Saturday, January 18, 2014

Did Jesus Exist? The Jesus Myth Theory, Again.




(A version of this article appeared on Quora, where it became the top-voted answer to the question "Do credible historians agree that the man named Jesus, who the Christian Bible speaks of, walked the earth and was put to death on a cross by Pilate, Roman governor of Judea?".  In the year since I posted it there, it has been linked to and recommended on a variety of fora, but some people don't like the fact they have to join Quora to read it.  So I am posting it here for those who would appreciate easier access to it.)


Background

Scholars who specialise in the origins of Christianity agree on very little, but they do generally agree that it is most likely that a historical preacher, on whom the Christian figure "Jesus Christ" is based, did exist.  The numbers of professional scholars, out of the many thousands in this and related fields, who don't accept this consensus, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Many may be more cautious about using the term "historical fact" about this idea, since as with many things in ancient history it is not quite as certain as that.  But it is generally regarded as the best and most parsimonious explanation of the evidence and therefore the most likely conclusion that can be drawn.

The opposite idea - that there was no historical Jesus at all and that "Jesus Christ" developed out of some purely mythic ideas about a non-historical, non-existent figure - has had a chequered history over the last 200 years, but has usually been a marginal idea at best.  Its heyday was in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, when it seemed to fit with some early anthropological ideas about religions evolving along parallel patterns and being based on shared archetypes, as characterised by Sir James Frazer's influential comparative religion study The Golden Bough (1890). But it fell out of favour as the Twentieth Century progressed and was barely held by any scholars at all by the 1960s.

More recently the "Jesus Myth" hypothesis has experienced something of a revival, largely via the internet, blogging and "print on demand" self-publishing services.  But its proponents are almost never scholars, many of them have a very poor grasp of the evidence and almost all have clear ideological objectives.  Broadly speaking, they fall into two main categories: (i) New Agers claiming Christianity is actually paganism rebadged and (ii) anti-Christian atheist activists seeking to use their "exposure" of historical Jesus scholarship to undermine Christianity.  Both claim that the consensus on the existence of a historical Jesus is purely due to some kind of iron-grip that Christianity still has on the subject, which has suppressed and/or ignored the idea that there was no historical Jesus at all.

In fact, there are some very good reasons there is a broad scholarly consensus on the matter and that it is held by scholars across a wide range of beliefs and backgrounds, including those who are atheists and agnostics (e.g. Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen) and Jews (e.g. Geza Vermes, Hyam Maccoby).



Unconvincing Arguments for a Mythic Origin for Jesus

Many of the arguments for a Mythic Jesus that some laypeople think sound highly convincing  are exactly the same ones that scholars consider laughably weak, even though they sound plausible to those without a sound background in the study of the First Century.  For example:

1.  "There are no contemporary accounts or mentions of Jesus.  There should be, so clearly no Jesus existed."

This seems a good argument to many, since modern people tend to leave behind them a lot of evidence they existed (birth certificates, financial documents, school records) and prominent modern people have their lives documented by the media almost daily.  So it sounds suspicious to people that there are no contemporary records at all detailing or even mentioning Jesus. 

But our sources for anyone in the ancient world are scarce and rarely are they contemporaneous - they are usually written decades or even centuries after the fact.  Worse still, the more obscure and humble in origin the person is, the less likely that there will be any documentation about them or even a fleeting reference to them at all.

For example, few people in the ancient world were as prominent, influential, significant and famous as the Carthaginian general Hannibal.  He came close to crushing the Roman Republic, was one of the greatest generals of all time and was famed throughout the ancient world for centuries after his death down to today.  Yet how many contemporary mentions of Hannibal do we have?  Zero.  We have none.  So if someone as famous and significant as Hannibal has no surviving contemporary references to him in our sources, does it really make sense to base an argument about the existence or non-existence of a Galilean peasant preacher on the lack of contemporary references to him?  Clearly it does not.

So while this seems like a good argument, a better knowledge of the ancient world and the nature of our evidence and sources shows that it's actually extremely weak.

2.  "The ancient writer X should have mentioned this Jesus, yet he doesn't do so.  This silence shows that no Jesus existed."

An "argument from silence" is a tricky thing to use effectively.  To do so, it's not enough to show that a writer, account or source is silent on a given point - you also have to show that it shouldn't be before this silence can be given any significance.  So if someone claims their grandfather met Winston Churchill yet a thorough search of the grandfather's letters and diaries of the time show no mention of this meeting, an argument from silence could be presented to say that the meeting never happened.  This is because we could expect such a meeting to be mentioned in those documents.

Some "Jesus Mythicists" have tried to argue that certain ancient writers "should" have mentioned Jesus and did not and so tried to make an argument from silence on this basis.  In 1909 the American "freethinker" John Remsberg came up with a list of 42 ancient writers that he claimed "should" have mentioned Jesus and concluded their silence showed no Jesus ever existed.  But the list has been widely criticised for being contrived and fanciful.  Why exactly, for example, Lucanus - a writer whose works consist of a single poem and a history of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (in the century before Jesus' time) "should" have mentioned Jesus is hard to see.  And the same can be said for most of the other writers on Remsberg's list.

Some others, however, are more reasonable at first glance.  Philo Judaeus was a Jew in Alexandria who wrote philosophy and theology and who was a contemporary of Jesus who also mentions events in Judea and makes reference to other figures we know from the gospel accounts, such as Pontius Pilate.  So it makes far more sense that he "should" mention Jesus than some poets in far off Rome.  But it is hard to see why even Philo would be interested in mentioning someone like Jesus, given that he also makes no mentions of any of the other Jewish preachers, prophets, faith healers and Messianic claimants of the time, of which there were many.  If Philo had mentioned Anthronges and Theudas, or Hillel and Honi or John the Baptist and the "Samaritan Prophet" but didn't mention Jesus, then a solid argument from silence could be made.  But given that Philo seems to have had no interest at all in any of the various people like Jesus, the fact that he doesn't mention Jesus either carries little or no weight.

In fact, there is only one writer of the time who had any interest in such figures, who also had little interest for Roman and Greek writers.  He was the Jewish historian Josephus, who is our sole source for virtually all of the Jewish preachers, prophets, faith healers and Messianic claimants of this time.  If there is any writer who should mention Jesus, it's Josephus.  The problem for the "Jesus Mythicists" is ... he does.  Twice, in fact.  He does do so in Antiquities XVIII.3.4 and again in Antiquities XX.9.1.  Mythicists take comfort in the fact that the first of these references has been added to by later Christian scribes, so they dismiss it as a wholesale interpolation.  But the majority of modern scholars disagree, arguing there is solid evidence to believe that Josephus did make a mention of Jesus here and that it was added to by Christians to help bolster their arguments against Jewish opponents.  That debate aside, the Antiquities XX.9.1 mention of Jesus is universally considered genuine and that alone sinks the Mythicist case (see below for more details).

3.  "The earliest Christian traditions make no mention of a historical Jesus and clearly worshipped a purely heavenly, mythic-style being.  There are no references to an earthly Jesus in any of the earliest New Testament texts, the letters of Paul."

Since many people who read Mythicist arguments have never actually read the letters of Paul, this one sounds convincing as well.  Except it simply isn't true.  While Paul was writing letters about matters of doctrine and disputes and so wasn't giving a basic lesson in who Jesus was in any of this letters, he does make references to Jesus' earthly life in many places.  He says Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother and born a Jew (Galatians4:4).  He repeats that he had a "human nature" and that he was a human descendant of King David (Romans1:3).  He refers to teachings Jesus made during his earthly ministry on divorce (1Cor. 7:10), on preachers (1Cor. 9:14) and on the coming apocalypse (1Thess. 4:15).  He mentions how he was executed by earthly rulers (1Cor. 2:8) and that he died and was buried (1Cor 15:3-4).  And he says he had an earthly, physical brother called James who Paul himself had met (Galatians1:19). 

So Mythicist theorists then have to tie themselves in knots to "explain" how, in fact, a clear reference to Jesus being "born of a woman" actually means he wasn't born of a woman and how when Paul says Jesus was "according to the flesh, a descendant of King David" this doesn't mean he was a human and the human descendant of a human king.  These contrived arguments are so weak they tend to only convince the already convinced.  It's this kind of contrivance that consigns this thesis to the fringe.
 




The Problems with a "Mythic" Origin to the Jesus Story

The weaknesses of the Mythicist hypothesis multiply when its proponents turn to coming up with their own explanation as to how the Jesus stories did arise if there was no historical Jesus.  Of course, many of them don't really bother much with presenting an alternative explanation and leave their ideas about exactly how this happened conveniently vague.  But some realise that we have late First Century stories that all claim there was an early First Century person who lived within living memory and then make a series of claims about him.  If there was no such person, the Mythicist does need to explain how the stories about his existence arose and took the form they do. And they need to do so in a way that accounts for the evidence better than the parsimonious idea that this was believed because there was such a person.  This is where Mythicism really falls down.  The Mythicist theories fall into four main categories:

1. "Jesus was an amalgam of earlier pagan myths, brought together into a mythic figure of a god-man and saviour of a kind found in many cults of the time."

This is the explanation offered by the New Age writer who calls herself "Acharya S" in a series of self-published books beginning with The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (1999).  Working from late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century  theosophist claims which exaggerate parallels between the Jesus stories and pagan myths, she makes the typical New Age logical leap from "similarity" to "parallel" and finally to "connection" and "causation".  Leaving aside the fact that many of these "parallels" are highly strained, with any miraculous conception or birth story becoming a "virgin birth" or anything to do with a death or a tree becoming a "crucifixion" (even if virginity or a cross is not involved in either), it is very hard to make the final leap from "parallel" to "causation".

This is particularly hard because of the masses of evidence that the first followers of the Jesus sect were devout Jews - a group for whom the idea of adopting anything "pagan" would have been utterly horrific.  These were people who cut their hair short because long hair was associated with pagan, Hellenistic culture or who shunned gymnasia and theatres because of their association with pagan culture.  All the evidence actually shows that the earliest Jesus sect went through a tumultuous period in its first years trying to accommodate non-Jews into their devoutly Jewish group.  To claim that these people would merrily adopt myths of Horus and Attis and Dionysius and then amalgamate them into a story about a pagan/Jewish hybrid Messiah (who didn't exist) and then turn around and forget he didn't exist and claim he did and that he did so just a few decades earlier is clearly a nonsense hypothesis.

2.  "Jesus was a celestial being who existed in a realm just below the lunar sphere and was not considered an earthly being at all until later."

This is the theory presented by another self-published Mythicist author, Earl Doherty, first in The Jesus Puzzle (2005) and then in Jesus : Neither God nor Man (2009).  Doherty's theory has several main flaws.  Firstly, he claims that this mythic/celestial Jesus was based on a Middle Platonic view of the cosmos that held that there was a "fleshly sub-lunar realm" in the heavens where gods and celestial beings lived and acted out mythic events.  This is the realm, Doherty claims, in which it was believed that Mithras slew the cosmic bull, where Attis lived and died and where Jesus was crucified and rose again.  The problem here is Doherty does very little to back up this claim and, while non-specialist readers may not realise this from the way he presents this idea, it is not something accepted by historians of ancient thought but actually a hypothesis developed entirely by Doherty himself.  He makes it seem like this idea is common knowledge amongst specialists in Middle Platonic philosophy, while never quite spelling out that it's something he's made up. The atheist Biblical scholar Jeffrey Gibson has concluded:

"... the plausibility of D[oherty]'s hypothesis depends on not having good knowledge of ancient philosophy, specifically Middle Platonism. Indeed, it becomes less and less plausible the more one knows of ancient philosophy and, especially, Middle Platonism."

Secondly, Doherty's thesis requires the earliest Christian writings about Jesus, the letters of Paul, to be about this "celestial/mythic Jesus" and not a historical, earthly one.  Except, as has been pointed out above, Paul's letters do contain a great many references to an earthly Jesus that don't fit with Doherty's hypothesis at all.  Doherty has devoted a vast number of words in both his books explaining ways that these references can be read so that his thesis does not collapse, but these are contrived and in places quite fanciful.

Finally, Doherty's explanations as to how this "celestial/mythic Jesus" sect gave rise to a "historical/earthly Jesus" sect and then promptly disappeared without trace strain credulity.  Despite being the original form of Christianity and despite surviving, according to Doherty, well into the Second Century, this celestial Jesus sect vanished without leaving any evidence of its existence behind and was undreamt of until Doherty came along and deduced that it had once existed.  This is very difficult to believe.  Early Christianity was a diverse, divided and quarrelsome faith, with a wide variety of sub-sects, offshoots and "heresies", all arguing with each other and battling for supremacy.  What eventually emerged from this riot of Christianities was a form of "orthodoxy" that had all the elements of Christianity today: the Trinity, Jesus as the divine incarnate, a physical resurrection etc.  But we know of many of the other rivals to this orthodoxy largely thanks to orthodox writings attacking them and refuting their claims and doctrines.  Doherty expects us to believe that despite all these apologetic literature condemning and refuting a wide range of "heresies" there is not one that bothers to even mention this original Christianity that taught Jesus was never on earth at all.  This beggar's belief.

Doherty's thesis is much more popular amongst atheists than the New Age imaginings of "Acharya S" but has had no impact on the academic sphere partly because self-published hobbyist efforts don't get much attention, but mainly because of the flaws noted above.  Doherty and his followers maintain, of course, that it's because of a kind of academic conspiracy, much as Creationists and Holocaust deniers do.

3.  "Jesus began as an allegorical, symbolic figure of the Messiah who got 'historicised' into an actual person despite the fact he never really existed"

This idea has been presented in most detail by another amateur theorist in yet another self-published book: R.G. Price's Jesus - A Very Jewish Myth (2007).  Unlike "Acharya S" and, to a lesser extent Doherty, Price at least takes account of the fact that the Jesus stories and the first members of the Jesus sect are completely and fundamentally Jewish, so fantasies about Egyptian myths or Greek Middle Platonic philosophy are not going to work as points of origin for them.  According to this version of Jesus Mythicism, Jesus was an idealisation of what the Messiah was to be like who got turned into a historical figure largely by mistake and misunderstanding.

Several of the same objections to Doherty's thesis can be made about this one - if this was the case, why are there no remnants of debates with or condemnations of those who believed the earlier version and maintained there was no historical Jesus at all?  And why don't any of Christianity's enemies use the fact that the original Jesus sect didn't believe in a historical Jesus as an argument against the new version of the sect?  Did everyone just forget?

More tellingly, if the Jesus stories arose out of ideas about and expectations of the Messiah, it is very odd that Jesus doesn't fit those expectations better.  Despite Christian claims to the contrary, the first Christians had to work very hard to convince fellow Jews that Jesus was the Messiah precisely because he didn't conform to these expectations. Most importantly, there was absolutely no tradition or Messianic expectation that told of the Messiah being executed and then rising from the dead - this first appears with Christianity and has no Jewish precedent at all.  Far from evolving from established Messianic prophecies and known elements in the scripture, the first Christians had to scramble to find anything at all which looked vaguely like a "prophecy" of this unexpected and highly unMessianic event.

That the centre and climax of the story of Jesus would be based on his shameful execution and death makes no sense if it evolved out of Jewish expectations about the Messiah, since they contained nothing about any such idea.  This climax to the story only makes sense if it actually happened, and then his followers had to find totally new and largely strained and contrived "scriptures" which they then claimed "predicted" this outcome, against all previous expectation.  Price's thesis fails because Jesus' story doesn't conform to Jewish myths enough.

4. "Jesus was not a Jewish preacher at all but was someone else or an amalgam of people combined into one figure in the Christian tradition"

This is the least popular of the Jesus Myth hypotheses, but versions of it are argued by Italian amateur theorist Francesco Carotta (Jesus was Caesar: On the Julian Origin of Christianity. An Investigative Report - 2005)), computer programmer Joseph Atwill (Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus - 2005) and accountant Daniel Unterbrink (Judas the Galilean: The Flesh and Blood Jesus - 2004).  Carotta claims Jesus was actually Julius Caesar and imposed on Jewish tradition as part of the cult of the Divius Julius.  Atwill claims Jesus was invented by the Emperor Titus and imposed on Judaism in the same way.  Neither do a very good job of substantiating these claims or of explaining why the Romans then turned around, as early as 64 AD (fifteen years before Titus became emperor) and began persecuting the cult they supposedly created.  No scholar takes these theories or that of Unterbrink seriously.

No scholar also argues that Jesus was an amalgam of various Jewish preachers or other figures of the time.  That is because there is nothing in the evidence to indicate this.  This ideas has never been argued in any detailed form by anyone at all, scholar or Jesus myth amateur theorist, but it is something some who don't want to subscribe to the idea that "Jesus Christ" was based on a real person resorts to so that they can put some sceptical distance between the Christian claims and anything or anyone historical.  It seems to be a purely rhetorically-based idea, with no substance and no argument behind it.





So What's the Evidence for the Existence of a Historical Jesus?

Many Christians accept a historical Jesus existed because they never thought to question the idea in the first place or because they are convinced that the gospels can be read as (more or less) historical accounts and so don't need to be seriously doubted on this point.  But why do the overwhelming majority of non-Christian scholars also accept that he existed?

The Total Lack of Evidence for a "Mythic Christianity"

Essentially, it's because it's the most parsimonious explanation of the evidence we have.  Early Christianity, in all its forms, and the critics of early Christianity agree on virtually nothing about Jesus, except for one thing - that he existed as a historical person in the early First Century.  If there really was an original form of Christianity that didn't believe this, as all versions of the "Jesus Myth" idea require, then it makes no sense that there is no trace of it.  Such an idea would be a boon to the various Gnostic branches of Christianity, which emphasised his spiritual/mystical aspects and saw him as an emissary from a purely spiritual world to help us escape the physical dimension.  A totally non-historical, purely mystical Jesus would have suited their purposes perfectly.  Yet they never taught such a Jesus - they always depict him as a historical First Century teacher, but argue that he was "pure spirit" and only had the "illusion of flesh".  Why?  Because they couldn't deny that he had existed as a historical person and there was no prior "mythic Jesus" tradition for them to draw on.

Similarly, the memory of an earlier, original Christianity which didn't believe in a historical Jesus would have been a killer argument for the many Jewish and pagan critics of Christianity.  Jesus Mythicists claim this mythic Jesus Christianity survived well into the Second or even Third Century.  We have orthodox Christian responses to critiques by Jews and pagans from that period, by Justin Martyr, Origen and Minucius Felix.  They try to confront and answer the arguments their critics make about Jesus - that he was a fool, a magician, a bastard son of a Roman soldier, a fraud etc - but none of these apologetic works mention so much as a hint that anyone ever claimed he never existed.  If a whole branch of Christianity existed that claimed just this, why did it pass totally unnoticed by these critics? Clearly no such earlier "mythic Jesus" proto-Christianity existed - it is a creation of the modern Jesus Mythicist activists to prop up their theory.

Indicators of Historicity in the Gospels

The main reason non-Christian scholars accept that there was a Jewish preacher as the point of origin of the Jesus story is that the stories themselves contain elements which only make sense if they were originally about such a preacher but which the gospel writers themselves found somewhat awkward.  As noted above, far from conforming closely to expectations about the coming Messiah, the Jesus story actually shows many signs of being shoehorned into such expectations and not exactly fitting very well.

For example, in gMark Jesus is depicted as going to the Jordan and being baptised by John the Baptist (Mark 1: 9-11), after which he hears a voice from heaven and goes off into the wilderness to fast.  For the writer of gMark, this is the point where Jesus becomes the Messiah of Yahweh and so there is no problem with him having his sins washed away by John, since prior to his point he was man like any other.  The writer of gMatthew, however, has a very different Christology.  In his version, Jesus has been the ordained Messiah since his miraculous conception, so it is awkward for him to have the chosen one of God going to be baptised by John, who is a lesser prophet.  So gMatthew tells more or less the same story as he finds in gMark, which he uses as his source, but adds a small exchange of dialogue not found in the earlier version:

But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. Then John consented.
(Matt 3:14-15)

When we turn to the latest of the gospels, gJohn, we find a very different story again.  The writer of this gospel depicts Jesus as being a mystical, pre-existent Messiah who had a heavenly existence since the beginning of time.  So for him the idea of Jesus being baptised by John is even more awkward.  So he solves the problem by removing the baptism altogether.  In this latest version, John is baptising other people and telling them that the Messiah was to come and then sees Jesus and declares him to be the Messiah (John 1:29-33).  There is no baptism of Jesus at all in the gJohn version.

So in these three examples we have three different versions of the same story written at three times in the early decades of Christianity.  All of them are dealing with the baptism of Jesus by John in different ways and trying to make it fit with their conceptions of Jesus and at least two of them are having some trouble doing so and are having to change the story to make it fit their ideas about Jesus.  All this indicates that the baptism of Jesus by John was a historical event and known to be such and so could not be left out of the story.  This left the later gospel writers with the problem of trying to make it fit their evolving ideas about who and what Jesus was.

There are several other elements in the gospels like this.  gLuke and gMatthew go to great lengths to tell stories which "explain" how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem despite being from Nazareth, since Micah 5:2 was taken to be a prophecy that the Messiah was to be from Bethlehem.  Both gospels, however, tell completely different, totally contradictory and mutually exclusive stories (one is even set ten years after the other) which all but the most conservative Christian scholars acknowledge to be non-historical.  The question then arises: why did they go to this effort?  If Jesus existed and was from Nazareth, this makes sense.  Clearly some Jews objected to the claim Jesus was the Messiah on the grounds that he was from the insignificant village of Nazareth in Galilee and not from Bethlehem in Judea - John 7:41-42 even depicts some Jews making precisely this objection.  So it makes sense that Christian traditions would arise that "explain" how a man known to be a Galilean from Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth - thus the contradictory stories in gLuke and gMatthew that have this as their end.

If, however, there was no historical Jesus then it is very hard to explain why an insignificant town like Nazareth is in the story at all.  If Jesus was a purely mythic figure and the stories of his life evolved out of expectations about the Messiah then he would be from Bethlehem, as was expected as a Messiah.  So why is Nazareth, a tiny place of no religious significance, in the story?  And why all the effort to get Jesus born in Bethlehem but keep Nazareth in the narrative?  The only reasonable explanation is that it's Nazareth that is the historical element in these accounts - it is in the story because that is where he was from.  A historical Jesus explains the evidence far better than any "mythic" alternative.   





"Alexamenos worships his god" - A Roman graffito mocks the idea of a crucified god

But probably the best example of an element in the story which was so awkward for the early Christians that it simply has to be historical is the crucifixion. The idea of a Messiah who dies was totally unheard of and utterly alien to any Jewish tradition prior to the beginning of Christianity, but the idea of a Messiah who was crucified was not only bizarre, it was absurd.  According to Jewish tradition, anyone who was "hanged on a tree" was to be considered accursed by Yahweh and this was one of the reasons crucifixion was considered particularly abhorrent to Jews.  The concept of a crucified Messiah, therefore, was totally bizarre and absurd.

It was equally weird to non-Jews.  Crucifixion was considered the most shameful and abhorrent of deaths, so much so that one of the privileges of Roman citizenship is that citizens could never be crucified.  The idea of a crucified god, therefore, was absurd and bizarre. This was so much the case that the early Christians avoided any depictions of Jesus on the cross - the first depictions of the Crucifixion appear in the Fourth Century, after Christian emperors banned crucifixion and it began to lose its stigma.  It's significant that the earliest depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus that we have is a graffito from Rome showing a man worshipping a crucified figure with the head of a donkey with the mocking caption "Alexamenos worships his god".  The idea of a crucified god was, quite literally, ridiculous.  Paul acknowledges how absurd the idea of a crucified Messiah was in 1Cor 1:23, where he says it "is a stumbling block to the Jews and an absurdity to the gentiles".

The accounts of Jesus' crucifixion in the gospels also show how awkward the nature of their Messiah's death was for the earliest Christians.  They are all full of references to texts in the Old Testament as ways of demonstrating that, far from being an absurdity, this was what was supposed to happen to the Messiah.  But none of the texts used were considered prophecies of the Messiah before Christianity came along and some of them are highly forced.  The "suffering servant" passages in Isaiah 53 are pressed into service as "prophecies" of the crucifixion, since they depict a figure being falsely accused, rejected and given up to be "pierced .... as a guilt offering".  But the gospels don't reference other parts of the same passage which don't fit their story at all, such as where it is said this figure will "prolong his days and look upon his offspring".

Clearly the gospel writers were going to some effort to find some kind of scriptural basis for this rather awkward death for their group's leader, one that let them maintain their belief that he was the Messiah.  Again, this makes most sense if there was a historical Jesus and he was crucified, leaving his followers with this awkward problem.  If there was no historical Jesus at all, it becomes very difficult to explain where this bizarre, unprecedented and awkwardly inconvenient element in the story comes from.  It's hard to see why anyone would invent the idea of a crucified Messiah and create these problems.  And given that there was no precedent for a crucified Messiah, it's almost impossible to see this idea evolving out of earlier Jewish traditions.  The most logical explanation is that it's in the story, despite its vast awkwardness, because it happened.

Non-Christian References to Jesus as Historical Figure

Many Christian apologists vastly overstate the number of ancient non-Christian writers who attest to the existence of Jesus.  This is partly because they are not simply showing that a mere Jewish preacher existed, but are arguing for the existence of the "Jesus Christ" of Christian doctrine: a supposedly supernatural figure who allegedly performed amazing public miracles in front of audiences of thousands of witnesses.  It could certainly be argued that such a wondrous figure would have been noticed outside of Galilee and Judea and so should have been widely noted as well.  So Christian apologists often cite a long list of writers who mention Jesus, usually including Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, Lucian, Thallus and several others.  But of these only Tacitus and Josephus actually mention Jesus as a historical person - the others are all simply references to early Christianity, some of which mention the "Christ" that was the focus of its worship.

If we are simply noting the existence of Jesus as a human Jewish preacher, we are not required to produce more mentions of him than we would expect of comparable figures.  And what we find is that we have about as much evidence for his existence (outside any Christian writings) as we have for other Jewish preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants of the time.  The two non-Christian writers who mention him as a historical person are Josephus and Tacitus.

Josephus

The Jewish priestly aristocrat Joseph ben Matityahu, who took the Roman name Flavius Josephus, is our main source of information about Jewish affairs in this period and is usually the only writer of the time who makes any mention of Jewish preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants of the First Century.  Not surprisingly, he mentions Jesus twice: firstly in some detail in Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.3.4 and again more briefly when mentioning the execution of Jesus' brother James in Antiquities XX.9.1.  The first reference is problematic, however, as it contains elements which Josephus cannot have written and which seem to have been added later by a Christian interpolator.  Here is the text, with the likely interpolations in bold:

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of paradoxical deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."

There has been a long debate about what parts of this reference to Jesus are authentic to Josephus or even if the whole passage is a wholesale interpolation.  Proponents of the Jesus Myth hypothesis, naturally, opt for the idea that it is not authentic in any way, but there are strong indications that, apart from the obvious additions shown in bold above, Josephus did mention Jesus at this point in his text.

To begin with, several elements in the passage are distinctively Josephan in their style and phrasing.  "Now (there was) about this time ..." is used by Josephus as a way of introducing a new topic hundreds of times in his work.  There are no early Christian parallels that refer to Jesus merely as "a wise man", but this is a term used by Josephus several times, eg about Solomon and Daniel.  Christian writers placed a lot of emphasis on Jesus' miracles, but here the passage uses a fairly neutral term παραδόξων ἔργων - "paradoxa erga" or "paradoxical deeds".  Josephus does use this phrase elsewhere about the miracles of Elisha, but the term can also mean "deeds that are difficult to interpret" and even has overtones of cautious scepticism.  Finally, the use of the word φῦλον ("phylon" - "race, tribe") is not used by Christians about themselves in any works of the time, but is used by Josephus elsewhere about nations or other distinct groups.  Additionally, with the sole exception of Χριστιανῶν ("Christianon" - "Christians") every single word in the passage can be found elsewhere in Josephus' writings.

The weight of the evidence of the vocabulary and style of the passage is heavily towards its partial authenticity.  Not only does it contain distinctive phrases of Josephus that he used in similar contexts elsewhere, but these are also phrases not found in early Christian texts.  And it is significantly free of terms and phrases from the gospels, which we'd expect to find if it was created wholesale by a Christian writer.  So either a very clever Christian interpolator somehow managed to immerse himself in Josephus' phrasing and language, without modern concordances and dictionaries and create a passage containing distinctively Josephean phraseology, or what we have here is a genuinely Josephean passage that has simply been added to rather clumsily.

As a result of this and other evidence (eg the Arabic and Syriac paraphrases of this passage which seem to come from a version before the clumsy additions by the interpolator) the consensus amongst scholars of all backgrounds is that the passage is partially genuine, simply added in a few obvious places.  Louis H. Feldman's Josephus and Modern Scholarship (1984) surveys scholarship on the question from 1937 to 1980 and finds of 52 scholars on the subject, 39 considered the passage to be partially authentic. 

Peter Kirby has done a survey of the literature since and found that this trend has increased in recent years.  He concludes "In my own reading of thirteen books since 1980 that touch upon the passage, ten out of thirteen argue the (Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.3.4 passage) to be partly genuine, while the other three maintain it to be entirely spurious. Coincidentally, the same three books also argue that Jesus did not exist." 

The other mention of Jesus in Josephus, Antiquities XX.9.1, is much more straightforward, but much more of a problem for Jesus Mythicists.  In it Josephus recounts a major political event that happened when he was a young man.  This would have been a significant and memorable event for him, since he was only 25 at the time and it caused upheaval in his own social and political class, the priestly families of Jerusalem that included his own.

In 62 AD the Roman procurator of Judea, Porcius Festus, died while in office and his replacement, Lucceius Albinus, was still on his way to Judea from Rome.  This left the High Priest, Hanan ben Hanan (usually called Ananus), with a freer reign than usual. Ananus executed some Jews without Roman permission and, when this was brought to the attention of the Romans, Ananus was deposed.  This deposition would have been memorable for the young Josephus, who had just returned from an embassy to Rome on the behalf of the Jerusalem priests.  But what makes this passage relevant is what Josephus mentions, in passing, as the cause of the political upheaval:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so (the High Priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

This mention is peripheral to the story Josephus is telling, but since we know from Christian sources that Jesus' brother James led the Jesus sect in Jerusalem in this period and we have a separate, non-dependent, Christian account of James' execution by the Jerusalem priesthood, it is fairly clear which "Jesus who was called Messiah" Josephus is referring to here.

Almost without exception, modern scholars consider this passage genuine and an undisputed reference to Jesus as a historical figure by someone who was a contemporary of his brother and who knew of the execution of that brother first hand.  This rather unequivocal reference to a historical Jesus leaves Jesus Mythicists with a thorny problem, which they generally try to solve one of two ways:

(i) "The words "who was called Messiah" are a later Christian interpolation" -

Since it is wholly unlikely that a Christian interpolator invented the whole story of the deposition of the High Priest just to slip in this passing reference to Jesus, Mythicists try to argue that the key words which identify which Jesus is being spoken of are interpolated.  Unfortunately this argument does not work.  This is because the passage is discussed no less than three times in mid-Third Century works by the Christian apologist Origen and he directly quotes the relevant section with the words "Jesus who was called the Messiah" all three times: in Contra Celsum I.4, in Contra Celsum II:13 and in Commentarium in evangelium Matthaei X.17.  Each time he uses precisely the phrase we find in Josephus: αδελφος Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου ("the brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah").  This is significant because Origen was writing a whole generation before Christianity was in any kind of position to be tampering with texts of Josephus.  If this phrase was in the passage in Origen's time, then it was clearly original to Josephus.

(ii) "The Jesus being referred to here was not the Jesus of Christianity, but the 'Jesus, son of Dameus' mentioned later in the same passage."

After detailing the deposition of the High Priest Ananus, Josephus mentions that he was succeeded as High Priest by a certain "Jesus, son of Damneus".  So Mythicists try to argue that this was the Jesus that Josephus was talking about earlier, since Jesus was a very common name.  It certainly was, but we know how Josephus was careful to differentiate between different people with the same common first name.  So it makes more sense that he calls one "Jesus who was called Messiah" and the other "Jesus son of Damneus" to do precisely this.  Nowhere else does he call the same person two different things in the same passage, as the Mythicist argument requires.  And he certainly would not do so without making it clear that the Jesus who was made HIgh Priest was the same he had mentioned earlier, which he does not do.



The idea that the Jesus referred to as the brother of James was the later mentioned "Jesus son of Damneus" is further undercut by the narrative in the rest of Book XX.  In it the former high priest Ananus continues to play politics and curries favour with the Roman procurator Albinus and the new high priest by giving them rich presents.  This makes no sense if Jesus the brother of the executed James was also "Jesus the son of Damneus", since the new high priest in question is the same Jesus ben Damneus - the idea that he would become friends with his brother's killer just because he was given some nice gifts is ridiculous.

Mythicists are also still stuck with the phrase "who was called Messiah", which Origen's mentions show can't be dismissed as an interpolation.  They usually attempt to argue that, as a High Priest, Jesus the son of Damenus would have been "called Messiah" because "Messiah" means 'anointed" and priests were anointed with oil at their elevation.  Since there are no actual examples of any priests being referred to this way, this is another ad hoc argument designed merely to get the Mythicist argument off the hook.

So the consensus of scholars, Christian and non-Christian, is that the Antiquities XVIII.3.4 passage is authentic despite some obvious later additions and the Antiquities XX.9.1 passage is wholly authentic.  These references alone give us about as much evidence for the existence of a historical "Jesus, who was called Messiah" as we have for comparable Jewish preachers and prophets and is actually sufficient to confirm his existence with reference to any gospel or Christian source.

Tacitus

The mention of Jesus in the Annals of the aristocratic Roman historian and senator Publius Cornelius Tacitus is significant partly because of his status as one of the most careful and sceptical historians of the ancient world and partly because it is from what is obviously a hostile witness.  Tacitus absolutely despised Christianity, as he make clear when he mentions how the emperor Nero tried to scapegoat them after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.  He also gives an account to his readers as the origin of the Christian sect and their founder in Judea:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.
(Tacitus, Annals, XV.44)

Again, this clear reference to Jesus, complete with the details of his execution by Pilate, is a major problem for the Mythicists.  They sometimes try to deal with it using their old standby argument: a claim that it is a later interpolation.  But this passage is distinctively Tacitean in its language and style and it is hard to see how a later Christian scribe could have managed to affect perfect Second Century Latin grammar and an authentic Tacitean style and fool about 400 years worth of Tacitus scholars, who all regard this passage and clearly genuine.

A more common way of dismissing this passage is to claim that all Tacitus is doing is repeating what Christians had told him about their founder and so it is not independent testimony for Jesus at all.  This is slightly more feasible, but still fails on several fronts.

Firstly, Tacitus made a point of not using hearsay, of referring to sources or people whose testimony he trusted and of noting mere rumour, gossip or second-hand reports as such when he could.  He was explicit in his rejection of history based on hearsay earlier in his work:

My object in mentioning and refuting this story is, by a conspicuous example, to put down hearsay, and to request that all those into whose hands my work shall come not to catch eagerly at wild and improbable rumours in preference to genuine history. 
(Tacitus, Annals, IV.11)

Secondly, if Tacitus were to break his own rule and accept hearsay about the founder of Christianity, then it's highly unlikely that he would do so from Christians themselves (if this aristocrat even had any contact with any), who he regarded with utter contempt.  He calls Christianity "a most mischievous superstition .... evil .... hideous and shameful .... (with a) hatred against mankind" - not exactly the words of a man who regarded its followers as reliable sources about their sect's founder.

Furthermore, what he says about Jesus does not show any sign of having its origin in what a Christian would say: it has no hint or mention of Jesus' teaching, his miracles and nothing about the claim he rose from the dead.  On the other hand, it does contain elements that would have been of note to a Roman or other non-Christian: that this founder was executed, where this happened, when it occurred {"during the reign of Tiberius") and which Roman governor carried out the penalty.

We know from earlier in the same passage that Tacitus consulted several (unnamed) earlier sources when writing his account of the aftermath of the Great Fire (see Annals XV.38), so it may have been one of these that gave him his information about Jesus.  But there was someone else in Rome at the time Tacitus wrote who mixed in the same circles, who was also a historian and who would have been the obvious person for Tacitus to ask about obscure Jewish preachers and their sects.  None other than Josephus was living and writing in Rome at this time and, like Tacitus, associated with the Imperial court thanks to his patronage first by the emperor Vespasian and then by his son and successor Titus.  There is a strong correspondence between the details about Jesus in Annals XV.44 and Antiquities XVIII.3.4, so it is at least quite plausible that Tacitus simply asked his fellow aristocratic scholar about the origins of this Jewish sect.

Conclusion

The question asked if historians regarded the existence of Jesus to be "historical fact".  The answer is that they do as much as any scholar can do so for the existence of an obscure peasant preacher in the ancient world.  There is as much, if not slightly more, evidence for the existence of Yeshua ben Yusef as there is for other comparable Jewish preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants, even without looking at the gospel material.  Additionally, that material contains elements which only make sense if their stories are about a historical figure. 

The arguments of the Jesus Mythicists, on the other hand, require contortions and suppositions that simply do not stand up to Occam's Razor  and continually rest on positions that are not accepted by the majority of even non-Christian and Jewish scholars.  The proponents of the Jesus Myth hypothesis are almost exclusively amateurs with an ideological axe to grind and their position is and will almost certainly remain on the outer fringe of theories about the origins of Christianity.

52 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's not really fair to label it "The Jesus Myth Theory". The "Jesus Myth" covers all of the mythological claims about him, from his magic birth to his resurrection and immortality. The Jesus Myth is believed in and promoted by hundreds of millions of people around the world, including many people contributing to the study of the "historical Jesus".

There's an extended criticism of that myth which largely goes unaddressed, and what you refer to as "The Jesus Myth Theory" is just people who add "...and I don't think this myth was based on the life of any particular individual."

If that's where the brunt of the discussion is, then the criticism of the "Jesus Myth Theory" is just a tacit protection of the belief that the Jesus myth is true. Since it's the one position that can be challenged, it's what people shine their attention on, while they or those around them cling to all of the other outlandish claims about Jesus.

But it would be interesting to see what would happen if the people who believe in the Jesus myth were confronted with the historical Jesus more often. And were expected to support their claims about who he was in the same way as well... everyone else?

Tim O'Neill said...

The "Jesus Myth" covers all of the mythological claims about him, from his magic birth to his resurrection and immortality.

It's pretty clear that I'm referring to the idea that he didn't exist at all.

But it would be interesting to see what would happen if the people who believe in the Jesus myth were confronted with the historical Jesus more often.

It would be good if the naive atheists who swallow the Jesus Myth kool aid were to actually educate themselves in the genuine scholarship about the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic Jewish preacher. If anyone is inclined to confront modern Christians with uncomfortable historical analysis, that is academically rock solid and far more difficult for the devout to deal with than the stupid Mythicist wild goose chase.

AB said...

"This is particularly hard because of the masses of evidence that the first followers of the Jesus sect were devout Jews - a group for whom the idea of adopting anything "pagan" would have been utterly horrific."

You actually have "masses" of evidence for what the first followers of Jesus were thinking? How did you adduce that, through rubbing magic seer stones?

It's a bit hard to understand why "devout Jews," against all historical precedent, would begin worshipping a man as God. It is equally difficult to understand why "devout Jews" would start a religion that explicitly went *against* the Torah. What was their devoutness based on, 1 Enoch? It was also a religion that happily embraced "pagan" ideas about the afterlife, diet, Hades, and transubstantiation. Oh ... but that all came later, right? That was all 15 years after the crucifixion and by that time the "devout Jews" had, incredibly, pretty much been chased out of the religion they'd started. Yeah, this all makes sense.

Tim O'Neill said...

Oh dear ...

You actually have "masses" of evidence for what the first followers of Jesus were thinking?

We have early texts. All of the earliest ones refer to a fully historical Jesus. If you have discovered some early Christian texts that refer to a wholly non-historical Jesus I'm sure scholars would be fascinated with your amazing breakthrough.

It's a bit hard to understand why "devout Jews," against all historical precedent, would begin worshipping a man as God.

All the evidence indicates that this idea evolved over a long period and did so as Christianity became increasingly less Jewish. So this is not actually that hard to understand at all.

It is equally difficult to understand why "devout Jews" would start a religion that explicitly went *against* the Torah.

Again, all the earliest evidence is that the Jesus sect didn't. Acts happily depicts the early followers of Jesus as observant Jews, going to the Temple, attending synagogues etc. They different from other Jews only in their belief that Jesus was the Messiah and that he was, in some sense, "risen". Again, Christianity only started to drift away from the Torah as it became increasingly open to non-Jews, which explains this transition quite easily.

You don't seem to have thought this stuff through.

It was also a religion that happily embraced "pagan" ideas about the afterlife, diet, Hades, and transubstantiation.

Second Temple Judaism accepted ideas about the afterlife and Hades. The early Jesus sect kept dietary laws in place, which is why the question of whether non-Jewish converts needed to keep them was such a big issue for them. And "transubstantiation"? Pardon?

Yeah, this all makes sense.

Virtually nothing in your rather confused and error-laden comment makes any sense at all.

Matthew said...

Tim, excellent posts! I do have a question for you: some Christian apologists will use the crucifixion as a type of historical proof that Jesus rose form the dead and what Evangelicals believe about him is true. I know of one Christian apologist who argues that crucifixion was so stigmatic and so shameful that no one would, especially not Romans, or even could, possibly believe that Jesus was God incarnated in human flesh unless Jesus really did rise from the dead! Since crucifixion, this apologist argues, was the worst type of shameful death imaginable, having Jesus died in this way should've killed Christianity off and so the very fact that Jesus was crucified and Christianity succeeded, despite this extreme obstacle, shows that Jesus really did rise from the dead. I am skeptical of this argument but I wanted to get your take on it.

Tim O'Neill said...

@Matthew

I am skeptical of this argument but I wanted to get your take on it.

I'd say you're right to be sceptical about it. because it's not a very good argument at all. The way it's normally formulated is to say that something remarkable must have galvanised Jesus' followers because they would have been shattered by the sudden and unexpected arrest and execution of Jesus and yet bounced back from what should have been a crippling setback. So, the argument goes, their claim that he rose from the dead must have been true. Otherwise they would have simply returned to Galilee in disappointment and forgotten about the claims they made about Jesus being the Jewish Messiah.

This seems to make some intuitive sense, but it doesn't actually fit with what we know happens when an apocalyptic group's eschatological expectations are dashed. And we have plenty of examples of that down the years, from various millennial sects to the recent New Age hysteria about the supposed "Mayan doomsday".

The classic study on this is Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter's 1956 book When Prophecy Fails. BY studying a UFO cult that predicted the end of the world and observing how different members reacted to the failure of this prophecy, Festinger et al were able to show that the most committed members of the cult didn't take the commonsense approach and simply abandon the group. Instead they worked hard to come up with an interpretation of the failure that managed to preserve as much of their original expectations and ideas as possible and even became more committed to the group rather than the opposite. They found that those who had given up the most for the group's ideas - sold their houses or moved states - were more inclined to accept this new interpretation while those less committed were more likely to drift away.

So that argument plays on what we would expect to happen, but it doesn't fit with what can be observed when groups are faced with a similar dilemma. Jesus' followers found a way within their tradition to preserve the idea of him as the Messiah, came up with the idea that he was in some sense "risen" and that he was going to come back soon to fulfil the full apocalyptic expectations of the time as the Son of Man in the coming and imminent end times.

Matthew said...

Tim,

I haven't read the book When Prophecy Fails but I have some very basic familiarity with the theory of "cognitive dissonance". I think it probably explains how the earliest Christians turned a failed prophecy of Jesus into (possibly) preterism, assuming that's the best way to understand the apocalyptic and eschatological predictions made by Jesus in, say, the Olivet Discourse. I think it might also help explain how the earliest Christians came to see the defeat of Jesus on the cross as a victory for God and something predicted in Scripture all along.

However, the apologist who I have in mind is actually using the stigma of crucifixion to argue that it would've been impossible for potential converts to overcome if there wasn't something like the resurrection to help out. In other words, converts who were Romans, Greeks, and other Jews would have found the crucifixion of Jesus far too stigmatic to overcome, in order to convert to Christianity, without being convinced of the resurrection of Jesus.

The apologist making this argument is actually something of an old nemesis of mine, J.P. Holding. He wrote a book called The Impossible Faith where he uses this argument from crucifixion. In fact, I think his book would be an excellent book for you to review, if you haven't already. Iasked Thom Stark if he was interested in reviewing Holding's book but I don't think Stark is speaking to me anymore over political differences of ours. I could wrong and hope I am but I am wondering if there is someone who is more educated about history than I am who would be willing to review his book. I thought it wouldn't hurt to ask if you might be interested.

Tim O'Neill said...

The apologist who I have in mind is actually using the stigma of crucifixion to argue that it would've been impossible for potential converts to overcome if there wasn't something like the resurrection to help out.

"Impossible" is a big word, and pretty hard to back up. "Difficult" would be as far as a reasonable, objective person would go (and I'm afraid that rules a fundamentalist apologist like Holding out). In 2000 years a Holding of the future could make the argument that it would be "impossible" for the devout Christians of the rural eastern US in the 1820s to accept the more bizarre teachings of Mormonism and so there really must have been golden tablets etc. And they'd be wrong.

The fact is that just as most of the people of New York and Pennsylvania thought Joseph Smith was a heretical fraud, all it took was some who found his claims appealing to get Mormonism off the ground. Likewise, it seems most Jews and gentiles found the idea of a crucified saviour absurd and/or abhorrent. But for Holdings' argument to work he'd have to demonstrate that NOONE would have every been able to overcome that idea. Which I think he'd find pretty much impossible to do.

He's right that it was an obstacle - Paul tells us as much and the early Christian reluctance for depicting the crucifixion for several centuries shows it remained so for quite a while. But "impossible" is too big a claim for this argument to work.

I am wondering if there is someone who is more educated about history than I am who would be willing to review his book.

Someone has actually written an entire book countering it. Unfortunately that person is the notorious Richard Carrier, whose objectivity is about as suspect as Holding's. I think this was before Carrier went off on his current kooky Jesus Myth wild goose chase, so perhaps it could be useful to you, but be warned that Carrier is not exactly a reliable source of balanced arguments when it comes to Christianity - he's as much a fanatic as Holding, just from the opposite side of the spectrum.

See Richard Carrier Not the Impossible Faith (2009), but let the buyer beware.

Matthew said...

Tim,

Thanks for responding. Unfortunately, I have read the book in question. I was eager to read it and I might as well get this confessional of mine out of the way. I am a former fan of Carrier. Like Fitzgerald, I looked up to Carrier as a hero in my 20s but I eventually saw Carrier for the quack that he is. It took me reading Stark's replies to Carrier, which you linked to, that helped me finally realize just what a quack historian he is. I came to the conclusion that Carrier was a quack over a year ago; this isn't a very recent realization that I came to.

I have been trying to interest Stark in responding to Holding. Stark read Carrier's book and he noted that there were problems. IIRC, Stark noticed that Carrier made the same "pre-Christian dying Messiah" argument in that book that he later took Carrier to task for.

I thought that if Stark is better educated on Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins than Carrier is, then Stark is the best that there is to combat Holding. But Stark seems to have abandoned writing on topics like religion and is more interested in film-making. I also think that Stark has no use for me personally. I got into argument with him over politics a while ago and I get the impression that Stark wrote me off. This is even the case where I admitted to Stark that I was in the wrong and I apologized to him, well, let's just say that I don't ever expect any Christmas cards from Stark in the future! LOL.

If I had a graduate level education, I would gladly respond to Holding and Carrier. I still plan to get one but that seems quite a few years off!

Abner Reyej said...

Why bother with the whole Jesus Myth thing?

Accepting there was a Jewish man who was a key member of a sect who was senctenced to death by Pontius Pilate is the same as accepting that the Jewish man in question was God in a human form. After all, assorted Jews and Muslims have been doing it for centuries.

Tim O'Neill said...

Accepting there was a Jewish man who was a key member of a sect who was senctenced to death by Pontius Pilate is the same as accepting that the Jewish man in question was God in a human form. After all, assorted Jews and Muslims have been doing it for centuries.

That comment doesn't make much sense, given that Jews and Muslims don't accept he was God in human form. Did you mean to say " ... is NOT the same as ... "? Then it would make some sense.

Arild Nordby said...

Hi, Tim!
I am not particularly concerned either way with the main issue, but I thought it strange you said "only" Josephus would have an interest, when we do have, on authority of Photius' Myrobiblion, that Justus of Tiberias wrote not a single line about Jesus (he was contemporary Jewish historian with Josephus).

The lack of mentioning Jesus in Justus of Tiberias need not be damning, but I think you ough to comment it close by Josephus in yourarticle

Arild.

Tim O'Neill said...

@ Arild

" I thought it strange you said "only" Josephus would have an interest, when we do have, on authority of Photius' Myrobiblion, that Justus of Tiberias wrote not a single line about Jesus

I can't see how that contradicts what I said. I said "there is only one writer of the time who had any interest in such figures .... the Jewish historian Josephus". You've noted a reference to another historian who didn't seem to have an interest in one of these figures (Jesus). And we have no idea if Justus had any interest in any other such figures. So Justus not mentioning Jesus doesn't invalidate my point and actually seems to support it.

Arild Nordby said...

How do you know he didn't have an interest in "such figures"? Have you acces to his works??



Tim O'Neill said...

How do you know he didn't have an interest in "such figures"? Have you acces to his works??

No, I don't. And neither do you. So how can you claim he did have an interest in such figures? The only relevant information we have about his works is that he didn't mention Jesus. So how are you concluding that, despite not mentioning one such figure, he mentioned or was interested in others?

There is nothing to indicates that Justus had any interest in figures like Jesus and the fact he didn't mention Jesus indicates precisely the opposite. So how does that invalidate what I said about Josephus?

Arild Nordby said...

Where I have said it invalidates what you said about Josephus??

Read my first post again:
Quite simply, Justus and Josephus were historians with a cordial hatred for each other (he is one of Josephus' punching balls). Thus, they probably went over the same material in their writings.

In CONTRAST to the non-mentioner Philo, who had completely different interests, and wasn't on Josephus' playing field at all.
---------------------------------
Thus, the non-mentioning of Jesus in Justus does not necessarily "contradict" him being mentioned in Josephus, but can perfectly well be integrated with, for example, that Jesus was basically a pretty obscure figure in his own time, certainly not one who might create major tumults in Jerusalem.
---
That is why contrasting Josephus and Justus is at least as relevant as contrasting Josephus and Philo

Arild Nordby said...

We do not have any evidence that Justus didn't have any interest in minor rabble rousers such as Jesus.

Two history works, dealing with the same time period, will deal with what both regard as MAJOR events (although interpretations might be different), but for MINOR events? Suppose you have 10 minor rabble rousers; Josephus made his pick of 3 out of them to get local colours; Justus might have picked out 3 others. Neither of them will have bothered to enlist all of them.

Thus, the Justus lack-of-mentioning is, actually, good evidence that Jesus was a practically forgotten figure Justus didn't bother to mention, but we cannot say Justus didn't have any interest in SOME figures both he, Josephus (and us) would regard "somewhat akin to Jesus", but that Josephus, for example, didn't bother to mention, picking out randomly Jesus instead from the many petty rabble rousers of previous times.

Tim O'Neill said...

We do not have any evidence that Justus didn't have any interest in minor rabble rousers such as Jesus.


We don't have much evidence either way. And what evidence we do have doesn't indicate any such interest - one of the few things we know about his work is that it didn't mention Jesus.

Justus might have picked out 3 others

Or he might have chose more. Or none. We simply don't know. Yiou can't make an argument based on a work we don't have that we know virtually nothing about.

we cannot say Justus didn't have any interest in SOME figures both he, Josephus (and us) would regard "somewhat akin to Jesus"

We can't say anything about who he did and didn't mention, other than what we do know - that he didn't mention Jesus. Since we have no idea whether he mentioned other such figures (and not Jesus) or he mentioned no such figures (including Jesus), we can't make any arguments at all based on Justus. We just don't know.

Arild Nordby said...

Well, to finish this off:
You were the one saying to begin with that the non-mentioning by Justus of Jesus was a clear indication that Justus wasn't interested in figures such as Jesus. That is totally unwarranted, and I provided an equally valid argument in the other direction.

What we can say, is that Justus wasn't interested in (or knew about) Jesus, not that he wasn't interested in petty rabble rousers of his type in general.

There were probably lots of such guys at that time, as there are at any other time.

Tim O'Neill said...

You were the one saying to begin with that the non-mentioning by Justus of Jesus was a clear indication that Justus wasn't interested in figures such as Jesus.

It's an indication of that, but we can't be sure either way. We simply don't know. Perhaps you've misunderstood the nuances of the use of the English word "indication".

Arild Nordby said...

That might well be. But, either way, what we can be reasonably sure of is that within the intended audience Justus wrote for (those he sought recognition from), the figure of Jesus was either unknown, or uninteresting.

For others of the same ilk, we do not have any indications of Justus' interests or treatment at all.

Anonymous said...

We have early texts. All of the earliest ones refer to a fully historical Jesus. If you have discovered some early Christian texts that refer to a wholly non-historical Jesus I'm sure scholars would be fascinated with your amazing breakthrough.

I have some. They're called the authentic Pauline epistles. Perhaps you've heard of them? Paul never clearly references a historical, earthly, flesh and blood Jesus. In Paul's authentic letters, Jesus is a cosmic, celestial deity whom is only known to his followers through scripture and revelation.

Anonymous said...

Saying that the crucifixion must be historical because it was simply too embarrassing for the early Christians to have fabricated is a pretty weak argument. Using that logic, we could argue that the act of self-castration by the god Attis must also be a historical event, because it's simply too embarrassing of a fact to have been invented by the followers of Attis.

Anonymous said...

How do you explain the early Christians starting to worship Jesus as the all powerful, pre-existent, creator and sustainer of the universe, immediately after his crucifixion?

You Jesus historicists really have no explanation for this bizarre phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Even if the passage in Tacitus is 100% authentic, it is very unlikely that Tacitus got the information from official Roman archives, because if he had, then he would have referred to Jesus by his legal name, i.e. "Jesus" or "Jesus ben Joseph" or something similar. He wouldn't have referred to him using the Jewish religious title "Christos", which would have no meaning in the context of an official Roman criminal court proceeding.

So if the Tacitus passage is indeed authentic, then we must conclude that Tacitus got his information from contemporary Christians or from his friend Pliny, a Roman statesman who had direct experience with interrogating Christians during his governorship of Bithynia.

Tim O'Neill said...

A tiny Anonymouse squeaked:

In Paul's authentic letters, Jesus is a cosmic, celestial deity whom is only known to his followers through scripture and revelation.

Total garbage. Try actually reading the article you're commenting on - I give no less than eight examples of Paul referring to Jesus as an earthly, historical person, all from the epistles generally considered authentically Pauline.

It takes a special kind of Myther text-twisting to make "born of a woman" somehow mean "NOT born of a woman", especially since the phrase had a very specific meaning - "a man, a human being" - in the Hebrew and Aramaic of the time. Doherty and his acolytes have to do backwards smoersaults to try to make evidence like this go away. No actual scholar has found his tendentious nonsense convincing in any way.

Tim O'Neill said...

The brave Anonymouse squeaked again:

Using that logic, we could argue that the act of self-castration by the god Attis must also be a historical event, because it's simply too embarrassing of a fact to have been invented by the followers of Attis.

Parroting another shitty Myther argument I see? This time one from the biased polemicist Carrier.

We know that the crucifixion was awkward for the early Christians, and we know it from multiple strands of evidence. As I note above, Paul tells us this explicitly in 1Cor 1:23. Then we have the fact that there are no Christian depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus until well after it was banned as a form of execution and it had lost its stigma. And the fact that the first depiction of it we have is in a graffito mocking Christians for worshipping a crucified man.

So, if you want to make your Attis analogy, produce similar evidence that the worshippers of Attis and Cybele had similar difficulties with their worship of a castrated god. Over to you.

Tim O'Neill said...

A third time the tiny Anonymouse did squeak:

it is very unlikely that Tacitus got the information from official Roman archives, because if he had, then he would have referred to Jesus by his legal name, i.e. "Jesus" or "Jesus ben Joseph" or something similar.

Since I don't argue that he got his information from any "official Roman archives", this has little relevance to anything I said. And Tacitus refers to Jesus' title because he is explaining the etymology of the name "Christians". So he tells his readers that they were a sect founded by a guy called "Christus" - the Anointed One.

if the Tacitus passage is indeed authentic, then we must conclude that Tacitus got his information from contemporary Christians or from his friend Pliny, a Roman statesman who had direct experience with interrogating Christians during his governorship of Bithynia.

Another bullshit argument from the biased polemicist Carrier. No, we have no reason to do this at all.

First of all, there is zero in Tacitus' report that indicates that he got his information from Christians - it is made up purely of what would have interested a Roman or Jew. And he'd hardly regard peasant, servile, superstitious sectarians as a reliable source anyway.

Secondly, we have absolutely no reason to limit his possible sources of information to those two choices. This is typical of Carrier though - loudly proclaiming that his conclusion is the only possible one because ... well, just because., This is why the jerk remains unemployed.

Tacitus tells us he consulted various "sources" regarding the Great Fire and its aftermath, so we don't know if these unnamed and long lost sources also told him about Jesus. That aside, there was another source much closer to home than Pliny and a far more obvious choice for information about Jewish sects.

There was a historian in Rome at the time who was, like Tacitus, an aristocrat and, like him, closely connected to the Flavian court. He was also a Jew from Jerusalem and would therefore have been the obvious person to consult about these things. His name?

Josephus.

If we compare the information we find in the Tacitean reference to that we have in the Antiquities XVIII.3.4 reference (one we ignore the obvious later additions), we find they match up pretty well.

Of course, we don't know where Tacitus got his information, but to pretend that it could somehow only (a) Christians or (b) Pliny is complete garbage. And typical of Carrier's specious nonsense.

Tim O'Neill said...

And finally from the brave anonymous squeaker:

How do you explain the early Christians starting to worship Jesus as the all powerful, pre-existent, creator and sustainer of the universe, immediately after his crucifixion?

"Immediately after his crucifixion"? Where the hell do you get that idea? It's hilarious how these Mythers have a grasp of the material on about the same level as the most clueless fundamentalist dupe.

Try this - find me a reference to Jesus being God in the letters of Paul. When you fail, try to do so in the synoptic gospels. When you fail there as well, look at the summary of what the first Jesus sect believed about Jesus in Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:14-39 and note the complete lack of any reference to Jesus as God.

It might help if you Myther bumblers managed to get a grasp of the material that's a hair's breadth above Sunday school level for a change.

MatthewG said...

Tim,

Do you plan on reviewing Richard Carrier's book Proving History or the highly anticipated sequel? Personally, I am suspicious of Carrier's use of Bayes' Theorem. I'll grant, charitably, that Carrier could be right about BT in the long run although I will just watch silently as better educated people than myself critique his book. I am not expecting, however, to be impressed with his next book proving that historicism is dead. If Carrier repeats the silly gaffe that he made about the "seventy weeks" prophecy that Thom Stark rightly took him to task for, then I expect that Carrier will be laughed at for years and he will unwittingly supply his critics with the perfect reason for not taking him and his fellow mythicists seriously.

Tim O'Neill said...

I've only read parts of Carrier's first book, though enough people who have a genuine grasp of Bayes Theorem have criticised his claim to be the first genius who can apply it to history objectively, so I doubt there's anything I could add.

I may review his second book, which he is trumpeting as the greatest thing to hit the field since Schweitzer. And which I suspect will have zero impact, much like his last one. The guy is a fantasist.

Judging from the way all criticism bounces off his force field of deluded narcissism, I have no doubt he will repeat the stuff Thom Stark flayed him over. Richard Carrier is wholly convinced of Richard Carrier's vast genius and no-one is going to convince him otherwise.

Lord Keynes said...

Though the rest of argument is pretty convincing, on the Tacitus passage it is just as likely that the information is derived ultimately from what Christians said but indirectly:

http://thoughtsphilosophyculture.blogspot.com/2014/03/is-tacitus-annales-1544-independent-non.html

Tim O'Neill said...

Thanks for the link to your article Lord Keynes. Though I can't say I'm convinced - you make the claim that Pliny is the "probable" source of Tacitus' information but you don't actually manage to back that up in your argument.

Yes, this is a possible source, but so are the others you mention. You argue against Tacitus using the imperial archives, but we have references in Tacitus' own works to archived copies of the Acta Diurna, so we know he did have access to this material, we just don't know if he consulted it here.

You also try to dismiss Josephus as the source in the grounds that he was most likely dead when Tacitus wrote his Annals. But that doesn't actually eliminate Josephus as the ultimate source of his information - Tacitus and Josephus moved in the same circles in Rome for years and Tacitus could still be referring to information he got from Josephus before the latter died.

You also don't seem to have noticed that if this somehow rules out Josephus (which it doesn't) then that sinks your choice of Pliny as well. Pliny died in 112 AD, which means he died before Tacitus wrote his book. If that argument works against Josephus, it works against Pliny as well.

Actually, it works against neither and both could be Tacitus' source. Or some other writer could have been.

We can't eliminate the possibility that Tacitus' information ultimately came from what Christians believed about Jesus, we can only note that it contains nothing obviously Christian in origin and only contains information of interest to non-Christians. And Tacitus, Josephus and Pliny give no joy to the Mythers, since the Jesus they all refer to was clearly a human, not a celestial being or mythic figure.

Greg Pandatshang said...

Thanks for writing this up, Tim. I found your points about Josephus, Tacitus, Origen, and all that particularly compelling.

I would like to complain about the "Indicators of Historicity in the Gospels" section. After discussing the baptism, you write, "All of them are dealing with the baptism of Jesus by John in different ways and trying to make it fit with their conceptions of Jesus and at least two of them are having some trouble doing so and are having to change the story to make it fit their ideas about Jesus. All this indicates that the baptism of Jesus by John was a historical event and known to be such and so could not be left out of the story." But I don't think that conclusion follows logically at all. I suppose you'd agree that Matthew, Luke, and John are based largely on Mark (apparently in addition to at least one other written source, but I don't think Q factors into this issue). The other evangelists wrestle with the baptism because it's in Mark. All this means is that the author of Mark included it in his story; perhaps it was a real event, or perhaps he made it up. You have said in so many words that the author of Mark is an adoptionist: to him, having John baptise Jesus is a perfectly sensible part of his story. There's no reason to think he wouldn't have invented it.

The Nazareth thing is a bit stronger. Certainly, Matthew and Luke wrestle with this because they got it from Mark. But why did the author of Mark include this detail about Jesus' life. I would certainly agree that the simplest explanation, and therefore, all else equal, the best explanation, is that Jesus actually came from Nazareth (or rather, the same thing but less directly, since the author of Mark almost certainly didn't know Jesus's hometown history personally: the simplest explanation is that the author of Mark believed that Jesus came from Nazareth, and, in turn, the simplest explanation for that belief is that it was true). I just don't think this piece of evidence bears very much weight at all. I have no reason to believe that the author of Mark cared very much one way or the other what town Jesus came from. I could speculate as to reasons why he or his sources may have invented or misconstrued Nazareth as Jesus' hometown. There's very little evidence to prove or disprove such speculations. The hypothesis that he wrote it because it was true, then, is merely primus inter pares.

P.S.: I'm curious as to your opinions about Margaret Barker's work. She's not a mythicist, but I think of her as a fellow traveler, because she argues that much of what we think we know about early Christian history is wrong, that Revelation is the oldest book of the New Testament, and so on like that.

Tim O'Neill said...

Greg wrote:

" I suppose you'd agree that Matthew, Luke, and John are based largely on Mark"

Ummm, no I wouldn't agree with that at all. gMatt and gLuke are clearly based on gMark's account, but I know of nothing to indicate that gJohn was. In fact, it's generally accepted that the writer of gJohn had no knowledge of any of the synoptics.

"The other evangelists wrestle with the baptism because it's in Mark. "

gMatt and gLuke do, certainly. gJohn is working from another tradition entirely and still has to wrestle with the implications of the baptism of Jesus by John. So that's two distinct strands of tradition about Jesus being baptised. That indicates historicity, along with the ways the three writers deal with it.

"But why did the author of Mark include this detail about Jesus' life. I would certainly agree that the simplest explanation, and therefore, all else equal, the best explanation, is that Jesus actually came from Nazareth"

Yes, it is.

have no reason to believe that the author of Mark cared very much one way or the other what town Jesus came from.

So it's very odd that he would chose such an insignificant place if this was an invented detail.

"I'm curious as to your opinions about Margaret Barker's work."

I'm curious about it but have yet to read any of it. She doesn't seem well-regarded by other scholars and on the face of it some of her stuff has a whiff of the Barbara Thiering about it. Though I gather it's not as kooky as Thiering's stuff.

Ignorance said...

Using that logic, we could argue that the act of self-castration by the god Attis must also be a historical event, because it's simply too embarrassing of a fact to have been invented by the followers of Attis.

Tim has already shown what's wrong with this, but let's explore the parallel further. How embarrassing was self-castration for the followers of Attis and Cybele? Well, insofar the galloi priests are concerned, not very. In fact they practised self-castration themselves along with other bloody activities (fittingly on March 24, Dies Sanguinis). You'd have to point to early Christians who practise crucifixion in order to validate the parallel.

Good luck.

Greg Pandatshang said...

"gMatt and gLuke are clearly based on gMark's account, but I know of nothing to indicate that gJohn was. In fact, it's generally accepted that the writer of gJohn had no knowledge of any of the synoptics."

The fact that the general outline of Jesus' story in the Gospel of John is the same as in Gospel of Mark means that either the author of John was already familiar with Mark (or a related text) or else they are both based on historical fact (or other more remote sources). Either is possible. Based on the knowledge of an educated layman, I think of the former as more parsimonious, and the more so for a few places where the Gospel of John might be taken as directly refuting details of the Synoptic account for theological reasons. Can you recommend something to read which summarizes the consensus that the Gospel of John is completely independent of the Synoptics?

Tim O'Neill said...

As with any textual question regarding the gospels, there is a range of positions on this point. Until around 1938 the idea that the author of gJohn also knew at least gMark and made use of it and perhaps the other two synoptic gospels was not generally questioned. Early Twentieth Century source critical techniques began to bring this into question and the current general consensus is that if the author of gJohn knew the synoptics, he definitely did not use them in the way, for example, the authors of gMatthew and gLuke used gMark and the "Q" material. It is considered most likely that the small number of parallels between gJohn and the synoptics are due to different workings of the same oral traditions (gJohn's being later) rather than source reliance or textual redaction.

The first thing to note is the the commonplace observation that the fourth gospel is very different to the other three. It has long been recognised that the synoptics are closely inter-related textually. While they differ in some of the order of events and have their own reworkings of key elements and stories, it's clear that they have some form of close textual reliance on each other. For roughly 100 years now the "two source hypothesis" has held sway as the best explanation of this inter-relation: gMark was used by the writers of gMatthew and gLuke as their main source, supplemented with a common source/s that forms their "Q" material and then some unique material ('M" and "L" respectively).

If gJohn's author had access to the other three gospels, it is clear that he did not use them in this close and carefully textual way. It's also clear that most of his material does not come from either the use of their texts or from later oral (or lost written) versions of the traditions they reflect. Here is a list a material in gJohn that is not found in any of the synoptics:

Prologue (1:1-18)
"Signs," beginning with the Wedding at Cana (2:1-12)
Dialogue with Nicodemus (2:23–3:21)
Jesus and/or his Disciples Baptize People (3:22-26; 4:1-2)
Samaritan Woman at the Well (4:1-42)
Jesus Heals a Sick Man at the Pool of Bethesda (5:1-18)
New Details at the Feeding of the 5000 (6:1b, 3-6, 8-9, 12b, 14-15)
Bread of Life Discourse (6:22-65)
[Woman caught in Adultery (7:53–8:11) - added later]
Jesus Gives Sight to a Man Born Blind (9:1-41)
Jesus Raises Lazarus from the Dead (11:1-44)
Jesus Washes the Disciples' Feet (13:1-20)
"Disciple Whom Jesus Loved" (13:23-25; 19:26-27; 20:2-10; 21:7, 20-24; cf. 18:15-16?)
Last Supper Discourses, incl. "Paraclete" & "Vine and Branches" (13:31–16:33)
Great Prayer of Jesus (17:1-26)
New Details at the Trial before Pilate (18:28–19:16)
New Details at the Crucifixion (19:20-24, 26-28, 30-37, 39)
First Resurrection Appearance to Mary Magdalene alone (20:11-18; cf. Matt 28:9)
Resurrection Appearance to Thomas (20:24-29)
Another Resurrection Appearance at the Sea of Tiberias/Galilee; Dialogue between Jesus & Peter (21:1-25; cf. Luke 5:1-11)
First and Second Endings to John's Gospel (20:30-31; 21:24-25)


That's quite extensive. Even more extensive are the stories and elements that are common to the synoptics but not found in gJohn:

No Infancy Narrative (but see John 1:14 - "the Word became flesh")
No Childhood Episodes (but see 1:12; 13:33; 21:5 - believers are called "children")
No Baptism of Jesus (but see 1:19-34 - John testifies about Jesus)
No Temptation in the Desert (but see 8:44; 13:2, 27 - the role of Satan & the Devil)
No Calls to Repentance (but see 1:29; 5:14; 9:41; 15:22; 20:23 - on sin and forgiveness)
No Sermon on the Mount; no Beatitudes (but see 13:17; 20:29 - Jesus calls believers "blessed")
No Lord's Prayer (but see 17:1-26 - the Great Prayer of Jesus)
(cont)

Tim O'Neill said...

No List of "Twelve Apostles" (but see 13:16 - messengers; 1:35-51; 6:67-71; 20:24; 21:2 - disciples; "the Twelve")
No Mission of the Disciples during Jesus' Lifetime (but see 13:20; 14:12; 20:21 - the risen Jesus sends them out)
No Parables (but see 10:6; 15:1-8; 16:25, 29 - a few "paroimia" or "figures of speech")
Few "Kingdom of God" Teachings (only 3:3-5; cf. 1:49; 6:15; 12:13-15; 18:33-39 - Jesus' role as "King of Israel")
Few "Ethical" Teachings (only 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; cf. 14:21-24 - "Love One Another" and "Love Jesus/God")
Few Predictions of Jesus' Return (only 14:3; 21:22-23 - Jesus will "come again" or "come" to believers )
No Exorcisms (but see 7:20; 8:48-52; 10:19-21 - Jesus is accused of having a "demon")
No Transfiguration Story (but see 1:45; 3:14; 5:45-47; 9:28-29 - Jesus is associated with Moses)
No Passion Predictions (but see 5:18; 11:50-53 & 18:14; 12:24-25, 32-33; 18:31-32 - talk of Jesus' death)
No Institution of Eucharist at the Last Supper (but see 6:22-59; 13:1-20 - Bread of Life discourse; Washing of Feet)
No Ascension Narrative (but see 3:13; 6:62; 20:17 - Jesus talks about descending and ascending)


Then there are the fairly few elements which are found in some way in both:


A journey to Jerusalem - though there is only one in the synoptics, at the end of his career, but no less than three in gJohn (2:13; 5:1; 7:10)
Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist - though in gJohn Jesus himself is not baptised, John simply points him out as the Messiah while baptising others.
The calling of the first disciples - though the ones mentioned in gJohn differ slightly from the list in the synoptics.
Plots to destroy Jesus - though in gJohn the specific plotters (Scribes, Sadducees) morph into a mass called simply "the Jews", ignoring the fact that Jesus and his followers are also Jews.
The riot in/"cleansing of" the Temple - though in gJohn this happens at the beginning of his career, while in the synoptics it's the trigger for his arrest and execution.
The anointing at Bethany - though in gJohn it is in the house of Lazarus by Mary, Lazarus' sister, and not in the house of "Simon the Leper" and by an anonymous woman.
The Last Supper - though in gJohn this is a meal before the Passover and not the Passover itself.
Arrest in a garden - though in gJohn the garden is in the Kidron Valley, not on the Mount of Olives.
Crucifixion - though in gJohn this is on the Passover preparation day, not the day of Passover itself.
Resurrection - though in gJohn the order of events and the identities of the witnesses vary greatly compared to the synoptics.


As can be seen from the analysis above, gJohn differs greatly from the synoptics in content and even the few (ten) elements of overlap, there is substantial difference in detail. This, taken with the fact that there is scant evidence of verbal agreement or other signs of textual redaction means that the idea that the writer of gJohn did not use the synoptics and possibly never evern read any of them is solidly-based.

Greg Pandatshang said...

Thanks, that is a very useful summary. However, I am already aware of the concept of the Synoptics as opposed to John. I would certainly agree that it is all but patent but that the author of John did not use Mark the same way that the authors of Matthew and Luke did; far from it.

I think that the main author of John set out to write an original account of Jesus' life (or, at least, his sources were not Synoptic; John may well be an original narrative framework in which to place existing Signs Gospel text). Although he was writing a new account, he was familiar with many of the basic details of Jesus' life that are given in Mark. My question concerns not the many points of difference between John and the Synoptics, but how the few (sometimes crucial) points of agreement between them came to be.

One explanation is that John and Mark are both based on preexisting written and oral accounts which ultimately trace back to real historical events. Another would be that the author of John had read Mark or had been exposed in some, way, shape or form to some or all of the story told in Mark; but then he either didn't have access to a copy when he was writing his gospel account or he simply chose not to copy much from it directly. I suppose a third hypothesis would be that the author of John had no direct or indirect exposure to the Synoptics per se, but the ultimate source underlying his account was fiction rather than history, a more primitive common ur-ancestor to all the Gospels, perhaps containing just the elements shared by John and the Synoptics.

You have made an argument about the historicity of two such shared elements on the grounds that they are attested in two independent sources. But I know of no strong evidence that shows which of the above hypotheses is correct (although I haven't considered the third one in detail). That being the case, I don't have any way of knowing whether the two accounts are in fact independent.

Tim O'Neill said...

"I am already aware of the concept of the Synoptics as opposed to John."

I didn't say or imply you weren't.

One explanation is that John and Mark are both based on preexisting written and oral accounts which ultimately trace back to real historical events.

I think a better way to put it would be to say that both the authors of gMark and of gJohn were working from strands of tradition which overlapped on a very small number of elements but differed widely on all of the rest.

"Another would be that the author of John had read Mark or had been exposed in some, way, shape or form to some or all of the story told in Mark; but then he either didn't have access to a copy when he was writing his gospel account or he simply chose not to copy much from it directly."

That seems rather implausible. If the gJohn author knew gMark, it's very odd that he used it so sparingly, given that we know how influential gMark was on the other two gospels.

If we look at the stories which are found in both gMark and gJohn we don't find indication of the author of the latter working from some memory of his knowledge of the former. On the contrary, we find evidence of traditions that are very far apart and seem to have evolved into very different forms over some time.

Take the story of the anointing of Jesus' feet (Mk 14.3-9; Jn 12.1-8). In the Marcan version this happens very specifically at Bethany "in the house of Simon the Leper". We are told that "a woman" enters and anoints Jesus' feet and is reproached by "some there" (plural) but Jesus defends her saying she would be remembered for her action.

In the Johannine version the location is the house of Lazarus and his sisters and the story becomes a sequel to the one of Lazarus' resurrection (found only in gJohn). The woman is no longer anonymous but is identified as Lazarus' sister Mary. in this version it is not "some" (plural) who object, but Judas Iscariot. We also get the added detail that he is a theif, whereas in gMark Judas is nothing more than a name until the story of him approaching the high priest in 14:10-11. Finally in this version Jesus makes a direct reference to his body being anointed after his death not found in gMark.

So the story is there, but it bears little resemblance to the one in gMark. It does not look at all like a memory of the gMark version, with a few changes. It looks far more like an element from the Jesus tradition that has undergone a separate path of development, evolution and change.

" I know of no strong evidence that shows which of the above hypotheses is correct "

Well, I've just given you a taste of why the position I hold on this - that the gJohn writer had no direct exposure to gMark at all - is the consensus. This seems to fit the evidence best.

Hastein45 said...

I am currently reading Ehrman`s latest and one of the points of interest for me, and obviously many others as well, is Ehrman`s allusion to the historical evidence not supporting the empty tomb story. I am skeptical but his points seem significant. I want to note that I am a hobbyist who has read a number of books on Jesus and surrounding topics, but not one of them has insinuated that the empty tomb story is likely a fabrication. I assume this is because the prevailing consensus is that it does pretty well to pass the historical criteria (it is attested to across the board and in the earliest sources, though Paul is vague on a burial). I was wondering if you have read the book or if you are familiar with both sides of the coin and what your take on it is?

Tim O'Neill said...

@Hastein45

The idea that the tomb and the stories associated with it are not historical is pretty common and not unique to Ehrman. Crossan goes much further and many other scholars find the idea dubious.

"it is attested to across the board and in the earliest sources, though Paul is vague on a burial"

Paul mentions no tomb, which means it isn't "attested across the board". It doesn't appear at all in any of the Pauline corpus. Given his efforts at insisting on the reality of the resurrection (at least in some sense) in 1Corinthians 15, it's very odd that he mentions Jesus being buried but doesn't point to any "empty tomb" story as evidence and jumps straight to "appearances", including his own vision.

There are other traditions that indicate that things were more varied than the canonical gospels might indicate. For example, the Secret Book of James has Jesus refer to how he was "buried in the sand".

While the synoptics and John all emphasise that Jesus was laid in a tomb by his followers, Acts 13:27-29 records an early tradition whereby it's "those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers" who execute Jesus and then says these enemies "took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb". An early variant of John 19:38 also has the Jews taking Jesus away for burial. This is also found in the Gospel of Peter 6:21 and in Justin Martyr: Dialogue 97.1.

So there seems to be another tradition that contradicts the one that found its way into the canonical gospels with it's shadowy figure of "Joseph of Arimathea" who pops up conveniently to give the disciples a tomb they can lay him in - also conveniently providing a self-fulfilment of Isaiah 53:9.

The following story about women going to a tomb tbey couldn't open while commenting on the fact they wouldn't be able to open it continues to make the whole thing dubious. As are the repeated references to "rolling away" the stone over the entrance, which indicates a style of tomb that we know was extremely rare in Jesus' time but quite common in the time these gospels were being written.

There are many reasons to be sceptical about the historicity of the tomb stories.

Hastein45 said...

Thank you very much for the timely and informative response. It is much appreciated and certainly broadened my knowledge. Can you recommend me an article, website, or book which details these views even further?

Harry H. McCall said...

Just to let you know, you're up tonight on DC. "Coming Tonight on DC: 15 Simple Reason why the Gospel Jesus Never Existed"

"Tonight I’ll list theses and let you decide who has up held Occam Razor followed by a short response to O’Neill."

Tim O'Neill said...

"Coming Tonight on DC: 15 Simple Reason why the Gospel Jesus Never Existed"

The "Gospel Jesus"? Where the hell have I ever made an argument for the "gospel Jesus"? This is just more evidence of how totally muddle headed you are on this subject.

But thanks - I'm sure your new post will give me something fun to play with over Easter.

Kristofer said...

Where can I learn more about arguments for why the empty tomb is legendary? Thanks

Justin Kerk said...

Thank you for the excellent article, which I will definitely be referring people to the next time I see a clumsy mythicist argument.

On the idea of Tacitus getting information from Josephus, though - this seems unlikely to me given his discussion of the origin of the Jews at the beginning of Book V of the Histories, which is rather different from the Jewish tradition (to say the least) and directly contradicts Josephus on various points, without acknowledging said contradiction.

Since Josephus wrote an entire work on the history of the Jews, it seems odd that Tacitus would consult him for a passing mention of a para-Jewish sect and not for a lengthier discussion directly on the topic.

Harry H. McCall said...

My post is up and Tim O’Neill’s response: Crickets . . .

Tim O'Neill said...

@ Hastein and Kristofer - Ehrman's new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee has a very good section on why the burial and empty tomb stories are probably not historical in Chapter 4.

Tim O'Neill said...

@ Justin Klerk

Good points, but I think you're assuming that when I talk about Tacitus consulting Josephus, I'm referring to him consulting a copy of Antiquities. I'm actually referring to him getting his understanding of who this "Christus" character some of the plebs had been howling about by talking to the man himself. They lived in Rome at the same time and moved in the same circles, after all.

Tim O'Neill said...

The gadfly returns ...

"My post is up and Tim O’Neill’s response: Crickets . . . "

Given that you posted it at around 2.00 am my time and it's now only 7.00 am, I think we'll have to add "international time zones" to the list of things you don't seem to understand. It's getting to be a long list.

And I'm assuming this boneheaded cluster of non sequiturs, errors of interpretation and flat out errors of fact is meant to be the post in question. Seriously? Are you trying to make Mythicism look idiotic?