Jesus, Probably

Jesus, Probably January 19, 2019

Jonathan Bernier explains how historians’ judgment about Jesus’ historicity works:

All historical argumentation is probabilistic. This is also to say that any and all historical hypotheses are subject to revision or dispute. Hypotheses subject to revision are hypotheses whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0 that we can treat them as virtually certain. Such hypotheses include the hypothesis that Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, or that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Such hypotheses are virtually certain not necessarily because there are no conceivable alternatives, but in many (perhaps most) cases because all conceivable alternatives are sufficiently improbable that they can be excluded. Can I conceive of a world in which all the documentary and eyewitness evidence for Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 is falsified and it never took place? Perhaps. Is that alternative probable? Hardly. Nonetheless, in principle, even the most probable statement is subject to revision upon the emergence either of new evidence or new insights into old evidence. The recent resurgence in arguments for Jesus’ historical non-existence rested entirely upon the argument that there had emerged new insights into old evidence. The reason that these arguments fail is because those competent in the matter and fully familiar with the evidence recognized immediately that these were not new insights at all but almost without exception insights that had been advanced and rejected the better part of a century ago.

Click through to read the rest. What Bernier writes really is a great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields. See also Steve Wiggins’ post on how historical conclusions can change, and the implications of this for religious movements that claim to restore a tradition to its pristine original form:

Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  

Also see Tim O’Neill’s new year retrospective, as well as the podcast that Bart Ehrman shared.

If you’re interested in a contrast with the voices of mainstream scholarship and its supporters, you can take a look not only at those few people with some sort of expertise in history or theology who advocate for the position known as “Jesus mythicism,” but also those who accept their views, and why they do so. For instance, a while back Jerry Coyne banned me from his blog after I challenged his promotion of pseudoscholarship about Jesus, and suggested that he might be engaging in motivated reasoning.

Coyne mentions this fairly regularly. Once, Coyne criticized a journalist who did an OK job of drawing on mainstream scholarship, mentioning relics that didn’t merit a mention but otherwise not entirely terrible. If Coyne had said the article was a mixture of sound arguments and problematic ones, I wouldn’t have disagreed at all. But instead, he dismissed it, and then wrote this as though it were better!

As a special Christmas gift to my readers, I’m offering an article by reader Peter Nothnagle, who has made a hobby out of studying “historical Jesus scholarship.” Peter has produced a 21-page document, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?”, derived from a talk he gave in 2016 to the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City City Secular Humanists and Secular Students of Iowa. It’s a learned but very clearly (and humorously) written document that concludes that there’s no convincing evidence for even a historical Jesus.

Also relevant is Brian Resnick’s article on intellectual humility.

Of related interest:

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  • Nick G

    I criticised you in a previous thread (I don’t remember which), concerning the term “critical realism”, which I had only come across in the work of Roy Bhaskar on the philosophy of social science. Following your link to Bernier and then looking up Bernard Lonergan (mentioned in his title) in Wikipedia, it appears Lonergan used the term earlier, and in a different sense to Bhaskar – although both seem to have links back to the work of Michael and Karl Polyani. I therefore concede that my criticism was erroneous.

    • So incredibly kind and thoughtful of you to take the time to say this!

      • Nick G

        Not at all! I never find it easy to admit error, so it’s useful to practice in clear cases, and those where there’s relatively little ego-involvement!

  • Bernier’s article perfectly captures my qualms about the mainstream consensus on the probability of the historicity of Jesus: its penchant for invoking absurd comparisons to modern events like the invasion of Poland, the Holocaust, and the moon landing. If that is how the judgment of historians works, I am quite comfortable maintaining my agnosticism.

    • Thank you for revealing once again that your qualms and ironically dogmatic agnosticism are based on, perhaps among other things, a failure or unwillingness to understand the things that are read. The point was clearly not that the evidence for these things is identical or even comparable, but that in all of them it is not possible to exclude entirely the possibility that a deception/conspiracy has taken place to concoct and fabricate history. It is simply that the likelihood of that is vanishingly small. The size of that small likelihood varies in each instance. But if the likelihood of harmful side effects of three different lifesaving drugs are .001%, .000001%, and .0000000000001%, we would not therefore fail to administer them when appropriate.

      • Nick G

        I’m not sure Bernier’s examples are well-chosen, because they do invite the kind of response VinnyJH makes. I’m also convinced that expressing historical judgements in terms of numerical probability is ill-advised, since it’s not clear what it means to say the probability of Jesus’s non-existence, or the non-occurrence of the German invasion of Poland is .0001%, or .000000000001%. Either these things happened (the probability they happened is 1) or they did not (the probability is 0). Only where we have a collection of numerous comparable cases – as in administering a drug and considering side-effects – are numbers useful (and only in these cases is Bayes’s theorem relevant). I prefer to think in term such as: “What else would have to be true for it to be the case that we have the evidence we do, and yet this thing did not happen?”, or “What evidence would make us consider it plausible that this thing did not happen?”. And in those terms, I would say that while Jesus’s non-existence is highly implausible, it does not rise to the level of implausibility of the non-invasion of Poland. In the latter case, the evidence we have could only be explained in terms which would destroy our confidence in all recent history – a vast global conspiracy, alien or supernatural intervention to alter records and human memories wholesale, last Thursdayism, or something on a similar scale; and no “ordinary” piece of evidence could cause us to believe in these things. In the case of Jesus, suppose we were to find a manuscript which could confidently be dated to the second century BCE, but contained what was evidently an earlier version of the gospel of Mark, with Pilate replaced by a Selucid official, etc. Of course it would still be very difficult to explain how and when people came to believe that Jesus lived in the early 1st century CE, but the disruptions of Jewish life taking place around the time of the destruction of the Temple might be a starting point. I think a better comparison in terms of implausibility might be “Barack Obama was born in Kenya”, or “LBJ planned the assassination of JFK”.

        • I agree that specific numbers have little value.

          I would think we would want to start with something more analogous than Obama’s birthplace. How about the historicity of Socrates or Mohammed or Buddha? What kind of evidence do we have for them and how does it compare to the evidence that we have for Jesus? Would we consider the probability vanishingly small that one of them was not historical?

          One comparison I’ve thought about is the probability that William Shakespeare did not write the plays that are attributed to him. As I understand it, what evidence we have points to the Bard’s authorship, but it is far from the evidence that we might like to have, and there seem to be some anomalies that might be explained if we posit someone else as the author.

          • WoodbinePhilly

            The Socrates comparison isn’t great, but it’s better than some. There is probably a little bit more evidence for Socrates but not much. We have no writings from either of them, but a few more contemporary accounts for Socrates, even though he lived 300 years earlier. This is probably pretty reasonable. Socrates was important to important people. He came from a literary culture that was valued and preserved by later empires (Classical Greece, Alexander the Great, Rome), and he lived twice as long. As is mentioned in the article, it’s all a balance of probabilities, but it is hard to reject the historicity of one while defending the other. Jesus was a marginal figure in an oppressed nation that was destroyed within a generation, and yet we only have slightly less evidence. We have significantly more evidence for Jesus than we do for his contemporaries like Hillel, Shammai, and Akhiva.

            We have waaaay less info for Buddha, whose tradition was passed down orally until it was written about 400 years later. We have way more info for Muhammad, who lived 500 years after Jesus, consciously preserved his own legacy for future generations, and died at a ripe old age as the ruler of a powerful new nation.

            The list of other figures whom we have less evidence for is long–almost everyone who didn’t rule a nation, build a pyramid or bury a terracotta army before 400BCE: Pythagoras, Euclid, Hippocrates, Confucius, Laozi, Mozi, etc. To reject the historicity of Jesus you pretty much have to toss out as myth anything we can’t physically dig up, and that’s a pretty hard pull.

            There are plenty of Biblical figures that we don’t have much evidence for–Abraham, Moses, even David (I’m doubtful of the historicity of the first two). And we don’t know a ton about what Jesus actually said and did, just what was preserved and interpreted by followers. But we have a lot of accounts of his existence and influence and few reasonable alternative theories. To disbelieve that there was a figure known as Jesus in the early 1st century who had an impact on a group of people who went on to found Christianity is like the theory that “God put fossils in the ground to trick us.” It requires disregarding a ton of evidence that we hold as valid for everything else we study.

          • I agree that we probably have better evidence for Socrates than for Jesus in that we have the writings of three people who purported to know him.

            What I find interesting is that most classicists seem perfectly willing to concede that there is no way to distinguish between the things Socrates actually said or did and the things that were attributed to him by Plato. New Testament scholars, on the other hand, seem to think that they can tease out the things that Jesus really said and did with a high degree of certainty.

          • Nick G

            I was looking for a modern comparison, as that’s what Bernier gave. I largely agree with WoodbinePhilly about the ancient comparisons, except that I think we can dismiss Moses and Abraham as legendary because (negatively) there are no sources for them predating 7th century BCE, and (positively) because of what is now fairly certain about Israelite origins: they differentiated in situ from the Canaanites around the 12th or 13th century BCE.

          • My objection to Bernier as well as McGrath, Hurtado, and other mainstream scholars is that they appeal to modern comparisons, which I think serve as bludgeons to use on skeptics rather than useful analogies.

            I think the reason they do this is because if you started looking for analogies from the ancient world, you would be forced to concede pretty quickly that there are few matters where “vanishingly small” would be a useful way of describing the probalities.

            It might be interesting to consider the question of whose existence in the ancient world we could consider beyond doubt and how the evidence for those people compares to the evidence we have for Jesus. I suspect that most of them would be literate or prominent people–or people who made an impact on the literate and prominent people of their day. I doubt that there would be many itinerant peasant preachers who were unknown during their lives beyond a small band of illiterate peasant followers.

          • Nick G

            Nothing in history is “beyond doubt”, in the sense that it’s always conceivable that some superhuman (supernatural or alien) power has imposed a “false past” on us; for that matter, the same applies in non-historical areas of science and everyday reasoning: justifiable absolute certainty just isn’t available (as far as I can tell)! I would agree there are ancient individuals whose existence is more nearly certain than Jesus: those monarchs named on coins and in inscriptions, for example, and the writers and intended recipients of the letters preserved on wooden tablets dug up at Vindolanda. Also politically significant figures mentioned within narrative histories that link them to such monarchs by a number of contemporaries or near-contemporaries, even though we don’t have the original manuscripts. As for the rest, yes, their existence is more doubtful. But I don’t have the impression James McGrath, or most other mainstream scholars, dispute that. What they dispute, and I agree with them, is that this justifies any claim that the non-existence of Jesus, and figures for which there is a similar or lesser body of evidence (like other main characters in the gospels, or other Jewish “Messiah” figures of the time) is anywhere near as likely as their existence. There is simply no coherent account of how we could come to have the evidence we do concerning Jesus without a real individual having been the basis on which it was written, and Jesus mythicism bears all the marks of a form of denialism.

          • Joseph Smith claimed that an angel first appeared to him in 1821, revealing spirtitual truths. It was another decade before the angel was identified as Moroni and the back story of Moroni’s previous life as a man who walked the earth was first told. Our earliest Christian sources concern themselves with the revelations and appearances of a heavenly being with scant attention, if any, paid to the human being he had supposedly once been. The back story of Jesus of Nazareth makes its earliest appearances in the historical record several decades after the original appearances of the exalted Christ are believed to have taken place.

            It seems perfectly plausible to me that the visions came first and the origin stories of the earthly Jesus were created later. It might have had something to do with the fall of Jerusalem in 71 A.D, or it might simply have been that stories about the earthly Jesus proved to be effective evangelistic tools and attributing teachings to Jesus helped win arguments. The fact that so many of the stories about Jesus have parallels in the Old Testament raises the possibility that they were the product of creative story telling rather than recorded memories.

            On the other hand, neither do I find it implausible that the original visions were in some way connected with an actual human being who was known to some of the recipients of those visions. Given the silence of the earliest writings about the life of that man, I still suspect that the gospel stories were mostly later inventions, but I would acknowledge the possibility that memories of the actual person might have been preserved.

            I think that a reasonable null hypothesis with respect to the origin of any religion may well be that someone with an overactive imagination (and perhaps half a screw loose) claims to be getting messages from God, makes up some fantastic stories, and manages to acquire some overly credulous followers. There might be enough evidence to overcome H-nought, but I don’t think that a very convincing case has been made yet. I think that trying to establihs some historical reality behind the fantastic stories is likely an exercise in futility.

            I don’t believe that there are any figures with similar evidence to what we have for a historical Jesus. I think that the figures from the ancient world about whose existence we can be confident left their mark in the historical record because they were literate or prominent people or because something they did during their lives had some impact on the literate or prominent people of their day. Jesus, on the other hand, left his mark in the historical record as the result of supernatural events that were believed to have taken place after his death. I don’t think I know enough about how such beliefs arise to determine that their necessary antecedent is an actual person.

          • Mark

            Paul’s letters and Mark’s messianic travelogue and John’s apocalypse all predate the existence of any ‘new religion’. No facts about the ‘new religion’ that came to be from the milieux that produced these texts has any bearing on what the the texts themselves tell us, and what can be inferred from them. They would say whatever they say even if the name of Jesus hadn’t escaped the 1st century, Experience shows that as soon as the word ‘Christian’ comes into contact with these works, they are completely falsified.

          • I’m not sure what that means, Mark, or how it is supposed to relate to what I wrote.

          • Mark

            You think we can understand, say, Paul or Mark, by the fact that a century or two later there was ‘a religion’ – a pretty dubious concept as far as I can tell – that was somehow connected to these texts and their background. So, general wisdom about ‘the origin of “religions”‘ applies, Joseph Smith analogies are appropriate, etc. This is backwards causality.

          • Mark

            You saying that we can understand Paul or Mark, say, by the fact that a century or two later there was ‘a religion’ that was somehow connected to these texts and their background. So, you think that general wisdom about ‘the origin of “religions”‘ applies; Joseph Smith analogies are appropriate; etc. “A religion” is a pretty dubious concept as far as I can tell; it seems strange to speak of ancient Jewry as “having a religion” to begin with. But if they do, Paul and Mark are operating within it, not another one, and merely exhibit an opinion within it. Almost all of the operative ideas are commonplace.

            If the question is, whether they are talking about someone who had lived in Palestine not too much earlier, the existence of any later ‘religion’ is worse than a distraction. It is backwards causality.

            Marshall, Parables of War, is a good, if controversial, illustration of how the category of “a religion”, “a new religion” and “Christianity” totally falsify data like the apocalypse of John.

          • No. I am not saying that we can understand Paul or Mark by the fact that there was a religion connected with their writings a century or two later. It has nothing to do with determining the time at which Christianity can be considered a new religion. It has to do with the contents of the writings and their timing. I has to do with the fact that the historical record starts with the appearances and revelations of a heavenly being followed a couple decades later by fantastic stories about that being’s earthly life, which stories have striking parallels to sacred texts known to the writers.

            It has to do with whether the simplest explanation for these writings isn’t some combination of imagination and delusion on the part of the writers and gullibility on the part of the readers, an explanation for which there is historical precedent.

            That I find this explanation to be simplest does not mean that I think that it is necessarily most probable. I think that the real world tends to be very complicated and messy. Nevertheless, I think that it is wisest to start a historical inquiry with the simplest explanation. If the evidence is sufficient to reject that explanation, it may be worthwhile to investigate more complicated explanations. However, if the evidence is not sufficient to make a determination about the the simplest explanation, attempts to establish a more complicated scenario are likely to be futile. For me, that is the virtue of Occam’s Razor.

          • Mark

            There is ample gullibility exhibited by Paul, who got close to the fire and had an ‘awareness’ that sent him over to the Jesus-resurrection crowd. (Or anyway, that’s how I think of it.) But he all along knew quite well who Jesus had been and what happened to him. This isn’t something he could be wrong about.

            The Mark-writer was presumably not a first generation Jesus-messiah-enthusiast, but he exhibited plenty of gullibility in crediting every miracle story he came across. On the other hand, in antiquity they are fairly ‘normal’ and not a sign of mental aberration; and they always involve elements of the real world. The Mark-writer too took for granted that Jesus was a guy killed by crucifixion a few decades earlier. Again, this isn’t something he could be wrong about.

            They are gullible in what they believe about Jesus; others were more sensible in what they believed about Jesus.

            The correct use of Ockham’s razor says: don’t believe the miracles they impute to Jesus, each story has a natural explanation in terms of human gullibility etc. The obvious violation of Ockham’s razor says: don’t believe the miracles they impute to Jesus AND don’t believe in the existence of the human being to whom they impute miracles: there must be an explanation for their belief in such a guy that is somehow abnormal and a matter of gullibility. How was Paul so gullible as to think that Jesus had existed even when he was ‘persecuting the assemblies’?

          • I don’t know how to determine what Paul could or could not have been wrong about. I can only infer what he knew based on what he wrote. Based on that, I would surmise that he believed that the risen Christ had once been a man who walked the earth. I wouldn’t surmise that he knew anything about what that man said or did or that he cared. All I can see that Paul cared about was the meaning of the supernatural resurrection and exaltation of that man after his death. Moreover, it’s not just Paul—the writers of the pseudo-Pauline and Johannine epistles, Hebrews, James, and First Clement all appear to be similarly ignorant of the earthly Jesus.

            I don’t see any reason to think that Mark couldn’t have been wrong about everything. As I don’t see anything in the earliest writings to suggest that preserving the stories and teachings of the earthly Jesus was a practice in the early church, if there was a historical Jesus, I cannot be certain that Mark had any reliable sources of information about him. I think Mark believed that Jesus had been a historical person, but given how much of his composition has antecedents in the Old Testament, I think that the simplest explanation is that he composed his account by searching the scriptures for the kinds of things that the Messiah might have done during his time on earth. I agree that believing miracle stories is not proof of mental abberation, especially in the ancient world. Nonetheless, I am skeptical of your claim that such stories always involve elements of the real world, and, even if they did, I am skeptical that we can determine what those elements were.

            I don’t know how you know what Paul believed when he was persecuting Christians given that Paul never tells us why he was doing it. As I have pointed out in the past, the perpetrators of religious persecutions often have a very hazy grasp of what it is that their victims believe or practice. I think that Paul believed that Jesus existed because he had visions of him as the risen Christ. He might have had more evidence than that, but I think that would have been sufficient even if he didn’t. I can’t see that Paul ever demonstrates any curiosity to learn anything about the earthly Jesus.

          • Mark

            There is much that a person can’t be mistaken about; in particular there are many dead people whose existence and death I can’t be mistaken about, e.g. Menachem Schneerson, R. Abraham Kook. On this topic see, e.g. Wittgenstein, On Certainty.

            That “the writers of the pseudo-Pauline and Johannine epistles, Hebrews, James, and First Clement all appear to be similarly ignorant of the earthly Jesus” is not relevant, they are later works. It’s true Paul doesn’t tell a nativity story, nor does he quote to his gentile assemblies the no doubt intrinsically Jew-to-Jew remarks of Jesus, if he knew of them; his apocalyptic holy gentiles are ‘noahides’ not under the law of Moses. But Paul is well aware of an earthly Jesus who was crucified died and buried, etc.

            As usual you resolve determinate questions in terms of alien abstractions. X’s have sometimes vociferously opposed Y’s, not knowing anything about them. But do hothead Jewish sectarians vociferously oppose other hothead Jewish sectarians not knowing anything about them? There is in fact very little for him to know about the ‘assemblies’. His beliefs are standard pharisaism and so are those of the assemblies: the pharisaical resurrection, a king messiah redeemer of Israel, etc.

            Paul was opposed to the ‘assemblies’ until he met Jesus in his resurrected form (as he thought). Before that he thought Jesus was dead, and perhaps additionally degraded by crucifixion, and thus no King Messiah etc.; to declare a messiah in such circumstance is to be ‘the most miserable of men’, as he put it. When ‘as one untimely born’ he realized Jesus was alive, having bumped into Jesus in his spectacular resurrected form, he went over to the Jesus-messiah party immediately. The Jesus-messiah party was presumably also a ‘the resurrection has already started’ party.

            In any case he had all he needed and “did not go to Jerusalem”, though later he went to compare notes, and there was no difficulty. He thus seems to have known quite a lot, really, but didn’t believe the crucial resurrection element.

            There is no need to wonder what rubric Paul brought the supposed crime of the assemblies under; it is enough that the accusation vanished when he accepted that Jesus was alive and well – by pharisaical resurrection, not Lazarus-style revivification – and messiah.

          • I am not resolving determinate questions. I am simply pointing out that certain questions are, in fact, indeterminate.

            As I can find independent evidence of the existence and deaths of Menachem Schneerson and R. Abraham Kook, I have no problem acknowledging that you are right about them. However, if no such evidence existed and the only source you cited for your knowledge were divine revelation, I would consider that to be the kind of thing you could very well be wrong about, notwithstanding anything Wittgenstein might to have about the possibility of certainty.

            It is my observation that hotheaded sectarians frequently maintain their hotheadedness by demonizing their opponents and misconstruing their beliefs. As I have no reason to think that hotheaded Jewish sectarians of the first century were immune to such tendencies, I would certainly consider it possible that Paul had a distorted view of his opponents beliefs and practices. Moreover, I don’t see any evidence in Paul that justifies describing his opponents as “hotheaded Jewish sectarians.”

            In my view, the fact that the pseudo-Pauline and Johannine epistles, Hebrews, James, and First Clement are later works makes them more relevant not less. The longer the period of time before anyone takes an interest in the activities and teachings of the earthly Jesus, the less likely it is that any genuine memories of him have been preserved.

          • Mark

            > I don’t see any evidence in Paul that justifies describing his opponents as “hotheaded Jewish sectarians.”

            Paul’s letters are those of a hotheaded Jewish sectarian.

            > I would certainly consider it possible that Paul had a distorted view of his opponents beliefs and practices.

            Paul became one of them as soon as he accepted the ‘resurrection’ and thereupon had zero doctrinal differences with Jerusalem. There was just one thing he didn’t know. He didn’t need to find out that Jesus was crucified, for example. If the crucifixion claim, or the implicit historicity claim, had been wrong, he would have found out while opposing them; bumping into whatever it was he bumped into wouldn’t have brought him over to their side.

            > … are later works makes them more relevant not less.

            Everyone seems to accept the tradition that the John epistles emerge from the same crowd as the John gospel. This shows that a letter on particular topics needn’t say anything about the author thinks about the life of Jesus.

            1 Clement affirms again and again that Jesus dies, gave his blood, etc., and that his resurrection was first fruits of the resurrection; it also presupposes the readers are familiar with saying of Jesus, quoting “Remember the words of Jesus our Lord: for He said, Woe unto that man; it were good for him if he had not been born, rather than that at he should offend one of Mine elect. It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about him, and be cast into the sea, than that he should pervert one of Mine elect.” So the writer and his Corinthian readers are in possession of something in the nature of a sayings source.

            There is every reason to think Mark had access to people who had met Jesus. The events were no more remote than the 70’s or 60’s are now. Their memories would have been unreliable in the way peoples’ memories of the hippie days, or the early feminist or gay rights movement, or the early punk rock period, are unreliable. And of course any sources will have been credulous in ways we wouldn’t be.

          • Are hotheaded sectarians only opposed to other hotheaded sectarians?

            Zero doctrinal differences? Paul’s letters are filled with evidence of doctrinal differences with other factions within the movement. Specuation about the facts that Paul might have learned had those facts been true is no evidence that those facts are true.

            “There is every reason to think” is one of those things that New Testament scholars like to say when they actually have no definitive evidence to support their position. We have no evidence that Mark’s sources included anyone who had met Jesus.

          • Mark

            > Are hotheaded sectarians only opposed to other hotheaded sectarians?

            No, it happens though that Paul was a hotheaded sectarian and so were the assemblies. They were variants of the pharisaical sect and believed almost all the same things. With Paul’s ‘resurrection experience’ they believed all the same things.

            >Zero doctrinal differences?

            The difference is over making proselytes of — and in particular circumcision of — Paul’s gentile Jesus-communities. This isn’t a matter of the doctrine of the assemblies. It is a feature of Paul’s gentile mission. He does seem to think another independent gentile mission that is different would be misguided, but only claims authority over his own gentiles.

            So again, he knew every single relevant thing there was to know about the assemblies and their teaching; then he came to believe the all-important resurrection bit — whereupon, he says, “I went away into Arabia” needing no other news or catechization.

            In particular he knew, by his own evidence, that Jesus had been crucified and died, and he knew that the assemblies held this /and/ that he was resurrected, and was both ‘christ’ and ‘first fruits of the resurrection’.

            “”There is every reason to think” is one of those things that XYZs like to say when they actually have no definitive evidence to support their position. ” is one of those things that climate skeptics and suchlike cranks like to say when they actually have no definitive evidence to support their position.

          • I am not terribly put out by the accusation that I have no definitive evidence to establish that we have no definitive evidence of Mark’s sources.

            It is convenient that you can have such certainty about what Paul knew about things that he never discusses. I don’t think it’s justified though.

          • Mark

            Mark is under the constraint that many from the period are still alive. He can’t contradict anything that is common ground between believers and unbelievers.

            Paul quite frequently discusses the crucifixion, sorry. The point at issue was whether he knew about it, and the assembly’s knowledge of it, before his ‘christ experience’ or whatever it was. That he did follows from the fact that having realized that Jesus is still ‘alive’ he accepts his messiahship, speaks to no one, and leaves for Arabia.

          • Oh sure. I forgot about those first century fact checkers. I guess we can be confident that Jesus really walked on water because somebody would have corrected Mark if it hadn’t really happened, right? Needless to say, I don’t see any evidence of any constraints on the stories that were invented about Jesus.

            I agree that Paul spoke of the crucifixion frequently. From 1 Cor. 15, it is clear that he believed that others before him also claimed to have visions of the resurrected Christ who had died by crucifixion. I assume that he knew of these claims prior to the time of his own vision, although I’m not sure that he really says so specifically.

            The issue for me is not whether Paul first knew about the crucifixion tradition before or after his own visionary experience: it’s whether he ever knew of any traditions concerning the pre-crucifixion activities of the earthly Jesus. Paul didn’t seem to have any interest in the earthly life of the risen Christ or the circumstances surrounding his crucifixion. Paul never suggested that he was known to be a teacher or healer or miracle worker. Nor did Paul indicate that anyone else knew anything about the man’s life.

            Paul also didn’t speak of his predecessors’ beliefs about the meaning of their visions. For all we know, it may have been Paul who was primarily responsible for working out the theology that we find in his letters. While I can’t be sure that Paul’s predecessors were the illiterate peasants described in the Gospels and Acts, neither do I have any evidence to the contrary. I do not see any way to trace Paul’s theology back to anyone who came before him, nor can I identify anyone else who had the intellectual gifts to come up with it.

          • Mark

            > Whether he ever knew of any traditions concerning the pre-crucifixion activities of the earthly Jesus.

            I don’t know why Paul would need to know any “traditions concerning the pre-crucifixion Jesus”, other than the ‘tradition’, which he clearly did know all along – that he lived and was crucified and died and was said to have been recognized in ‘resurrected’ form and judged messiah by some enthusiasts.

            Even Mark has practically no content of pastoral value, particularly for Paul’s gentiles; it seems to be an arrangement of anecdotes that tries to update Jesus-messiah propaganda to take advantage of the febrile atmosphere of the Jewish War and the following years. It’s advertisement for King Jesus, not advice for how to live in subjection to him, as Paul’s letters are.

            > Paul didn’t speak of his predecessors’ beliefs about the meaning of their visions.

            The whole content of their peculiar “belief ” and the whole meaning of their visions is in 1 Cor 15:4-7 Nothing else really needs to be known. It’s enough, in the context, that he is called ‘Christ’. General pharisaism fills in the rest, since it is the infrastructure of this particular enthusiasm.

          • If there were traditions concerning the teachings of the earthly Jesus, Paul would need to know them because his congregations would want to understand them and because his opponents would cite them in support of their positions. If the earthly Jesus was known to have been an observant Jew, then surely one of the Judaizers would have cited that fact in the debate of whether Gentiles should be circumcised.

            Moreover, if stories about the life and teachings of the earthly Jesus were thought to be authoritative in the early church, the authenticity of such stories would be a matter of great concern. Paul’s congregations would have needed to know which stories and sources should be believed. I don’t see how Paul could have avoided the issue.

          • Mark

            > If there were traditions concerning the teachings of the earthly Jesus, Paul would need to know them because his congregations would want to understand them and because his opponents would cite them in support of their positions

            There is no reason to think Paul thought they would be relevant to his obedient emphatically gentile cadres. But maybe he did, and had a supply of Jesus sayings as Clement and his Corinthians did, and ‘John’ and his ‘community’ did. Still letters needn’t show any evidence of this, as we see from 1 John and almost from the case of ‘Clement’, who does slip one into an infinitely long precis of the LXX.

            In general, Paul’s picture seems to be that the resurrection was a coronation, anointing, becoming-Messiah, etc. He might have thought that statements from before that were not authoritative. Later another view won out.

            > If the earthly Jesus was known to have been an observant Jew, , then surely one of the Judaizers would have cited that fact …

            He was obviously known to Paul and his ex-pagans to have been a Jew – indeed, in Paul’s imagination ‘of the seed of David’. His brother lives in Jerusalem, even. The concept ‘observant’/’non-observant’ is modern, how could Jesus have been anything but what we would presumably call observant?

            So Paul tells his flock Jesus was an “observant Jew”, but still directs them against observance, since they aren’t Jews. The whole point of his forming the assemblies is that they aren’t Jews, but ‘nations’ bowing before the God of Israel and his Messiah/son. If there was anything Jewish about them it would spoil everything.

            It isn’t clear that Paul wasn’t himself “observant” modulo the complexity of constant interaction with ‘holy’ gentiles – and that his flock knows this. He says that if you are circumcised you must keep the whole nomos, and that he is circumcised. It follows that he thinks he must keep the whole nomos, but what that comes to in his apocalyptic missionary context is obscure.

          • I agree that Paul may have thought that Jesus became the Anointed One upon his resurrection and exaltation, which would explain why he has no interest in anything Jesus did during his earthly life. However, if the Jerusalem gang thought that Jesus life and teachings were authoritative, that seems like it would have had the potential to lead to some serious conflicts.

            Paul indicates in Galatians that he was having trouble with false brothers who were contradicting what he was telling his congregations. He tells his readers, in essence, that there is nothing anyone else knows that they need to be concerned with, because Paul had gotten the full story via revelation. It is hard for me to believe that he could get away with that if his opponents could claim that their teachings were based on the things they heard from the Lord’s own mouth when he was on earth.

            I think it more plausible that no one was claiming to know what Jesus taught while he was on earth. Perhaps Jesus was a Zealot as Rene Aslan suggests; perhaps he was promoting armed rebellion against Rome, and that’s what got him executed. After his Jesus’s death, someone had a vision of him resurrected and could have reinterpreted his death in ways that has little to do with anything Jesus actually did during his life.

            It might have been one of Jesus’s followers who first had the vision, but I don’t think it had to be. It could simply have been some pious Jew who had been praying for God to send a champion to deliver his people and who had been searching the scriptures to make sense of the fact that potential deliverers kept getting crushed by the Romans. The idea that it was part of God’s plan that his Anointed One would suffer for the sins of his people before being vindicated would be very appealing (as it plainly turned out to be).

            As time went by, it would be natural to invent stories about Jesus’s life (which pretty clearly happened). In order to invent such stories, it would be natural to look to the Old Testament for things that the Messiah might have been expected to do.In order to invent such stories, it would be natural to look to the Old Testament for things that the Messiah might have been expected to do. It would be natural to attribute authoritative teachings to him as well.

            The main reason I am not convinced by mythicism is that I think there are plausible explanations for Paul’s silence that are consistent with a historical Jesus, just not a historical Jesus that looked much like the character portrayed in the gospels. On the other hand, I don’t think that there is sufficient evidence to dismiss mythicism as a possibility.

          • Mark

            It’s not clear to me that even if one thought the un-“anointed” Jesus was in a position to legislate, his legislation would bear on anyone but Jews. The trouble with the false brothers is their view about what to do with gentiles. Maybe they thought Jesus’ supposed teaching mattered, but if so they thought it mattered only to Jews, and thus set out to make these gentiles into Jews.

            Paul claims mystical validation for his mission but his confidence that gentiles are gentiles and Jews are Jews, and the rules are different for each — this is just advanced pharisaical wisdom of the sort that later turns up in the rabbis. Paul clearly thinks the circumcising brothers are bumpkin idiots who don’t know the law, didn’t go to pharisee school and don’t understand the messianic period. Gentiles are, and always were, supposed to worship the one God whose only temple, as it happens, is in Jerusalem. If they don’t the cascade of vice we find in Romans 1:21-32 ensues. That little tirade is presumably just a standard pharisaical or diaspora view of ‘what wrong with the nations’ ‘why do the heathen rage?’ etc. Jesus-messianic gentiles add to this worship of the one God (and the consequent virtues): obedience to Christ, becoming ‘en christou’ etc.

            (It is the same with the Chabad/Schneerson people, they make gentile ‘converts’ in their way, forming ‘Noahide’ groups who do what gentiles were all always supposed to do. Among other things they worship the one God, but e.g with disorganized personal prayer as Noah or Abraham did, and so on. These holy gentiles are ‘in Schneerson’ or ‘in messiah’, though. This is because they do these things for the sake of the messianic age.)

            >The idea that it was part of God’s plan that his Anointed One would suffer for the sins of his people before being vindicated would be very appealing (as it plainly turned out to be).

            It is enough that it made sense within the going pharisaical framework and could attract talent like Paul. We don’t know how popular it was: there were the people in Jerusalem mentioned by Paul, some other Jews in Rome, some presumably in Galilee, and we see there were Jesus-adhering Jewish communities for a few centuries. The gentile mission of Paul was presumably pretty small. It’s just that the structure imparted to the gentile communities had the capacity to maintain itself and grow at the tiny rate derived by Rodney Snow and Keith Hopkins.

            The reason why so much of what Jesus says is ‘old testamentish’ is that he was a Jew preaching to Jews. I don’t think there is all that much in Mark that is calculated to validate messianic prophecy, which is an amorphous mess. The synoptics are of zero interest except perhaps as evidence, with the traces of Marcion, for a sayings source. I don’t understand why people take an interest in them.

          • Let me see if I am following this: The Jewish believers who were seeking to impose ritual circumcision on the gentile believers wouldn’t have tried to impose the authoritative teachings of the earthly Jesus (had there been any) on the gentiles because, unlike ritual circumcision, those teachings would have been too Jewish. Instead, the Jewish believers would first have sought to convert the gentiles to Judaism because only after that would they be subject to Jesus’s teachings.

            It is because I find such logic convoluted, I find it more plausible that there wasn’t anyone at the time, either Jewish or gentile, who thought that life or teachings of the pre-exaltation Jesus were normative for believers. I think that the earliest belief was based on revelations of the risen Christ and that stories about the earthly Jesus were later inventions.

          • Mark

            The bit of reasoning you are mocking was ad hominem. In fact the party of circumcision wanted to circumcise because they had bad halakhah about the gentiles in general, and for no other reason, as I stated repeatedly.

            1) There may have been different views at the time, but Paul’s view is the one that emerged in the rabbis, and was likely an ingredient of the pharisaical training or upbringing he alludes to. Gentiles are made right by worship of the one God, which shows in no idolatry, no porneia, no murder etc. See e.g. Romans 1.

            2) The second relevant point is the various prophetic statements about e.g. the gentiles burying idols and worshipping the true God, which can be read messianically. The party of circumcision turns this into a prophecy of the extinguishing of gentiles and everyone becoming Jews, which makes perfect nonsense of everything.

            The only ‘stories’ worth worrying about are the ones in Mark and the items in the supposed sayings source thought to be buried in the synoptics and Marcion. The synoptics and Marcion are products of a predominantly gentile church, and are obviously edited, like liturgical works. (John raises other issues, but I don’t know what to think) They are for internal consumption.

            Mark is more a piece of late Jesus-messiah advertising copy, using the temple disaster as its point of departure. Mark’s stories don’t have any cosy pious effect, or whatever it is you think a gospel story should have. This is why it wasn’t so popular in the later gentile church, though thankfully it was preserved.

            If we stick to Paul and Mark, as we should in historicity discussions, I don’t see that your picture of the pious gentiles wanting more stories and illustrations holds water. People who accept the saying source often suggest, by its inner character, that it was preserved among bumpkin Jews in Galilee, who might indeed have had imputed special authority to the sayings.

            In general the ‘delay of the parousia’ is necessary to get anyone to take an interest in such things. (This is true in a way of Mark as well: he is rejuvenating arguments that would look pretty stale in the 70s.) At the time of Paul the glorious arrival is coming in six weeks and we are busy preparing. That Jesus was born in a manger is irrelevant.

          • I didn’t see anything ad hominem in the reasoning that I was mocking; I just thought it was flawed.

            I don’t recall you saying anything before about “halakhah”–even once, much less “repeatedly.” Nevertheless, it is a nice big word and I am duly impressed. Nevertheless, I would not be inclined to ignore all other possible explanations besides yours even if you had stated it repeatedly. I simply do not think that such a degree of certainty could possibly be warranted given the nature of the evidence.

          • Mark

            “halakhah” isn’t a big word, it’s ABCs; maybe you should read about this subject before telling us nothing can be known.

            Maybe I miscounted my references to the fact that Paul’s rejection of circumcision for right-minded gentiles is 100% totally standard. Of course there is also such a thing as a proselyte, but it’s another matter. Noah was a holy patriarch and was ignorant of law and circumcision.

            The brothers are outliers, legally speaking, and Paul, as would be expected, treats them like simpletons.

          • What is it that you understand “halakhah” to mean? I couldn’t find any definition of the term that fit with the way that you used it.

          • Mark

            It’s the law, the way to live. A halakhic dispute is about the application of the law. Mark likes to display Jesus outwitting the experts in such dispute, e.g. in Mark 7:14-6 where he is clearly basically in the right. The opposition in Mark 7:10-4 is very obscure and a good sign that Mark was aware of legal disputes that left no trace in the rabbinical tradition. (It’s not a legal point but later he brilliantly takes down Sadducees in Mark 12 using Pentateuch only “I am the God of Abraham” etc. to prove the resurrection. It would be interesting to know if this argument had been used elsewhere.) Peter is exhibited as a legal idiot in Acts 10:9 and following because he thinks that non-kosher food is as it were radioactive and makes the gentiles who eat it impure etc. and themselves radioactive — when e.g. Noah ate all kinds of non-kosher stuff and he was highly non-toxic. You can get up to date views on the law God has given to gentiles, which is implicit in Romans 1:18fff http://www.thesanhedrin.org/en/index.php/Questions_and_Answers_on_Bnei_Noah_by_Rav_Yoel_Shwartz Nothing about circumcision in there.

          • If that is what you meant by “halakhah,” then your statement that “the party of circumcision wanted to circumcise because they had bad halakhah about the gentiles in general” is incoherent. If you are going to try to impress someone with your vocabulary, try to use words in sentences that make sense.

          • Mark

            What’s the incoherence? The expression ‘bad halakhah’? “This suggestion was rejected by R. Isaac Herzog, not because he denied that the Ran said what R. Haim Ozer attributed to him, but because he thought it was bad Halakhah and bad policy.” Or is it speaking of someone having a halakhah? “In Rab’s district, Samuel did not impose his own opposing halakhah, and Rab did not impose his view in Samuel’s community”

            The party of circumcision had a false legal doctrine, you can see that from the present day expert I link. They think what’s wrong with gentiles is that they’re not Jews. There are rules for gentiles same as there are for Jews, and they’re different. Gentiles are of course by and large not up to the true standard; the rot sets in with idolatry, as Paul says in Romans 1. Similarly Peter has teaching about gentiles and possibilities of interacting with them, no doubt from never having had to do with them up in Galilee.

          • “The party of circumcision had a false legal doctrine” is a coherent thought.
            “The party of circumcision had bad law about the gentiles in general” isn’t.

          • Mark

            You’re clearly too ignorant of the basic data to hold forth like this. Maybe stick to parallels with Inanna and the origin of ‘religions’ in general. The law itself teaches what the law appropriate to gentiles is, and the party of circumcision was in open defiance of it, or contradiction with it, in their opposition to Paul. This was presumably because of their illiteracy.

          • You might know as much as you think you do, but I consider that the least probable hypothesis.

          • Mark

            It’s true my upbringing gave me religious ideas – especially the legal aspect! – in a rather decayed form. Apologies for that, but I can’t match your epic Dunning Kruger level. Here is an essay I was reading the other day on the eccentric halakhah of Menachem ha-Meiri (13th c Provence) on the gentiles and relations to them. Unfortunately, despite Meiri’s eminence, the relevant work was lost ’til 1920. The halakhic teaching of Meiri (expounded by the great Moshe Halbertal) can be compared with Paul’s less ‘tolerant’ view. Tell me how incoherent Halbertal is. Paul is of course in a higher unity with his holy ex-pagans than Meiri can imagine, on account of the messiah whose arrival they are helping him to prepare. http://edah.org/backend/JournalArticle/halbertal.pdf

      • I didn’t read the quoted material in the same way. It says: “Such hypotheses include the hypothesis that Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, or that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Such hypotheses are virtually certain….” True, Bernier doesn’t equate the probabilities, but he does put them both in the “virtually certain” bin.

        It’s clear that the consensus of NT historians is that a Jesus actually existed, regardless of whether he was the son of God or not, but I wouldn’t have thought that their consensus was anywhere close to Germany-invading-Poland certainty. But isn’t that what he’s saying?

        • No one working on ancient history thinks that the evidence is comparable to modern, ever. What is comparable are the tactics used in rejecting what can be determined to be most probable, by pointing out that there is always room for uncertainty.

          • That sounds fine, but you see my concern, right? The quote strongly implied that we know that Jesus existed as (at least) a person as reliably as that Germany invaded Poland in 1939. If the point is, say, that “Germany invaded Poland” is as certain compared to other claims of the time as “Jesus existed” is compared to other claims of its time, then that’s much more defensible. But that’s not what he said.

            I’m personally agnostic on Jesus mythicism and have no personal motivation either way, but that Christianity grew up with no Jesus at the beginning seems only slightly more unlikely than that there was a real charismatic teacher (who was nevertheless just human) at the beginning. I may be diverting the conversation, because I’m ignoring the third possibility, that there was a Jesus was was actually supernatural.

          • When discussing the historical Jesus, you should be ignoring scenarios that entail the supernatural. Between what you wrote about that, and your agnosticism about mythicism, you really convey the impression that you haven’t familiarized yourself with this as a matter of secular historical scholarship.

          • I’ve got books on the shelf, but no, I haven’t read them. Maybe eventually.

            The idea that Christianity as an outgrowth of an existing Judaism started with real people but a leader who was legend (as opposed to being real, too) doesn’t seem to be that farfetched. Maybe there really wasn’t a Buddha. Maybe there really wasn’t a Moses. And maybe there really wasn’t a Jesus.

          • Nick G

            The cases of Moses and Jesus are vastly different: a gap of centuries as opposed to decades between claimed lifetime and earliest sources; and even the non-supernatural aspects of the Moses story are incompatible with what is now known from history and archeology. From what little I know of it, I’d say the case of Gautama Siddhartha (“the Buddha”) is intermediate between the two.

          • The per-chapter gap from authorship to our earliest manuscript fragment is 200 years for Matthew. The gap is a little smaller for Luke and John and a little greater for Mark. Then you’ve got the 40+ years from event to authorship for the gospels. Let’s not imagine that the NT record is particularly reliable.

          • So what is the distance from authorship to earliest manuscript in the case of an ancient source that you think is probably reliable?

          • I doubt I’m satisfiable on the miracle claims. If you read a miracle claim from a non-Christian environment in the newspaper about something that happened yesterday, you’d be skeptical. Me, too.

            If 200 years went down to zero years, I’d still be skeptical of Matthew. We’re probably not going to find much common ground about the authenticity of Christian miracles, so I focused instead on textual reliability, thinking that we could agree that 200 years is significant.

          • We’re trying to have a conversation about the historical Jesus. Why on earth are you talking about miracle claims?!

          • Because I thought that’s where you were taking the conversation. Apparently not.

            I don’t see the time gap from authorship to our oldest copies to be especially relevant. But as I mentioned, I haven’t studied much on the Jesus myth question, so I may not have depth enough for much of a conversation.

          • How can you possibly have thought that, in a conversation about a historical figure, it is appropriate to bring up miracles? A historian by definition is going to set miracles aside as inherently unlikely and so never something that historical methods would declare probable under any circumstances.

          • OK.

          • Mark

            What does the antiquity of unrotted manuscripts that happen to exist today tell us about “reliability” that all the miracle stories don’t?

            Are you thinking the texts were subject to centralized falsification before our oldest manuscripts? By what? – the priestcraft of a 2nd or 3rd c. ecclesiastical authority in, say, Rome? Why would gentiles in 2nd or 3rd c Rome or Alexandria make up a wandering preacher and exorcist from early 1st c. Jewish Galilee, of all times, places and ethnic groups? How did this strange clique of gentiles come to be?

          • What miracle stories? You mean the ones that are poorly evidenced in Matthew?

            My point is that the claim of NT reliability is built on shaky ground.

            Are you thinking the texts were subject to centralized falsification before our oldest manuscripts?

            I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please elaborate.

            Why would gentiles in 2nd or 3rd c Rome or Alexandria make up a wandering preacher and exorcist from early 1st c. Jewish Galilee

            I dunno. That’s not my claim.

          • Mark

            The miracle stories show that the gospels are unreliable in a way that goes far beyond divergence among the manuscripts. But they don’t have any tendency to suggest that “Maybe Jesus didn’t exist”, which was your thesis.

            The miracles standardly attributed to Jesus are restricted to those enumerated, usually in triplicate, in the gospel stories; far more miracles are traditionally attributed to Mohammed in the endless hadith; in the 1660’s the farthest corners of the Jewish world were awash with miracle stories about Sabbatai.

            Any attempt to make Jesus himself a fiction ends up needing an ecclesiastical institution that has interest in this falsification. But why would an institution in say 2nd c Asia Minor or late 1st c Rome have an interest in making up an early 1st c. wandering Galilean preacher and exorcist and declaring him somehow of divine provenance? It seems pretty much impossible on its face.

          • The miracle stories suggest that the gospels are unreliable in ways that go far beyond divergences among the manuscripts – to put it mildly.

            Agreed. Mark says that Jesus became divine at his baptism, Matthew and Luke at birth, and John since the beginning of time.

            But they don’t have any tendency to suggest that “Maybe Jesus didn’t exist”, which was your thesis.

            You’ve got books that completely disagree about the fundamental points of Jesus, and that doesn’t suggest that the whole thing was made up? That’s gotta cast some doubt, I would think.

            The miracles standardly attributed to Jesus are restricted to those enumerated, often in triplicate, in the gospel stories; far more miracles are traditionally attributed to Mohammed in the endless hadith; in the 1660’s the farthest corners of the Jewish world were awash with miracle stories about Sabbatai.

            And your point is that Mohammed and Sabbatai were actual men? I’ve heard some discouraging words about Mohammed, but you could be right.

            What you should research instead is religions that have someone who didn’t actually exist at the beginning. Abraham, Moses, Gilgamesh, etc.

            I haven’t done this research myself.

            Any attempt to make Jesus himself a fiction ends up needing a sort of collective agency

            Right. But do the Jesus mythicists even say this? There’s a big difference between a deliberate fiction and an unintentional legend. I think legend is where they’re going.

          • Mythicists are saying that Paul and others were unclear on whether they had met the brother of a person who lived contemporaneously with them. How is that comparable to a scenario involving unwitting acceptance of legend?

            What are the “fundamental points of Jesus” that the earliest sources disagree on?

            How do you determine that Moses and Abraham as presented in the Jewish scriptures are completely concocted, as opposed to highly distorted and mythologized versions of people who actually existed?

            And why are you drawing conclusions and advocating for a particular stance on a matter about which you haven’t taken the time to inform yourself?

          • Mythicists are saying that Paul and others were unclear on whether they had met the brother of a person who lived contemporaneously with them. How is that comparable to a scenario involving unwitting acceptance of legend?

            Is Paul’s Jesus grounded in time? The gospels have Herod, Augustus, and Pilate, but I don’t remember anything in Paul that places him in time.

            I don’t have the background to respond to your question.

            What are the “fundamental points of Jesus” that the earliest sources disagree on?

            I gave one example in a previous paragraph: Mark says that Jesus became divine at his baptism, Matthew and Luke at birth, and John since the beginning of time. Then you’ve got John giving a different day for the crucifixion.

            How do you determine that Moses and Abraham as presented in the Jewish scriptures are completely concocted, as opposed to highly distorted and mythologized versions of people who actually existed?

            My understanding is that the consensus of New Testament historians is that Moses is a myth/legend. No? If you’re saying that Moses could’ve been a real man at the beginning, if you remove the layers of legend, yes, I see that. But of course that cuts both ways. If it’s difficult for the mythicist to point to solid reasons that it’s myth and legend all the way down, it must also be difficult for the other side to say that there was a man underneath all that.

            And why are you drawing conclusions and advocating for a particular stance on a matter about which you haven’t taken the time to inform yourself?

            I’m not. That would be foolish, wouldn’t it? I’m just asking questions. If you’re looking for a mythicist to debate, you’ve not found one here.

            What puzzles me about the mythicist debate is the confidence on the part of the “yes, Jesus was a real man, not a legend” claimants. Mythicists seem to publicly acknowledge their burden of proof, that the null hypothesis is that there was a real person who kicked things off. But how do you get to Jesus mythicism being completely nutty and with zero foundation (which many anti-mythicists seem to claim)? Anti-mythicists’ go-to argument seems to be ridicule, but of course this wanders into “methinks the lady doth protest too much” territory.

            I don’t claim that this describes you, and I don’t claim to have done a comprehensive survey of opinions on either side of the matter.

            What I’m curious to find is a brief summary of why it is likely (or very likely) that there was a real man who started Christianity rather than a legend.

          • Perhaps you’d be so kind as to start here, with the extensive treatment of these matters that has already been offered on this blog?
            https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2011/07/round-up-of-mythicist-blogging.html

            You seem once again to be preferring apologetics to history. Does the fact that an ancient figure is increasingly mythologized or even deified in ancient texts an indication that they did not exist? Is disagreement over a date (especially when it occurs in a relatively late source, and may be a result of deliberate change for the purpose of enhanced symbolism) an indication that the individual in question did not likely exist at all? Does the fact that Jesus lived at the same time as the author at least of our earliest NT texts, and perhaps others, not something that distinguishes him from the case of Moses, for instance?

          • Perhaps you’d be so kind as to start here, with the extensive treatment of these matters that has already been offered on this blog?

            Wow—that’s a lot of material. Can you point to one that clarifies why the null hypothesis—that there was a real man at the beginning—is so clearly true? I dunno—maybe they all cover that. But I’m coming into this conversation from that standpoint, with “Mythicists are idiots for rejecting the overwhelming consensus of relevant scholars” ringing in my ears. That’s the claim I’m most curious to hear supported. (And again, while that’s an accurate summary of some of the points I’ve seen, I don’t claim to be quoting you.)

            You seem once again to be preferring apologetics to history. Does the fact that an ancient figure is increasingly mythologized or even deified in ancient texts an indication that they did not exist?

            That’s certainly a clue. But then there’s euhemerism, which does things the other way around.

            Is disagreement over a date (especially when it occurs in a relatively late source, and may be a result of deliberate change for the purpose of enhanced symbolism) an indication that the individual in question did not likely exist at all?

            Are dates relevant to our conversation? Is there even a single date in the New Testament? Datable events, yes, but calendar dates?

            I’m not sure what you’re thinking of to ask this question, but to respond: no, I wouldn’t find a discrepancy in a number that big a deal. Chronicles and Kings disagree over lots of numbers, and it’s easy to chalk that up to uninteresting scribal error.

            Does the fact that Jesus lived at the same time as the author at least of our earliest NT texts, and perhaps others, not something that distinguishes him from the case of Moses, for instance?

            We have a story (2 conflicting stories, actually) about the rough date of Jesus’s birth, and we have estimates for the authorship of the gospels. Yes, those two fuzzy numbers could argue that the author of Mark (say) lived during the time of Jesus. Or if you’re referring to Paul, yes, his writings likely preceded the gospels, but they don’t have any time stamps to lock down Jesus in history.

            I agree that Moses is a different case. But if we agree that Moses was plausibly legendary, that’s one of presumably many cases of a legend (not man) at the genesis of a religion.

          • Calendar dates were not widely used in the ancient world the way they are today. Paul had met Jesus’ brother, and believed that Jesus’ death and posthumous vindication by God had initiated the end so that he and his generation would see it. There is simply no way to plausibly push Jesus away from Paul into time immemorial, if one actually cares about the evidence. But if one is only vaguely acquainted with the evidence, then all sorts of things may seem plausible, as often happens in science as well as in history, much to the frustration of those who work in these fields.

          • The Gospel of Luke was written by St Paul’s Physician and Secretary St Luke after St Paul was killed, based on what St Luke learned from writing down everything St Paul said.

            St Mark was the top historian of his day turned Papal Secretary to St Peter. The Gospel of St Mark started as a historical recounting as any of his other works, and it turned into what he learned from St Peter about God.

            Christ was born on December 25th, no matter the sneerings of people who think denying any fact of the Faith will somehow apotheosize them. The livestock are still housed in caves in Bethlehem during the winter to this day.

          • Repeating legend and tradition as though it is fact, much less proof of something else, is not going to be persuasive.

            Mentioning keeping animals in caves during winter as though it fits your timing for a story in which shepherds are out in the fields with the animals at night is simply bizarre.

          • Mark

            > You’ve got books that completely disagree about the fundamental points of Jesus

            So? It’s only the orthodox or proto-orthodox church that put the various gospels together. If the books disagree then the church is incoherent. Not too surprising: we already agree it’s wrong, the question was about the historicity of Jesus. From a historical point of view we separate them, and date them and consider them together with other evidence not canonize by the later gentile church. The two that directly use Mark are really only of interest as perhaps attesting a saying source of some kind.

            In any case, Mark predates the others – on the usual view – and is used by the others (at least its form in the case of John). Go back, then, to when only Mark and Paul existed, or to the time when only Paul’s letters existed. Then you don’t have books that completely disagree. It would be quite strange if there were not *people* who disagreed with Paul – he talks about them actually. Of course, it sort of seems like Paul disagrees with himself on various points between the letters.

            > What you should research instead is religions that have someone who didn’t actually exist at the beginning. Abraham, Moses, Gilgamesh, etc.

            The evidence for the existence of Jesus is e.g. the letters of Paul and gospel of Mark. These predate the existence of any new religion distinct from the traditional cult of the god of the Jews, the religion that has Abraham and Moses at its imagined beginnings. Within that tradition, suddenly up pop works like Paul’s letters and Mark’s Jesus-as-messiah propaganda. What can be inferred from this novelty?

            > an unintentional legend

            Paul doesn’t say much that’s legendary about Jesus, though of course neither of us believes much of what he says, which is mostly interpretation and practical application of Jesus’ messianic status. Mark seems to have collected stories maybe forty or fifty years after the events, or used such a collection. No one thinks he was an observer. I guess you could call some of these stories ‘legends’, but they would be legends about Jesus. Paul seems to have acquired his main ‘religious’ beliefs about Jesus – he’s christ, etc. – within a few years of Jesus’ death. That Jesus actually existed doesn’t seem to be something Paul could have been wrong about – no more than I could be wrong about the historicity of Hugo Chavez, though I’ve only heard things about him.

          • > You’ve got books that completely disagree about the fundamental points of Jesus
            So? It’s only the orthodox or proto-orthodox church that put the various gospels together. If the books disagree then the church is incoherent.

            That doesn’t give the potential believer much to work with then.

            Go back, then, to when only Mark and Paul existed, or to the time when only Paul’s letters existed. Then you don’t have books that completely disagree.

            Or go in the opposite direction: make canonical more of the noncanonical literature.

            I agree with your point, but I’m not sure what your overarching point is. That the Bible is unreliable so ditch it?

            The evidence for the existence of Jesus is e.g. the letters of Paul and gospel of Mark.

            So how strong are you saying the case is for someone who declares, “Mark and Paul show that Jesus existed as a real man”? I see how those documents support that claim, but they’re not much.

            Or, getting back to mythicism, how foolish is it then to declare, “Jesus likely didn’t exist as an actual person”? Some apologists use ridicule as their primary weapon, saying that this is indeed stupid and unfounded. But I don’t see how this isn’t a viable hypothesis.

            Within that tradition, suddenly up pop works like Paul’s letters and Mark’s Jesus-as-messiah propaganda. What can be inferred from this novelty?

            Uh, that Jesus was just one more nutty “the end is nigh!” preacher? This was a time of new ideas within Judaism, right?

            Paul doesn’t say much that’s legendary about Jesus

            No? I’m no scholar of Paul, so perhaps I should just take your word for it, but as I recall, Paul’s Jesus is completely ungrounded in our world. Paul doesn’t place him in time. Jesus’s appearance as a vision is placed in time, but not Jesus as a man on earth. And is Jesus placed on earth?

            Mark seems to have collected stories maybe forty or fifty years after the events, or used such a collection.

            But that’s the thing: why 40 years after the events? Why not 80 years? Or 200?

            And what “events”? Yes, Paul talks about the crucifixion and resurrection (14 times, if I remember correctly), so that’s an earthly event. Was there more?

            I guess you could call some of these stories ‘legends’, but they would be legends about Jesus.

            To be clear, I’m saying that “fiction” isn’t what the mythicists are talking about, as I understand their position. That is, unintentional, not deliberate.

            Paul seems to have acquired his main ‘religious’ beliefs about Jesus – he’s christ, etc. – within a few years of Jesus’ death.

            How do you know? Because that’s what the gospels say? That’s fine, but looking at just the Pauline corpus doesn’t give us any fixed time, does it?

            That Jesus actually existed doesn’t seem to be something Paul could have been wrong about

            But what does Paul say about Jesus existing?? Use just his letters, not the gospels. What grounding in reality do we get from them?

          • So when Paul talks about him as the anointed one who is descended from David, having a meal with his disciples, having a brother, and so on, you think he meant…?

          • This sounds like a Socratic interrogation. If have a point (that is, not a question), I’d be curious to hear that. Or if that’s not where you want to go, I’ll just thank you for your time.

          • Mark

            > That doesn’t give the potential believer much to work with then.

            We aren’t posing a question in Kirchliche Dogmatik, but one of ordinary empirical history. Neither of us is a believer.

            > Paul doesn’t place him in time. Jesus’s appearance as a vision is placed in time, but not Jesus as a man on earth. And is Jesus placed on earth?

            I hadn’t noticed that you were prepared to advance such a reading of Paul. There is a recent summary of reasons for rejecting any such reading by Gathercole, linked here on some reddit page https://issuu.com/paragraph8/docs/gathercole_the_historical_and_human

            The main problem — as you will see, for example, if you look at the discussion of McGrath’s posts over the years here — is that you really need a lot of theory to get close to such a reading, and when you get to it you realize that mid 1st c Jew with experience of Jerusalem like Paul could never arrive at it.

            Paul’s doctrine unites familiar pious and pharisaical ideas of 1) general resurrection of the dead and 2) the transition to the world to come and 3) a messianic delivery of Israel and 4) the turn of the ‘nations’ to the God of Israel. All four teachings are later found in the rabbinical tradition in different combinations and orderings. For Paul, all four have already started. All of the others are folded into 3, the ‘anointed one’ in question being Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, born of a woman, of the seed of David *and* the first fruits of the resurrection, whose parousia will accompanied by more resurrection (of the messianic community, both dead and living) “For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” 1 Cor 15 i.e. a general resurrection into an undying form. 4 is a phase of 3 and explains the present very temporary terrestrial absence of Jesus: “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery … that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob” . The reason Jesus is not reigning and making war is he somehow needs 4 to finish 3, which has already started and ends in the completion of 1 and 2.

            He did appear (or come down, surface or whatever you call what he did with his ‘resurrection body’) to show himself to Paul; he was recognized in this new form by 500, some of whom are dead, but not most. Paul doesn’t seem to think of this as a ‘vision’ in our sense. Elsewhere he gets ‘apocalypseis’, uncoverings, revelations, about particular topics.

            > How do you know? Because that’s what the gospels say? That’s fine, but looking at just the Pauline corpus doesn’t give us any fixed time, does it?

            The gospels don’t mention Paul. The whole text of Paul is about a definite temporal period, a transition, a crisis. But Paul has chatted with the brother of the sovereign, the kurios ; few of those who recognized the mortal Jesus in his resurrected form have died, etc. With Mark and sensible dates for the letters of Paul we have more inferences to make. Even Mark is close enough that collecting ‘memories’ of Jesus is like collecting stories about the hippie days – which plenty of people remember, and with a certain amount of ‘legendary’ falsification.

          • Bob seems to be unable to stay focused on the question under discussion here, the historical Jesus, wanting to engage in apologetics instead. He also acknowledges not knowing the primary or secondary literature relevant to the discussion in adequate fashion, and yet still insists on claiming that it does or doesn’t saying the kinds of things that mythicists claim. It’s frustrating, especially because it isn’t the first time this has come up with him, never mind with others over the past decade.

          • you really need a lot of theory to get close to such a reading, and when you get to it you realize that mid 1st c Jew with experience of Jerusalem like Paul could never arrive at it.

            Sorry–what reading?

            Paul’s doctrine unites familiar pious and pharisaical ideas of 1) general resurrection of the dead and 2) the transition to the world to come and 3) a messianic delivery of Israel and 4) the turn of the ‘nations’ to the God of Israel.

            I think if the Jesus character in the story as being strongly influenced by apocalypticism. What do you see as Paul’s relationship to apocalypticism? With this, it sounds like you’re putting him in or near that camp.

            Paul doesn’t seem to think of this as a ‘vision’ in our sense.

            I thought that the word he used (and that he used for everyone else, in 1 Cor. 15) was indeed “vision” or something quite close. No?

          • Mark

            > I thought that the word he used (and that he used for everyone else, in 1 Cor. 15) was indeed “vision”

            ophthē is just the third person past passive of a verb for seeing horaō http://sphinx.metameat.net/sphinx.php?paradigm=!z1_1!zn_9 First he died, then he was buried, then he rose, then he-was-seen .. then he-was-seen …then he-was-seen … If you like it can be: then he-appeared to-Kephas, then he-appeared, then he appeared …

            The main point is that there is a succession of events in the real time order including a death and burial. The process continues with being raised and then the sequence of whatever these seeing/appearing events are. We know from outside this passage that Paul thinks that resurrected bodies are radically different from ordinary corporeal things; so the experiences had of it are strange. The main thing seems to be that the experiences are witnessing or validating the raising of the same thing that was earlier alive and then died.

            Paul’s case is distinguished from the others in terms of an analogy of problematic birth – he was born late (as it seems), they were born ‘on time’.

            > Sorry–what reading?

            I’m not speaking of any one reading. If you try to argue Paul isn’t talking a guy roaming Galilee and Judea a few years earlier, who was crucified and buried, but want something non-historical, mythical, etc. – then you need to work the whole text with a conception of what he’s up to. Experience – e.g. of comments on this blog – shows that theories become completely insane. In particular they don’t fit with Jewish ideas of the period. There isn’t anything really problematic about Paul’s religious ideas, they are conventional – three of the four I mentioned about are among the ’13 articles of faith’ that pious Jews pray every morning. (Certain otherwise unattested ideas resurface in the rabbinical period, e.g. Pauls views about the law of Moses, the god of Israel, and what gentiles should be doing. ) The resurrection ‘experience’ and the messiahship of Jesus lead him to link them altogether: but it’s nothing new that’s linked together.

            > What do you see as Paul’s relationship to apocalypticism?

            I don’t think we need the concept. The pharisees were ‘apocalyptic’, so are the rabbis. The things we need to explain Paul’s teaching are largely common ground. It is his belonging to the pharisaical sect that is important. His proper training in it explains some of his high-handedness with the Jerusalem apostles and their disciples.

          • Thanks for the insights.

          • And thanks for the Gathercole link. Is that read only, or is there a way to print that out?

          • Nick G

            I’m not talking about manuscripts, I’m talking about texts. There are no texts mentioning Moses that have a consensus dating earlier than 7th century BCE, maybe even later. If you don’t understand the difference, or don’t know that texts can be quite reliably dated centuries earlier than the earliest manuscript bearing them (very few classical texts are known from pre-medieval manuscripts), then you’re just wasting your own and everyone else’s time in this conversation.

          • You mean originals vs. copies? Yes, I see the difference.

          • Nick G

            No, I don’t. The text is the sequence of words written on a manuscript (or on a printed page, or in a text file on a computer…). You evidently don’t (or won’t) understand the distinction.

          • Yes, that must be it.

          • Mark

            The point is that Exodus itself was written many centuries after the events it purports to describe. Paul’s letters were written starting maybe 20 years after Jesus died, and long after he had become a follower. Paul’s temporal relation to Jesus is nothing like that of the authors of Exodus. He might have known of Jesus while he was alive, as of course he did know later know Jesus’ brother.

            Certainly when Paul started having opinions about Jesus there would have been plenty of things unproblematically known both by the Jesus adherents he ‘persecuted’, and his fellow persecutors, and others who were indifferent to the matter.

            It doesn’t seem that the facts that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried are matters Paul could really have been wrong about, even though he later added all kinds of supernatural stuff to this.

  • Brandon Roberts

    cool.

  • Rafi Simonton

    “…but in many (perhaps most) cases because any conceivable alternatives are sufficiently improbable they can be safely excluded.” “…insights that had been advanced and rejected the better part of a century ago.” Which I know because I did my homework. It’s frustrating, as you well know, to argue mythicism with people who understand little, if anything, about historiography, theology, academic comparative religion, mythos, or logical fallacies. About a year ago, I was attempting to counter arguments for mythicism posted on a neo-Gnostic site. In addition to references I already own, I read through every piece available through Patheos on the subject. Nor did I make an argument based only on rationalism since I also have had many intense mystical encounters over the course of 70 years. Personal experience is often an important factor in such discussions. In addition, I own an entire bookshelf with alt sci, alt rel, alt history. Fun to read; maybe they are right with a point here or there that consensus scholarship has missed or conformist academics avoid. But as I point out, they pick the evidence that supports their views and ignore what doesn’t. Historical or theological works would not get away with that, and for sure not a scientific paper. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t understand the difference. Even many with college degrees don’t seem to.

    I read the links to Jerry Coyne’s blog and his semi-answer to your piece. How he inserted comments that not only disrupt your writing but aren’t even relevant, let alone accurate. His vehement insistence on atheism is easily seen by comparative religionists as a form of religion. In fact, it has been. Jeff Kripal easily refuted Jerry Coyne, who attacked Kripal’s article on the paranormal in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Not on the merits of the article, rather that in Coyne’s opinion, any study of anything that could be labeled “occult” is an anti-science fad. Goes to show expertise in empiricism doesn’t translate well to seeing one’s own assumptions. Even better are Bernardo Kastrup’s rebuttals of Coyne. Kastrup, whose books like “Why Materialism Is Baloney” and “More Than Allegory” are well worth reading, took apart all of the logical fallacies in Coyne’s arguments. His blog piece “In Defence of Theology: A Reply to Jerry Coyne” (Sept. 09, 2014) concludes “Coyne is simply wrong.” How Kastrup makes his case is delightful.