Mythicists Shock Bart Ehrman, Set Off Jonathan Tweet

Mythicists Shock Bart Ehrman, Set Off Jonathan Tweet October 12, 2017

Jonathan Tweet has shared thoughts about his recent debate with Richard Carrier. Here is an excerpt:

While preparing for the debate, I was shocked to find out how insulting Dr Carrier is to other scholars. His negative words about Bart Ehrman were particularly galling since I have read a lot of Ehrman’s work and value his contributions to my understanding of early Christian history. Ehrman has taken it on himself to popularize Jesus research so that regular folks like you and me can get a look at what the scholars are saying, and that’s wonderful. In my own humble way, I’m a popularizer myself, having written a children’s book to teach kids that we evolved from fish. Dr Carrier’s comments about other scholars disturbed me so much that I felt quite ambivalent about giving him a platform and helping him sell books, but the debate was already scheduled, and I went on with it. Dr Carrier and I shared our notes with each other ahead of the debate, and he took issue with the way I was going to bring up his treatment of Ehrman and other scholars. I dropped that material from my notes, but it was still on my mind. In the debate when Dr Carrier said that other scholars are 100 years behind if they haven’t read his book, that might seem like innocent hyperbole, but it set me off. The moderator received a question from the audience asking me to explain why that claim set me off like it did, but he declined to ask that question in the Q&A, so I didn’t have the chance to explain myself. Here’s what I was getting at. If Dr Carrier says that other historians are 100 years behind, he’s implying through simple algebra that he is 100 years ahead of other historians. That’s a striking claim, and I don’t want people to miss it. Since no other historians have adopting Dr Carrier’s view, he is, by his own estimation, the world’s leading expert on Christian origins. If his hypothesis is right, he is the only historian who understands how Christianity really started and how the gospels were really written. In fact, he’s not just 100 years ahead of other scholars, if he’s right then he is 2000 years ahead. Dr Carrier doesn’t press this point himself, and in fact he backed off of it when I questioned him about his “100 years” comment, so it falls to people like me to point it out. He also claims to be ahead of other historians in his use of Bayes’ Theorem. Perhaps in the future, Dr Carrier will be recognized as history’s most important Jesus scholar, as well as the founder of truly modern historical research. Perhaps.

You can watch the debate on YouTube:

What did you think of the debate? Were you surprised that the audience shifted in the direction that they did? Why do you think that a promoter of fringe views, who arrogantly and inaccurately declares himself the world’s leading (and perhaps only real) expert not only on Jesus but on historical methods, is taken so seriously by significant numbers of atheists? What factors do you think most help other atheists to recognize Carrier’s claims for what they are?

Also on the topic of mythicism, Bart Ehrman shared a couple of posts a while back that I’ve been meaning to share here. In one, he responded to a question about whether he’d be devastated if mythicists turned out to be right. Here is part of his response:

Since I am an agnostic who does not believe in Jesus, one could easily argue that a mythicist position would be more attractive to me personally. I too could then argue, as a scholar, that Jesus did not exist and that people should seriously consider leaving the Christian faith as I myself did.

So why don’t I argue that, if it would be more palatable with my personal view of the world? Because I’m a historian, and I think evidence really matters, and it matters that we get history right, so far as we can. If we rewrite history according to our own agendas and in light of our own deeply vested interests, how are we any better than other ideologues — for example those that made such a mess of the twentieth century, in various parts of the world, with their rewriting of history? We simply cannot allow ourselves to rewrite history to suit our purposes.

But if based on our historical investigations we come to learn something we did not know before, or come to see something we did not believe before, or find out that our previous views of something were wrong – we need to change what we think! This applies to believers and non-believers both. No one should be afraid to go where they think the “truth” (however you define it) is leading them.

Would I be traumatized if the mythicists were right after all? Not in the least. I would probably feel energized. But I can’t allow that expected outcome determine what I find when I engage in the difficult task of coming to understand what happened in the past…

In the other post, he talked about what he finds shocking about mythicists:

What is shocking is not that they don’t know much about, say, the New Testament – that’s true of most people on the planet — but that they have so many firmly held misconceptions that are just factually wrong. (I’m not talking about wrong interpretations that can pretty easily shown to be wrong – I’m talking about simply wrong factual information)…

Elsewhere in the blogosphere on the subject of mythicism, Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith had their work misrepresented in the service of mythicism a while back.

See also Tim O’Neill’s overview of the Christ Myth viewpoint and its claims.

Finally, I’ve found that mythicists are often among those who are prone to misuse the term “refuted.”

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  • John MacDonald

    Old Testament minimalism also started out as a fringe view, and it is now more respectable in the mainstream. Some respected professors are in agreement with the idea that a lot of the gospels are a result of intertextuality (Beyond Price, Brodie, Carrier, and Fitzgerald), notably contributor to The Jewish Annotated New Testament and Editor of the Encyclopedia of Midrash Dr. Alan Avery Peck. And Ehrman can be wrong about pretty fundamental things, such as the Christology of Jesus in Paul. I don’t know why Carrier is so belligerent against members of the academy. I took offence when he said a few years ago that Dr. James Tabor should lose his job. Maybe Carrier is resentful because he put so much time and effort into getting a PhD and was never able to secure a professorship. I personally find the whole “historicist” / “mythicist” debate to be kind of silly. Would something be gained by establishing there actually was a historical figure behind the King Arthur or Robin Hood legends? I think what matters is what the message was Jesus and the original Christians were trying to convey. Shakespeare’s works are what matter, not trying to use probabilistic math to make sure the works can be attributed to the man Shakespeare, as opposed to Francis Bacon or someone else as some conspiracy theorists contend.

    • John MacDonald

      Just watching the video, it’s always silly watching someone poll a group of non experts as to what they think about a highly specialized technical topic. After all, you wouldn’t randomly poll twelve people in the street to diagnose what is wrong with your car. And yet, this is exactly the paralogism that the jury system is guilty of: We randomly poll 12 non experts in legal matters to determine whether a person committed a crime, and how long they should go to jail for if they did. Do we really need to poll the peanut gallery to determine if a highly sophisticated historical argument is persuasive or not in prosecuting the case that Jesus is guilty of not existing?

    • David Marshall

      Francis Bacon certainly was not author of Shakespeare, as anyone who can read and has read Bacon and Shakespeare can tell in about 5 minutes. (Not all who read can read.) I think the reality of Jesus is quite as immediately evident, not merely in a minimalist sense, but the person of Jesus in the gospels.

  • Marcus Maher

    Has there ever been a statistician who has evaluated Carrier’s use of Bayes Theorem? I’ve never bothered to read any of his stuff, but since he is producing estimates using Bayes Theorem, has he ever done a sensitivity analysis or provided any estimates of uncertainty? That would be the normal approach for a statistician to take when producing estimated probabilities.

    • John MacDonald

      Carrier says he had a mathematics professor read “Proving History” to get approval for it before it was published. On the other hand, I don’t think there is a lot of force behind Carrier’s claim about Paul’s silence about the life of Jesus, since Paul said “For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2),” which seems to suggest Paul knew a lot more about Jesus than he was sharing, but that he wanted to stay on message for the purpose he was writing.

      • In my opinion, Carrier’s probabilistic “method” is weird, inconsistent, naive and hopelessly self-serving .
        He believes, for example, that we ought to use the relative frequency of real persons among Rank-Ranglan heroes.
        However, we should not use the relative frequency of celestial being having been humanised in 40 years. Nor should we consider the relative frequency of Jewish preachers we read about but who were angels to begin with.

        Being “peer-reviewed” by someone you can pick is certainly not the way scholarship works.
        Carrier should submit articles about his own Bayesianism is statistical journals.
        I bet you anything this would be rejected.

        • John MacDonald

          One point where Carrier seems weak (as is the case with all mythicists) is the James, the brother of the Lord passage. To get around this apparently recalcitrant bit of evidence, Carrier says “brother” here means the cultic title of “non apostolic baptized Christian.” The problem here with Carrier’s argument, as Ehrman pointed out on his blog, is that this would mean that Cephas, who appears in the same passage in Galatians, is NOT to be understood as a brother of the Lord, which sounds silly.

          • Carrier’s argument is that there was this sub-group of Christians who were “non apostolic baptized Christians” and were called “the Brothers of the Lord”. He spins out his usual torrent of many words about this idea, but the hard fact remains there are no references to this imagined “sub-group” of his and it’s basically something he’s constructed (some would say pulled from a nether orifice) to skirt around the problem of Galatians 1:19. So on one hand we have his purely conjectural “sub-group” supported by nothing but Carrier’s wishful thinking and on the other we have multiple lines of evidence pointing to an actual sub-group who were called “the Brothers of the Lord” -because they were Jesus’ siblings. Occam’s Razor makes short work of Carrier’s argument.

    • Phil Ledgerwood
      • Marcus Maher

        Those are some serious criticisms, but they don’t get at my specific concerns, which as a statistician are slightly different than a mathematician’s concerns. So his book being reviewed prior to publication by a mathematics professor may or may not be adequate in my opinion depending on their precise fields of study. Basically, from a statistician’s perspective, and I’m not sure if he does this as I haven’t read the book, is, providing an estimate for a probability without some sort of discussion of uncertainty (e.g., a credibility interval or a presentation of a sensitivity analysis) is not very helpful.

        • Marcus Maher

          Another way of putting it is, if you can’t tell me how likely the estimate is to be what you say it is, then how do I know it really is what you say it is?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            It’s a reasonably common criticism of Carrier’s use of BT that he declares probability estimates by fiat. I don’t personally know if that’s a fair criticism.

          • Marcus Maher

            That is 100% a fair criticism and is why some sort of analysis needs to be done where one tries a range of probabilities to see how it impacts results and give a range of answers. Otherwise it’s too easily possible (again, not claiming he’s doing this since I haven’t read his stuff) to cook the books to get the answer you want.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            It has been observed that when William Lane Craig uses BT, it supports a historical Jesus as the Bible describes him. When Richard Carrier uses BT, it supports the mythicist conclusions. That’s an amazing coincidence, right? It’s almost as if people are tempted to load the base probability ranges according to what they already think is the case.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Here is a fellow who wrote a much more detailed analysis of Carrier’s use of BT and underscores some of your concerns:


            Unfortunately, he’s writing under a pseudonym, so I don’t know if he’s a statistician or not.

          • Marcus Maher

            Thanks, I will check this out!

          • I am in the overlap between Bayesian statistics and machine learning. For what it is worth, I am currently doing my postdoc where I am working with statistical analysis of fMRI data at Stanford.

            A PhD in statistics is useful to write a fancy-sounding critique of OHJ/PH, however the issues I bring up are the same issues that others have brought up, such as the arbitrariness of using a reference class to assign a prior to the probability Jesus exists. None of this require any special insight (well, asides the insight one should not dismiss a reasonable and intuitively compelling concern due to half a page of word-salad!). I think today that OHJ/PH are very must a consequence of Carrier being unaware of certain issues, working out a solution on his own, becoming aware of the real problems and then, rather than re-evaluating his original approach, treat it like a debate with a winner and a looser.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Well, I enjoyed your paper as well as the one on one of his fans. I forget the name, but he wrote a book with a nice, tentative sounding title like “God Doesn’t Exist, There is no Jesus, and I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Real, Either.”

          • That would be the insufferable Raphael Lataster. He recent got awarded his PhD in Religious Studies from Sydney University so expect him to be held up as evidence that the floodgates of Mythicism’s acceptance are on the brink of opening …

          • Raphael Lataster is a scholar with the distinction his writings form a Moebius strip of self-reference. By this I mean that everything he writes contains a large, copy-pasted section from at least one other thing he has written — without attribution, of course. How this is possible to accomplish this without violating causality and normal scholarly practice for self-plagiarism is beyond me.

            @Phil: so you are the single person who read that document! Congratulations!

          • David Marshall

            Lataster’s “book” above-mentioned is possibly the worst thing in print on any subject:


          • Neko

            Even worse than “Nailed”?!

          • David Marshall

            He makes “Nailed” look like a model of the historical enterprise.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Yeah, that’s the one. Good to see you around, Tim. I enjoy your blog as well.

          • Herro

            Phil, I don’t think that it’s a fair criticism, mainly because it applies just as much to those who don’t use BT. That is, we see “mainstream” scholars saying “X is very probable” rather than “X is probable” (which could be called “declaring probability estimates by fiat”).

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I agree with you, but one of Carrier’s shticks is that his use of BT eliminates such biases. If he were saying, “I’m just as biased as anyone else and no mathematical formula is going to compensate for that, but that’s historical reconstruction for you,” I don’t think there’d be anything critiqueable about that. One might wonder what advantages BT gives him at that point.

            Which is interesting, because I actually agree with him that scholars often hand wave over probabilities by simply declaring things “probable” or “highly probable” without explaining (and probably even thinking) what that actually means for them and their argument. But he doesn’t claim BT made him be clearer about his biases; his claim is that BT eliminates them and makes his conclusions objective.

          • Herro

            Are you sure Carrier says that using BT eliminates bias? I don’t remember, and don’t recall if he talks about “bias” much in his book on BT. IIRC he talks about “subjectivity” a lot and that BT doesn’t eliminate it, but just makes it explicit.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I’m primarily thinking of his contention that confirmation bias can be eliminated in BT by simply adjusting your numbers pessimistically, along with his contention that BT reduces the effect of bias on the individual terms. I can scour for quotes later, if you need me to.

            But even in the introduction to Proving History, he talks about how everyone has biases, so we have to choose a sound method that reduces the impact of those biases, and this method is BT. The problem is that all his uses of BT are not any more or less biased than anyone else’s assumptions for the “evidence you plug in,” and I found his attempts to use what he feels were charitable numbers to be rather disingenuous.

            So, once again, my issue with him isn’t that he carelessly declares probability by fiat without justification. We could level that criticism at a number of scholars. My issue is that he is desperate to prove that isn’t what he’s doing at all, because math.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      I should add that the author is not a statistician per se, but his PhD is in the mathematics of evolution.

  • I suppose I’m not sure why we’re giving The One They Call Carrier any further publicity. At this point, he has burned every academic bridge it’s possible for one to burn. (See his downright abusive reviews of other scholars e.g. Ehrman, Casey, McGrath.) The guy has demeaned and ridiculed and humiliated himself straight into obscurity. He’s the polar opposite of a “respected expert” and is considered little more than a joke among the historical community. At best he’s an unemployed blogger who failed to secure an academic position due to his shoddy ideas and second-rate argumentation.

    Even as a crusading atheist, he’s a fringe outcast, having been banned from virtually every organization and web address he’s ever been involved with, including Secular Student Alliance, Skepticon and FreeThoughtBlogs. Carrier is an absolute pariah on the skeptic community if there ever was one. IMO propping him up was one of the biggest mistakes the atheist community has made in recent years.

    Given this, it seems the best thing to do is to ignore him and his rantings full-stop–in the same way you would refuse to give someone like Ken Ham the oxygen of further publicity lest his ideas gather a sheen of legitimacy simply by sharing a stage with reputable scholars.

    • Are you really sure that Carrier has become a Pariah among atheists? What makes you think that?
      I’m under the impression that only few people keep reading his blog.

      • I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s a pariah, though I notice that mentions of his name on atheist fora these days will attract comments about his constant self-aggrandisement and abrasive manner far more than it used to. The New Atheists are going through a kind of ideological schism at the moment, with the “Social Justice Warrior”/leftist progressives on one side and some boisterously anti-feminist, anti-progressive semi-Alt Right types on the other.

        Carrier threw in his lot with the former with his loud endorsement of a socially progressive and politically leftish offshoot of New Atheism that billed itself as “Atheism+”. So this makes him one of the “Cultural Marxist” enemy to the “New Centre”/pseudo Alt Right atheists. But the accusations of sexual harassment against Carrier, some of his weird behaviour when broadcasting his newfound “polygamy”, publicly detailing some of his sexual fetishes and, particularly, trying to silence his sexual harassment accusers with a punitive SLAPP suit, Carrier is on the nose with many of his former progressives as well.

        So the guy has a unique capacity for getting people to dislike him, but he still seems to have a peanut gallery of fanboys.

        And writing out that summary above makes me glad I recognised that “the atheist movement” was pretty pointless and fairly dysfunctional years ago and chose to keep my distance from it.

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          I appreciate that summary. For a while there, it was difficult to distinguish “the movement” from “repackaging and shipping political conservativism.”

      • I haven’t a clue how much traffic he has on his blog these days. I mean that he’s a thorn in the side of the skeptic and atheist communities–a piranha-type of entity who spells doom and gloom wherever he reaches. He gives the rest of us a bad name by mere association. It’s why I seek to distance myself from him and his ilk at the earliest opportunity.

        • David Marshall

          As a Christian historian, I find Carrier enormously amusing and helpful in a variety of ways. I hope he doesn’t disappear over the horizon too quickly.

  • I watched the debate video.

    I thought that the moderator managed it pretty well.

    I thought that Carrier came across better here than in other debates that I have watched. Typically, Carrier is arrogant and greatly overstates his case. In this debate he also overstated, but not by as much as in other videos that I have seen. His worst for this debate, was when he declared Jesus scholars to be 100 years out of date.

    The problem for Carrier is the same as always. He raises valid questions about the historicist position. But his questions are not knock-down refutations. And he provides no positive evidence for his alternative mythicist position.

    I was not impressed by his argument for Bayesian methods. Bayes’ rule, itself, is a fine piece of mathematics (and I say that as a mathematician). But to use it the way that Carrier does, depends on underlying epistemological assumptions. And Carrier does not attempt to defend those assumptions. I’m not sure that he is even aware of the significance of those underlying assumptions.

    • I agree with you.
      What are those problematic assumptions in your opinion?

      • There’s an implicit assumption that data already exists as part of nature, and just has to be analyzed statistically. However, data is expressed in terms of concepts. And concepts are human creations. An adequate analysis would have to look at concept construction, and at logical implications for the data that derive from that construction.

    • ” And he provides no positive evidence for his alternative mythicist position.”

      He would claim he does, though I’ve yet to watch the video of this debate in full, so I can’t comment on whether he tries to do so here. He certainly attempts to do so in his book, but it’s pretty unconvincing stuff.

      And this is the Achilles Heel of Mythicism. When they are simply poking holes in the evidence for Jesus their position can at least seem plausible, especially to non-specialists, because most people expect there to be far more evidence for a historical Jesus than there is and few non-specialists understand that pretty much any question in ancient history rests on assessments of likelihood, so the fact that this one does as well strikes many people as flimsy.

      But where Carrier et. al. are most obviously weak is when they have to turn to present their own explanation of how the stories of historical Jewish preacher arose if … there was no historical Jewish preacher at all. Here even a non-specialist audience can see that they are forced to pile supposition on supposition, posit proto-Christianities that vanish without trace and then explain the lack of evidence for all this by reference to contrived conspiracy theories. Anyone who wants to tackle a Mythicist in a public forum needs to hit them here, because this is where their case can be shown to be contrived and based on motivated reasoning.

      Carrier thinks his weird reading of Philo, his total misreading of Epiphanius and a few other slight snippets are enough to support this fairy castle in the air. A debater opposing Mythicists should show how flimsy their alternative is and then take Occam’s Razor to it like a machete.

      • Mark

        I totally forgot about this ‘Janneus Jesus’ Carrier finds in Epiphanius. He claims to find a Janneus/Yannai Jesus also in ‘the Talmud’ – and thus as a tradition maintained ‘in the same region’ (this comes up in the note on p 284 and in some online discussions). Epiphanius and Talmud reciprocally validate the existence of this tradition.

        He mentions that Schäfer in *Jesus in the Talmud* claims the principal story wasn’t originally about Jesus – replying “[Shäfer] has no actual evidence of that, and it is illogical”. But it seems Shäfer’s evidence could hardly be better. The same story is in the Yerushalmi (4th c Palestine) but definitely isn’t about Jesus. When we come to Bavli, *and not all manuscripts*, Jesus enters the story by identification. So this ‘tradition’ arises in Sasanian Iraq between the 6th c and the appearance of Islam.

        • Mark

          Carrier also finds the ‘Janneus Jesus’ attested in *Toledot Yeshu* but seems unaware that this is emphatically not a single work but a complex web of traditions. What are thought the oldest traditions give rise to “gruppo Pilato” in one classification – and these of course put Jesus in the usual chronological place. Another branch – “gruppo Elena” – revolves around a ‘Queen Helen’ character. In some sub-branches this Helen is 1st c Helen of Adiabene, the famous proselyte – which fits with the usual date of Jesus. But in the sub-branch Carrier needs, she is identified with the wife of Janneus, evidently wanting to follow a version of the Bavli that contains the story mentioned above. In fact Mme. Janneus was named Salome Alexandra. So it is only in a certain, probably fairly late, TY tradition that we get the Janneus Jesus.

          • Yes, Carrier’s arguments based on that material are a real mess. He somehow manages to read Epiphanius as saying the Nazoreans believed that Jesus was born in the time of Jannaeus, when in the passage in question Epiphanius is talking about his own beliefs and not those of the Nazoreans at all. And Epiphanius clearly did not believe Jesus was born in the early first century BC from other references in his work, so the passage where he mentions Jannaeus can’t be read to mean he believed Jesus was born in Jannaeus’ reign. His whole argument is a complete muddle, though one I haven’t yet seen taken apart by anyone. I intend to do so in an upcoming History for Atheists article.

  • Jim

    A prayer for Carrier to recite:

    Dear Jesus,

    I thank you for not requiring me to debate Tim O’Neill


    🙂 🙂

    • He’s never going to debate me for two reasons: (i) he doesn’t like me because I’ve noted errors he’s made in the past and this is an unforgivable sin to a narcissist and (ii) I don’t consider debates to be a useful way to determine anything much about historical questions, other than the skills of the debaters as entertaining public speakers. There is a reason that historians and other scholars don’t use debates as a way of thrashing out a consensus – this requires the hard, detailed, granular work of carefully-supported and peer-reviewed argument in publications. Debates are find for superficial examinations of differences in opinion and perspective (e.g. “Should speech always be free? Discuss”) and not always useful even for that. Any point I made in support of the idea that Jesus existed would take me hours of quoting source material, scholarship and the back and forth of argument and counter argument to substantiate. Unless the debate went for days on end, all debaters on this topic are reduced to summary, assertion and “gotcha” points.

      Likewise, there is a reason Creationists, Holocaust deniers and other fringe contrarians love debates. Their theses can usually be reduced to audience-friendly summaries, assertions and “gotcha” points quite easily. Most of their opponents are used to environments where there is a fundamental bedrock of consensus and any debate is about the details or shades of interpretation. And they are usually not skilled debaters anyway. So the fringe contrarians are usually at a considerable advantage.

      I’m not surprised this guy lost to Carrier, as Carrier has been honing his circus act for years, whereas his opponent was well out of his league on his grasp of the material. Add to this the fact that the debate was decided, as a comment above notes, by a room full of non-specialists who, given the event was hosted by an atheist group, are likely to be heavily inclined toward Carrier in the first place, means this result tells us little to nothing about who was actually right.

      Of course, Carrier’s claim that he, an unemployed nobody who couch-surfs around the North America peddling his fringe theory, is a full century ahead of every other scholar in the field would be astounding coming from anyone other than Carrier. Unfortunately this kind of bizarre self-aggrandisement is his stock in trade. And I have to agree with James about the way Mythicists misuse “refute” – that is one of my pedantic pet hates.

      • Jim

        All that is logical, but I wouldn’t try to debate you either, because I, like RC, know very little about 1st century CE Judean history. 🙂 🙂

      • Jim

        Also, your observations are well taken; an informal public debate is quite different from a plenary lecture delivered at a prestigious national/international conference proceedings.

      • David Marshall

        I’ve debated Carrier twice, and recognize some truth in Tim’s comments. My arguments for the historical credibility of the gospels are too detailed to explain easily in a twenty-minute opening speech, still less a five minute rebuttal. The second time Carrier didn’t do as well as he anticipated, and went on a subsequent rant / phony book review that was possibly the single worst piece of writing I have ever seen from a credentialed scholar, going beyond “liar, liar” to “I hope he dies in a fire.” So apparently I did better in that second debate than the first one, though I wish I’d responded more directly to a couple of his arguments.

        I’d probably go another round, if I could be sure it would be more than just invective: I think I’m getting his number. But I’d rather debate more serious and cool-minded scholars.

        • Tim, I really like your website. Your points are excellent and your writing style is brilliant!

          Of course, you’re entirely right about that:
          “But where Carrier et. al. are most obviously weak is when they have to turn to present their own explanation of how the stories of a historical Jewish preacher arose if … there was no historical Jewish preacher at all.”

          That said, mainstream secular historicists face a very similar problem.

          How do you explain the transition from an obscure apocour earliestalyptic preacher dying a shameful death to the risen and pre-existing Son of God within perhaps only 10 years (see the hymns in Paul’s letters) ?

          I think that bereavement hallucinations are a very weak explanation because we have (to the best of my knowledge) absolutely no other example in the whole world of people experiencing such visions and drawing the conclusion that the deceased is raised from the dead, let alone that he had been divine all along.

          I think that a better wholly naturalistic hypothesis consists of the combination of three elements:

          1) Post-mortem visions

          2) Jesus’ really announcing his death and vindication.
          3) A tomb that was found empty because the body went missing for some reasons.

          The Easter Faith of the early disciples is much more likely to happen with these three combined conditions than with only 1). And they can be entirely attributed to natural causes. So I think it is historically plausible.

          I’d be interested to learn your thoughts on that.



  • Fran2244

    Prof McGrath asks “Why do you think that a promoter of fringe views, who arrogantly and inaccurately declares himself the world’s leading (and perhaps only real) expert not only on Jesus but on historical methods, is taken so seriously by significant numbers of atheists?”

    I just listened to the entire debate. Jonathan Tweet tried to claim that Carrier said that all other historians were 100 years out of date, but Carrier never said this, and you discredit yourself by making this claim. Carrier said that he has written the only peer reviewed examination of the historicity of Jesus in the last 100 years, which is undisputed – because mainstream Jesus scholars thought that the question of historicity was not worth studying. Carrier (at least here) referred with respect to many scholars in the Jesus studies field, although he stated that there is no consensus on the question of historical methodology.

    Why take him seriously? Carrier has a PhD in ancient history. He originally agreed with the consensus there was a historical Jesus, then was challenged to examine it using modern historical methods, and decided that the weight of the evidence was against historicity. He got funding for his project as an investigation of the question, with no commitment to reach any conclusion (since there are atheists on both sides of the issue.) He is disappointed that those in favor of historicity have not picked up the challenge and made a better case for a historical Jesus, or even engaged with his actual arguments.

    Instead, the opposition to him has been based on emotion, on personal attacks, on smear words like “fringe,” or invalid comparisons to creationism. Johnathan Tweet seemed mostly concerned about “negative words” about Bart Ehrman. This is not a logical argument – just an emotional reaction.

    So I hope this helps you understand why people listen to Carrier. As for me, I don’t care whether there was a historical Jesus or not. I spent a lot of time on this issue at one point, but now I am a radical agnostic – I don’t know and you don’t either. There are many more pressing issues, such as whether Trump will start World War III, or whether the health care system in this country will collapse because of ideological rigidity.

    • If that was what he meant, then it is an outright lie, ignoring Maurice Casey’s book. Is pretending Casey’s book was never written worse than calling him insane?

      The concern is for the denigration of expertise. In other areas, this can lead to far more dangerous results. But rejecting mainstream thought in any area fosters a culture that prefers strong personal convictions to scholarly consensus, and that can have serious repercussions.

      • Fran2244

        That is clearly what he meant. Just listen to the tape. I assume you are referring to Maurice Casey’s “Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths?” I think Carrier would respond that Casey’s book was not peer reviewed on the question of historicity. You could ask him.

        I don’t understand your insistence that any denigration of expertise is dangerous. If you truly believe in scholarship, every idea has to be subject to challenge. Experts are continuously being proved wrong, and if you can’t ever go against the consensus, you can never make progress. Look at medicine – the accepted consensus of 50 or 100 years ago would be rejected today as woefully out of date. Even practices of 5 or 10 years ago, or even last year, are being revised, and the scientific basis of medicine is much more robust that that of historical research. And a lot of claimed expertise turns out not to be not so expert.

        If you truly have expertise, you can answer the objections of your critics. Evolutionary biologists and climate scientists can give well founded arguments backed by data to counter their critics. They don’t just say “I’m an expert, bow before my authority, peasants!”

        Yes, there are a lot of crazy fringe theories that go against the mainstream, but if false, they need to be weeded out by actual logical arguments, not by distorted ad hominem arguments or personal slander.

        • I take it you are wandering into the discussion on this blog for the first time? Obviously people with expertise can be wrong, and consensuses can change. That is not an excuse for ignoring them. The point is that scholarship works precisely by consensuses being formed and challenged all the time. You say as much. And so I can’t figure out why you think that the work of mythicists, climate change deniers, antievolutionists and a variety of others to smear and slander those with expertise is not dangerous, when what they do is offered precisely as an alternative to the making of a persuasive case for their views.

          What is your reason for thinking that Casey’s book was not peer reviewed? If Carrier has been claiming that, he is lying.

          • Fran2244

            “The point is that scholarship works precisely by consensuses being formed and challenged all the time.” But you are rejecting a challenge to this this particular claim of consensus, out of hand. Why? Are you claiming that Carrier ignored the current consensus? He clearly did not. He engages with it.

            Climate change deniers and antievolutionists are dangerous because they are clearly wrong, not because they challenge the mainstream, and not because they smear their opposition, if they in fact do that.

            I don’t know what Carrier has said about Casey’s book. Don’t put words into his mouth and then claim that he is lying. But why do you think it was peer reviewed?

          • Mark

            Fran2244, McGrath isn’t rejecting anything ‘out of hand’. On this blog he has engaged in, and managed, a seemingly infinite amount of discussion of the details of Carrier and other mythicists.

          • Fran2244

            I used to follow this blog, and I was appalled at the emotional arguments and lack of substance. I don’t recall any real engagement with the ideas of mythicism – just a blanket rejection because mainstream scholars disagreed. But perhaps I missed something, and there will be a peer reviewed article?

          • Mark

            It is true that McGrath is interested in drawing parallels between mythicism and other forms of lunatic rejection of scholarly consensus, as he was above. And with reason. In fact, though, there has been no end of what you would call ‘substantive’ discussion. I have no idea what “emotional arguments” you are talking about. The substantive arguments between people can be heated but they are not arguments from heat.

            There are infinitely many peer reviewed articles that argue for and against particular propositions about Jesus, for accounts of what’s up with the Testimonium Flavium, the Pliny letter, what’s up with Paul and on and on. Non-mythicist articles pass peer review every ten minutes.

          • Fran2244

            But these articles all just assume a historical Jesus, right? None of them examine the issue of historicity using the tools of modern historical research.

            Emotional arguments: “lunatic” “arrogant” or distorting Carrier’s statement to say that he claimed to be 100 years ahead of everyone else.

          • Mark

            Carrier in fact rejects ‘the tools of modern historical research’ in the Historicity book and proposes his own methodology, one that is completely alien to the tradition of historical writing.

          • Fran2244

            I don’t think so. He rejects the methodologies that the Jesus guild invented to try to discover the historical Jesus. But these are not used in secular historical studies.

          • Mark

            What other work of history employs the particular probabilistic method that structures Carrier’s who book? The book has nothing in common with actual historical research, whether it pertains to the origin of Christianity or not.

          • Fran2244

            Carrier states that Bayesian statistical analysis is just a way of describing the way we think.

          • Nick G

            He’s wrong – according to actual experts in Bayesian statistical analysis.

          • Neko

            Ironic you would be “appalled” by the caliber of the discourse here, when Carrier’s own blog posts were routinely prefaced by rambling screeds full of invective against scholars underwhelmed by his self-proclaimed genius. All to the delight of his breathless fanboys.

            But perhaps I missed something,…


          • Fran2244

            Did you actually listen to the debate at the top of this post? There is no invective. Carrier uses logic and facts to defend his position. He never distorts his opponents’ positions in the casual way his statements have been distorted here.

          • Neko

            I have started watching that video and thus far Carrier is fine. I clearly wasn’t referring to Carrier’s video appearances, but to his prolific blogging.

    • “Carrier said that he has written the only peer reviewed examination of the historicity of Jesus in the last 100 years

      That makes much more sense. While the claim Tweet attributed to him seemed extreme, it’s not like Carrier doesn’t talk himself up. This is a guy who declares his own articles to be “a tour de force” and ends one paper by announcing that from now on everyone on the field had to take account of his mighty findings. The guy does tend towards delusions of significance.

      “Why take him seriously? Carrier has a PhD in ancient history.”

      Ummm, sorry, but unemployed history PhD graduates are a dime a dozen. I’ve interviewed scores of them, most of whom have far more impressive CVs than Carrier’s, and that’s the ones who have only graduated in the last year or so. Carrier graduated nearly a decade ago and yet has a paltry publishing record, no teaching experience and had never secured even the most lowly academic post. And his few published works have been cited by basically no-one. He’s a dilettante.

      “He originally agreed with the consensus there was a historical Jesus, then was challenged to examine it using modern historical methods, and decided that the weight of the evidence was against historicity. “

      What actually happened was he reviewed Earl Doherty’s book The Jesus Puzzle (2000) in 2002 and, despite noting some significant flaws, gave it an inexplicably positive review. From that point onward he started presenting Mythicist arguments in support of Doherty’s thesis and then asked for donations to fund writing a book on the subject.

      “He got funding for his project as an investigation of the question, with no commitment to reach any conclusion”

      Er right. And Lee Strobel was an objective analyst and total atheist before he began writing The Case for Christ. I remember the discussion on various fora at the time and the word was “Carrier is writing a book presenting the case for Mythicism”. Any idea that he went into that project without his mind made up already is nonsense.

      “He is disappointed that those in favor of historicity have not picked up the challenge and made a better case for a historical Jesus, or even engaged with his actual arguments.

      If he thinks anyone is going to devote years to producing the book-length refutation that his clunker would required then he will have to remain “disappointed”. Perhaps if his book had actually made an impact and been taken up as a solid contribution to the field someone might have bothered by now. But his book was a total failure. Real academics have much more pressing demands on their time that are more important than addressing a failed thesis by an unemployed nobody. And no, those are not “personal attacks” – those are statements of cold hard fact.

      • Fran2244

        Carrier got his PhD at a slow time in academic hiring, and then decided to make it outside of academia. But he did go to the trouble to get peer reviewed (although peer review is no guarantee, as medicine has learned.) If you think that scholarship progresses through peer review and debate, he’s jumped through that hoop. But what’s the point of dumping on him personally? Do you think he had some ulterior motive other than scholarship? I don’t see any evidence of that. If he had written a book supporting the historicity of Jesus from an atheist viewpoint, he would probably be raking in the royalties and accolades.

        We all know that the idea of Jesus mythicism is kryptonite to a standard academic career at this point and most young scholars are afraid of the issue. But it really bugs me to see so much venom instead of a discussion of the issues.

        • “Carrier got his PhD at a slow time in academic hiring”

          Carrier wasted the critical first two to three years after he graduated writing self-indulgent self published books, mostly outside of his area of expertise, giving talks to audiences of new atheist faithful and trying to be an internet celebrity. This is the period in which an early career academic needs to be working furiously, publishing extensively and establishing themselves in their field. Carrier didn’t bother with any of that. If he graduated into a tough market then this was all the more reason to work hard to establish a reputation, but he didn’t bother. And there is never a “fast time” in academic hiring in the humanities, especially in ancient history, so that is just making excuses for his failure. His career, such as it was, crashed and burned long before he finally admitted it was never getting off the ground and pretended that this was some conscious choice of his. The market made the choice for him – he just wasn’t good enough.

          “If you think that scholarship progresses through peer review and debate, he’s jumped through that hoop.”

          As you note, peer review is not some imprimatur of truth. It’s basically a check that he’s played by the academic rules and hasn’t made any obviously glaring errors of fact. And the “peer review” of his book was pretty dubious as well. Authors sometimes suggest possible reviewers, but they are not meant to know who the chosen reviewers are and the reviewers are selected by the publisher. In Carrier’s case HE chose the reviewers, HE sent the manuscript back and HE accepted the notes from the two who sent back comments. Why was he doing this? Who were the reviewers? Why did his publishers respond with defensive and unenlightening statements when queries about this unorthodox process?

          “But what’s the point of dumping on him personally”

          I’ve simply stated facts. If these don’t reflect well on Carrier, you need to ask yourself what that tells you. If I wanted to “dump on his personally” he has provided more than enough material for that in his various publicly broadcast details about his personal life. But I’m not interested in that, just in these claims that this fringe nobody is some kind of mighty scholar. He isn’t.

          “Do you think he had some ulterior motive other than scholarship?”

          I’m sure he’s convinced he’s right. But he’s also convinced he’s right about the other half dozen or so contrarian theories and ideas he champions. His tendency to argue for things which pretty much everyone else in any relevant field disagrees with is a hint that he’s at least partially driven by a conviction he’s a genius who can see things that everyone else can’t.

          “If he had written a book supporting the historicity of Jesus from an atheist viewpoint, he would probably be raking in the royalties and accolades.”

          Not if it was as bad, rambling and ponderous as On the Historicity of Jesus it wouldn’t.

          “We all know that the idea of Jesus mythicism is kryptonite to a standard academic career at this point “

          Because it’s a flawed idea. You can’t polish a turd.

          • Fran2244

            If mythicism is so obviously a flawed idea, please just say why, or give me a link.

            Prof. McGrath asked how he could convince atheists that Carrier was wrong. The answer is to stick to the facts and drop the personal insults and drama.

          • Here are two round ups of just a portion of what has been written on this blog in an effort to address mythicist claims.



            A lot has obviously been written here over the past six years since those round ups as well, but these may help you to understand why comments like yours are so incredibly frustrating. You come late to a discussion, and pretend that a decade’s worth of effort simply does not exist.

            On Carrier’s statements about Casey, myself, and others, this post may be the most helpful:

            Finally, it is not difficult to find out which presses have manuscripts peer reviewed, even for those who have not been involved in the process the way I happen to have.

          • Fran2244

            You and Carrier agree that there are bad mythicist arguments. I have been away from this discussion for a while, but I do recall that you started from the beginning by assuming that mythicism was just a nutcase fringe theory that should be met with derision. Was there some point where this changed?

            I wonder if you have listened to the debate that you posted? You asked how to convince atheists that Carrier is wrong, and I reacted to that question. I’m not interested in opinions on how Carrier is not respectful to his elders.

          • Your recollection is inaccurate. I’ve always said that the the best thing for mythicism is for its arguments and claims to be made in appropriate ways and in appropriate venues, and when Richard Carrier, Thomas Brodie, or Robert Price has done that, I have interacted with them in the same manner, as presumably you must be aware. Here are some links to help refresh your memory:







          • Neko

            Do I remember incorrectly that you used to comment at Vridar some years ago? Your disinterested tone is memorable. I think it was you who argued that historians considered the NT a gold mine and perhaps it was time for mythicists to change tack.

          • Fran2244

            Not me.

          • Neko

            OK, thanks.

          • “If mythicism is so obviously a flawed idea, please just say why, or give me a link.”

            Okay: – History for Atheists – “Did Jesus Exist? The Jesus Myth Theory, Again.”

          • Jim

            Tried out your very last line in the past, and it was tough … maybe I should have used a lower power setting on the polisher 🙂 🙂

          • David Marshall

            It would be an overstatement, though, to say “People with PhDs in history from Columbia University are a dime a dozen,” since only about 15 students a year are accepted for that program: I’d most likely hire one tomorrow to teach at our school (we’re in the market for a historian right now), if his name weren’t Richard Carrier, and he could be counted on to act responsibly with students, for example.

            I understand why his fans like Carrier, though. He has enough obvious flaws and eccentricities that it’s only fair to give him credit where credit is due, and getting a PhD in history from Columbia (specifically, the history of Greco-Roman science, his fans often forget) is indeed impressive.

          • Luckily for me, I didn’t say PhD grads from Columbia are a dime a dozen. And I was responding to someone who was claiming that a doctorate automatically means someone should be taken seriously. Dr Jerry Bouw has a doctorate in astronomy, but I’m afraid that is not a good enough reason to take his geocentrism seriously.

            Columbia’s a good school, but I’m sure you’re well aware that alone is never going to get someone an academic position. If the CV of someone with Carrier’s dilatory, low impact publishing record came across my desk, it wouldn’t even make it into the “Maybe” folder. He had a chance at an actual academic career years ago, but thanks to his narcissism and self-indulgence, he blew it.

          • David Marshall

            In context, your comment clearly applies to Carrier and Columbia, but I clearly distanced that comment, to be cautious, with the words “would be” and “though,” meant to denote a contrast. Yet the conversation went like this:

            “Why take him seriously? Carrier has a PhD in ancient history.”

            “Ummm, sorry, but unemployed history PhD graduates are a dime a dozen. I’ve interviewed scores of them, most of whom have far more impressive CVs than Carrier’s . . . ”

            Of course the school where you study is part of what makes an impressive or unimpressive CV.

            I am wondering what academic or non-academic position you interview “scores” of unemployed history PhDs for. You’d have to do some fine publishing to out-balance Columbia, ranked 6th in the US for history grad programs, on your CV:


          • When you head up academic recruitment for a major institution that is in the top ten history research universities in the world, you look at scores of PhD grads for entry level roles. A degree from Columbia gets someone’s CV a second glance, but a publishing record as bad as Carrier’s puts it on the scrap heap. And that’s his publishing record now – back when he was trying for an academic appointment he had published virtually nothing. As I said, he was too busy in those critical first years post-graduation prancing around being an online celebrity wannabe to do the hard work. And that’s why his career failed. He’s a pretentious dilettante with delusions of significance.

          • David Marshall

            Sorry, I didn’t know that was what you did for a living. I had some other (vague) notion.

            But I am not sure that is the only possible standard by which to judge Carrier’s career. I have no doubt about Carrier’s delusions, but as someone who chose to do something other than seriously seek a college position after obtaining my own PhD, I can’t blame Carrier for seeking fame and fortune as an author and speaker instead. If his books really were as good as he imagines them to be — and blurbs by top scholars could establish that better than an academic position, could he obtain them — then I wouldn’t hold a little self-publishing against him. But maybe I’m being self-serving.

          • “I can’t blame Carrier for seeking fame and fortune as an author and speaker instead.”

            He didn’t choose to do this. It was forced on him by the fact that his attempts at securing an academic position all failed. With typical Carrier spin he’s painted it as his choice and claims he “escaped” the constrictions of academia etc. This is garbage – he just failed to get anywhere because his credentials were poor thanks to him wasting his time with his self-indulgent hobbies.

            And if he’s “seeking fame and fortune” he’s failing there as well. Especially on the “fortune” side of things, given the information he’s published about his paltry annual income. He barely makes enough to feed himself.

          • Mark

            I’m working through 300 applications for a position in a different but fairly small humanities discipline. We will only interview maybe 10-15 though.

          • David Marshall

            I won’t send you mine, then.

        • Mark

          You seem to think ‘mythicism’ is a radical new idea that is being corruptly kept out of the academy. In fact it is a very old view; its heyday was the late 19th and early 20th c. It is what is called ‘a failed research program’ in the philosophy of science – like biological ‘vitalism’, which belongs to the same period. In the Communist bloc it was the standard academic view for much longer, but even there it fell to pieces after the war. The strain of holding it in the face of increasing evidence and argument was too strong even under Stalinism. It may be that “Jesus mythicism is kryptonite to a standard academic career at this point”; biological vitalism is the same kind of kryptonite (polonium?). No dark occult forces, and no lack of modernity, are at work in this.

          • Fran2244

            There was an earlier mythicism, but I don’t think that what Carrier espouses has much in common with it. He is not trying to revive an older movement, and he has said that there is a lot of badly argued mythicism that he rejects.

            Have you actually listened to the video of the debate at the top of this page or any of his other lectures? It doesn’t sound like it.

          • Mark

            Carrier’s? I read his book when it came out, discussed it a million times here, and just quoted the text – on the late Hasmonean dating of Jesus he finds in Epiphanius’ account of the Nazoreans, Talmud and Toledot Yeshu, elsewhere in this thread.

          • “here was an earlier mythicism, but I don’t think that what Carrier espouses has much in common with it. “

            Then you think wrongly. I keep looking at the key Myther arguments, tracing them back and finding they have their origins in nineteenth century material. Carrier’s bungled argument about Epiphanius, for example, can be found in various late nineteenth century versions of early Mythicism and originally found in Theosophist books of a distinctly kooky variety.

        • Skybison

          “We all know that the idea of Jesus mythicism is kryptonite to a standard academic career at this point and most young scholars are afraid of the issue.”

          Creationist say the same thing. So do Climate Deniers. And every other pseudo scientist.

          90-99% of the time if an idea is kryptonite to a standard academic career, it’s because the idea is wrong and it’s advocates are dunning-krugers with more ideology then knowledge.

          • And Carrier’s career hopes tanked long before he hitched his wagon to the broken down asthmatic donkey called Mythicism.

  • Carrier seems to have a decent understanding of the mechanics of Baye’s theorem, but he doesn’t seem to recognize the practical problems of choosing the relevant data set upon which to base probability estimates (as some commenters have noted).

    One of the problems that led to the subprime meltdown a decade ago was the fact that testable economic data only went back fifty years or so. Risk models were based on data that not only represented a tiny fraction of the world’s economic history, but also didn’t include any periods in which housing prices declined nationwide. As a result, the models proved useless in predicting how mortgage backed securities would perform in adverse circumstances.

    The Rank-Ranglan data might be the best thing available for modeling the probability of the historicity of a character that fits the criteria, but I suspect that the margin of error in any probability prediction is so great as to make it useless for anything more than an interesting thought experiment.

    • I agree re. the margin of error but the reason is perhaps worth repeating.

      The Rank-Raglan stuff answer the following question:
      Assuming the only thing we know about a literary character is that the character is it is a member of the set of Rank-Raglan characters, that some of these are deemed historical and some are not, then what is the probability the historical character is one of the characters who is historical based on this information alone?

      There are two main problems (i) we know more about both Jesus AND the other historical characters in the Rank-Raglan class than the (binary) fact they fit more than half the RR criteria. For Jesus this is very apparent because Carrier spends about 150 pages listing such extra information about Jesus and later makes use of it
      (ii) The RR class provides the probability Jesus is “historical” (in some simple sense), but this is NOT the probability of Carriers 5-point myth-theory, which is a very important distinction.

      These are very basic problems, the first is known as the “reference-class problem”, the second as “computing the probability of the wrong damn thing”.
      It is quite similar to the case where a person is accused of a crime and his DNA is found at the crime-scene, and we then compute the probability he is innocent AND the DNA evidence has been tampered with as follows:
      First we note the accused belongs to the “class of people accused of a crime” (lets suppose 51 out of 97 members are innocent based on some survey), then we compute:

      P(Innocent & DNA evidence has been tampered with | Accused) = 51/97 > 50%.

      Obviously this is about as wrong as can be as it would imply DNA evidence was useless. Carrier present a convoluted argument for why this is still okay, however when pressed it comes down to a blank assertion he feels his estimate is as good as anything else, despite being affected by problem (i) and (ii), and therefore he will continue to build his case on this number. In the above trial-example this would be the equivalent of the defence lawyer simply insisting: yes, I am aware there may be general problems with my computation, rendering it completely unreliable in other circumstances, but dammit I nevertheless I feel these general concerns do not affect my numerical estimate, so 51/97 it is unless you can convince me it should be something else. Case closed!

      • “As good as anything else” is not the same as “good.”

  • Paul E.

    After reviewing some of the comments here, I cannot help but be more persuaded that these “debates” (I haven’t watched this one) aren’t a good way to educate the public. Sophistical positions are simply too easy to defend and make appear legitimate with this format, imo. Hopefully, people will eventually see the substantive criticism of these positions that have been and continue to be properly published.

    • Neko

      So I watched this debate and was struck, as others have noted, by the considerable limitations of the format. But why is this game designer debating Richard Carrier in the first place? It’s a mismatch. With apologies to the amateurs who have gained a sophisticated grasp of the issue, a guy who has prevailed through the rigors of a Ph.D. program, particularly at a prestigious university like Columbia, is going to have a considerable advantage over a non-academic in a scholarly debate. Carrier has a kinetic mind, is an experienced and confident speaker, and is even kind of cute (I say this as one who takes a jaundiced view of the man personally). The odds were stacked in his favor, especially with an audience of atheists.

      I wonder if anyone’s familiar with the source of one Carrier’s favorite anecdotes, in which he relishes indignation at Mark Goodacre for allegedly insisting that Paul got his gospel from the disciples and further insinuates that the profession is plagued by such confusion. I’m going to venture a guess that Goodacre was thinking of 1 Cor 15:3 (“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…”). As emphatically as Paul insists he received his gospel from Christ himself, it’s a fair assumption that he “received” it from his predecessors in the movement and on back to the disciples. Anyway, Goodacre is a superb scholar, and I suspect Carrier is misrepresenting the situation, and if he is, it’s detestable.

      I thought Carrier said some pretty dubious things but will stop here.

      • Mythers tend to lean heavily on a naively simple-minded acceptance of Galatians 1:11-12 –

        “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

        There, they argue, Paul explicitly tells us that his whole conception of Jesus was from revelatory visions and not from being taught it by anyone who got it from a historical Jesus and/or his first followers. But in context it’s clear that Paul “doth protest too much”. He’s trying to argue against those who have undermined his credentials by depicting him as a second tier apostle, subordinate to the higher-ranked leaders in Jerusalem. So this face value reading of what he says here is naive and also avoids the issue of why Paul needs to argue so urgently against his subordinate status and what it is that gives the Jerusalem leaders the very authority that puts Paul in this position.

        • John MacDonald

          One would suspect that Paul, being a deeply religious man, would have demanded a significant amount of information about what the first Christians believed about Jesus before he took up the cause to persecute them. I imagine he heard a substantial amount about Jesus from the Christians he was persecuting, too. The mythicist position just lacks verisimilitude.

          • John MacDonald

            And it seems Galatians 1:11-12 is another instance of Noble Lies in the Judeo Christian tradition to add to my collection!

            Palpatine: “if one is to understand ‘the great mystery’ one must study all it’s aspects, not just the dogmatic narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace a larger view of the force.”

          • Why would one suspect that? I think it’s pretty common for persecutors have a weak grasp of their victims’ actual beliefs and practices. The Romans who persecuted Christians thought that they practiced incest and cannibalism.

          • John MacDonald

            It might just be me, but there seems to be a little bit of difference between the rumors Romans might have heard about the Christian cult, and the theological blasphemy one set of Jews believed about another set of Jews (what the Jewish elite believed about the first Christians). I think Paul was deeply offended by the theological position of the first Christians, which is why he persecuted them. Paul said “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Gal 1:14).” Why do you think Paul was persecuting the Christians?

          • Unfortunately, Paul says very little about why he was persecuting Christians, and what he does say has been shaped by years of preaching, so it may reflect what was effective for making converts more than what his thinking had been prior to his conversion.

            What I do know is that one common basis for religious persecution is the need for a scapegoat for problems that have little to do with the victims’ actual beliefs or practices. Under the Romans, if the harvest had been bad and the peasants were restless, the Christians could be blamed because they had not kept the gods happy with the necessary sacrifices. When Nero blamed the Christians for the fire of Rome, he was trying to relieve the pressure on himself; he didn’t care what they actually believed.

            By the same token, Jewish elites who prospered under Roman rule would have reason to want to direct the anger of the common people away from themselves. A messianic cult comprised of illiterate peasants might have been a handy scapegoat, and their actual beliefs wouldn’t really matter.

            I don’t see any way to determine what the basis for Paul’s persecution was or what its extent was. Moreover, I’m not sure whether Paul was the one who was stirring up the people against the Christians or whether he was being stirred up my someone in a position of higher authority. In either case, I don’t think I can assume that he had an accurate understanding of the Christians’ beliefs.

            Nor would I expect him to have obtained much in the way of accurate information while persecuting the Christians. If he used torture to obtain confessions, his victims would have told him whatever they thought he wanted to hear. Similarly, if he used informants to obtain information, they would have told him what they thought he wanted to hear.

            Paul says that he went out to preach for three years after his conversion before consulting with his predecessors in the faith. I don’t think that is possible to know how much continuity there was between what he preached and what Christians believed before he came along.

          • John MacDonald

            I think you’re being a wee bit overly skeptical and not really paying attention to what Paul says, lol. Paul says:

            “13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:13-14)”

            The straightforward sense of the passage is that Paul was persecuting the Christians because what they were teaching was an affront to the traditions of his fore fathers.

          • Neko

            I’m inclined to agree. Presumably the Eucharistic practice alone would have been sufficient to inflame certain zealous Jews. Along with the belief that Jesus was divinized.

            Though Vinny’s points are well taken.

          • I don’t disagree. The reasonable implication is that Paul believed that something about the Christians beliefs and practices was an affront to Jewish tradition as Paul understood it.

            What was it though?

            As Neko points out, there are plenty of candidates: the Eucharist, a crucified Messiah, criticism of the Pharisees, the abrogation of animal sacrifices, deification of a peasant. Moreover, knowing what we know about other religious persecutions, it also could have been something that they were falsely accused of teaching or practicing.

            My point is that Paul doesn’t tell us what it was that offended him, and he doesn’t credit his predecessors for his any of his teachings. He only cites scripture and revelation. I think that makes it very difficult to determine how much of Paul’s writings reflects the beliefs of his predecessors and how much reflects ideas that Paul came up with.

            Personally, I feel that I have to treat Paul as the founder of Christianity for all practical purposes both because he’s my earliest source and because I don’t see any way to determine what came before him.

          • Neko

            Well, the credal statements are thought to reflect the beliefs of his predecessors.

          • John MacDonald

            Paul inherited the Corinthian Creed.

          • How much do the creeds really tell us? There were some guys who had visions of a crucified man raised from the dead. Paul thought that they were full of crap until he had his own vision. After his vision, Paul went out and preached for three years before he went to talk to the guys who had the first visions. Do Paul’s letters primarily reflect a message that he acquired or did he work out the meaning of the visions on his own?

          • John MacDonald

            Don’t you think that if Paul had such a transformative vision that he would have wanted to immediately find everything there was to know that the disciples were preaching about Jesus? Doesn’t the fact that Paul didn’t got to see the disciples until 3 years later suggest that Paul already knew everything the disciples were saying about Jesus from persecuting their converts? #parsimonious

          • Neko

            They tell us pretty much! And both the Corinthian creed and the Philippian hymn seem to attest to an HJ. In the first case because the Messiah is proclaimed to have died and been buried. In the latter because both Adam and Jesus are sons of God and earthlings, but the First was disobedient whereas the Second was obedient even to death on a cross.

            Between them they describe the foundation of the kerygma.

          • John MacDonald

            The Corinthian Creed also tells us that Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection were predicted in scripture, which also seems to suggest a historical Jesus because there is nothing in scripture about the atoning death of a celestial being.

          • On what grounds can we conclude that Philippians reflects a pre-Pauline formulation?

          • Neko

            From what I understand, literary analysis reveals Paul is quoting a poem that he (probably) didn’t compose and that may have been known to the Philippians. I suppose there are other factors, but at any rate, I’m channeling The Consensus.

          • Yes, but Paul had been influencing the movement for a couple decades by the time he wrote Philippians. Just because someone else wrote the hymn doesn’t mean that it predates Paul’s conversion or influence.

          • Neko

            True! As you can see, I’m quickly out of my depth. I’m guessing McGrath has addressed this objection and will search when I have the time.

          • It certainly does seem to reflect an emphasis that we find in Paul’s theology, focused on the last Adam (and which makes less sense if Jesus was not an actual human being, obviously). Whether Paul developed that theology and others borrowed it, others formulated it and he inherited it, is harder to say for the obvious reason that Paul is our earliest Christian author and so we can only infer what predated him by correlating him with other slightly later sources. But there are a great many things which are so widespread, including among groups that rejected Paul and his ideas, that it makes little sense to view them as having originated with Paul.

          • Neko

            Thank you very much for your response. I’ve long been intrigued by why scholars think the Philippian hymn is “pre-Pauline” and what they mean by “pre-Pauline” in the first place but never got around to investigating the matter. Does it mean pre-1 Thessalonians? Does it even mean pre-conversion? I remember Bart Ehrman’s excitement at how “very early” the hymn is thought to be, but how would one determine that? Might it not be more accurate to call it “ex-Pauline”? 🙂

          • It means that it seems as though Paul is quoting a hymn or poem which someone else other than Paul may have authored. And so the phrase is shorthand for that, and as you rightly point out, that might mean pre-Philippians and non-Pauline, rather than before Paul had his turnaround, much less before he was born. it is the hymnic characteristics, language, and style that are the major reasons that many (but by no means all) think that it is Paul quoting someone else.

            Ralph Martin’s book is one classic treatment of the passage that provides more information:

          • Neko

            Thank you!

          • Neko

            OK, I checked Bart’s site, and he writes:

            this poem then has a view that is both incarnational – Christ is a pre-existent divine being in God’s form, though (explicitly) not equal with God, who becomes human – and exaltational – who is exalted even higher than he was before, to be equal with God. It is quite a poem. And it was around before Paul was writing to the Philippians in the mid-50s CE, so that at the latest it must date to no fewer than 20 years after Jesus himself was walking the earth. Pretty amazing!

            So by “pre-Pauline” he means pre-Philippians!

            Also, is the hymn/poem “incarnational”?

            who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men

            Couldn’t this mean that like Adam Jesus was ]made] in the image of God but unlike Adam didn’t aspire to “equality with God”? Or does it frame Jesus as the divine counterpart to Satan? But in that case, Jesus wouldn’t be a Second Adam.

          • Yes, James Dunn made a strong case for the Adamic framework for the Philippians hymn.

            If you haven’t already seen them, you may be interested in my recent article on Philippians 2:8:

            …and my treatment of Paul’s Christology in The Only True God:

          • Neko

            Thank you for these links. I’ve just finished your article and am abashed to admit I may have already read it in part (but not finished, due to ADD or whatever reason) or in whole (and forgotten it, which seems incredible given how distinctive it is, but my memory is abysmal). At any rate, it’s a very stimulating and provocative read, thank you. In fact, I probably got my notion about Adamic Jesus from you and forgot you were the source!

            I’ve been meaning to buy your book for some years now but never did because I was under the misapprehension that it was long (you’re a subtle and intricate writer, and as I mentioned, I have ADD). It was probably the price tag that lead me to believe it was an unwieldy tome. I notice amazon only has 1 copy left in stock (!) so have put it on my wish list and will hope the price drops when amazon restocks. Or maybe Santa Claus will bring me that book. 🙂

          • I hope Santa is listening – but just in case, why not recommend it for purchase by your local public library?

          • Neko


          • Thanks so much!

          • Neko

            You’re very welcome!

          • Paul E.

            Thanks for this! Good expression of the Adamic stuff.

          • Paul E.

            Hello Vinny! I think you’re right to suggest it is becoming more common to suggest a Pauline authorship (or influence) on the Philippians “hymn.” If I have time later, I’ll try to dig up some links.

          • John MacDonald

            Indulge me a second while I impeach Paul:

            Above Tim said:

            “Mythers tend to lean heavily on a naively simple-minded acceptance of Galatians 1:11-12 –

            ‘I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.’

            There, they argue, Paul explicitly tells us that his whole conception of Jesus was from revelatory visions and not from being taught it by anyone who got it from a historical Jesus and/or his first followers. But in context it’s clear that Paul ‘doth protest too much’. He’s trying to argue against those who have undermined his credentials by depicting him as a second tier apostle, subordinate to the higher-ranked leaders in Jerusalem. So this face value reading of what he says here is naive and also avoids the issue of why Paul needs to argue so urgently against his subordinate status and what it is that gives the Jerusalem leaders the very authority that puts Paul in this position.”

            I agree with Tim that Galatians 1:11-12 is a noble lie by Paul to suit his rhetorical purposes. This fits in with what we know about Paul generally (the prior probability).

            Paul was quite clear that he was “something like” an accomplished liar, modifying his message about Jesus to cast Jesus in the most “sellable” light possible, depending on whether Paul was presenting the message to Jews, or to Gentiles (1 Cor 9:20-21). Since Paul was modifying the message depending on whether it was going to Jews or Gentiles, and he was trying to present the most tempting Christ possible to win the most converts, who knows what he thought about the actual historical Jesus?

            And there is good reason to suspect that Paul was lying, since he was constantly protesting that he wasn’t lying (a possible sign of guilt). Paul wrote:
            1. “I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie (Galatians 1:20)”
            2. “I speak the truth in Christ; I am not lying, as confirmed by my conscience in the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1).”
            3. “I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth (2 Corinthians 1:23).”
            4. ” The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is forever worthy of praise, knows that I am not lying (2 Corinthians 11:31).”

            As Shakespeare wrote, methinks Paul “doth protest too much.” Paul clearly seems to present himself as a liar who is worrying about getting caught.

            And Paul obviously “lies” to support his arguments. For instance, Paul claims the risen Christ appeared to “500 of the brothers AT ONCE (1 Corinthians 15:6).” That’s ridiculous! Paul is obviously making stuff up to persuade his readers that Christ really rose.

            Anyway, I think Paul is “noble lying” in Galatians 1:11-12 for rhetorical purposes, and that some central facet of the emerging Christian tradition deeply offended his Jewish beliefs, and so he wanted to stamp it out. I find it completely lacking in verisimilitude to believe the Jewish elites who hired Paul didn’t know what the Christian religion was about, or that they failed to tell Paul. It is irrelevant what “specifically” the first Christians were being persecuted for, just that it was something central to their faith. The Jewish elite wouldn’t have been persecuting the first Christians for something tangential, because if it were the case that the persecution reason wasn’t about something that was extremely important to the first Christians, they probably would have complied with the wishes of the Jewish elite and changed their belief/practice on that point. Wouldn’t you do that rather than be persecuted?

            The point is, Paul probably had a lot of information about what the first Christians believed before he had his first supposed encounter with the risen Jesus or his allegorical reading of scripture.

            Those are my thoughts, anyway.

          • Neko

            I think because you’ve embraced the Noble Lie theory you’re predisposed to see noble lies.

            It seems Paul was accused of being a liar, and he was certainly defensive. We can’t know whether he was, in fact, a liar, or more importantly, a calculating liar.

          • John MacDonald

            So you disagree with Tim’s argument that Galatians 1:11-12 is a noble lie? Paul says:

            ‘I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.’

            So you think Paul really didn’t receive information about Jesus from any man? Unless you are a mythicist, Galatians 1:11-12 seems to be as clear a case of a noble lie that we find in the scriptures.

            And there is a rich noble lie tradition in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For instance:

            1. God rewarded the Egyptian midwives for lying to the Pharaoh.

            And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives. Exodus 1:18-20

            2. Rahab was “justified” when she lied about Joshua’s spies.

            And the woman [Rahab] took the two men and hid them and said thus: There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were; and it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark that the men went out; whither the men went I wot not; pursue after them quickly, for ye shall overtake them. But she had brought them up to the roof of the house and hid them with the stalks of flax. Joshua 2:4-6

            Was not Rahab, the harlot, justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?. James 2:25

            3. David lied to Ahimelech when he said he was on the king’s business. (He was King Saul’s enemy at the time.) We know that God approved of this lie, since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything David did, with the single exception of the matter of Uriah.

            David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business…. 1 Samuel 21:2

            4. Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die.

            Benhadad the king of Syria was sick … And the king said unto Hazael … go, meet the man of God, and enquire of the LORD by him, saying, Shall I recover of this disease? Elisha said unto him, go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath showed me that he shall surely die. 2 Kings 8:8-10

            5. In the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, the angel Raphael lied to Tobias, saying “I am Azarias.”

            Tobias said to him: I pray thee, tell me, of what family, or what tribe art thou? And Raphael the angel answered … I am Azarias. Tobit 5:16-18

            6. Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but went “in secret.”

            [Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. John 7:8-10

            7. Even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets.

            And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. 1 Kings 22:21-22

            As you can see, the ancients, just like us today, were completely full of sh**. lol

          • Neko

            Huh? Of course I think Paul got the gospel from the movement. He says as much in 1 Cor (which may have been written soon after Galatians?). Gal 1:11-12 may be a noble lie, or it may refer to Paul’s own theology, or what have you. I’m not inclined to generalize that Paul is a compulsive liar or fraud.

          • Paul E.

            Yeah, very good point. I agree with you that the context of Galatians seems to refer to something more specific (the meaning of the “gospel” for gentiles) than the Corinthians stuff. I’m not sure what to do with Galatians if it isn’t. This makes much more sense, imo, than Paul either being fraudulent or (fraudulently or otherwise) creating something completely different to what he learned from his predecessors in the movement.

          • John MacDonald

            Not persuaded that Paul might have been lying? Perhaps I can invite you to the possibility that the real noble lie was between Cephas and the boys after Jesus died. Maybe they wanted to continue Jesus’ quest against the corrupt, Roman loving temple cult ( Mark 11:15–19), and so invented the story that Jesus’ death somehow enacted a super-special blood magic spell that nullified the temple cult.

          • Neko

            Um, maybe they just continued to believe Jesus was the Messiah and would soon return to deliver them from their oppression.

            Somehow I think a bunch of young illiterates terrified of meeting the same fate as Jesus wouldn’t regroup to plot an insurgency against the Temple cult.

            It’s very hard, for me anyway, to imagine what it must be alike to be an “unlettered” person two thousand years ago in a culture suffused with the supernatural.

          • Paul E.

            True, Paul or Cephas & Co. or both may have been lying, I just think it doesn’t fit the evidence very well. It’s an interesting theory, though, and I think we should always be critical of sources and consider lying along with other hypotheses. Cheers!

          • John MacDonald

            Paul completely misrepresents himself when he says

            ” I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12).”

            He freely admits he changed his message to suit whether it was being presented to Jews or gentiles (1Cor 9:20-21)

            He made outlandish claims to support his argument, like the risen Christ appeared to 500 of the brothers at once (1 Cor: 15:6)

            If you don’t agree that Paul might have been a compulsive liar (“might” is all I meant), will you at least concede Paul was an opportunist whose message we should approach skeptically?

          • Mark

            Galatians 1:11 can be translated differently, taking ‘gospel’ (the noun) and ‘preach’ (the verbal form) as meaning, say, “official announcement”. Then it’s say “The official pronouncement I officially pronounced was not deputed to me to pronounce officially by any human, etc.” He thinks Jesus Christ gave it to him. The translation of apocalypsis as ‘revelation’ is unnecessarily mystical. What he is given is a pronouncement to pronounce, a duty or obligation; this is the office he thinks JC has given him.

            In Greek I think one could coherently write what in this translation would appear as “the gospel I preached is not of plebeian origin; I did not receive it from any commoner, nor was I taught it; rather I received it by revelation from the Emperor.” ‘gospel’, ‘preach’ and ‘revelation’ are not religious terms. He is fitting himself into a political or military structure as an office holder.

          • Neko

            Wow! I’d not encountered that interpretation before. Ignorance of the Biblical languages means groping in the dark.

          • I agree that Paul probably is not above fudging the facts if it will achieve some rhetorical purpose. That’s why I have reservations about what he has to say about his persecution of the church. The worse he makes his earlier behavior, the more impressive his conversion becomes.

            While I don’t really believe that Paul got messages from God, I think that Paul was probably sincere in his belief that he had. It could have been visions and voices, or he could simply have believed that any thought that popped into his head was put there by God, but it doesn’t really make sense to me that he was lying knowingly about God revealing things to him.

            Someone had to come up with the theological ideas that we find in Paul’s letters, and I think that Paul is the likeliest candidate, particularly if his predecessors were illiterate peasants. Prior to Paul, there were some guys who had visions of a crucified man had been resurrected, but my guess is that it is Paul who worked out the theological and eschatological meaning of those visions. I think that makes better sense of his claims to revelation than intentional lying.
            I suspect that a large part of Paul’s transformative experience was his own theological insights into the meaning of the visions of the risen Christ. That being the case, it doesn’t surprise me that he showed little interest in what his predecessors thought or what their experiences had been with the earthly Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
            As I said before, I think that religious persecutions are usually motivated by something other than the desire that the persecuted group change its beliefs. Sometimes those in power need a scapegoat to distract the common people. Sometimes they fear the growing political influence of a religious minority. I think those are more common than the phenomenon that you have described.

          • John MacDonald

            My friend (the fabulous Vinny) said: “but it doesn’t really make sense to me that he was lying knowingly about God revealing things to him.”

            Why not? There are numerous precedents of devout religious believers in the Judeo Christian tradition engaging in noble lies. For instance,

            Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but instead went “in secret:”

            “[Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. (John 7:8-10).”

            And in fact Paul may have thought God wanted him to lie about experiencing the resurrection of Jesus to make the world a better place. After all, God sometimes commanded lying. God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets:

            “And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. 1 Kings 22:21-22”

            I hope you don’t think that I think the original Christians were “bad people” because it may have all been a noble lie. On the contrary, they loved society and their brothers quite deeply. After all, Paul said “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Outdo yourselves in honoring one another. (Romans 12:10).” They just wanted a better world for the future than the one they had of a corrupt, Roman loving temple cult and being crushed under the imperial Roman thumb.

            And this is all mere supposition of course. The Noble Lie theory of Christian origins is merely possible, not probable.

            But doesn’t it seem convenient that one of the key events of Jesus’ life was his temple tantrum, and his death, coincidentally, somehow managed to be interpreted as casting the most powerful blood magic spell in history that effectively nullified the temple cult?

            And would this not be a very possible reason why Paul was persecuting the first Christians?

          • I have no problem whatsoever with the the idea that Paul might lie (either nobly or venally) when it suited his purposes. I simply think that he sincerely believed that he was the recipient of divine revelations.

            Given how few pieces we have of the puzzle that is early Christianity, I suspect that there are many plausible ways in which the dots might be connected. Let me suggest one:

            Paul persecutes a group of illiterate Galilean peasants who proclaim a crucified Messiah resurrected. This is sufficiently offensive to him without knowing much else about their beliefs.

            Paul has a vision of the crucified Messiah resurrected. On his own, he works out the theology of this Messiah and the scriptural support. He believes that this has all been revealed to him by God.

            Because he thinks that God has spoken to him directly, he has little interest in anyone else’s understanding of the visions. Because he assigns primary importance to the anointed one’s death and resurrection, he has little interest in stories about the earthly Jesus.

            Paul goes out and preaches the message based on his understanding. For the most part, he is speaking truly when he says that he was not taught it by any man because he came up with most of it on his own.

          • John MacDonald

            Sure, that’s possible too. Here’s my guess: Supposing Jesus existed, the original disciples such as Cephas may have invented stuff about Jesus after he died. One of the climax moments of Jesus’ life was the “Jesus vs the corrupt, Roman loving Temple Cult” story (Mark 11:15-19) . Maybe the disciples wanted to continue Jesus’ quest against the corrupt Temple Cult after he died, and so invented the idea that somehow Jesus’ death was such a unique and important blood magic sacrifice that it eliminated the need for the temple cult (as implied in the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed). Maybe all the disciples really wanted was a society of brotherly love and moral conduct. Maybe they believed that this “Noble Lie” about the elimination of need for the Temple Cult would ultimately fulfill God’s plan.

          • Mark

            The whole point the Noble Lie is: you don’t tell the *hoi polloi* about it. So 1 Cor 9 is not talking about a Noble Lie. Paul’s theme has triggered memory of his views about table fellowship and the like: with those who only follow mosaic law, he associates according to its terms; with those who don’t he doesn’t.

          • John MacDonald

            Mark said: “The whole point the Noble Lie is: you don’t tell the *hoi polloi* about it.”

            There are many different kinds of noble lies told for a variety of purposes to different audiences in the ancient world and in the Judeo Christian tradition generally. I outline a number of them here:

          • Mark

            Sorry, if my readers are Jews or gentiles, as they must be, I don’t say to them “If I’m talking to Jews I lie and say I’m a Jew, and if I’m talking to gentiles, I lie and say I’m a gentile”. An interpretation of the passage as saying anything like this is performative contradiction.

          • John MacDonald

            Not at all. Paul was proud of his rhetorical prowess at persuading people, even if he was being what we would call “underhanded.” For instance, do you think Paul really believed the risen Jesus appeared to “500 of the brothers at once?”

          • Mark

            I think he probably heard this exact figure from someone and believed them. You still haven’t explained why we should read him as effectively saying “I am lying to you right now”, which is absurd, instead of looking for another reading.

          • John MacDonald

            You said it yourself above, to those who followed Mosaic law, he conformed. To those who didn’t, he didn’t. You don’t think that means Paul changed his message, for instance, to persuade those under the law? Then in what way was he conforming? Paul bragging about his rhetorical prowess using chameleon methods may seem silly to us, but maybe not to Paul.

          • Mark

            If he didn’t change his //message//, somehow he wasn’t conforming to the Mosaic //practice//? What does what I wear and eat and what I do on Saturday have to do with the messianic doctrine I am propounding?

            In any case he is trying to convince people and of course this will proceed differently for different people. In arguing you start from premises the other accepts. There is no lying, but just good sense in “If I’m talking to a Jew I start from premises X, Y and Z; if I’m talking to a gentile I start from premise P, Q, R”. I do this explicitly in academic writing where I anticipate different convictions in different readers.

            You still haven’t answered the objection that on your reading he is saying something in the nature of “I am lying to you right now, in this very sentence”, “P, but I’m telling you that ~P”. Common sense teaches us to avoid an absurd interpretation where another is possible.

          • John MacDonald

            Now you’re just being silly. lol

            The Jews of Jesus’ time believed that even God lied if it suited his purpose. We read, for instance:

            And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. (1 Kings 22:21-22)

            If Paul lied to achieve God’s ends, then would not he have been acting in a godlike manner? Recall that this is a culture and time where many people believed God approved of them forging epistles, etc. If they didn’t believe God approved, why would they have forged them? You are assuming Paul presenting himself as a chameleon would be offensive at the time, but there is no reason to think that. The author of John even presents Jesus as a liar, lying to his family about not going up to the party, but then going in secret:

            [Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. (John 7:8-10)

            This was a time when one of the most famous books in the world was Plato’s “Republic,” which is based on “The Noble Lie”

            Anyway, I’ve given my thoughts, so I guess we’ll just agree to disagree.

          • Interesting theory.

          • John MacDonald

            I may or may not be right, but I’m definitely creative!

          • John MacDonald

            The noble lie theory is certainly one way to make sense of the apocalyptic evidence. It seems that the original Christians were an apocalyptic sect. Maybe they believed the corrupt, Roman loving temple cult as the centre of Jewish life was preventing the end of the world they so desperately wanted. So, maybe they concocted a way to negate the need for the temple cult. Supposing Jesus existed, the original disciples such as Cephas may have invented the atonement stuff about Jesus after he died (see the pre-Pauline Corinthian creed). One of the climax moments of Jesus’ life was the “Jesus vs the corrupt, Roman loving Temple Cult” story (Mark 11:15-19) . Maybe the disciples wanted to continue Jesus’ quest against the corrupt Temple Cult after he died, and so invented the idea that somehow Jesus’ death was such a unique and important blood magic sacrifice that it eliminated the need for the temple cult (as implied in the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed). Maybe all the disciples really wanted was a society of brotherly love and moral conduct so that God would decide they were worthy of the end of the world. Maybe they believed that this “Noble Lie” about the elimination of need for the corrupt, Roman lovingTemple Cult would ultimately fulfill God’s plan of making people righteous, and so would become a catalyst that would finally bring about the end of days. This theory works equally well under historicism as it does with mythicism. What do you think, Vinny?

          • John MacDonald

            All you have to suppose is that Jesus and his followers were familiar with the noble lie traditions in their holy scriptures, and were disillusioned with the corrupt, Roman loving temple cult which they thought was preventing the apocalypse. .Jesus was theologically literate, wasn’t he? After all, theologically literate Jews of that time would have known that God could desire lying when it helped to achieve His ends.

            For instance, God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets:

            “And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. 1 Kings 22:21-22”

            Consider the intellectual culture at the time. For example, many of the early Christians believe that God supported them forging epistles. If they didn’t think God approved of the forgeries, why would they have forged them?

          • I have no idea whether Jesus was theologically literate or not. I think that I have pretty good evidence that Paul was, but when I told comes to Paul’s predecessors, all I’ve got is a whole lot of supposing.

          • John MacDonald

            Would you agree that the early Christian theology implied a nullification of the need for the corrupt, Roman loving temple cult (as implied by the Corinthian Creed, the tearing of the veil, etc.), which (the corrupt temple cult) the early Christians may have thought was preventing the apocalypse?

          • Any time a question contains two “implieds” and a “may have,” I suspect that there is room for doubt.

          • John MacDonald

            Sometimes the best we can manage is “implies” and “may have.” Hence, postmodernism. Just the same, I think the noble lie theory of Christian origins is a unique and interesting take on the evidence. I like to think of the ancients more in line with what we see in Seutonius’ “The 12 Caesars.” The book can be described as racy, packed with gossip, dramatic, and sometimes amusing. In other words, human. I’ve enjoyed creating a blog post about the noble lie theory of Christian origins: . Instead of creating a bunch of different blog posts, every time I get a new idea I just added it to the reader comment section. I was trying to make sense of Nietzsche’s word:
            “Paul simply shifted the centre of gravity of that whole life to a place behind this existence in the LIE of the ‘risen’ Jesus (Nietzsche, Anti Christ, Chapter 42).”

          • John MacDonald

            And don’t you find it a bit suspicious, following Jesus’ climactic temple tantrum triumph at the temple, in death he then completely defeats the temple through atonement? That’s one reason I have doubts about the historicity of the temple tantrum pericope in Mark (along with the fact that there would have been guards at the temple to prevent just the sort of thing that Mark records Jesus did).

          • I find everything in the gospels suspicious, and I am skeptical that there is any way to determine what, if anything, goes back to an actual historical Jesus.

            I believe that the simplest explanation for Paul’s letters is that he was primarily responsible for the theological ideas contained therein and that he was convinced (perhaps he had convinced himself) that God had revealed the ideas to him.

            I don’t believe that simplicity equals probability, but I think that it’s the best place to start, and given the limitations of the sources, I think that it may be as far as we can go.

          • John MacDonald

            Since the atonement theology predates Paul (see the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed), I think Paul is irrelevant in determining whether the first Christians simply invented the temple nullification interpretation of Jesus’ death as a means of attacking the corrupt, Roman loving temple cult as a center of religious life. On Paul, though, given the noble lie tradition in Judeo-Christianity, I think it is equally as likely that Paul believed God was revealing things to him, as it was that Paul thought God wanted him to lie, like the authors of the forged epistles must have thought God wanted them to lie.

          • I have a few thoughts:

            Just as with the Phillipian hymn, that the Corinthian creed was composed by someone other than Paul doesn’t establish that the creed itself predates Paul’s influence.

            Even if the creed itself predates Paul, he may have put his own spin on it as he sometimes did with Old Testament passages. Clearly he added the part about the appearance to himself.

            Even if “died for our sins” predates Paul, I don’t see it as equivalent to “temple nullification interpretation of Jesus’ death as a means of attacking the corrupt, Roman loving temple cult as a center of religious life.” The elaboration of the atonement theology could still largely be Paul’s work.

          • John MacDonald

            Hey Vin! I do appreciate your feedback and have been appreciating your comments for years here. Have you ever noticed debating is like playing chess? It’s fun! You said “died for our sins” may not have referred to Christ’s death creating a blood magic spell that reconciled humans to God, replacing the need for the temple. If you disagree with that interpretation (let’s call it the pre Paul temple nullifying hypothesis), what do you think “died for our sins” means in the Corinthian Creed, and why was it such an important point that it got its own creed?

          • The main similarity I see to chess is that I don’t have enough time to keep my game as sharp as I would like.

          • John MacDonald

            I’ve enjoyed your past exchanges with Dr. McGrath!

          • John MacDonald

            I think the principle difference between Paul and the pre Pauline Christians is that while both taught salvation through Christ as the fulfillment of the Law, the pre Pauline Christians taught gentiles needed to convert to Judaism to be a members of the Jesus movement, while Paul followed the argument to its logical conclusion and said gentiles didn’t need to become Jews to experience salvation through Christ’s sacrifice. Mark, who in all likelihood read or at least knew of Paul’s theology, expressed this with the tearing of the veil (reconciling humans and God), and the words of the soldier at the crucifixion (reconciling Jew and gentile).

          • John MacDonald

            And the Corinthian creed doesn’t just say Christ died for our sins, but “Christ died for our sins according to scripture,” so Paul got that scripture part from the first Christians too. After all, Paul says “13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ — (Galatians 3:13).” Paul is referring to Deuteronomy 21:23, “for he who is hanged is accursed of God.”

          • When God would punish the Israelites for their various shortcomings in the Old Testament, were those punishments viewed in terms of atonement? I think it would have been natural for Jesus’ first followers to have seen his death as a punishment for their wickedness without necessarily seeing it as an abrogation of the temple sacrifices. The latter seems like a much bigger theological step.

          • John MacDonald

            That’s certainly a possible reading too, although I don’t know why the first Christians would need to make a creed out of it if they were just referring to what was happening all the time in the Hebrew scriptures anyway. And the Corinthian Creed links “Christ died for our sins” with Christ was “raised,” so it seems to imply the “raising” is related to the “dying for sins,” which we know from Paul means Christ as the “first fuits (1 Corinthians 15:23 ) of the general resurrection of souls at the time of the approaching apocalypse. The coming apocalypse could definitely be interpreted in terms of the abandonment of the corrupt temple cult, and the first Christians may very well have felt the corrupt temple needed to be abandoned as a Catalyst for the end of the age. Mark may have been inspired to write his gospel because the temple had been destroyed and so, as a Christian, he thought the apocalypse was imminent and he wanted to spread the word. All our earliest sources portray the original Jesus movement as apocalyptic. How do you interpret the connection between “died for our sins” with “raised” in the Corinthian creed?

          • John MacDonald

            Bart Ehrman says, regarding what the pre Pauline Christians thought, that:

            “This reconfirmation of a hope that had been forcefully disconfirmed compelled these earliest followers of Jesus to make sense of it all through their ultimate source of all religious truth, the sacred scriptural traditions. They found passages that spoke of someone (a righteous person or the nation of Israel as a whole) suffering, but then being vindicated by God. These included passages such as Isaiah 53 quoted above. These followers of Jesus claimed these passages actually referred to the future messiah. They were predictions of Jesus.

            This was for them ‘good news.’ Jesus was the messiah, but not one anyone expected. By raising him from the dead, God showed that Jesus’ death had brought about a much greater salvation than anyone had anticipated. Jesus came to save God’s people not from their oppression by a foreign power, but to save them for eternal life. This is what the earliest Christians must have proclaimed.

            And for the zealous Pharisee Paul, it was utter nonsense. It was worse than nonsense. It was a horrific and dangerous blasphemy against God, his scriptures, and the law itself. This scandalous preaching had to be stopped. And Paul did his best to stop it.”


          • John MacDonald

            My conclusions about the noble lie theory are different from Ehrman’s, but I agree with him the first Christians were claiming that “died for our sins” in the pre Pauline Corinthian Creed meant they were preaching salvation.

          • For illiterate peasants, they sure were good at finding Old Testament passages upon which to build an elaborate theological structure, weren’t they? It almost seems to be the kind of thing that might require a well-educated, trained theologian.

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t see any reason to think the historical Jesus didn’t have theologically literate members that were part of his group. And there is no reason to think someone among them was, say, a fisherman just because Mark said so. This might just have been an ironic play on the idea that Jesus promised to make them fishers of men (Mark 1:17). And the most common title for Jesus that other characters call Jesus in Mark is “Teacher,” so the disciples could have learned all kinds of funky theology from Jesus.

          • John MacDonald

            It’s a rags to riches story. An itinerant backwater preacher from Nazareth and his band of yokels save mankind. There’s no reason to think Jesus’ original followers were anything like what we find in Mark.

          • I think it would require a pretty high level of theological sophistication rather than mere theological literacy, but you are correct that we cannot take at face value the characterization of the disciples as illiterate peasants. There may have been someone among Jesus’ followers with the ability to put everything together.

            On the other hand, Paul clearly had the ability, and he seems to be claiming that he came up with the message on his own. That would seem to me to make him the leading candidate.

            The only reason he gives me to look elsewhere is the Corinthian creed, but I think he may be claiming that he received the underlying gospel message rather than a particular creedal formulation of the message, and I think he is claiming, as he did in Galatians, that he received by revelation.

            In the 11th chapter of Corinthians, Paul uses “received from the Lord” and “passed on” in teaching about the Eucharist, and in the 12th chapter he talks about God giving words of knowledge, words of wisdom, and gifts of prophecy. I think that he is probably talking about the same kind of divine transmission in the 15th chapter.

          • John MacDonald

            I think the most straightforward reading of the Corinthian Creed is that the immediately “pre Paul” Christians were teaching Salvation through Christ as the fulfillment of the Law. This would explain the meaning of the creed (died for our sins), why it was special enough to be put into creedal poetry (because it meant atonement), and why Saul persecuted them so vehemently. I think the main difference between Paul and Peter after Paul joined the movement was that Paul was teaching gentile converts to the movement didn’t need to become Jewish. As for the other stuff, Paul certainly “claimed” that he was getting all sorts messages from God, but Paul doesn’t really strike me as being, to use Carrier’s language, a high functioning schizotypal. Hence, the Noble Lie theory of Christian origins!

            Regarding the disciples being theologically sophisticated, as I said, in Mark it’s a clever play on the rags to riches story: An itinerant backwater preacher from a nowhere place like Nazareth and his band of peasants save mankind by reconciling man to God (the tearing of the veil, Mark 15:38) and Jews to gentiles (the words of the soldier – truly this man is the son of God, Mark 15:39). There’s no reason to think Jesus’ original followers were anything like what we find in Mark. I don’t see any reason to think the historical Jesus didn’t have theologically sophisticated members that were part of his group. And there is no reason either to think some among them were, say, fishermen, just because Mark said so. This might just have been an ironic play on the idea that Jesus promised to make them “fishers of men (Mark 1:17).” And the most common title for Jesus that other characters call Jesus in Mark is “Teacher,” so the disciples could have learned all kinds of elaborate theology from Jesus.

            Incidentally Vinny, I appreciate the discussion we’ve been having. I’ve written an article about the Noble Lie Theory of Christian origins, and you’ve helped me clarify my thoughts (for what my thoughts may or may not be worth, lol). I’ve submitted it to the Secular Web for publication, so we’ll see if I can pass their review process (as an amateur, my fingers are humbly crossed, lol).

          • I’m glad I could help. I have enjoyed the discussion, too.

            I feel that there was more to Paul’s contribution than just expanding the movement to gentiles. I think the number of letters he wrote and the number of letters that were forged in his name indicate that he had a pretty big role in shaping the early theology. My problem is in figuring out where his contribution started. I find myself putting that point very early because I don’t see a logical point to draw a line between what came before and what came after and I find it hard to identify much that necessarily came before..

          • John MacDonald

            Ehrman has some interesting points on the Corinthian Creed that we’ve been discussing. He writes:

            ” Here I should say, though, that scholars have long recognized that Paul is not merely summarizing his preaching: he is actually quoting a piece of poetry, or possibly a creed, that had been in circulation among the Christians. You will notice that vv. 3-5 are very lapidary and direct and that you can divide the lines into two major parts, each of the parts having three statements, and that the statements of part 2 correspond to the statements of part 1. If you laid it out graphically, it would look like this:

            That Christ died for our sins

            in accordance with the scriptures.

            and that he was buried;

            That he was raised on the third day

            in accordance with the scriptures,

            and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

            See how that works? The first line of each part states the important salvific fact: Christ died, Christ was raised. The second line of each indicates that he did so in fulfillment of the (Jewish) Scriptures. And the third line of each provides the tangible proof of the statement (his death is proven by his burial; his resurrection is proven by his appearances). This is a very carefully and intentionally crafted statement.

            It is widely thought that it may have been some kind of creed that was recited in the Christian churches, or possibly a statement of faith that was to be recited by recent converts at their baptism, a creed that is being quoted by Paul here (not composed by him when writing the letter). It is often thought to have been crafted by someone other than Paul. It was a tradition floating around in the church that encapsulated the Christian faith, putting it all in a nutshell.

            Paul inherited this creed, just as he inherited the theology it embodies. He didn’t invent the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought salvation. That was the view of Christians before him.”

          • I am aware that this is the scholarly consensus, but I cannot help but notice that the evidence is far from conclusive.

            Paul is our earliest source, and he doesn’t say much (if anything) about the view of Christians before he joined the movement. He claims that the gospel message was not taught to him by anyone. While he may be lying either nobly or ignobly, he may in fact have invented a large part of it, which he interpreted as God revealing it to him.

            Paul had been a part of the movement for almost two decades by the time he wrote 1 Corinthians, so the creed could have been composed by someone who learned the gospel from Paul.

            As far as I know, Paul never cites any of his predecessors as the source of anything he writes, but he does speak of receiving things from God. At best, I would say that 1 Corinthians 1 is ambiguous as to whether Paul means “received by revelation” or “received from my predecessors.”

            It is certainly plausible that Paul learned the gospel message from his predecessors, but I am hard pressed to see what evidence we have that Paul didn’t invent it.

          • John MacDonald

            I thought again about Tim O’Neil’s statement above about Paul “doth pretest too much,” and I’ve changed my mind. I think Tim is wrong. When Paul says he got his gospel only from revelation, I think he means (lying or not) that he got his gospel from Godly hallucination that gentiles didn’t need to become Jews to join the Jesus movement. I think this would have been a monumental innovation from what Peter was teaching. This still allows Paul to maintain that he received the message from the Christians before him that Christ’s salvific act fulfilled the law and reconciled God to humans.

          • I can see how it might take a lot of work to take the beliefs a Jewish messianic sect which included the idea of an atoning sacrifice and structure a theology that embraced the salvation of the whole world. Paul could have been sincere in thinking that what he taught the Galatians hadn’t come from his predecessors.

          • Mark

            That gentiles don’t need to become Jews to be righteous, in their way, is standard early rabbinical and presumably pharisaical teaching. (Thus today Lubavitchers in my neighborhood try to get Gentiles to practice the ‘noahide laws’ that they are bound by anyway – but, as in Paul, with mystical messianic intent). There’s no reason to think Paul’s views about this differed much from what he had learned from his Jerusalem teachers.

            He doesn’t use the Noah connection (that surfaces in later rabbinism) but seems to work with some widespread Jewish apriori about ‘what’s wrong with the nations’, and thus how they’re supposed to behave. Romans 1:18-32 is presumably standard boilerplate expression of this view, where idolatry is the basic problem. It has nothing to do with the laws of Moses or ‘becoming a Jew’.

            He must think his status as ‘apostle to the gentiles’ was somehow granted directly by Christ, of course!

          • John MacDonald

            Ehrman seems to be helpful here. He writes:

            “What does Paul mean in his letter to the Galatians when he says that he did not receive his gospel from humans but direct from God through a revelation of Jesus? Does he mean that he was the one (through direct divine inspiration) who came up with the idea that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than, say, Jesus’ life and teachings, that brings salvation? And if so, doesn’t that mean that Paul himself would be the founder and creator of Christianity, since Christianity is not the religion of Jesus himself, but the religion about Jesus, rooted in faith in his death and resurrection?

            It may seem like that’s the case, but it’s not. Not at all. In my previous post I showed that the belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection were around before Paul and that Paul inherited this belief from Christians who were before him. But then what would Paul mean when he explicitly says in Galatians 1:11-12 ‘For I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me – that it is not a human affair; for I neither received it from a human nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ’?

            That sure sounds like he is saying that his gospel message came straight from Jesus, not from humans, right? Yes, right, it does sound that way. But it’s important to know – and not just to assume – what Paul means by his ‘gospel’ in this passage. He doesn’t mean what you might at first think he means.

            Paul begins his letter to the Galatians with a rebuke. Uncharacteristically, he does not start the letter by thanking God for the congregation. On the contrary, he’s angry and he tells them so. He says that he is ‘astonished’ that the Galatians are’deserting’ the one who ‘called’ them in order to turn to a ‘different gospel.’ He goes on to say that if anyone preaches a ‘different gospel’ from the one that he preached when he converted them to the faith – even if it’s an ‘angel from heaven’ – that one stands under God’s curse. The gospel that Paul first proclaimed to them is the only true gospel and any other gospel is not a gospel at all.

            To understand what he means it is important to know what the historical situation is that Paul is addressing in the letter to the Galatians. The situation becomes pretty clear in the context of his comments. Paul had established this church (or these churches) among gentiles (pagans) in central Asia Minor (modern Turkey). After he left the region to start churches elsewhere, other Christian missionaries arrived who taught the Christians in Galatia a different version of the faith.

            According to these others, faith founded on Jesus was a fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures (on this Paul agreed). Jesus was the Jewish messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfilment of the Jewish law. Thus, for these other missionaries, to believe in Jesus required a person to be a Jew. Yes, gentiles could join the people of God and find salvation through Jesus. But to join the people of God – they had to join the people of God! The people of God were the Jewish people. God had given his people a sign to show that they were distinct from all other people on earth. This is way back in the Old Testament where God tells the father of the Jews, Abraham, that everyone who belongs to the coventant community needs to be circumcised (see Genesis 17). Jews are circumcised. Those who convert to Judaism need to be circumcised. Belonging to the people of God means being circumcised. The Christian believers in Galatia need to be circumcised. When God gave the covenant of circumcision to Abraham, he called it an “eternal covenant.” It wasn’t a temporary measure. It was permanent. And God had not changed is mind. So say Paul’s opponents.

            Paul writes his letter to the Galatians in shock, disbelief, and white hot anger. This is NOT, this is DECIDEDLY NOT, what he had taught the Galatians when he converted them. Paul’s view was that the death and resurrection of Christ was absolutely the goal to which God’s plan of salvation had been moving from the days of Abraham. But the point of Jesus’ death was that it brought salvation to all people, Jew and Gentile. Salvation could not come by keeping the law of God, starting with circumcision. If the Law could make someone right with God, then there would have been no reason for Christ to have died. A person could just get circumcised and join the Jewish people. But salvation didn’t work that way. Salvation came only through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And since it came apart from the law, a person could participate in it apart from the law.

            This was the ‘gospel’ that Paul preached. When Paul indicates that a salvation came completely ‘apart from the works of the Law,’ he is not saying that salvation comes apart from doing any good deeds — the way Martin Luther and most Protestants since his day have read Paul (until the last 50 years). Luther read ‘works of the Law’ as ‘doing good works’ – that is ‘earning one’s salvation.’ But that’s taking Paul out of context. Paul instead is saying that no one needs to do the demands of the Jewish law (such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher food) to be right with God. One needs only faith in Christ. As he says most clearly in Galatians (in a message he remembers having forcefully delivered to Peter, Jesus’ disciple), ‘We ourselves (i.e., he and Peter), who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.’ (Gal. 2:15-16).

            When Paul speaks of the gospel that he preached to the Galatians, this was it. This is what he learned directly from a revelation of Jesus. He did not learn merely that the death and resurrection of Jesus brought salvation. This is what other Christians before Paul were saying; that was the belief held by those Paul had been persecuting. What Paul came to realize when he ‘saw the light’ – that is, when Christ appeared to him after his resurrection – was that this message of salvation was for gentiles as well as Jews. And it was to go to gentiles without them first having to become Jews. The salvation of Christ was for all people, Jew and gentile, and was not tied to observing the practices prescribed in the Jewish law. Paul was the one who first realized this (he claims). His mission to the gentile lands was part of God’s plan of salvation. God now was working to save not only the Jews, but also the gentiles.”

            —- Those are Ehrman’s thoughts.

          • Mark

            Yes, this is the view I was opposing. It’s like reading a protestant minister, despite his protests about Luther; it’s basically pure supercessionism. I wonder how much Paul he has studied since, say, the 70’s. Look up, say, “Paul within Judaism” to see how completely unreasoned this stuff is, even if no one knows how to replace it.

            “Paul … is saying that no one needs to do the demands of the Jewish law”

            Does he think the priests in the Temple should give up the sacrifices? Jews in Jerusalem should chuck the sabbath and holidays? Where’s the evidence? Such ideas come from massive over-reading of his letters, which are written to gentiles. For example, he says (Galatians 5:3 ) that proselytes, once circumcised, must keep the whole law. His difficulty is with the motive a Christ-believing gentile has in becoming a proselyte, particularly one of /his/ Christ-believers. The whole point of /his/ Christ-believers is that they are from the ‘nations’, and are not Jews.

            “The gospel that Paul first proclaimed to them is the only true gospel and any other gospel is not a gospel at all.”

            Paul claims to know that the other ‘gospel’ the Galatians are hearing is ‘no gospel’ – i.e. no good – but he just doesn’t say there isn’t or can’t be another gospel. “Gospel” just means (good) announcement or proclamation or whatever. In the context it is an official proclamation of the messianic regime.

            There is nothing at all in the word that precludes there being several good proclamations from the same authority. The apostles in Jerusalem address the Jews and presumably have a different pleasing message/proclamation/announcement, and thus another ‘gospel’. Paul’s thought is just that /his/ believers should cleave to the proclamation they first received, the one that put them ‘in Christ’. Thus his aversion to proclaiming where Christ has already been named, building a house on someone else’s foundations (= gospel) (Romans 15). Even if /he/ is given another gospel they should follow the old one.

            … and on and on.

            You might take a look at the recent book by Fredriksen which leaves a lot to be desired but is short and very well written. There are many similar treatments.

          • John MacDonald

            Hey Mark! Thanks for your thoughts. I’m a little unclear as to what your position is. Could you briefly clarify:
            (1) What do you think the essence of the message was that the Christians were preaching immediately before Paul converted?
            (2) Why was the message of those Christians so blasphemous that Paul was persecuting them for it?
            (3) What was the core of Paul’s message that was unique to him that (so he says) he got from a hallucination about Christ?

          • Mark

            1) The essence of the Jerusalem message was that Jesus is the messiah; with his resurrection the general resurrection has begun; his glorious reign from Jerusalem is about to begin. The main conceptual move in early ‘Christianity’ is to unite the vague range of messianic hopes with the pharisaical hope of the general resurrection — all as a single process, with the messiah being Jesus.

            2) I don’t know if this was blasphemous, but it was insane and contrary to Paul’s pre-conceived messianic notions. His later absorption with the ‘curse’ of Deuteronomy 21 suggests that this text may have been part of the early anti-Jesus propaganda he had accepted – it is still being repeated ad inf by Trypho in discussion Justin 100 years later. –Similarly Chabad has been subject to unrelenting vilification for their post-mortem messiah Schneerson. Sabbateans were subject to centuries of vilification for holding to belief in their Muslim-convert (and later dead) messiah Sabbatai. An unrelenting persecution with all the elements of McCarthyite paranoia pervade the Jewish world in the 17th and 18th c. R. Emden was the equivalent of pre-conversion Paul in the later phases of the anti-Sabbatean hysteria

            3) The ‘uniqueness’ of Paul’s message need not have been part of its content. There is nothing in his understanding that prohibits other people occupying a position like his, with Christ-given ‘gospels’ to announce to the gentiles. The content of his proclamation was something like”Jesus is the messiah; his death and resurrection are the beginning of the transition from the present sick sinful state of nature to the coming reconstitution of the world, over which he will rule in glory, all things in unity with him; enter the regime he is constructing”; the target of his proclamation was: the nations. That’s about it.

          • John MacDonald

            Now I’m really cofused, lol. How exactly do these three points you illustrate differ from what Ehrman is teaching?

          • Mark

            They have nothing to do with the validity of the Mosaic law, for starters.

          • John MacDonald

            So, in your point (1), you disagree with Ehrman that these early Christians believed Christ’s death replaces the Passover sacrifice and the Yom Kippur sacrifice through some sort of funky super blood magic spell produced by his death that fulfilled the law?

          • Mark

            Where is that in Paul? There’s something like it in Hebrews but it’s presumably after the temple fell. I don’t think in any case Hebrews means for itself to be taken more seriously than the average sermon.

          • John MacDonald

            Well, Paul says: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7).”

          • Mark

            Right, he has about a hundred typological images and diverse metaphors. Adam, foundation of a temple, the head of every man, that of which God is the head, a sacrifice, that of which the church constitutes the body, what it is to live (Phil 1:21), King, Caesar (in the way he plays with the names Christ Jesus, Jesus Christ), the rock in the wilderness, that to whom each of us has been promised as bride, etc. ‘Passover lamb’ is a fleeting metaphor. The main point is that his death and resurrection are transforming this lame ‘fleshly’ ‘sinful’ world into the ‘spiritual’ resurrection world over which he will soon overtly rule as messiah. “Rom 14:9 Christ died and rose again for this very purpose—to be Lord both of the living and of the dead.”

          • John MacDonald

            I find Paul calling Jesus our “Passover Lamb” very suggestive of Dr. Ehrman’s interpretation. In the passage I quoted, Paul is not just calling Christ the Passover Lamb, but also that we are “unleavened (1 Cor 5:7)” because of it. This fits in nicely with the Pre Pauline Corinthian Creed/poetry that says Christ “died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3-4). Since these two passages both occur in the same epistle, they seem to reinforce and interpret one another, and therefore lend further weight to Dr. Ehrman’s interpretation. I understand your interpretation is “possible” too.

          • Mark

            I was answering the three questions you formulated, not commenting on Ehrman. If you don’t like your questions you can delete them.

          • John MacDonald

            Dr. Ehrman is drawing conclusions based on a lifetime of study at the highest level of academia, not “repeating what he learned in Sunday school.” You are clearly taking a page out of Carrier’s handbook of insults, so I wish you luck discussing ideas with other people here. Online, and in life, I don’t associate with rude people.

          • Mark

            I am discussing his Paul interpretation, some of which you quoted above, which is in my judgment 30 years out of date and follows the immense weight of basically Protestant ideology that has gathered around his name. No one who was seriously studying Paul in the recent period would write such things without qualification. I’m not being rude at all, sorry, but speaking directly and stating exactly what I understand to be the facts. You, by contrast, are perpetually mocking everyone in sight.

          • John MacDonald

            If you weren’t being rude, why did you delete your comment that Ehrman was “repeating what he learned in Sunday School?”

          • Mark

            I did that before you commented. The reason was that it wasn’t to my point.

          • John MacDonald

            Oh well. My goal here as a newbie is to learn the best interpretations I can, not be the “rude police” lol. So I’ll try to fuse Ehrman with the apocalyptic material. Paul thought (or so he says) the apocalypse had begun. He calls Jesus the “first fruits (1 Cor 15:23)” of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age. Paul was waiting for the time when God would intervene in history and bring about the full end of the age for everyone. In the meantime, waiting for this second phase, as I said, Paul thought Christ’s sacrifice had created a massive blood magic spell that, functioning as the Passover and Yom Kippur sacrifices for all time, fulfilled the law and served as atonement. As I said above, Paul is not just calling Christ the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7), but also that we are “unleavened (1 Cor 5:7)” because of Him. This fits in nicely with the Pre Pauline Corinthian Creed/poetry that says Christ “died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3-4). Since these two passages both occur in the same epistle, they seem to reinforce and interpret one another. So Paul taught that the apocalypse had started, and was waiting for the second phase, all the while telling people they should live expectantly, but understanding that Christ’s sacrifice served as a one-time do-all Yom Kippur/Passover sacrifice. And I don’t mock people. When I say lol it usually means nervous laughter and uncertainty.

          • Mark

            I do think the ‘first fruits’ passage is close to the original christian idea, which is a fusion of the messianic idea with the idea of resurrection and world-to-come. The ‘resurrection’ of Jesus was never understood as his simply being brought back to life, as had happened to Lazarus – who later died again, according to tradition (Papias?) at an old age. It was always the pharisaical general resurrection that Jesus was supposed to have undergone. This thought basically contains everything. For one thing, it means that the pharisaical resurrection must be a temporally extended process – since it’s clear that nobody else has risen yet. The death and resurrection of Jesus inaugurates the process. The transition from one age to another, one form of life to another, etc – is now possible; but this is because Jesus started it, he will somehow rule over the process as messiah.

            It’s obvious that in the pharisaical world-to-come, the world of the accomplished general resurrection, there is no sin and we live forever; in this age we’re a mess, we sin and die. The transition is from a sinful, ‘fallen’, mortal state to upright immortal one. All the atonement and sacrifice metaphors are really just re-descriptions of this main point – that the messiah governs the general resurrection in the first instance by undergoing it. The language of atonement, say, is no different from using Noah or Jonah typology for the period in the tomb. Paul of course says e.g. ‘he died for our sins’, but he could as well say he died for our resurrection – our resurrection is contained implicitly in his resurrection.

          • John MacDonald

            I think we’re pretty much on the same page. But I can’t persuade you that Paul taught atonement as a mindset people should have for their lives as they sojourned on this earth while they were waiting for the next stage of the apocalypse to begin?

          • Mark

            I don’t think ‘atonement’, sacrifice analogies, and passover lambs are any more important than calling Jesus the groom that the believer has been promised to, or calling him the Rock from which the Israelites drank. Protestants, in particular, are really into ‘atonement’ language, but it’s a typological reference that breaks down as fast as ‘husband of Christ’ would in our case. It’s an idee fixe. I don’t believe it is an original element of christianity, which is the belief that the resurrected messiah will rule the general resurrection, which God has begun through his resurrection.

          • John MacDonald

            But you would agree that if Paul did mean atonement in the sense of a massive blood magic spell cast by Jesus’ salvific act, we would expect to see references to Christ as passover lamb, as per 1 Cor 5:7, and as the Yom Kippur sacrifice in the early Christian community, as per Hebrews. I mean that if Paul was teaching an atonement, we have written what we would expect to find. You are arguing by historical analogy that since Paul used other metaphors like Calling Christ The Rock, that he is doing the same with the atonement imagery. That is certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s probable, because my interpretation fits as well.

          • Mark

            Your interpretation fits perfectly with preferred evangelical protestant imagery, that’s for sure. A “massive blood magic spell ” reading is also convenient for an apologetic argument against Christianity, which is another tiresome enthusiasm that makes it impossible to read the text.

          • John MacDonald

            You’re a tough nut to crack! Oh well, I tried.

          • Mark

            Just read Gager and Fredriksen and you can cure yourself of this American Protestant reading.

          • Mark

            Jesus wasn’t slaughtered by the priest in the temple and he is not one of the valid animals for sacrifice. Therefore the sacrifice language and all the blood stuff is secondary and metaphorical, like calling Rome ‘Babylon’.

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t think anyone is arguing Jesus is a sacrifice “in exactly the same sense” as a traditional animal sacrifice, since that would be silly, and traditional sacrifices don’t provide a one time cure-all Passover/Yom Kippur sacrifice. I have provided passage support for the Idea that Jesus fulfilled the law as a super blood magic Yom Kippur/Passover sacrifice by citing 1 Cor 5:7; 15: 3-4, and Hebrews. Your response is that those passages are metaphorical and so don’t count. That’s fine, you can certainly argue that way. Mythicists do the same thing when the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage is pointed out to them by historicists. But we aren’t really arguing that different a position. We both agree Paul taught that the end of days had begun with Christ’s resurrection, and that he says he was eagerly awaiting the next stage in God bringing about the end of days. The only place we differ is that I think there are concepts in this early Christian literature that seems to suggest that Paul taught a doctrine of atonement to people so they could understand how God saw them while they were awaiting the final end of the age (which people may have been wondering, since it had been years since Christ’s supposed resurrection and people were wondering what they were supposed to think.).

          • Mark

            We were discussing ‘christian’ opinion pre-Paul and in Paul’s letters. Hebrews is of no use at all, it’s not Paul, but an urbane Roman sermon from 50 years later. It is simply dishonest to use it.

            1 Cor 5:7 is about boasting. Do you think he thinks that boasting is yeast? The passover lamb in any case has nothing to do with atonement, it commemorates the passing over of the houses that were marked and thus ‘saved’. Sin-offerings are no where in sight. But it’s a decent prefiguration of the status of those selected to enter the resurrection and the world-to-come.

            1 Cor 15 says ‘he died for our sins’. sure. This is a true statement on my account, but does not involve a comparison to sacrificial animal, and no blood magic – though such a comparison would be apt. In the next sentence he clarifies, the proof that it’s ‘for our sins’ is the resurrection, which is in fact the topic throughout this passage. He promptly moves to a general discussion of the pharisaical resurrection. It is when we enter the general resurrection that our sins are gone. Only our own resurrection is a genuine taking away of sin/flesh/etc.; with it ‘we are changed’ into something sinless and deathless.

          • John MacDonald

            Would you agree that the passover lamb, to use your words, would be a decent indication “of the status” of those who were Christians in Paul’s flock? Or is it only once they enter the resurrection that they are that status?

          • Mark

            Passover commemorates the flight from Egypt, which is a 40 year transition. In the analogy, we are in transition from the Egypt of this mortal coil to the age-to-come of the pharisaical resurrection, the promised land. I would think our ‘status’ is: somewhere in Sinai…

          • John MacDonald

            Before the upcoming general resurrection of souls at the end of the age, what would be the status in God’s eyes of the early Christians compared to those that didn’t follow Jesus?

          • Mark

            In the passover analogy they are like the Israelites in the desert; the rest of mankind is in the fleshpots of Egypt, of course.

          • John MacDonald

            Could they lose that status, say, by not loving one another enough?

          • Mark

            In the passover analogy, they can certainly end up dead in Sinai! – “and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.” But who can take this passage about boasting, sincerity and truth as serious theology?

          • John MacDonald

            I just have a couple more questions about your method. The Pre Pauline Corinthian creed says “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” This would seemingly agree with the atonement theory, even if it isn’t evidence in favor of it. The question is, what “scriptures” are Paul referring to here? There may be a clue when Paul says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. (Galatians 3:13)” As you know, this is a reference to Deuteronomy 21:23. This passage would seem to work easily as well under Fredricksen’s theory as it would Ehrman’s. But how do we decide? Do we appeal to the original sense of the Deuteronomy 21:23 passage? Maybe not. For the Christians were sometimes known to take the Hebrew scriptures completely out of context to make their arguments, such as Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”). So my question to you is: is our interpretation of Paul better if it is closer to the original sense of the Hebrew scriptures Paul is referencing, or would this line of thinking be a paralogism?

          • Mark

            Christ certainly died ‘hyper’ our sins, but how? Atonement can’t explain it; there is no suitable ritual of atonement and no suitable victim. Hebrews, in its typological revery, ends up making Christ the priest.

            “Christ’s” death is the transition from the sinful debased corruptible state of things to the renewed resurrection state of things, in which there is no law, no sin, no corruptible flesh, no death etc. Thus he died ‘huper’ our sins.

            Paul seems interested in Deut 21:23 because it is used in standard Jewish proofs that Jesus isn’t the messiah – as we see even 80 years later in Trypho. So he takes it on board. Again ‘being redeemed from the curse of the law’ is: pharisaical resurrection, for clearly the law is not operative in the age-to-come, where it has nothing to regulate anyway.

          • John MacDonald

            Galatians 3:14 says “he redeemed us.” This and the previous verse talk about what Christ’s death accomplished, not his resurrection.

          • Mark

            Of course he redeemed us. This is on analogy with ge’ulah or deliverance from bondage in Egypt or the ge’ulah whereby the diaspora returns to Jerusalem. It’s all about the end state.

          • John MacDonald

            Well, thank you for sharing Fredriksen’s theory with me. I think I have a handle on the general idea of what she’s arguing. I’m just an amateur internet bible enthusiast, but I’ll share my thoughts (for what they’re worth, lol). I think Ehrman focuses too much on the “died for our sins” part of the Corinthian Creed, and so doesn’t really do justice to the “End of the Age” component. Simarly, I think Fredriksen focuses too much on the “first fruits” resurrection part of Paul’s theology, and so doesn’t do justice to what Christ’s death accomplished irrespective of the resurrection. I’m guessing the true hermeneutic probably lies somewhere in the middle. Anyway, thanks for sharing your theory! I am clearly light years behind you and your knowledge of religious studies, so I appreciate your advice and guidance.

          • John MacDonald

            And a plain reading makes it seem Paul isn’t merely being symbolic about the Passover Lamb stuff, because he goes on to say we are “unleavened” because of Christ’s sacrifice: “you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Cor 5:7)”

          • Mark

            There is no ‘really’ in the text. We are to be compared with the people leaving Egypt, who marked their doors and fled without leavening their bread.

          • John MacDonald

            1 Cor 5:7 says: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” Notice that Paul says we are an unleavened new lump because of Christ’s sacrifice as our Passover lamb, not because Christ has been resurrected.

          • Mark

            He doesn’t say we are unleavened because of Christ’s sacrifice. He both affirms and denies that we are leavened. In any case, the bread wasn’t unleavened /because/ the Israelites killed lambs to mark their doorposts either. They just go together in the story and in the consequent festival.

          • John MacDonald

            He does say we are unleavened BECAUSE of Christ’s sacrifice. The text says “you are unleavened. For [Because] Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7)

          • Mark

            The KJV correctly connects the *gar* with the next sentence “For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast…”

          • John MacDonald

            good point!

          • John MacDonald

            And I think too that, in Mark, just as the tearing of the veil symbolizes the reconciliation of God and man, and the words of the centurion (“truly this man is the son of God”) symbolize the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, so too does the entombment of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea symbolize the reconciliation of the Jewish elite with the Jewish peasants.

          • In Mark, the tomb in which Jesus is buried is not Joseph of Arimathea’s.

          • John MacDonald

            You’re so picky, lol – The point I was trying to make is that Joseph requested Jesus’ body and placed Jesus in the tomb, symbolizing the reconciliation between the Jewish high council (represented by Joseph of Arimathea) with the Jewish peasants (Jesus being an exemplary “peasant preacher.”)

          • It is not being picky, it is being accurate about a point that undermines your interpretation. Joseph of Arimathea ensuring that the Jewish law is observed by giving Jesus a shameful dishonorable burial simply can not represent his reconciliation to Jesus. That is a later reinterpretation of his action which involves rewriting what he did, whether by making the tomb his, making it unused, making him a disciple, making the linen sheet clean, or in John, giving him a burial fit for a king. All those subsequent retellings radically change the reader’s perception of the event.

          • John MacDonald

            Ok, I was wrong about Joseph, Jesus, and the reconciliation thing. My bad, lol

          • John MacDonald

            I did a little research and found out that Bart Ehrman disagrees with Dale Allison’s argument that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. Ehrman concludes that:

            “And at the end of the day, I personally lean toward the idea that Jesus was not buried properly. It seems that it was not, indeed, the custom of Romans to allow decent burials; there is no reason they would have made an exception in the case of Jesus; the Christian story tellers recounting the event years and decades later *did* indeed think Jesus was special and so worthy of special treatment; and it was in their interest to declare both that Jesus was buried decently and in a place and a person who could be located should anyone want to do so. But declaring this they were giving “evidence” (allegedly) for what they wanted to proclaim most of all, that Jesus was not only buried, but that he was raised. (Evidence: the tomb was empty. But what if there was no tomb?).”

            It’s an interesting blog post by Ehrman. If anyone would like to read it, it’s here:

          • John MacDonald

            If Ehrman is right and Jesus’ corpse was not handed over by special request to Joseph of Arimathea for proper burial, but this detail was only added later to make it a proper burial that would also serve as evidence for an empty tomb, the invented tale of Joseph requesting a special favor to bury the body properly according to Jewish custom could certainly be evidence of what I guessed earlier about reconciling the Jewish high council with the peasants – not letting Jesus’ body simply be thrown away or something as would be Roman custom. This positive light on Joseph of Arimathea in Mark would reflect a growing rosy glow we see in later gospels.

          • The problem with this hypothesis is that, in Mark, Jesus is not given an honorable burial (Ehrman equivocates on what he means by a “proper” burial). There is no reason to adopt the view that Jesus’ corpse was not buried at all – even Paul already inherited a tradition that he had been.

          • John MacDonald

            Although, Paul could have just meant Jesus was buried in a mass grave of criminals that were executed at the time. Paul doesn’t say Jesus was buried according to the suggestions of Jewish custom / law.

          • Why are you making a distinction between burial in a grave for criminals and burial according to Jewish law? Jewish law was what required such burial, and according to Mark, that is all that Joseph of Arimathea provided.

          • John MacDonald

            Ehrman’s point was that there is no reason to think Jesus was buried in a single grave by Joseph following Jewish Law, because the pericope may simply be constructed to provide evidence for the empty tomb. And, as Ehrman says:

            “All of these passages are referring to Jewish customs, practices, and desires. But Jews didn’t kill Jesus. The Romans did. The Romans could not have cared less whether they were violating Jewish customs or practices. Pilate, especially, was known to disregard what Jews, and Jewish leaders, wanted, unless his hand was forced. The Romans wanting to teach Jews a lesson about what happens to opponents of Rome would not have been kindly disposed to what Jews thought about leaving crucified bodies on crosses.

            It should not be argued that the Gospels portray the Jewish leaders as being on friendly terms with the Romans and in cahoots with them, , and Caiaphas and Co. as having his ear. This is almost certainly not right historically. The Gospels want very much to show that it was the Jewish leaders, and even the Jewish people, who were ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death. That is because the Gospel writers are themselves deeply opposed to the Jewish leaders (as I’ll show in a subsequent post). And so they portray these leaders as having the ear of Pilate and being on very friendly terms with him. (The Joseph of Arimathea story presupposes the same thing). The idea that these Jewish leaders would have sway over Pilate – “don’t leave the body on the cross: it’s against our law!” – seems to me to be completely implausible.”

            So Jesus might just have been left on the cross for a long while, and then dumped in a mass grave.

          • The idea that the Romans regularly prevented Jews from observing the law regarding burial, but never voiced a complaint about it in the extant Jewish literature from the Roman era, seems far more implausible. I presume you’re familiar with what Josephus says on this topic?

          • John MacDonald

            Yes, that makes sense. Why would the Romans go out of their way to snub their noses at Jewish customs and risk causing unrest, when the easier thing to do would just be to let the locals practice their burial customs. Romans let locals practice their own religious customs, after all. Jesus is just as dead in either case. I agree with you. I think Dr. Ehrman is wrong.

          • John MacDonald

            By the way Dr. McGrath, what do you think of what Mark has been sharing about Paula Fredriksen’s theory about Paul’s gospel where everything needs to be understood in the light of typology and prior Hebrew precedent? It’s interesting that she’s using similar hermeneutic techniques to what mythicists do with the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John.

          • I confess that I don’t see the similarity of hermeneutical approach. Perhaps we could begin with the question of what leads you to understand Fredriksen to be saying that Paul does not merely use typological interpretation in passages where he clearly does, and often says as much, but everywhere?

          • John MacDonald

            Yes, I guess I was overgeneralizing. Mythicists have recourse to typology to a much greater degree than Fredriksen. I agree that there is significant intertextuality in the New Testament – which would make sense. As it says in Acts, in the synagogue they would read from the Torah, then from the former prophets (Joshua through Kings), and finally from the latter prophets (Isaiah through Malachi). At that point the synagogue leader would ask if anyone would like to bring any message or experience that might illumine the readings. So followers of Jesus may have then recalled their memories of him which that Sabbath elicited. This is what Paul does in Acts (13:16b-41). They went through this process for about forty years before the gospels were written. It makes sense Paul would be constructing his writing intertextually as well. My question is whether, when Paul writes in the light of the Hebrew scriptures, if knowing the original sense of those scriptures provide us a window as to what Paul was getting at? The New Testament writers sometimes invoked scriptures in such a way that was completely foreign to the original sense of the passage, such as with Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”). I’m just used to Ehrman’s atonement approach to Paul’s gospel, so I am reluctant to just throw it away in favor of Fredriksen’s “first fruits” approach. I assumed Ehrman’s view reflected the consensus, but maybe I’m wrong. I want the best approach, and you consistently provide a reasonable way through the fog, so what are your thoughts?

          • Have you read my treatment of Carrier’s proposal that Mark is “allegory”? Is that the sort of thing that you have in mind? I’m still not sure I understand what you are asking about – sorry!


          • John MacDonald

            I don’t think Mark is allegory. I just meant it makes sense that there would be typology going on in the writing of the New Testament because of the way the way the memory of the historical Jesus would have been shared and developed in the synagogue during the Oral period. But this is kind of an aside.

            My main question regarding Fredriksen’s interpretation of Paul, is when Paul is writing typology of the Hebrew scriptures, if knowing the original sense of those scriptures provides us a window as to what Paul was getting at? The New Testament writers were known to sometimes reference scriptures in such a way that was completely foreign to the original sense of those passage, such as with Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”). Maybe Paul was doing this too and he really did have in mind atonement, but was just taking scripture passages out of context to demonstrate his argument.

          • Here are some older thoughts on mine on Matthew’s use of Hosea and other texts:

          • John MacDonald

            Thank you for sharing that! The key point in regards to my question is when you write: “In short, while Matthew’s use of the Jewish Scriptures may not seem very logical to us, we should give him the benefit of the doubt and not assume that he simply quoted verses out of context in a random fashion, desperately trying to find any Scriptural warrant for the beliefs he held.”

            So, my follow up question is whether Paul might have been sometimes twisting the Hebrew scriptures and taking them out of context to bolster his arguments?

            For instance, I found this example online:

            Doesn’t Paul transform and contort Hebrew Scriptures in the service of the new religion based not on obedience to God, but on faith in Christ:

            Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

            And now let’s take a look at how Paul takes this very same passage and absolutely twists it to mean the complete opposite of what the Torah both says AND means. Paul effortlessly guides his most likely illiterate and no-doubt Torah-ignorant Gentile audience into accepting his “magical” transformation of a simple message of walking in obedience to God’s commandment into his version of the new way to righteousness. The righteousness Paul teaches is one apart from obedience and faithfulness to God’s instructions for holy living, but rather one based on faith (and confession by mouth!) in a semi-divine man, the Christ Paul claimed to have met in a mystical vision:

            Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’?” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”” (Romans 10:6-13)

            Please note carefully the original biblical passage and compare it with Paul’s own additions and elaborations as he crafts his “midrash”. When God, through Moses, says “the instructions are not in heaven”, meaning they are now close to us, Paul instead redirects his readers back to heaven and says “to bring Christ down from heaven”. He turns the passage around completely. When God warns that the instructions from God are not beyond our reach (beyond the sea) and we have no need to have them brought to us by someone, Paul again does the 180. He would have us believe that what Torah really meant is that obedience was indeed beyond our reach and we do need someone to get it for us from both the heaven and the depths and that someone is Paul’s mystical Christ. Please note what Paul does here – he twists this verse to say that we can only have obedience through faith in a man-god Jesus coming down from heaven, dying and being raised from the dead. Think about it – is that what Moses really meant when he put down those words from God? Paul replaced the message of encouragement in Torah to obey God and just do His commandments with his preaching of Christ and righteousness through faith in Jesus. The God the Lord of all mankind of the Hebrew Bible is transformed into the man “Jesus is Lord”, now part of a verbal declaration of the new salvation formula. Paul asks his readers “what does it (Torah) say?”, but he supplies an answer found nowhere in that same Torah:

            “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that WE proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

            Exposing Paul’s blatant but overlooked (mis)use of the Hebrew scriptures to further his new religion centered on a deified man helped me better understand both the man and the faith he promoted. I have also come to realize that a good part of the blame for the nearly two millennia of Christian opposition to the Jewish people and the Torah given to them by God lies squarely at the feet of the Apostle.

            Anyway, I found that example online. What do you think Dr. McGrath? Did Paul sometimes contort the Hebrew scripture to bolster his arguments?

          • Sorry for the delay in replying. I certainly think that all the New Testament authors, just like all other ancient Jewish interpreters of Scripture, interpreted those texts in ways that at times make us cringe, at other times seem baffling and unfathomable. But in order to “twist” a text by doing those things, doesn’t that presume a shared sense that the text ought not to be interpreted in those ways, but in others?

            I’m not certain whether Paul, if asked, would say that there is a distinct plain sense of the passage in Deuteronomy, but even if he said yes, that would not have constrained him from doing creative things with the language in the manner that he does.

          • John MacDonald

            No worries about the delay. Thanks so much for getting back to me. I think everyone here agrees you do a wonderful job of assisting with your insight wherever it is needed!

          • John MacDonald

            The one quibble I have with Fredriksen’s position is that if one wants to make a “Hebrew culture and scripture” typology argument against the atonement theory of Paul’s gospel, this seems to assume that Paul was referencing scripture in its original sense, and that he was not just hijacking Hebrew scripture in a way foreign to its original sense and context simply to bolster his atonement argument. But it’s a two edged sword, because those who argue for the atonement interpretation of Paul’s gospel would have to demonstrate Paul is not doing proper typology, which they can’t do either. So, to use a baseball metaphor in honor of World Series season, it seems both positions reach an ἀπορία, in the sense of a block in the path that is preventing them from reaching home plate and securing the victory.

          • John MacDonald

            Thinking some more about your article, which I like very much, I don’t know if we can extrapolate from Matthew’s use of typology (e.g., Hosea), which may contain an obscure, general sense of the original text, to what Paul was doing with typology. After all, Matthew shows his gospel to be a Judaizing of the gentile Gospel of Mark, so it would make sense Matthew’s use of typology would be somewhat faithful to the original text. Paul, on the other hand, seems to imply that he would have no problem with textual manipulation to prove his arguments and sell his interpretations to the gentiles (see 1 Cor 9: 21). This very possibly might have included taking Hebrew scripture passages out of proper sense and context as “seeming” support for the “atonement” argument, if atonement was what he was getting at. Mark and the author of Hebrews, for instance, certainly seemed to inherit atonement theology. Anyway, as I said, I don’t think there is enough primary source evidence to warrant choosing between the “atonement” reading of Paul’s gospel and the “first fruits without atonement” reading of Paul’s gospel.

          • John Thomas

            Yeah, I agree with you here. I believe along with the scholars in Jesus Seminar that real story of historical Jesus ended at his death in the cross. But his followers might have believed that God will never abandon his righteous ones in the final scheme of things and will raise them up in three days (Hosea 6:2). The mother of seven martyrs in 2 Maccabees 6-7 who were killed due to not abandoning observance of Jewish laws, believed that even if her sons were killed unjustly, God will raise them up in final day due to their obedience to the laws in face of death. So the original narrators would have thought, how exactly would one narrate an event of raising up in 3 days. Empty tomb is the only way one could do that. So the last part would have been the earliest legendary embellishment to original story. I think that we have to differentiate between three levels of how a story takes shape: first actual story that happened, second how the story was narrated, third how the story was finally written down. So I believe that empty tomb was among the earliest narrations of the life of Jesus even though it was not itself a historical event. I maybe wrong.

            Jesus Seminar scholar Roy Hoover’s opening speech in his debate with William Lane Craig is worth listening to in this regard (begins at 19:00 minute mark):

          • Neko

            It may be that Paul didn’t emphasize what we know as the teachings of Jesus because what Jesus taught was an exacting form of Judaism and so not especially startling to a Pharisee. Paul does allude to the teaching on divorce, though IIRC the mythicists argue that the “Lord” Paul references is God, not Jesus.

          • John MacDonald

            And since we are talking about him here, Carrier completely disagrees with the idea of Paul only learning about Jesus from revelation and scripture. Regarding where Paul learned about Jesus from, Carrier says:

            “Paul might deny it of course (that’s what he’s doing in Galatians 1), but almost certainly Paul learned the details from [Peter et al] through some channel or other (probably not directly; most likely from interrogating Christians he was persecuting).” see

          • Like most New Testament scholars, Carrier often expresses a greater degree of certainty than I think warranted. On the other hand, that doesn’t sound like a “naively simple-minded acceptance of Galatians 1:11-12,” does it?

      • Paul E.

        Goodacre just addressed that issue briefly in a Facebook discussion on James’ FB page. I can’t link to it for some reason, but it is from earlier this month. It is a pretty sizeable thread with some interesting comments in addition to Goodacre’s. Check it out!

        • Neko

          Wow, thanks! I’m not on facebook, but maybe I can still access it. Will try…

          Update: Couldn’t find it. Do your remember the subject of the post? Thanks!

          • Paul E.

            Yeah, the original post was from Oct. 4 and was someone asking James’ opinion about mythicism. Someone brought up Q and Goodacre chimed in that his reference in a radio show appearance to Paul getting the gospel from those in the movement before him was indeed a reference to 1 Cor. 15 and that Carrier made a big deal about disputing this. Goodacre also referenced that, apparently, Carrier has characterized Goodacre as having been “duped” into interpreting 1 Cor. 15 in this way. Hope you can access it!

          • Neko

            Thank you! I can’t access those comments, so I appreciate your summary.

            It’s pretty cheap and dirty for Carrier to keep flogging that story as a datum in his campaign to make himself appear indispensable to New Testament studies. Also in that department: Carrier’s anecdote in the debate video above about he time he was explaining his Bayes’ methodology to some academics “in the humanities” and one of them made a basic math error. Ergo…scholars in the humanities don’t know the math of probabilities. But never fear, Carrier is here to save the day.

            Oooooooooh! Math! SCIENTIFIC history!

          • When your go-to gotcha arguments involve someone speaking informally about something he is not very familiar with or had time to think through things are not going well.

            I’d also be a bit careful with that kind of anecdotes since there are certainly examples of Carrier making basic math errors.

          • Neko

            Yeah, I guess it’s all part of his schtick about the incompetence of New Testament scholars and inadequacy of their methods.

            There were so many moments in that debate when a scholar could have drilled down on some of Carrier’s claims. Like why, as Carrier suggests, The Ascension of Isaiah should be given weight on par with the gospels. Carrier rattled off some dates with marvelous assurance. Maurice Casey is spinning in his grave.

          • His whole treatment of the Ascension is yet another cluster of bungles. “It doesn’t depict Jesus coming to earth. Oh, except for that bit where it ummm … does. But that doesn’t matter, because reasons.” He only gets away this kind of crap because his clueless fanboys don’t bother (or are incapable of) checking the sources he misrepresents. They’re too busy having their prejudices stroked.

          • Neko

            In truth I never read Carrier’s tome and have no idea how much he elaborated on Doherty’s AoI theory.

          • A debunking of his arguments about it is on the (long) list of articles I’ll be writing in my “Jesus Mythicism” series.

          • Neko

            I look forward to it. I’ve long enjoyed your critiques.

            In fact to bury my grief at the Yankees’ loss to the Astros tonight I read your post on Carrier’s displeasure. Chortle chortle chortle.

  • John MacDonald

    Carrier will be the subject of a documentary. Check out the trailer:

    • David Marshall

      Thanksgiving? Are you sure it’s not coming out on Halloween?

      • John MacDonald

        He’s not looking so great – lines around the eyes and all.

        • Neko

          It’s hard to carry the weight of NT studies on one’s shoulders.

          Or maybe it’s just the toll of the polyamorous life.

          • John MacDonald

            Having a cause can be one of the hardest things on one’s health. In the preface to my MA thesis, I cited the following aphorism from Nietzsche:

            “Being Satisfied. We show that we have attained maturity of understanding when we no longer go where rare flowers lurk under the thorniest hedges of knowledge, but are satisfied with gardens, forests, meadows, and ploughlands, remembering that life is too short for the rare and extraordinary. (Nietzsche, Human all too Human, 399).”

            My philosophy is: life is here to entertain me, not me to entertain life.

          • Neko

            Uh, OK.

          • John MacDonald

            that was a joke – lol

          • John MacDonald

            Actually, to be honest, I did put that quote from Nietzsche at the front of my MA thesis. I found writing the thesis very stressful. I wrote it on Heidegger’s interpretation of the Greeks, and so had to wade through around 100 book length manuscripts by Heidegger (he was ridiculously prolific), along with the secondary literature, all the while studying Greek!

          • Neko

            That does sound mind-boggling!

          • John MacDonald

            Heidegger was a thinker who would introduce a concept at the beginning of a book, and not define or clarify it until a few hundred pages later, or even in another book entirely. It made for extremely tedious back and forth reading where a lot of the time I didn’t know what he was talking about. Right now I’m reading the collected works of French postmodern philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his friend psychoanalyst Felix Guattarri. It’s difficult reading too, but not as bad as Heidegger. I don’t care for Sudoku or crosswords (and am not that good at them anyway), so I enjoy sometimes trying to “make meaning” out of difficult Philosophy books with my repertoire of strategies. We teach students how state their opinion about a topic, but maybe not enough about what strategies to employ when they are having difficulty understanding a text (eg., what is an inference and how to make one, how to use an example or exemplar, how to make explicit “the criteria for understanding” they are using, how to clarify through analogies and counter-analogies, etc.).

          • David Marshall

            And my philosophy (or a small part of it) is, Richard Carrier is there to entertain me. : – )

          • John MacDonald

            I started to get interested in religion back in university (I grew up in an a-religious home and remain that way to this day). when I read Nietzsche’s argument about “Dionysus versus the Crucified” and “Paul’s lie of the risen Christ,” as well as instances I found of Noble Lies in the Judeo Christian tradition. I got interested in the Christ Myth theory after reading Bob Price, but I find Ehrman and McGrath and company persuasive that Jesus existed. I actually don’t find the historicity question very interesting any more because it’s not like Jesus’ existence makes the religion any more attractive to me joining than if he was just a myth. I treat Jesus just as any other ethical thinker and appreciate him for his message of love your neighbor and enemy. Dangerous things can, and have, happened by viewing Jesus as anything more than that.

  • Nick G

    Were you surprised that the audience shifted in the direction that they did?

    I’m not saying this was the case here (or that it wasn’t), but a partisan debate audience can easily subvert “before and after” surveys of opinion, by initially pretending to be on the side they actually oppose.

  • Stourley Kracklite

    Reasoning from questions always a dead giveaway. Make it seem yours is the position that is right until evidence to the contrary appears.