Methods of Historical Study (Reinventing the Wheel)

Methods of Historical Study (Reinventing the Wheel) March 17, 2019

Let me supplement my last post about the historical Jesus with another that connects with and shares a wider range of what has been and continues to be discussed and circulated, and asks what kinds of things it might be useful to blog about in the future. Reading certain blogs and discussion boards on the internet, you would think that laypeople were being called upon to invent methods for historical study for themselves, and to do so from scratch no less. I think a post (or series of posts!) on basic methodology, and particularly source criticism, could be helpful for a lay audience, especially in light of the misinformation being spread in certain corners of the internet. I’ll try to do that if and when time permits. For the purpose of the present post, I’ll gather together some links related to historical methods as they are applied to Jesus and other people and events in early Christianity.

First, let me quote Larry Hurtado, who asks, “is there any other field of academic work in which rank amateurs with none of the skills involved, none of the relevant training, and no proven competence in publishing in the subject so readily and so confidently launch their opinions? This also often involves disdain for the work of those scholars who actually have the necessary attributes to be taken seriously.”

Adam Akma wrote in a post a while back, “The biblical interpretation industry invests contemporary historical discernment with an authority incommensurate with its inevitable transience.”

A blogger who goes by the pseudonym Weekend Fisher, and whose perspective I regularly appreciate, nevertheless wrote what seems to me a rather bizarre post that engages in counterapologetics against some individuals who suggest that extracanonical and canonical texts are all the same. Mainstream historians have doubts about some of the things in the canonical Gospels, and sometimes find snippets in extracanonical Gospels that seem likely to be historical, but few people (and even fewer historians and scholars) dispute that among the canonical Gospels we have some of the earliest and most important historical information about Jesus. Those who prioritize things like a hypothetical source behind the Gospel of Peter are the exception and not the rule in this field.

Zondervan Academic Blog had a post on the authorship of the Gospels. There Mark Strauss surveys the evidence, and while his inclination leans conservative, his conclusion is honest and fairly mainstream:

At the end of the day, the gospels are still anonymous. Not one of them identifies its author. We have good reason to support the authors church tradition has named, but we don’t have to simply take their word for it. However, even after examining textual evidence and clues from other writings, none of the evidence for or against these authors is 100% conclusive.

Truth? It’s not just about the facts

Ben Witherington wrote in a blog post about the Gospel of Thomas:

It is frankly hard to keep a straight face and say that this sounds anything like the historical Jesus we find in the Q sayings or in Mark or even in the Gospel of John. The person who wrote this is a wordsmith, someone who likes to play with words and phrases with puzzling meanings. And notice that there is really no future eschatological focus in this Gospel. In fact, when the disciples ask Jesus how their end will come, Jesus asks them if they have found their beginning (saying 18). This is just being obscure for obscurity’s sake.

It was hard to keep a straight face while reading Witherington’s words, since he thinks that the Jesus of the Gospel of John – who regularly seems to be obscure for obscurity’s sake, and who moves things that in the Synoptics are future and eschatological into the present – can nonetheless give us glimpses of the historical Jesus.

Jack Miles writes in his Commonweal review of The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère:

I was reminded of a sentence that the late Gore Vidal wrote in the New York Review of Books, reviewing a true-crime blockbuster in the manner of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: “Since none of this can be known, none of this is true.” Carrère defends himself against that objection (his book is, in fact, armed to the teeth with preemptive defenses against all kinds of objections) by claiming that all scholars invent: he simply admits about his inventions what they conceal about theirs.

Bart Ehrman on the use of the criterion of dissimilarity.

A lecture about textual criticism and whether we can determine the “exact words” of Jesus.

Some thoughts on oral tradition and history in a modern setting.

Anxious Bench periodically explores matters related to the practice of history, including using podcasts to reach the public.

T&T Clark shared an author interview. Hendrickson linked to a review of Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature.

Here’s a blog post from my friend Charles Allen, who actually sat in on my Historical Jesus class some years ago, offering his thoughts on historical deduction about Jesus.

There’s a new documentary about Jesus coming our way soon, it seems.

Ben Witherington is continuing his multi-post interview with Amy-Jill Levine. David Capes wrote his second post about Jesus and Capernaum.

Finally, a word of thanks to Bill Heroman for his shout-out and kind words in response to my blog post about history and imagination. I hope we continue the conversation on that topic!


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  • John MacDonald

    Dr. McGrath said:

    Reading certain blogs and discussion boards on the internet, you would think that laypeople were being called upon to invent methods for historical study for themselves, and to do so from scratch no less. I think a post (or series of posts!) on basic methodology, and particularly source criticism, could be helpful for a lay audience, especially in light of the misinformation being spread in certain corners of the internet. I’ll try to do that if and when time permits.

    Yes, this is exactly the sort of perspective you get from Neil Godfrey (often fueled by Carrier) at Vridar. As an interested lay person with no educational background in history/religious studies, I for one would definitely be interested in learning more about the grundbegriffe of critical historical/biblical scholarship!

    • I knew that at least you would be interested. I still wonder sometimes whether it would be worthwhile writing a book about mythicism, using it as a way of teaching both historical methods and information literacy…

      • John MacDonald

        Mythicists are peddling anti-history, which many people are lapping up.

        I would definitely buy a copy and request another for my local library! There is so much mythinformation out there that the unsuspecting public like me gets duped by it because mythicist conclusions are shocking/enticing, and people have a bias toward wanting to believe in in histories that are shocking (like the alien interpretation of the Roswell incident, or The DaVinci Code) .

        Carrier is constantly trying to sell his snake oil by pointing out that he is a peer reviewed PhD specialist in Christian origins, but he neglects to mention that he has never held a teaching position, and that his “peer reviewed” mythicist book was published by Phoenix Sheffield, which also published Brodie’s mythicist book, so they seem to like that sort of thing. And, Carrier’s “Proving History” was looked at, not by a New Testament specialist, but by a mathematics professor.

        It’s also important for actual scholars to address writers like Carrier because his peers (other PhDs, not Neil Godfrey), don’t accept his interpretations. In the Joel Anderson blog post you noted the other day, Anderson points out that

        The only thing I can conclude is that either Carrier is just incredibly clueless and ignorant, or else he is being purposely deceptive. No scholar with one iota of sense or ability to read in context would ever make the claims that Carrier makes.

        The public needs to be informed that Carrier’s interpretations are not reasonable, because he is on a new podcast/debate every week speaking about them with authority. And he is currently in the process of writing a trade book version of his OHJ for a more public audience…

        Then there’s Neil Godfrey.

        I have followed Vridar for many years, and have come to understand his method. He and his followers desperately search the literature to find anything that challenges an aspect of the reliability of historical Jesus studies. When he finds something, he publishes it on his blog, and so presents his blog as a whole collage of challenges to historical Jesus reconstructions. As a collection, it gives the false impression that historical Jesus studies are in ruin: Scholar 1 is skeptical about X, but not Y. That’s okay, because Scholar 2 is skeptical about Y = So, there is good reason to doubt X and Y. It doesn’t matter if the skeptical point is valid, just that someone has made it, and so the skepticism is uncritically accepted as gospel. Godfrey’s method is the exact opposite of the appeal to the consensus of critical scholars, which itself is dismissed by Godfrey from the outset as a fallacy (even though this wouldn’t be done in any other academic field!)

        So, I hope you write the book!

        • theman8469

          That is a very disingenuous post. Carrier should be judged on the power of his arguments and not on his, or lack of, ‘peer-reviewed’ publications. I agree that his arguments are pretty bad and have to evaluated on that basis alone. James F. Mcgrath has a teaching position and has published multiple peer-reviewed articles. However like Carrier his arguments are terrible and have to be judged on this only criteria only.

          • John MacDonald

            Carrier is the one who is constantly trying to show off by bringing up his PhD and peer reviewed book.

          • theman8469

            But Carrier does put forward an argument; one that can be debated and shown to be defective. He does not rely on ad hominem attacks – unlike your good self.

          • John MacDonald

            So your position is that Carrier does not rely on ad hominen attacks?

          • theman8469

            Carrier is pretty rude but still has an argument. He may use ad hominen attacks but does not rely on them.

          • theman8469

            Ahh… Where does that link contradict what I have just said? Please read what I wrote and not what you wished I wrote (thus dismissing a straw man).

          • Charles Wilson

            Tell that to Joe Atwill.

        • Jim Little

          Is ad hominem and whining all you’ve got?

          • John MacDonald

            Not at all. Feel free to take an aspect of the mythicist argument and try to defend it …

          • Jim Little

            There is a reasonable prospect that the NT’s Jesus of Nazareth is based on an elaboration of both characters described in the OT scriptures and aspirations and prophecies described therein.

          • John MacDonald

            You mean like the way Mark models his portrayal of John the Baptist on Elijah?

          • Jim Little

            In part, yes. Many aspects of the NT reflect the Elijah-Elisha narratives, and aspects of an ‘elevated’ OT Joshua.

          • John MacDonald

            So then we have evidence of Mark giving Hebrew scripture coloring to a known historical figure like John the Baptist?

          • Jim Little

            I think it’s debatable whether John the Baptist was a know historical figure (or a single figure); the discrepancies between the accounts of Josephus’s John the baptist and of the gospels’ accounts are significant.

          • John MacDonald

            The point is, and here I am recapitulating Carrier’s OHJ, Hebrew Scriptural coloring of New Testament figures/narratives is not evidence for or against historicity, since a mythical Jesus, just as well as an historical Jesus, could equally as easily been so colored. You wrote: There is a reasonable prospect that the NT’s Jesus of Nazareth is based on an elaboration of both characters described in the OT scriptures and aspirations and prophecies described therein. As Carrier says, such Hebrew Scripture modelling is irrelevant because it is just as expected on the minimal historicism thesis as the minimal mythicism one. NB You claiming Jesus didn’t exist puts you on the fringe of scholarship. You going one step further now and doubting John the Baptist is troubling, even from a mythicist perspective …

          • R. G. Price

            If we grant that JtB was a real person, which again, is a big assumption, it still does not hold that any aspect of JtB’s portrayal in Mark has a historical basis. The JtB of Mark is still a fictional character, he’s a character of literary development.

            Just like even if there was some real Orpheus, the Orpheus of Greek lore is an entirely fictional character.

            Setting aside “mythicist” arguments for a moment in regard to whether or not “some Jesus” ultimately existed, the real question is whether or not the gospels actually tell us anything about any real Jesus person.

            Now you’ll find biblical scholars all over the map on this, and there is little agreement at all. But let’s take the temple cleaning scene for example. I’ve read probably a dozen different takes on the temple cleaning scene, but surely the majority of biblical scholars will tell you that the scene is “based on some reality”, that “surely Jesus engaged in some disruptive action at the temple”.

            But this is total nonsense. The evidence against the historical reality of the temple cleaning scene is overwhelming on top of overwhelming. Anyone who claims “its true” loses every ounce of credibility in my book.

            Here is a brief comparison between my assessment of it and mainstream views:

            But even that just scratches the surface. The temple cleaning scene fits into what is clearly a well thought out overall narrative. It is foreshadowed in the opening of Mark. It is a typical example of retroactive oracles that are found all throughout Hellenistic literature. The scene itself is built from 3 literary references, and in an ABCC’B’A’ chiastic structure. The scene makes reference to a passage from Jeremiah, who also has a story of him prophesying in the temple. The scene serves as a plot device, providing the rational for the crucifixion of Jesus. Actions such as what Jesus was said to do weren’t even possible in the large and well guarded temple. Everything about the scene screams in-authenticity, and yet biblical scholar after scholar assures us of its historical truth.

            And their logic gets to the fundamental flaws in general biblical scholarship. The primary reason that so many scholars say this “must be true”, is that “it is attested to in multiple sources”. But that’s the issue isn’t it!? If the scene is a literary invention (all the evidence points to yes) then the fact that it exists in multiple sources tells us that those sources were merely copying Mark and had no independent knowledge of the events they record. Everyone is just copying from the story invented by Mark.

            A thousand points of evidence point to this conclusion – that the Gospel of Mark is an entirely fabricated literary invention, a purely fictional story, and that every other account of Jesus merely copies from this one original story. There is no NT evidence in existence that cannot be explained under this model.

          • John MacDonald

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you say on Vridar that Mark called what he was doing a “gospel” because Mark was being sarcastic …

          • Mark

            Yes, that people bothered with this embroidery is part of how we know he existed.

          • R. G. Price

            “Yes, that people bothered with this embroidery is part of how we know he existed.”

            So according to this logic, Mithras, Dionysus, Enoch, Elijah, Melchizedek, Michael, Orpheus, Sibyl, Hercules, “the Ancient of Days”, Osiris, etc., etc., thousands of thousands of mythical figures, existed…

          • Mark

            The figure embroidered upon is clearly that of an itinerant Galilean preacher and exorcist who ends up executed by the Romans. The case isn’t remotely akin to any of those. A Galilean! … for Christ’s sake! It is only the much later existence of a gentile ‘religion’ associated with him that could make there seem to be any similarity; but the evidence we go by predates such a development.

      • theman8469

        Sadly like members of the Jesus Seminar *and the like) you are promoting your own personal biases and assertions. In addition your have a rather pathetic habit of calling those with a more traditional take on the Gospels, ‘Fundamentalists’, again just like Members of the Jesus Seminar. Again like the Jesus Seminar you cannot put forward an argument that the ‘traditionists’ are wrong and just resort to name-calling. Please try your non-arguments with, say, William Lane Craig. You might not make a fool of yourself like, Hoover, Borg, Crossian, Crossey etc. But somehow I doubt it.

    • Jim Little

      to learn more about the ‘grundbegriffe‘ of critical historical/biblical scholarship read that BC&H thread, or some of Neil Godfrey’s blog-posts on it.

  • Illithid

    From the Allen post:

    So I think that Jesus really lived and preached the subversive present/future nearness of God’s reign, that this got him executed, and that his followers had to reinterpret his original message in light of what they took to be his subsequent, life-giving presence.

    I find it amusing that Allen, a Christian, and I, an atheist, agree to this extent.

    • Out of curiosity, what makes this amusing? I would expect a liberal or progressive Christian and an atheist to be likely to embrace the conclusions of historical scholarship, and so to agree on at least the basic facts!

      • Illithid

        I suppose it’s that apparently none of Allen’s core beliefs about Jesus seem to require or even suggest that he was divine, or performed any miracles, or even that he was right theologically. I like liberal Christians, I just occasionally wonder if they’ve reduced their god to more of a philosophical abstraction than a deity.

        Maybe I spend too much time arguing with fundamentalists.

        • Perhaps. Glad you came here to take a break!

          Doesn’t your reference to reducing god assume that viewing Jesus as a human being is reducing a god, rather than classic orthodoxy having divinized a human?

          • Illithid

            No, I was unclear. I mean viewing Jesus as entirely human, no more partaking of divine nature than anyone, while God (seperately) is seen as less a being and more a “ground of being” or… some ethereal abstraction.

            I look at the label “god”, and see nothing that fits, so I say I don’t think there are gods (or God). To me it seems that some people, reluctant to abandon the label, redefine it until it represents something that can’t be reasonably said not to exist but that doesn’t really fit the term any more.

          • And for me, God denotes whatever is ultimate and most transcendent. And so I’m happy to be agnostic about the attributes of God, but find that awe and wonder towards that which simply exists and brought me into existence is appropriate, whether that be the universe, a multiverse, a multiverse-making mechanism, laws of physics that simply are, or an anthropomorphic personal God. That such a Reality exists isn’t even a question, but only the attributes thereof, within the context of my worldview.

          • Illithid

            An attitude of awe and wonder is perfectly natural when we regard the cosmos. I see no personal attributes to it, though, nor any reason to think that it is regarding me in any way. And unless and until such reason is presented, I don’t see that “God” is a useful label for the cosmos. Using the words god, religion, and theology in this context seems unnecessarily confusing.

          • Doesn’t that reflect being steeped in a predominantly Christian tradition in which other uses of the term God, e.g. in pantheism, are denigrated and marginalized?

          • Illithid

            Definitely. But my initial comment referred to an explicitly Christian blogger. I’m not sure what to think of pantheism. To the extent to which the universe is described in naturalistic terms, referring to it as divine seems unneeded. To the extent to which it is described in mystical or transcendent terms, calling it divine seems unfounded.

            I suppose I’d want to ask if the word God has any meaning which is both anchored in reality and also not adequately covered by other terms which don’t come with such heavy baggage.

          • I’d say that all language has baggage, albeit some may be over the acceptable weight limit for this flight. But if we try to eliminate all symbol and metaphor, all poetry, when talking about the transcendent, the deep, and the mysterious, then I don’t think we’re doing justice to it or using language effectively. Some experiences and some aspects of reality seem to require more than bland prose or clinical description.

          • Illithid

            I wouldn’t want to eliminate all poetic language, what fun would that be? The god-talk just doesn’t work well IMO. Thanks for the conversation.

          • Thank you as well!

          • Susan

            And for me, God denotes whatever is ultimate and most transcendent.

            How would anyone know what’s “ultimate and most transcendent”?

            Does it denote an agent that possesses these properties?

            What are you talking about?

            That such a Reality exists isn’t even a question, but only the attributes thereof, within the context of my worldview.

            Then, why bother talking about “God”? Which almost always implies an agent based on beginning with Yahwehjesus in these discussions.

            I’m happy to be agnostic about the attributes of God, but find that awe and wonder towards that which simply exists and brought me into existence is appropriate

            Sure. No reason to even bring up Yahwehjesus or any “god”, no reason to invoke any extra agent, at all.

            whether that be the universe, a multiverse, a multiverse-making mechanism, laws of physics that simply are, or an anthropomorphic personal God.

            We assume the first, reasonably, based on our experience, have to take seriously to some extent, the next couple based on hard-won methods that have been effective and the possible implications that necessarily come about from investigating the universe…

            or an anthromorphic personal God

            An incoherent agent based on previous supernatural models. No reason to take them seriously, at all. Unless you can show that there is.

  • Charles Wilson

    “This ‘Jesus’ fellow…Where did he get his PhD?”
    I love the dialogue. Sterilize the Language of the participants so only the Truly Nahlijable may participate. Marvelous.

    Try this: From the fact that the Jesus Stories came from Source Stories, it does not follow that the Source Stories were about “Jesus”.
    John is from Bilgah, the created “Jesus” character is from Immer.
    What was “Mishmarot” anyway? It could not be worth examining since all of that icky Jewish stuff was ” Done Away With”, correct?

    Try this: The Romans did it. They took a Jewish Story (unless Nicholas of Damascus wrote it…) and rewrote it for the Glory of the Flavians.
    John “Corrects” the Synoptics but leaves the “One-Clue-too-Many”: The Homosexual Motif of the sponge on a hyssop stick with vinegar put to the mouth of “Jesus” is a shallow rewrite of Asiaticus being captured by Vitellius while selling Posca in a bazaar in Puteoli. Mebbe the NT Authors read a little Suetonius? Tacitus? Who knew?

    Try this: “Existence is not a Predicate”. There are Atheists who believe that “Jesus” was the Son of God, who doesn’t exist. When are certain people going to check their Existence Assumptions? It doesn’t take a PhD to do that.

    In spite of the Sarcasm and Cynicism displayed here, I do wish everyone the best with this. We are at the point where we can finally look at other possibilities for a change. Perhaps, just maybe, we should start. There’s some nice L-I-T-E-R-A-T-U-R-E we can examine.

    Thank you,


  • R. G. Price

    As one of these so-called amateur historians with no training, I take particular exception to the field of “biblical studies” and so-called “biblical history”, because there is so much obvious “professional” incompetence in the field. Professionals should be better than this. The fact that so many amateurs are capable of rebutting and refuting claims made by those with 3 and 4 PhDs in biblical studies should tell you something.

    Here is the problem with “biblical studies”. It’s a field dominated by theologians who pose as historians, but they really aren’t. Even so-called “secular” scholars, like Bart Ehrman, really aren’t. All of Ehrman’s degrees come from Christian seminary schools. The flaws in logic and method evidenced in 95% of the works published by “biblical scholars” are overwhelming.

    To make matters worse, so many real historians simply defer to the “biblical scholars” when it comes to understanding Christian origins. They don’t themselves engage in primary research in the field, because they treat their fellow PhDs as real scholars. But the problem is that they aren’t, they are theologians posing and scholars, or perhaps theologians who believe they are scholars. And so almost all of the “academic work” around biblical studies ends up being garbage, thus there is nothing left to do but for the amateurs to pick up the pieces and figure it out. It’s a sad state of affairs really.

    One of the best examples of this, IMO, is a book by David Oliver Smith, Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul: The influence of the epistles on the Synoptics:

    This is hands down, one of the best works on the development of the Gospels ever produced. It’s head and shoulders above 95% of the works out there produced by well known biblical scholars.

    Uses and references to “Q” are another good example. Anyone who has any knowledge of the field knows that “Q” today is treated as if its a real bonafide document that is on-file in a collection somewhere. But its not. In fact the case against the reality of Q is overwhelming, but it still persists among 95% of the scholars who write about the NT, whether they are biblical scholars or historians. The problem with historians is that they seem far too reluctant to challenge the consensus of biblical scholars.

    But in addition to the Case Against Q put forward by Goodacre, we have the fact that if Q existed it would mean that the “authentic words of Jesus” had gone un-referenced until Matthew came along, then both Matthew and Luke independently got hold of this catalog of authentic saying, both independently integrated them with the Markan narrative in virtually identical ways, and then both LOST Q, having it disappeared from the record again, only to be preserved in their two works. None of the other early apologists were aware of it, nothing.

    In contrast to this highly unlikely scenario, we have the explanation that the author of Luke simply used both Mark and Matthew. But not only that, as David Oliver Smith shows, the author of Luke also used the letters of Paul. Now if we grant a Luke who had on his desk the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, as well as the letters of Paul, and this Luke had studied each of them and knew that Paul came before Mark which came before Matthew, and this person gave preference to the older works, i.e. they considered Paul more authoritative than Mark and Mark more authoritative than Matthew, then essentially every aspect of how Luke is constructed comes together and makes perfect sense. Feature after feature of Luke is explained in this way, explaining things that the Q hypothesis doesn’t even come close to explaining. Yet mainstream scholars scoff at this, claiming “that can’t possibly be”, because Matthew is so beautifully written, surely no one who had read Matthew would edit it! (Unless of course Luke knew that Paul and Mark were more authoritative and he was concerned with constructing what be believed to be an accurate, not beautiful, document…)

    But yet this is widely rejected. Why? Simply because to acknowledge this is to acknowledge that we then have no reliable information about Jesus. But that is what the data tells us. Yet since biblical scholars are primarily theologians, they can’t accept it.

    The issue of Q is huge. At this point, so much rides on Q its crazy. In work after work I see “scholars” essentially rest their entire argument and entire understanding of Jesus and the Gospels on the assumption that the double-tradition material pre-dates the epistles. The assumption that the double-tradition material is our “earliest record of Jesus” is now completely foundational to the modern consensus view of Jesus, and its all build on nonsense.

    When you look at the NT material there is a clear progression in the conceptions of Jesus over time. Starting from the oldest epistles and James and Jude, through to Paul then to Hebrews, and from Hebrews on to the Gospel of Mark and later epistles. There is a progression of increasing humanization of Jesus.

    What the “Qists” have done then is plucked very late humanized material not present until it was invented by Matthew and copied by Luke, and then transplanted that late material up at the front of the line, acting as if this late material is actually the oldest material. It’s like taking a progression of fossils from deeper and deeper layers in the earth and then taking the most recent fossils of humans and then inserting them back before the dinosaurs.

    And that’s why “amateurs” have come into the field, because the “professionals” are incompetent.

  • SH

    Larry Hurtado, [asks], “is there any other field of academic work in which rank amateurs with none of the skills involved, none of the relevant training, and no proven competence in publishing in the subject so readily and so confidently launch their opinions? This also often involves disdain for the work of those scholars who actually have the necessary attributes to be taken seriously.”

    But in other fields – like let’s say plumbing, upholstery repair, floral design, medicine, dance, warfare – there is an actual thing that is real at the core of the field of study. In religion you have a non-existent core ‘thing’ – a god who involves himself in human history quite specifically – and then thousands of years of government involving itself in the way this non-existent thing is being perceived, worshiped, written about, applied in everyday life AND THEN you have the study of this field pretending that all the information that makes its way to us just dropped from the sky without government involvement. This is what is so frustrating for non-scholars. The perceived naivete of professionals in the field with regards to the layers of ‘correction,’ involvement etc that occurred in the transmission of Jewish, Samaritan, Christian religious forms (not to mention the pagan and philosophical traditions as well).

    If you were to study the history of plumbing let’s say. You wouldn’t expect that the Roman government was involved in writing the history of plumbing. With respect to the history of warfare the winners write history and that suits the study of the history of warfare because we aren’t as interested in the tactics that fail than we are of the tactics that succeed. But in the case of religion we should be just as interested in the traditions that fail as we are the traditions that succeed because – presumably at least – the government shows favor and disfavor against traditions not based on their truthfulness and antiquity but based on their usefulness to further social policy. The idea that Aurelian decided that the 25th of December was the correct day for the celebration of the birth of Christ for any other reason than it was socially useful is hopelessly naive. Nor again should any reasonable person think that the decision of Church council(s) at the end of the Crisis of the Third Century to condemn Paul of Samosata had as its prime motivation Paul’s cooperation with the rule of Zenobia.

    Yet these subjects are rarely taught in terms of simple power politics. Instead we follow the surviving documents down various rabbit holes which are of secondary importance. By the third century the Roman government was actively involved in promoting monarchian ideology which affected both Judaism, Samaritanism and Christianity cf. Allen Brent’s work on this subject. The reason why we tend to do this is – in my mind – because we have the wrong people examining the history of Christianity. There is no ‘idealism’ involved in the history of plumbing. Plumbing is governed by a few basic physical laws or realities (i.e. pipes, water, sewage, gravity) and then there is the technical understanding that various cultures had for these physical realities which led to their approaches to the removal of sewage and the bringing of fresh water.

    Whatever earliest Christianity was – it is lost to us. What has come down to us is a third century form of an earlier unknowable religion exemplified by Callistus’s release from the salt mines of Sardinia with the direct involvement of Marcia, the concubine of Commodus. Callistus not only went on to be the bishop of Rome but was instrumental in previous administrations (especially if you follow Hilgenfeld’s argument about the ‘Callistiwn’ in the letter of Rhodon as a intimate subform of the name). But, yes, those of us who are not professional scholars do wish that the field of study of the history of earliest Christianity was more like the history of plumbing, shoe shining, the making of decorative lamps and the like. There is still too much idealism and far too little worldly realism.

    Indeed if you look at Hurtado’s crowning achievement – his study of the nomina sacra – what actual evidence does he give for IH being older than IC? Really let’s use this an appropriate example to demonstrate the reason why amateurs have disdain for professional scholars. He says that because kabbalah takes an interest in the Hebrew word ‘life’ which similarly uses the tenth and eighth letters (IH are similarly the tenth and eighteenth letters in Greek) this gives the nudge to decide in favor of IH. This in spite of the fact that Justin – as Marcovich notes – clearly says the name of Lord is the Hebrew word for man demonstrably expressed in Greek letters as iota-sigma (Origen Letter to Africanus, LXX translations of names that start with ish, Philo ‘a man seeing God’ = Israel etc).

    The point isn’t that IH or IC can be demonstrably proven to be the original form of the nomina sacra but the fact that Hurtado is so learned and basically threw a dart on a dartboard to decide what amounts to a 50-50 proposition is what is wrong with the field. Yes the field ‘moves forward’ by the making of arguments. But Hurtado’s insistence that only people who have gone through the appropriate training should be pontificating on things related to early Christianity is ridiculous. I can throw a dart on a dartboard as well as he can. I might not know how to frame the throw on the dartboard as a scholarly argument. But at least my baseless conclusions won’t be mistaken for truth either.

  • R. G. Price

    Since my other post got deleted, I’ll provide a simpler summary of the point:
    The problem with the history of Christian origins is that the field is dominated by theologians. Virtually everyone in the field has a degree in divinity or theology, not history, and yet these theologians are treated as if they are historians.

    And when it comes to real historians, almost none of them actually engage in real primary research in the field, they just refer to biblical scholars, all of whom are theologians. So the reality is that there are virtually no real historians that have done any meaningful research on Christian origins.

    When you read about Christian origins you are almost always either A) reading the work of a theologian or B) reading the work of a historian who is citing theologians.

    The problem is that historians treat theologians with PhDs as if they are real peers, when in fact they are not. Yes, they have a PhD, but it has nothing to with with the study of real history, and certainly nothing to do with the learning of proper historical or analytical methodology.

    The first step is in acknowledged that a PhD in divinity or theology gives you just as much authority on the subject of Christian history as a degree in basket weaving, because that’s the truth of the matter. Theologians are not historians, and in fact, training in theology provides a significant bias against real knowledge and real understanding of history or even proper historical methodology.

    • John MacDonald

      R.G. Price said:

      The first step is in acknowledged that a PhD in divinity or theology gives you just as much authority on the subject of Christian history as a degree in basket weaving, because that’s the truth of the matter.

      I’m not sure what you mean? Would you also say a PhD in Classics gives you just as much authority on the subject of ancient Greek history as a degree in basket weaving?

      NB Incidentally, if anyone doesn’t know who R.G Price is, he is an amateur bible enthusiast who regularly commentes on Vridar, and his mythicist book with an ambitious title is: “Deciphering the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed see ,” which concludes that (if you agree with him) since (among other things) Mark’s Gospel contains various allusions to the Hebrew Scripture and Paul, Jesus didn’t exist. If I remember correctly (I don’t have Price’s book with me in Florida, it is at my summer home in Nova Scotia), he accepts Doherty’s model of the deconstruction of the historical Jesus in Paul.

      • R. G. Price

        Yes, potentially that’s true. Also, I’m not saying that a theologian can’t also have a good knowledge of history, I’m saying that a degree in theology in-and-of-itself does not provide one with a good knowledge of history. The same with Classics actually, though actually I’d say that theology is obviously far more biased than classics. A degree in theology or divinity is literally a degree in propaganda, there is just no way around that. A degree in theology/divinity is instruction on the interpretation of a subset of Christian literature through a specific lens, with a specific perspective, intended to reach a given set of preexisting assumptions. There is no escaping that. It’s really the least objective possible approach to the data, yes even among liberal seminaries or programs at secular institutions.

        And the issue is that there are just so many obvious fallacies and problems of logic spread all throughout biblical scholarship. It’s not even the big issues, it’s death by a thousand cuts. It’s just one faulty assumption after another.

        And as I laid out in a few other posts (which have gone missing), there are major fundamental flaws in so much of the scholarship. The issue of Q is a major one. So much is built on faulty assumption about Q. Modern biblical scholarship is essentially built on Q the way that the Ptolemaic system was built on the geocentric model. It doesn’t matter how much solid math was applied in the Ptolemaic system, the fundamental model was wrong. The same with the pre-Darwinian systems of Naturalism (also all taught at seminary schools). Just fundamentally wrong models. Mainstream biblical scholarship is operating on models as wrong at the Ptolemaic system and pre-Darwinian Naturalism.

        How many scholars have I read that claimed that Mark has no relationship to the letters of Paul? How many have said that even the author of Luke, “couldn’t possibly have used Paul’s letters”? How many mainstream scholars have I read that defend the historicity of various scenes in the Gospel with no mention at all of the underlying literary references upon which the scenes are based? How man have said that Luke couldn’t possibly have used Matthew? It’s just flabbergasting how poor biblical scholarship is.

        • John MacDonald

          If someone has a PhD in Philosophy with a specialty in Plato, would that not include the intellectual and historical context of Plato’s world so as to assist in understanding the master? And would such a person need to be a follower of Plato to be such a specialist? Similarly, wouldn’t being a Pauline specialist imply understanding Paul’s intellectual and historical context? You seem to be arguing the equivalent of the idea that one needs to be (1) A believing Christian (2) Whose biases shapes his interpretations in order to be a Pauline specialist?

          Robert M. Price, with 2 PhDs, is the most famous/qualified mythicist in the world, and he accepts Q.

          • R. G. Price

            “Robert M. Price, with 2 PhDs, is the most famous/qualified mythicist in the world, and he accepts Q.”
            I’m not entirely sure of that. Last I talked with him he was endorsing Goodacre’s position.

            “If someone has a PhD in Philosophy with a specialty in Plato, would that not include the intellectual and historical context of Plato’s world so as to assist in understanding the master?[, etc.]”

            I’ll provide here a quote from Ehrman that someone else brought to my attention:

            “I would say that most biblical scholars in fact are not historians. But some are. It depends on what their interests and expertise are.

            In most PhD programs in biblical studies – for example, those provided in seminaries and divinity schools – the training is focused principally on the texts of the Bible and their meaning. The emphasis, in those circles, is on “exegesis,” that is, the interpretation of the Bible. People trained like that are often adept at literary criticism of various kinds (or often of just one kind). Often there is also a secondary emphasis on the theology of the Bible. Theological training (at least outside of fundamentalist circles) is more closely related to philosophy.

            Yes, I would say that a philosopher is not a historianper se. Might a philosopher be knowledgeable of ancient Greek history? Yes. Does studying Plato make one an expert on ancient Greek history? No.

            But furthermore, so much of biblical studies is actually hostile to much of the relevant context in ways that the study of Platonic philosophy is not. Christianity is a somewhat unusual religion in that is is a religion based on a very specific interpretation of history, which is rather unlike most pre-Christian religions (although Judaism also has this issue as well). Christianity is a religion based on a very specific literal interpretation of a very specific story. That’s why there are so many denominations, because they argue over the specific meaning of various phrases and documents. This is, of course, very unlike most other early religions, most of which weren’t heavily rooted in written documents.

            Early Christian theologians of course set out a framework for the understanding of Christian theology, in which they defined the interpretation of history. So Christian theology itself has defined a specific interpretation of history. Straying from that is both necessarily for objective assessment of Christian origins, and in direct conflict with Christian beliefs, so obviously objectively dealing with it is challenging in the context of a theology program.

            For example, I highly doubt that any theology program spends significant time (if any) objectify studying the role of prophecy and oracles in Hellenistic culture, and uses of oracular motifs in pagan Hellenistic literature. How much time is spent studying the history of the Jewish revolts from 65 – 140 CE? How much time is spent on the study of Jewish midrash and Jewish opposition to Christian ideas in the period from the 2nd-6th centuries? How much time is spent studying the heretical views of various early sects, and exploring the possibility that their interpretations had merit? To what degree is Marcion studied and is it considered that his view and claims had merit? How much time is spent studying all of the claims of early Christian scholars like Eusebius that are now widely acknowledges as incorrect? I’ve discussed this with 3 or 4 people with divinity degrees and I can tell you that all of them said that nothing like any of that was covered in their experiences.

            And look even at works like of Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution. Yes, you can claim her as a mainstream scholar, but yet they aren’t teaching that type of material in seminaries schools.

          • John MacDonald

            Regarding Price and Q, here is a video, the relevant part starting at 19:09, with Price disagreeing with Carrier/Fitzgerald over Q. See Price has long held that Q1, the earliest stratum of Q, are simply sayings that reflect a common cynical tang, and so don’t necessarily go back to a single sage, let alone the historical Jesus. The theory that there was no Q and that Luke copied Matthew is a fringe position, to say the least.

            You write:

            For example, I highly doubt that any theology program spends significant time (if any) objectify studying the role of prophecy and oracles in Hellenistic culture, and uses of oracular motifs in pagan Hellenistic literature.

            So, your position is that you don’t think religious studies programs teach Comparative Religion?

            You write:

            I’ve discussed this with 3 or 4 people with divinity degrees and I can tell you that all of them said that nothing like any of that was covered in their experiences.

            As impressive a statistical sample size as that is, I’m unclear as to what you talking to a couple people with divinity degrees has to do with the knowledge base of the consensus of critical scholars that teach at accredited secular universities, like Dr. McGrath and Dr. Ehrman?

          • R. G. Price

            For what it’s worth, I put together an overview of the case against Q here:

          • John MacDonald

            Could you elaborate on what you think Mark means when he says he is writing a “gospel:” the good news?

          • R. G. Price

            My understanding of the opening of Mark (as with all of Mark) is heavily based on the scriptural references.

            The first references is to a passage about the punishment of Israel via Malachi 3:

            This is followed by Isaiah 40, which is a message of comfort after punishment:

            So these two references appear very relevant regarding the First Jewish-Roman War.

            One way this can be taken is that the “good news” is that Israel’s punishment has been fulfilled, and now is the time for reparation. This was a common use of prophetic motifs in Hellenistic literature, where stories about the fulfillment of prophecy are meant as a way of showing that existing prophecies have already been fulfilled and thus no longer pose a danger, i.e. the predicted doom has already occurred and thus no longer needs to be feared.

            This is a standard use of prophecy in Hellenistic literature, and given the opening references in Mark, is a good fit for the use of prophecy in Mark. As such, this explains the “good news” of the opening.

          • John MacDonald

            How does Jesus fit in to the “good news?”

          • R. G. Price

            Jesus is the vehicle for the telling of the prophetic tale. The story is about the destruction of Jerusalem, and how the Jews brought the destruction upon themselves. The narrative uses many prophetic tropes to tell the story.

            Undoubtedly some symbolism has been lost to time. Even the symbolism of the Wizard of Oz is difficult to interpret due to it’s high dependence on in own historical context.

            Mark is an epic fit for its time and place. Wars were the most common progenitors of such tales in ancient times. Stories like this were commonly written in the wake of wars, in much the same way that Hucklberry Finn was written in the wake of the Civil War but cast before it.

            Another interesting thing that I’ll mention, but I’m not going to go into great detail because I’m still researching it, is the fact that there were multiple movements and proclamations that sprung up around the expectation of the return of Joshua shortly prior to the First Jewish-Roman War. Joshua, of course, is merely the English translation of the Hebrew for Jesus, or rather, Jesus and Joshua are just two different translations of the same Hebrew name.

            Shortly prior to the war a man named Theudas claimed to be the returned Joshua and claimed to be able to predict the future. Theudas led a small cult and attempted to re-enact some of the miracles of Joshua. He led a failed attempt to part the Jordan river to lead a band in an assault on Romans. That’s one example, but there was a flurry of activity among millenarian Jews related to the expectation of the return of Joshua in the early 1st century, that is all independent (presumably) of the Christian moment.

            This goes along with several other similar millenarian movements that worshiped similar figures, like Enoch and Melchizedek, all figures re-invented from the Torah as eternal demi-gods (perhaps better called archangels or second-gods). So something I’m researching now is the prospect that the “Jesus/Joshua” of Christianity is really an off-shoot of the millenarian Joshua movement.

          • John MacDonald

            R.G.Price said:

            Jesus is the vehicle for the telling of the prophetic tale. The story is about the destruction of Jerusalem, and how the Jews brought the destruction upon themselves.

            Why would Mark choose Jesus as a vehicle to tell such a tale? Paul taught that Jesus was the “first fruits (1Corinthians 15:20 )” of the general resurrection harvest of souls now at the advent of the Kingdom of God, which means the end was already underway in Paul’s eyes. I’m not sure what you are trying to argue? Are you saying you think Mark is characterizing Jesus as the one bringing about the destruction of Jerusalem? I’m unclear as to what you are trying to argue as to how Mark is using Jesus as a vehicle to show how the Jews brought about the destruction of Jerusalem?

          • R. G. Price

            My assessment is that “Mark” saw the destruction of Jerusalem as a result of not following Paul’s message of harmony with Gentiles. So the author was taking Paul’s message and writing an allegory, using Jesus as the protagonist because of course Jesus was the subject of Paul’s preaching.

          • John MacDonald

            Hey R. G. Thanks for answering all my questions. I think we all have a better idea of what you are arguing now. I’m actually sympathetic to the idea that the core of the Jesus story has to do with an indictment of his society (the corrupt temple, leaders, etc.) I wrote a blog post about it a little while ago that I updated today. If you get a minute take a look and let me know what you think:

          • R. G. Price

            Sure, I’ll take a look at it later tonight. An interesting irony of Jewish literature, of course, is that there was a constant series of waves of opposition to the temple leadership and then incorporation of such opposition. Obviously most of the major prophets are opponents of the leadership, but those prophets are incorporated into the canon and adopted as Jewish heroes. It’s an interesting dynamic, where so many of the Jewish heroes are anti-heroes of a sort.

            But, my suspicion, and not just mine, but I suppose many scholars, is that all of the stories of the anti-leader prophets were written well after the period of the leaders that they stood against, so those stories end up serving as legitimization of the new leadership. In other words, the stories of the opposition prophets, like Elijah, were written long after the time in which they are cast, by the new vanguards who had already overthrown the old leadership. These are stories that justified the power of the current administration who had apparently “overthrown” prior administrations that are depicted in the stories as corrupt.

            The other possibility is that such stories were written during the time of opposition, by outside minority opposition sects, but then were adopted as canon after those opposition groups came to power.

            Now another interesting thing is that the temple leadership in the 2nd temple period was generally opposed to prophecy, and only recognized the prophets of old. This is because prophecy was a political tool, and it’s also why various Roman leaders tried cracking down on prophecy as well. Basically, “prophets” were a tool of opposition. Those with established power had little to benefit from prophets, who were often able to stir up opposition. So prophets and stories about prophets are generally a phenomenon of outside groups that don’t have the reigns of power. And prophecy was often a way for those who left powerless to project their desires and moral messages. This is why the apocalyptic millenarian movements were building in the 1st century leading up to the Jewish Wars – they were reflecting the tension of the time, and giving voice to groups who felt hopeless in the face of powerful real-world force. Thus they were projecting their desires in stories of divine judgement against the leaders of the world – Roman and Jewish.

          • John MacDonald

            Thanks. I look forward to hearing your thoughts ….

          • John MacDonald

            It’s interesting how Mark shows the death of Jesus to be unjust, like that of Socrates or the impaled, just man of book 2 of Plato’s Republic. Mark has Pilate question the Jews as to: Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” , because they wanted to crucify him even though Pilate didn’t know of any wrongdoing Jesus did. Jesus was a just man.

            But the funny part is Jesus tricked Pilate into executing him without cause. Jesus doesn’t claim to Pilate to be King of the Jews when Pilate interrogates him. Rather, Jesus says sarcastically in Mark 15:2 “You say so.” So Jesus is executed for being King of the Jews even though He doesn’t claim that position in front of Pilate. Like Socrates and Plato’s impaled just man before him, Jesus remains un-guilty and receives the death sentence anyway.

            And, Jesus would have been vindicated according to Jewish tradition. If Jesus had claimed to be king, there is Deuteronomy 17:15 which states “You shall surely set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your countryman.” And a violation of Exodus 23:2 which states “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.”

          • R. G. Price

            I’m reading your piece now. The trial of Jesus is heavily sarcastic and filled with irony. It is meant to be absurd. The trial is exceedingly implausible as it violates all kinds of rules. The idea of Jews arresting and trying Jesus on the spot, on the eve of Passover, is beyond the pale, but it is meant to be.

            But, in my new book one of the things I’m building a case for is that the author of Mark was a highly experienced professional writer of prophetic stories. This was a genre with specific characteristics and Mark displays virtually all of them. Such persons specially wrote anonymous stories that were sold to middle-men in Rome. Those middle-men typically had wealthy clientele. They would make copies of the stories and then sell them to people like senators, emperors, governors, general, wealthy merchants, etc. Those people typically had on staff a stable of scholars who would research such stories to determine if they were “authentic” and could be used to predict the future. The authenticity of stories was determined by seeing if characters correctly predicted events within the story and if the story contained predicted of events that are known to have come true. This of course was all a matter of retroactive prophecy and story telling, it had nothing to do with real prophecy, but they believed that it did. And lest you think surely they couldn’t be so gullible, my book will be providing ample evidence that they were. This was a society that employed professional sooth-sayers in the senate to advise on policy by slaughtering animals and reading their guts after all.

            The Gospel of Luke appears to have been written by one of these such scholars under the employ of a wealthy client.

            Anyway, the Gospel of Mark is an extremely sophisticated work. It is filled with very complex chaistic structures and literary references. It is clearly not the work some some amateur or some follower who just happened to think he should record some anecdotes about Jesus he had heard. This is a sophisticated story written by a professional writer, who had honed his craft of writing prophetic stories. Whoever wrote Mark would certainly have written several comparable stories previously, likely of a pagan nature, as this was a genre of mostly pagan literature.

            Anyway, my point is, this explains why we would see things like Homeric influences and stories of Socrates, etc. Now back when I first started researching all this I was highly skeptical that Mark could display so many different influences, viewing this as all a bunch of parallelorama, but if Mark was a professional writer of such stories then a multitude of influences makes sense. So yes, now I do think we can explain a Gospel of Mark that shows influences from and dependencies on the Septuagint, the letters of Paul, Homeric epics, the works of Plato, possibly even Josephus, etc. That’s because the writer of Mark was an extremely well read person with a strong background in literature.

          • John MacDonald

            Thanks so much for leaving the positive, encouraging feedback comment on my Blog. I am absolutely fascinated with the Greeks. My favorite text is Plato’s Politeia (somewhat incorrectly translated as “The Republic”). The two issues in The Republic, that most famous book in the ancient world, that I thought about in relation to Christian Origins on my blog (in two separate posts), is the impaled just man (Book 2), and the noble lie (Book 3, 414e–15c). I am encouraged when I read Dennis MacDonald regarding how Christian writers were imitating the Greeks. I think a lot of his stuff is merely speculative, but he makes some compelling cases, like for the Gerasense Demoniac. As for mythicism, my impaled just man post, like my noble lie post, could clearly function in a merely literary context, as it could in a historical context, so I think historicity has to be decided on other evidence. One thing I find useful and new in your mythicist argument is that you identify scriptural allusion, but then you take the extra step to explain the original context/sense of the scripture being alluded to. Before I read your book, I didn’t realize how prevalent negative themes were present in the scriptural allusions in Mark. Thanks for being a teacher!

          • R. G. Price

            Thank you for your feedback as well. Yes, the nature of the allusions is a bit shocking. I was surprised when I really started assessing them. I just took the approach of cataloging all of the literary references I could find myself or were identified by others and then reading referenced material in its own context and making notes on what the referenced material was about. After a while I started to see some patterns and it wasn’t at all what I expected, but then as I thought about it made sense. It certainly changed my view of the story and what it was about.

            I think the opening of Mark is a perfect example. The opening of Mark reads like a happy and light opening on the surface. But when you read the referenced passages it takes on a much darker tone.

            On can argue that i’m reading to much into such references, but I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think so is because of how consistent the themes are. If the themes were kind of random it would be one thing, but they aren’t and they certainly seem to have relevance to the story.

            I think the Gospel of Mark is one of the most genius stories ever written. Its a masterpiece of symbolism, which, ironically is why it had such a cultural impact and spawned so many imitations (the other Gospels). Mark is a masterpiece that should rightfully be taught among other classics on its own merit. It’s certainly one of the most fascinating literary puzzles ever constructed.

          • John MacDonald

            The ancient Greeks are fascinating when it comes to the topic of Greek religion and Greek life, because trying to figure out a way to fix their religion was of paramount importance to the Greeks. Homer taught an entire culture that the gods were basically a bunch of horny, bratty teenagers. Plato advocated omitting the material that portrayed the gods as immoral.

            But the real problem was Homer’s conception of the afterlife. For instance, consider how the way the Greeks viewed the afterlife would have cast a pall over their existence: Homer says the great Achilles would rather “live working as a wage-labourer for hire by some other man, one who had no land and not much in the way of livelihood, than lord it over all the wasted dead.” For Homer’s understanding of the afterlife, the entire point of the account is that all the other shades are neither rewarded nor punished: they just exist forever in a kind of bodiless, uneventful, and unbelievably boring eternity. Imagine what a pall this understanding would have cast on Greek life! There would be no hope, and this cause would manifest itself in Greek life.

            In the famous 1966-7 lecture course on Heraclitus, Heidegger and Fink quote Holderlin’s as saying about the Greeks:

            Radiant the gods’ mild breezes/Gently play on you/As the girl artist’s fingers/On holy strings. – Fateless the Heavanly breathe/Like an unweaned infant asleep;/Chastely preserved/In modest bud/For even their minds/Are in flower/And their blissful eyes/Eternally tranquil gaze/ Etemally clear. – But we are fated/to find no foothold, no rest,/ And suffering mortals/ Dwindle and fall/ Headlong from one/ Hour to the next / Hurled like water/From ledge to ledge/Downward for years to the vague abyss. (HS, 101)

            Fink comments that ” “the gods wander without destiny, their spirit eternally in bloom, while humans lead a restless life and fall into the cataract of time and disappear.” (HS, 101)

            It basically means people wander aimlessly from thing to thing, never satisfied. This is exacerbated in the modern age, where we are addicted to novelty, and so when we are separated from novelty (such as when we are stuck in a cabin in the woods with no books or TV or music on a rainy day), we manifest withdrawal symptoms of cabin fever.

            This is reminiscent of a famous passage from Homer, which is usually translated so as to suggest mortals are wretched because they die. Krell translates more literally: Apollo says ‘”Why should I do battle for the sake of mere mortals!’ exclaims the sun god, ‘mortals, who are as wretched as the leaves on the trees, flourishing at first, enjoying the fruits of the earth, but then, deprived of heart (akerioi), vanishing (1, 21, 464-66) … Vanishing how? Akerioi, as … those who are deprived of [heart] (Krell, PAH, Kalypso, 105).” This certainly seems to suggest a tragic understanding of the Greeks: going from the “being absorbed and liveliness of youth,” which translates to the tedium of old age.

            Homer tells the story of Odysseus who leaves his home on a quest, and ends up on the island of Calypso, the deine theos, the uncanny goddess. The incredible point to the Greek ear is that Odysseus is in the presence of a goddess, but is nonetheless miserable and homesick for his home, wants to be parestios, the one in the warmth of the hearth fire. When Sophocles takes this one step further in the Antigone he calls man homeless, saying we are essentially like Odysseus, surrounded by the uncanny with no satiety, but with no home to pine for. It is like we are miserably stuck on the Island of Calypso, but with no home (parestion) to pine for. There is powerful emptiness precisely where we most need there to be the homely. Hence, the tragedy of polis / parestios. / apolis hupsipolis/ deinon.

            The tragic interpretation of the Greeks is enacted by casting the dark light of deinon, the uncanny/unhomely as the hidden core behind all of Greek existence.

          • Mark

            > Mark would certainly have written several comparable stories previously, likely of a pagan nature, as this was a genre of mostly pagan literature.

            But he’s kind of obviously a Jew. Homer and Plato were part of the curriculum of every single person who learned to write koine, Jewish, Syrian or Athenian. He is writing largely to recruit the end-times character of the Jewish war into the fading atmosphere of apocalyptic Jesus messianism, by linking them. The result is indeed a spectacular messianic thriller. One suspects his purpose was to increase his own flagging confidence in Jesus-faith.

          • John MacDonald

            R. G. Price said: “One way this can be taken is that the ‘good news’ is that Israel’s punishment has been fulfilled, and now is the time for reparation.” What are these post-punishment reparations? Who is making the reparations? Was the punishment unjustified?

          • R. G. Price

            It’s difficult to say, because the reference to Isaiah 40 is one of the few references to a passage about comfort for the Jews. The overwhelming majority of scriptural references are about punishment.

            In the story there are every few positive images of Jews relative to Gentiles. In the end of course all of his disciples abandon Jesus, all of the Jews mock Jesus, and it is a lone Roman soldier who recognizes Jesus as the son of God on the cross.

            While the opening gives a hint of contrition to the Jews, most of the story is pretty stacked against Jews. So I’ve never been quite certain if the story is supposed to simply be a diatribe against all the Jews in general, or if the story contemplates that the Jews received their punishment and now God is ready to show them mercy, or if the story is intended to be evangelical with a message that God is ready to show favor to the Jews, only if they recognize their errors and believe in Jesus.

            But Hellenistic stories of this nature were not uncommon, often without a clear “meaning” beyond simply being a retrospective of the past. Stories like this were often commentaries on the past, and merely judgements against various groups, be they emperors, ethnic groups, nationalities, religious sects, people of a certain occupation, etc.

            The role of retrospective prophecy, which is used throughout Mark, is mainly to affirm the “truth” of the story. But often, the “truth” of such stories is merely that X god is powerful, or X person had it coming to them, or X nationality deserved punishment, etc. I’ll have to look through some notes for examples.

            And obviously the original ending of Mark is pretty ambiguous, but again that’s a common aspect of these types of Hellenistic stories, which were often meant to somewhat inscrutable.

          • John MacDonald

            I approach the interpretation from a historicist perspective, because I think the most reasonable explanation for the resurrection appearance claims made in the Pre Pauline Corinthian Creed/Poetry are either that the disciples were distraught at what they saw as the unjust execution of their beloved leader, and so out of grief started having post-mortem visions of him (perfectly naturalistic hallucinations), or else they were lying about the appearances because they thought this would be the best way to continue the master’s cause. I outline the second possibility, The Noble Lie Theory Of Christian Origins in a post on my blog here: In my eyes those are the best two secular explanations of the resurrection claims of Cephas and the gang in the Pre Pauline Corinthian Creed/Poetry. Carrier mentions both the Hallucination hypothesis, and the Deception hypothesis, in OHJ, and on his blog, and in talks on Youtube. The song that goes along with the Noble Lie model is Razzle Dazzle from the Chicago the Musical soundtrack. See:

          • R. G. Price

            I’m not sure why my prior post was “removed as spam”, links maybe?

            Anyway, I forget what I said in it, but I’ll put something together on my website regarding Q. As for RMP, that video is from 2015, and I last talked to in late 2018, at which time he was supporting the Goodacre position.

            But regardless of RMP’s position, it’s not just the case against Q, but even so many suppositions attached to Q are nonsense.

            Even if it were the case that the double tradition material came from a second source, there is zero evidence that such a source predated Mark or has anything to do with being authentic says of, or early traditions about, Jesus. All of of that is entirely baseless supposition.

            At best one could make the argument that Matthew and Luke used some independent second material, the origin of which cannot possibly be determined. The claim that Q represents “early traditions” about Jesus in again evidence of the biased view of the data, because it’s impossible to support such a claim.

            Nevertheless, the case in support of Luke using Matthew, Mark and Paul is very compelling and has extensive explanatory power, explaining features of Luke that Q certainly does not. “Q” doesn’t really explain anything, its more a rationalization. Q is an attempt to come up with a scenario in which Synoptic material might possibly lead back to a real Jesus.

            The Goodacre position, however, is an explanation of the data that we find in the Synoptics. As I said, I’ll put something on my book’s website that provides a full case in support for Luke using Matthew, Mark and Paul.

            At this point, the way I have things mapped out is roughly as follows:

            Mark used Paul and the OT and fabricated his narrative. Mark’s OT references are guided by Paul.
            Matthew used Mark, the OT, 1 Enoch and Paul.
            Luke used Mark, Matthew, the OT, Paul, James, and Josephus.
            John used the Synoptics, the OT, Josephus and Philo.
            Thomas uses all four of the Gospels, plus Paul.

          • John MacDonald

            When there is apparent exegetical work going on in Mark, such as when Mark alludes to Psalm 22 in his crucifixion narrative, there are two poles of interpretive possibility, with lots of room in between. We can say Mark invented the pericope out of whole cloth based on a desire to rewrite Psalm 22, just as we could say at the other end of the spectrum that the story is completely historical, and that the apparent allusion to Psalm 22 is just coincidence. You point to literary allusions, but simply assume without argument that the pericope must therefore be simply invented out of whole cloth.

          • R. G. Price

            It’s not simply a matter of saying that something is a literary allusion, therefore it didn’t happen. I’ll grant that it is possible for some parts of a narrative to be recast through literary references and for those individual scenes, plus other scenes, to also reflect a historical reality. That’s true.

            But what we find in Mark goes far beyond a few scenes. It is essentially every single scene. And beyond that, so much of Mark is clearly modeled on Paul. In fact, my understanding of the relationship between Mark and Paul now goes beyond what I addressed in the book. The OT references in Mark are themselves guided by Paul. Most of the OT references in Mark are either also made in Paul or are from similar material to what Paul referenced.

            For example, the Elijah / Elisha narrative in Mark is likely influenced by the reference Paul makes to Elijah in Romans 11. So Mark is even more fully an exposition on Paul’s writings than I thought when I wrote the book. I can grant that a scene here or there could be recast through an OT lens and still be legitimate, but in Mark what we find is that the entire narrative is driven from beginning to end, scene after scene after scene, by OT references. And with very complex structures, that make it exceedingly unlikely that the narrative is a record of real events that all just happen to line up to these extravagant literary reference patterns. It’s clearly a cleverly constructed narrative.

            On top of that, the fact that all the other writers copied from Mark tells us that there were no alternative accounts of these scenes.

            Yes, one could claim that the crucifixion really happened basically as described by Mark, but Mark just interpreted it through the lens of Psalm 22. But if that were true then we should expect that other accounts of the crucifixion would differ significantly from Mark’s account. Instead, however, we find the opposite. We find that every account of the crucifixion is a essentially a word-for-word quote of Mark’s version.

            Every account contains the casting of lots, the mocking, etc.repeating all of the elements of the literary reference. This tells us that there is no account outside of Mark’s Psalm 22 based account.

            If we had Mark’s Psalm 22 based account, and then some other accounts that were markedly different, that would be another matter altogether, but we don’t have that, we just have one account that is clearly constructed from literary references and many copies of it.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m a bit confused. You wrote

            “Yes, one could claim that the crucifixion really happened basically as described by Mark, but Mark just interpreted it through the lens of Psalm 22. But if that were true then we should expect that other accounts of the crucifixion would differ significantly from Mark’s account. Instead, however, we find the opposite. We find that every account of the crucifixion is a essentially a word-for-word quote of Mark’s version. Every account contains the casting of lots, the mocking, etc.repeating all of the elements of the literary reference. This tells us that there is no account outside of Mark’s Psalm 22 based account.”

            So you think that, for instance, since Matthew appropriated some of Mark’s Psalm 22 theological framework that this is evidence there was no historical core to the crucifixion narrative?

            Suppose I was writing the story of a successful entrepreneur who came from humble beginnings. In order to tell the story, I frame it in a “home town boy makes it in the big city, rags to riches narrative,” even though the actual events don’t quite fit in that mold. Now, suppose 20 years later someone is writing a story about this entrepreneur and used my writing as a source, and adopted my interpretive framework because he liked it …

            Have you read Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” On this issue, see Ehrman, 199-200

          • Sorry they got caught in the spam filter. They should appear now.

          • John MacDonald

            Literary allusion has nothing to do with whether a NT figure or narrative was historical or not. For instance, Mark paints John the Baptist in the color of Elijah:

            Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). The Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit may be a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior.

            However, none of this literary modelling has anything to do with whether John the Baptist existed (since he did exist), and is certainly not evidence against the existence of John the Baptist.

            Carrier says what mythicists call haggadic midrash is not evidence for or against the historical Jesus. However, what Carrier does argue regarding a mythologized Jesus is that he says if we were to put the names (historical and mythical) of all the figures as heavily mythologized as Jesus into a hat, the likelihood of drawing the name of an historical figure out of that hat would at best be 1/3, and at worst 1/15. This, Carrier says, is the prior probability of Jesus existing, 33%, and no evidence exists to push the probability of him existing closer to the historicity end of the probability spectrum. He allows that the “James, the Brother of the Lord” passage in Paul is 2:1 in favor of historicism, but claims the argument has too many unproven assumptions to count (like “brother” being a common cultic title). Dr. Ehrman and Dr. McGrath have provided thorough debunkings of Carrier’s arguments. Carrier’s arguments only seem persuasive because he clothes them in fancy math.

          • Maddog

            Is not Carrier a Dr. also? I find that the math weakens Dr. Carrier’s arguments (distracting with numbers as they are) – but then, math is not my strong suit.

            That having been said, I think that Carrier is wrong in his central thesis about Jesus.

          • John MacDonald

            I should probably apologize to Dr. Carrier in that regard. Carrier is very bright and highly creative (although I think a tad too creative with his cosmic sperm bank argument). Sometimes I get caught up with the adversarial tone of online discussion and get a little more crass than I should be. I have studied logic, predicate calculus, etc., and so from the point of view of my limited understanding of Carrier’s math, it’s relevance to the debate seems a little overstated. He is certainly making an innovative use of math. But there are aspects of Carrier’s OHJ that I really like, such as investigating secular approaches to the Corinthian Creed resurrection appearance claims (Carrier mentions the 1 Hallucination hypothesis, and the 2 Noble lie hypothesis) Anyway, I admit I enthusiastically get caught up in the heat of debate, and so am prone to hyperbole. I realize people like Carrier and Neil Godfrey are intelligent and defend their theses with passion and rigor, so I certainly don’t have the right to belittle and dismiss them as I have in the past. So, I’m sorry.

        • R. G. Price

          Oh, and to add, and here is where the issue of theology and history really shows itself, in all of the works of biblical scholarship I’ve read, hardly any provide any relevant cultural context for Christian origins. They tend to focus with blinders on the “Christian community” in isolation with very little context for the broader Hellenistic culture.

          I’ll be addressing that in my new book.

          But for example, when talking about the writing of the Gospel of Mark, so few scholars put the writing of the story into the context of the wars and conflicts taking place between 70 and 140 CE. This is because most scholars that address the Gospel story address it as if it is a real record of real events taking place in 30 CE, so they focus on the period of the first century up to the supposed “death of Christ”, and ignore the fact that the Gospels are stories written after 70 CE, which are colored by events and context for that period.

          They act as if the writers of the Gospel brought nothing to the table, had no influence, and didn’t color the story at all, as if the writers were writing in the context of 30 CE, not in the context of 70 – 100 CE, when the actual people who wrote the stories actually lived. That’s an example of the type of bias that is commonly found in biblical scholarship coming from theologians.

          • I Came To Bring The Paine

            Oh, and to add, and here is where the issue of theology and history really shows itself, in all of the works of biblical scholarship I’ve read, hardly any provide any relevant cultural context for Christian origins. They tend to focus with blinders on the “Christian community” in isolation with very little context for the broader Hellenistic culture.

            Exactly. Let’s not forget we have Hellenistic tracts written by Hellenistic individuals who lived in a Hellenistic society. One big reason why the NT writers wrote their tracts in Greek and referenced the Greek translations of the OT was because they were Greeks who were writing Greek works to other Greeks in a Greek world!

          • This seems to be the equivalent of saying that, in the era of the British Empire, this person in India wrote in English therefore they must have been English…

          • Charles Wilson

            Let me offer a “Middle Ground”, so to speak:


            Settlement and History in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Galilee… is one of the most important books I have ever read. You want to learn about what was ON THE GROUND and not what 2 Theologians are bickering about over lattes? 1 Chronicles 24 tells of the Construction of the Temple Priesthood. Did you know that each of the 24 Mishmarot Groups were given Settlements in Galilee? Any idea why that would be important to New Testament Studies?


          • Mark

            By ‘Hellenism’ and ‘Hellenistic’ one basically means: products of the non-Greek cultures under the empires after Alexander. Everything Jewish from this period is ‘Hellenistic’; ‘Jewishness’ was one of the forms of Hellenistic culture, even where it spoke Aramaic.

          • Mark

            Why do you bother to read ‘biblical scholarship coming from theologians’?

        • Mark

          The tradition of NT scholarship is one of the greatest forces of rationality and secularization ever known. The distinction between the authentic and inauthentic letters of Paul, just taken by itself, is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the modern world.

          • R. G. Price

            Now we’re getting into nonsense 🙂 My counter to such claims:

            It’s like talk about how war is so good because of all the technological advances that come from war.

            The contribution of Christian theology to logic and philosophy comes from people trying to make sense of an unresolvable puzzle, like people contemplating an M.C. Escher painting for 2,000 years. The efforts would have been far better spent elsewhere…

            The Christian denial of Greek materialism, rejection of much of Roman medicine, rejection of atomic theory, heliocentrism, evolution, etc. set civilization back a good bit…

          • Mark

            I don’t believe that stuff either, really, but it has nothing to do with the matter at hand, which is the tradition of biblical criticism, beginning with, say, Erasmus, and entering is great phase in 19th c Germany.

            A common sense proto-Marxism should be enough to teach you that the suppose efficacy of Christianity is really the opposite; Christianity in its developed imperial form is a symptom. The collapse of the imperial order in the West was hardly an effect of Christianity. It is only with later Western dominance that this false memory of a re-emergence of civilization from ‘dark ages’ – really reimported from Byzantium and the Islamic world and developed from there – could get going.

            The best measure of justice and economic progress is how well off the least well off are; one might take as the best measure of cultural advance how great the cognition of the least learned is. One leitmotif of Perry Anderson’s Marxist thumbnail history “Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism” is that Christianity and the allegedly dark obscurantist ecclesiastic machine produced a huge advance in cognition across Christendom, for the simple reason that there was an intellectual – however befuddled – in every village, probably someone who knew how to read and where Rome and Jerusalem were and so on; similarly, rustic areas were Latinized into Romance languages, etc etc. The glories of classical civilization were genuine, but were the attainment of a microscopic elite.

            One could go on, but you should know better than to pass of this potted Whig history of science that no one has believed since forever. The idea of a heliocentric theory and other sorts of moving-earth theories have been continuously known from antiquity. but they just didn’t take hold among the astronomers. Aristarchus suffered criticism as impious from pagan points of view. Archimedes was one of the brighter lights of antiquity and outlined the view of Aristarchus, but he didn’t buy it. Copernicus was well aware that other had held heliocentric theories. His revolution was on the basis of the received astronomical tradition, which had only grown more sophisticated from antiquity, under Islam and elsewhere.

    • Mark

      That there are zillions of Christian investigators of the NT is hardly surprising, or the least bit interesting, in this context. You are using a bad statistical method. In fact, it’s pretty easy to restrict one’s reading to writers who aren’t Christians, and on this topic the consensus infidelium will be the same as that of the faithful. (Many of the overtly Christian writers are in fact amazingly good, like it or not.)

      The question of the historicity of Jesus is not really about the origins of Christianity, but about the origins of the origins of Christianity. The relevant documents belong to the matrix of the ‘hellenistic’ 2nd T Jewish world. Of course we only have these documents – the authentic letters of Paul for example – because ecclesiastical institutions preserved them.

  • John MacDonald

    This is kind of interesting. The new book that seems (from internet buzz) to be the next idiosyncratic secular re-imagining of Christian origins is Creating Christ – How Roman Emperors Invented Christainity by Valliant and Fahy. One of the things that is notable is that long time mythicist Dr. Robert M. Price says (in recent Youtube videos) that this book/line of thought makes a pretty compelling case for the historical Jesus! Here is Robert M. Price’s recent review of the book: . Imagine that, the arch-mythicist himself may be considering rejoining the fold!