

    I don’t think ‘stupid’ is usually a particularly meaningful or constructive thing to say, but subjectively some thing do strike me as stupid about mythicism. For example, mythicists seem to suffer to varying degrees from the Dunning-Kruger effect, and D-K is something that tends to evoke the “but that’s stupid” reaction in me. Which can be explained perhaps by the fact that being bad at something yet not realising it does seem particularly incompetent and disastrous. But Carrier’s theorizing about a celestial Jesus and arguments on the basis of texts like the Ascension of Isaiah don’t strike me as stupid in any way, in fact, they’re quite clever.

  • Matt Woodling

    Mr. McGrath, you could now go one step further and question whether the existence of Jesus even matters. Most non-believers I know don’t care. What matters is whether the divine Jesus existed, whether his divine father existed (or exists) and whether the stories that Christians and scripture tell about these two are good or bad – whether they are worthy of worship or even admiration if they did exist at all.

    I don’t think the divine Jesus or his father ever existed or exist today, primarily because there’s literally no evidence for it, and plenty of evidence that humans made up the stories. The sripture describes both beautiful and horrible things about them, which believers use to justify what they say to and do to other people.

    The reasonable among us (both believers and non-believers) go on with life deciding what’s right and wrong, from decade to decade and century to century. And the rest of the believers always go along with it, often after much hand-wringing.

    • arcseconds

      Why does it matter if other people care about this or not?

      Most people don’t care about the temple system’s involvement in debt relief in ancient Mesopotamia, the archaic Proto-Indo-European system of grammatical gender, chemical reaction rates in cold dark interstellar gas clouds, or the behaviour of Turing machines equipped with an oracle that provides them with non-computable results, yet these are all areas of active academic research.

      • Matt Woodling

        The difference between interstellar has clouds and divine beings is that the people who believe in the divine beings tell us that the beings directly affect our lives (if we let them) and how we react to and interact with them are critical to our survival and moral well-being. Knowing that they actually exist or existed seems unimportant to them, yet they pass laws based on their beliefs that affect everyone, often with great harm. And they tell their children all about the beings and what they can do to them and do for them, all without ever having to demonstrate that they are actually there.

        Interstellar gas clouds just go on doing what they do regardless of what we think of them and what we know about them. Our reaction to them our belief in them doesn’t change what they do to us. Our ignorance of them *could* affect us, depending on what they do and what we can do to help out or prevent it. But the key difference is that we can demonstrate they are there.

        Knowing how people came up with divine being ideas, what those ideas were and what they did with those beliefs is good and necessary, because that is simply human history, and understanding human history is critical to our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of doing in the future.

        • arcseconds

          Doesn’t your last paragraph answer your own question? That is why the study of the historical Jesus is important, and why it need not be apologetics in disguise.

          Christianity affects more people more directly than the chemistry of interstellar gas clouds, so the study of its origins is arguably of more practical relevance. Given Christianity is the religion with by far and away the most historical impact, the historical importance of its beginnings is difficult to question, too.

  • John Thomas

    This article came in today’s Raw Story. Thought it be of interest to you 🙂

    http://www.rawstory.com/2017/04/history-writer-jesus-probably-never-existed-heres-why-christianity-emerged-anyway/

    • It would be hilarious if not for the fact that some people will take it seriously. Calling David Fitzgerald a “history writer” is too generous (what he writes is not history). He says at one point, “I actually can’t see how there even could have been an actual Jesus”!!!

      • John Thomas

        Yeah, lot of outrageous claims from him. I was cringing every time he made one. 🙂

    • This article was in today’s Guardian. Actually quite a level-headed treatment of the evidence: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/14/what-is-the-historical-evidence-that-jesus-christ-lived-and-died

      • Gary

        Best quote yet,
        “These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.”

  • John MacDonald

    Mythicists sometimes cite Origen (Contra Celsum 1.47 and Commentary on Matthew 10.17), who certainly knew Book 18 of the Antiquities and cites 5 passages from it, as explicitly stating that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as Christ. This seems to exclude Origen as being aware of the relevant passage in the Testimonium Flavianum as we have it today, but doesn’t it ALSO imply Origen’s copy of Josephus’ work did say “something” about Jesus, enough for Origen to conclude that Josephus didn’t think Jesus was the Christ?

      • John MacDonald

        Dr. McGrath wrote: “Fitzgerald goes on to say that Origen criticized Josephus for “never mentioning Jesus.” But that is mistaken. In fact, Origen states that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, which suggests not a complete absence of the Testimonium but rather the presence of some less complimentary reference, or at least one that does not reflect a Christian perspective. And so Origen’s evidence fits best with the scholarly consensus.”

        Rats, I thought I was the first one to see that. lol

      • John MacDonald

        Regarding whether Origen had a reference to Jesus in his copy of Josephus’ text, Carrier says:

        “No. Origen doesn’t say Josephus said he didn’t believe Jesus was the Christ. Origen only said he didn’t. Which is an inference, not a citation: Origen is just saying in a prolix way that Josephus wasn’t a Christian. When Origen is reporting what Josephus said, he says he’s stating something he said. (Even when he’s wrong and mistaking something someone else said for something Josephus said.) So that actually rules out any reference to Jesus in Josephus known to Origen. Origen was tasked by Celsus with finding anything in Josephus that corroborated anything in the Gospels. All Origen could find was a reference to John the Baptist, and a reference to James (which he then confused with the account in Hegesippus). If there had been any reference to Jesus, Origen would have quoted it or cited it. Especially if it was negative. Because Origen is standing on the authority of Josephus; the reason why his being not a Christian made him a valuable source to Origen rhetorically. If Josephus said anything negative, Celsus (or any critic ever, who is reading what Origen is writing) would be able to cite that back at him and turn Origen’s own source against him; so Origen would need to include a preemptive apologetic against any negative thing Josephus said. That’s how ancient rhetoric operated. That Origen never does that, shows there wasn’t even a negative statement against Christians in Josephus that Origen’s critics could ounce on and that Origen then would have to apologize for or run damage control on.”

  • John MacDonald

    Mythicists sometimes make a big deal about the fact that there is little about Jesus’ biography in Paul’s writing. But there may be good reason for this.

    Paul says his Gospel is:

    – “3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: how Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 was buried, rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and was seen by Cephas, and then by the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).”

    Paul wanted his readers to focus and stay on message because there were others trying to lure away believers by presenting a different Christ than Paul was:

    – “12But I will keep on doing what I am doing, in order to undercut those who want an opportunity to be regarded as our equals in the things they boast about. 13For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. (2 Cor 11:12-13)

    – “Evidently some people are troubling you and trying to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be under a divine curse! (Gal 1:7-8)

    – “Now I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and obstacles that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Turn away from them. (Romans 16:17).”

    In this regard, Paul said ““For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).”

    Paul wasn’t elaborating on Jesus’ biography because he was trying to get his readers to focus and stay on message about Paul’s gospel.

    • John MacDonald

      Another passage is 2 Cor 11:5 “4For if someone comes and proclaims a Jesus other than the One we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit than the One you received, or a different gospel than the one you accepted, you put up with it way too easily.”

      • John MacDonald

        I mentioned elsewhere that

        Paul’s gospel is:

        “3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: how Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 was buried, rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and was seen by Cephas, and then by the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).”

        So, since Paul was always ranting about other apostles that were presenting “another gospel of Christ,” there were Christians back then who did not preach atonement. These may have been Christians long before Paul.

        These other apostles, since they were preaching “salvation through works,” would not have believed in the salvic act of Christ’s atonement, let alone the salvic act of a celestial cosmic Christ. Mythicists say that Christianity started with visions of a celestial Christ who taught of his salvic act. There is no reason to think this, because there were clearly Christians before Paul who did not believe in atonement.

        • John MacDonald

          I meant “salvific,” not “salvic.” lol – I’m still learning the terminology!

  • John MacDonald

    I’m about half way through Lataster’s book. He makes the interesting point that Jesus and his atoning death that effectively rendered useless the temple cult “coincidentally” emerged at just the time in history when a big problem for the Jews was the “inaccessibility caused by the temple being controlled by the Roman-loving Temple cult. One noteworthy example would be the more ‘progressive’ Pharisees, what with their synagogues and Old Torah, who had less need for the Temple; likewise the Essenes who thought the Temple leadership so corrupt that they developed and performed their own religious rituals elsewhere. (Lataster, Jesus Did Not Exist, 223-224).”

    • John MacDonald

      I’m trying to put together the big picture:

      1) Love seems to be a central theme of early Christianity.
      Paul wrote

      – 8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not give false testimony, You shall not covet,” and if there are any other commandments, are summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love works no evil to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

      Paul seems to echo the commandment of love as we find it in Mark:

      – The Great Commandment: 28 One of the scribes came and heard them reasoning together. Perceiving that Jesus had answered them well, he asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” 29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. 30 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

      (2) The problem of trying to create a benevolent, just society was that the Christians believed the central feature of that society, the Temple, was corrupt. Mark has Jesus say: “17Then He began to teach them and declare, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17). Jesus and his atoning death that effectively rendered useless the temple cult “coincidentally” emerged at just the time in history when a big problem for the Jews was, as Lataster says, the “inaccessibility caused by the temple being controlled by the Roman-loving Temple cult.”

      (3) To rectify this problem of the Temple, the first Christians invented a story of an atoning Christ, keeping the philosophy of love paramount, but substituting the temple cult with, to use Paul’s words, a simple and pure (2 Cor 11:3-5) faith in Christ.

      • John MacDonald

        From a slightly different perspective than mine, Carrier offers a similar analysis. He writes:

        ‘A better question is “Why did they invent the idea that the messiah got crucified?” Because they needed one … It accomplished what they needed: the elimination of dependence on the Jewish temple cult and its Jewish leadership. It also created a plausible Jewish variant of a massively popular fashion among salvation cults at the time.’ http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/10134

  • John MacDonald

    Lataster seems to be a little hyper skeptical concerning Paul. Lataster writes:

    “[e]ven if Paul did refer to an Earthly and historical Jesus, which seems increasingly unlikely, it would not be decisive, as he, like the Gospel authors, is certainly not a trustworthy historian (Lataster, JDNE, pg. 242 note 491).”

    He dismisses the Gospels and Paul a priori!

    • How is that a priori?

      • John MacDonald

        What evidence does Lataster offer that Paul was “certainly not a trustworthy historian”?

        • That doesn’t make it a priori.

          • John MacDonald

            You’re getting technical on me, are you? lol. If Lataster dismisses a source out of hand without providing a ground for that dismissal, then we have no reason to think it’s “a posteriori.”

          • I don’t think I am being technical. A priori is a useful term referring to a particular method of reasoning. It does not apply to every assertion made for which supporting evidence is not immediately offered.

            I think that there are more than ample empirical reasons to question the historical value of Paul’s writings, particularly when it comes to the historical Jesus in whom Paul did not seem to have the slightest interest. I would assume that these reasons form the basis for Lataster’s assertion. Whether it might have been useful for him to enumerate some those reasons at that point in his essay is a separate question.

          • John MacDonald

            As W. V. O. Quine put it, one way to define a priori is the notion of “true by virtue of meanings and independently of fact.” I was being a little sarcastic, as though Lataster was declaring Paul unreliable simply by the meaning of what an “epistle” is, and independent of any facts about Paul’s letters. lol