Eric MacDonald on the historicity of Jesus

If you’re not reading Eric MacDonald’s website, Choice in Dying, you should.  I think a lot of people may be dissuaded by the fact that his posts are often long, but I’ve found that they repay careful study.  Eric, an ex-Anglican priest who started his website as a protest against restrictions on legal euthanasia (he got into trouble for helping his wife die when she was in the last stages of multiple sclerosis), has—like me—expanded his website into larger issues, especially religion. And although Eric and I sometimes differ on issues like free will, I admire him immensely.  And nobody can say he doesn’t understand religion!

His latest post, “Did Jesus exist?” is a classic, and well worth reading, especially if you’re one of the many people on this site who have debated Bart Ehrman’s latest book on the topic.

What is decisive, to my mind, against the existence of a single figure around which the Christian myth crystallised, is the fact that the gospel narratives are so conflicting, especially when it comes to the mythical parts, but the teaching conflicts too, and no one person is plausible as the speaker of all the words uttered by the gospel Jesus. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are entirely incompatible, and the resurrection narratives are no better; and in neither case are the disagreements such as might be expected from witnesses whose testimony is not entirely consistent. Perfect consistency almost always points to collusion, but differing about where Jesus would and did appear — whether in Jerusalem or Galilee — is simply too big of a mistake to support belief that the resurrection narratives are the result of eyewitness testimony.

What might give historical weight to the narratives is something about which they agree, where agreement is unexpected and unlikely. This may be the case in the birth narratives, present only in Matthew and Luke. The birth narratives in these two gospels conflict at almost every point. The only common features seem to be Nazareth and Bethlehem, though for different reasons. Does this limited agreement point to a historical core? Since Bethlehem and Nazareth are used for entirely different reasons in the two gospels, I judge the coincidence to be more likely the result of a common myth-making activity, in which it was believed, for prophetic reasons, that the messiah should be related to these places; but since there is no prophetic evidence for the messianic importance of either Bethlehem or Nazareth, the agreement is probably related to a common myth-making activity, than it is to the existence of an historical person who was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. And while it is difficult to exclude the strongly Galilean aspects of the story, it should also be remarked that, though Galilee was a highly urbanised, pagan region, the gospels seem profoundly ignorant of this fact. There is very little sense of geographical place in the gospels, and though some of the parables do evoke familiarity with some features of Judaea, these are incidental features which would have been familiar to most country places in the region — birds, lilies, fishing, stony ground, weeds, vineyards, etc.

As you can see, Eric rejects not only the notion that there was a miracle-working, supernatural Jesus (no surprise there: Eric’s been an atheist for a while), but also that there was a single historical individual around whom the Jesus myth coalesced.  He faults Bart Ehrman for dismissing “mythicists”:

I do find it a bit dismaying that Bart Ehrman, who has taken a lead in showing the gospel stories to be an unreliable basis upon which the build a faith, should so strongly condemn others who are working the same seam, trying to show that the Christian scriptures as we have them cannot be taken as evidence for the existence of the man described so fulsomely therein. That there never was a man who is plausibly described as the gospels describe Jesus goes, I think, without saying. The stories are obviously heavily worked over pieces of religious fiction, a way of turning defeat into victory. Whether there was an historical person around whom these stories crystallised in the first place seems to be a question without a reliable answer. However, contrary to Ehrman, I do not think we have sources close to the time of Jesus that can corroborate any parts of the story

. . . I think it is much more likely that Jesus is a compilation fashioned within exiled messianic communities which had known (and possibly also followed) a number of messianic pretenders, until, after their final defeat in the Jewish War, by reworking their myths they came to the “realisation” that their real vindication had already come and they had not recognised it.

Eric’s piece is erudite, and yes, long for a website post, but well worth reading. If you read Ehrman’s book yet (I haven’t), do weigh in.

_______

UPDATE: For a less scholarly (but equally impassioned) critique of Ehrman, regular Ben Goren has produced a long one, “Ehrman’s folly,” that you can read here.

166 Comments

  1. Curt Cameron
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    “…but since there is no prophetic evidence for the messianic importance of either Bethlehem or Nazareth…”

    Wait, I thought that the old prophecy from Isaiah said that a savior would come from the city of David, and that the people at the time identified Bethlehem as the city where David was from. Is that not right?

    To me, that’s one of the strongest indicators that there was a guy upon whose life these legends were built – both Matthew and Luke are trying to address this problem that everyone knew Jesus was from Nazareth but the prophecy says that he’s supposed to come from Bethlehem. So they both come up with stories to explain away this problem, and the stories are incompatible as well as implausible on their own.

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      As Raymond Brown, the Catholic biblical scholar pointed out in his little book on Christmas, Jerusalem is more aptly called the City of David, than Bethlehem. See, for example, 1 Samuel 5.7 and Tobit 1.4.

    • Greg G
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      I have heard that Jesus was thought to be a Nazarite who never cut their hair or touched dead bodies, like Samson, but the Greek followers interpreted it as somebody from Nazareth. The Gospel writers had to contrive a way for Jesus to be born in Bethelhem yet come from Nazareth.

      Christian archaeologists have dug down to the first century level under Nazareth yet have no indication that it was inhabited at the in the early first century. Their conclusion was that it was “very small”.

    • Aratina Cage
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      that’s one of the strongest indicators that there was a guy upon whose life these legends were built – both Matthew and Luke are trying to address this problem that everyone knew Jesus was from Nazareth but the prophecy says that he’s supposed to come from Bethlehem. So they both come up with stories to explain away this problem, and the stories are incompatible as well as implausible on their own.

      That really doesn’t make sense. If Jesus was a real person and they knew where he was from, then making up a fake story about his birth would be an obvious fabrication to everyone hearing it or reading it.

  2. Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Tom Verenna points out some of the more basic errors in Bart’s book

    http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/preliminary-overview-of-bart-ehrmans-did-jesus-exist/

  3. Glenn Butler
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    [quote]but since there is no prophetic evidence for the messianic importance of either Bethlehem or Nazareth, the agreement is probably related to a common myth-making activity [/quote]

    From Ehrman:

    “Jesus is said to have come from Nazareth in multiple sources (Mark, Q, John, L, M). And nowhere in any of these stories is there any hint that the author or his community has advanced its own interests in indicating Nazareth as Jesus’s hometown. In fact, just the opposite: the early Christians had to explain [i]away[/i] the fact that Jesus came from Nazareth, as seen, for example, in John 1:45-46 and in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, which independently of one another try to show that even though Jesus came from Nazareth he was born in Bethlehem. And why the concern? Because the Old Testament prophet Micah said the savior would come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth (Micah 5:2).”

    Ehrman concludes that the probability is high that Jesus came from Nazareth because we have a multiply attested tradition that passes the criteria of dissimilarity.

    I think Ehrman makes a strong case for the existence of a historical Jesus as a Jewish apocalypticist.

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      Matthew and Luke are not independent of Mark, as Ehrman knows.

      And he has no evidence that John is independent of the Synoptic Gospels. Many times the Gospel of John deliberately changes the Synoptic storyline.

      And Mark has no idea that the Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem.

      He is working from a prophecy that the Messiah worked in Galilee.

      So he put Jesus there.

      • Glenn Butler
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        Matthew and Luke used Mark as one source, but Matthew and Luke also had other sources (Q, L, M), written and oral, that were independent of Mark. Therefore some of Matthew and Luke are indeed independent of Mark. Ehrman makes this clear if you read his work.

        • Jer
          Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

          First of all, Q and the other sources are a hypothesis, not absolute truth.

          Second of all, I’m absolutely positive that Steven Carr of all people has read not only Ehrman’s work but a great deal of the work that Ehrman cites in his own work.

          • Glenn Butler
            Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

            Nothing historians write about history is absolute truth, we can only deal in probabilities, but the probability that Q existed is very high. The four source hypothesis (Mark, Q, L, M) is favored by a large majority of New Testament scholars.

            Furthermore, if Mr. Carr is familiar with Ehrman’s work, then he should already know that Matthew and Luke are partially independent of Mark. See Ch. 6 of Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.

            • Nathair
              Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

              Even if we accept that the probability that Q existed is “very high” (and I certainly don’t) how exactly would that translate into the certain knowledge that Q placed Jesus in Nazareth?

              “A document probably existed and if it did I bet it said Jesus was from Nazareth” isn’t exactly what we can call supporting evidence.

            • Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

              It’s not “very high”, there’s serious scholarly opinion against the Q hypothesis. Ehrman glosses over it, but he really shouldn’t have.

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                I’m impressed by the ability of Biblical scholars to invent hypothetical sources, not just one but three, Q, L and M.

                Is there any strong evidence against the idea that Mark was the first such document, that Matthew copied from Mark (adding additional stuff he made up), and that Luke copied from both Mark and Matthew, again adding stuff?

                This dispenses with three hypothetical documents, and so is more parsimonious and should only be rejected given strong evidence.

              • Glenn Butler
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

                We can argue over “high” or “very high” but the fact remains that an overwhelming number of New Testament scholars support the four source hypothesis.

                I agree that there is serious scholarly opinion against it, but that opinion is in the minority.

              • Nathair
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                The fact remains that an “overwhelming” number of New Testament scholars supporting the four source hypothesis is still not evidence for it. Nor is the current popularity of the hypothesis an excuse to just flat out claim that the Q source placed Jesus in Nazareth.

                The argument is what, because a lot of people think there was a Q source there probably was, and since there probably was it could have placed Jesus in Nazareth, and since it could have then that would sorta makes more sense if he was a real person… ergo Jesus?

                That is not what I would call a skeptical approach to the question.

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

                This is an important point.
                Skeptics look at the methodology of Biblical historians and say “that’s epistemologically ridiculous, that’s nothing like evidence, what is this rubbish?” Biblical historians then get huffy and say that they use the methods of history and if you don’t like these methods, you must be a pseudohistorical crank.
                Except biblical history does not use the metholodogy used by the rest of history. Richard Carrier has investigated this closely and spends large chunks of Proving History on this precise point. He researched the methods of Jesus studies in detail, and summarises his conclusions:
                “Then I discovered that the field of New Testament studies was so monumentally fucked the task wasn’t as straightforward as I had hoped. Very basic things that all scholars pretend have been resolved (producing standard answers constantly repeated as ‘the consensus’ when really it’s just everyone citing each other like robbing Peter to pay Paul), really haven’t been, like when the New Testament books were written …”
                “… because the biggest thing I discovered is that every expert who is a specialist in methodology has concluded, one and all, that the methods now used in Jesus studies are also totally fucked …”
                That is: when Biblical historians appeal to “you’re throwing all of history under the bus”, this is false. They are, in fact, in the opinion of actual experts on non-Biblical ancient history, the pseudohistorical cranks, attempting to dress themselves in the colour of proper historical practice.
                They sincerely believe that they were taught the methods of legitimate history, and their lecturers were told the same in turn. But they really weren’t, and that’s why skeptics faced with their idea of what constitutes evidence have a hard time taking them seriously.

              • procrastin8or
                Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

                Biblical historians then get huffy and say that they use the methods of history and if you don’t like these methods, you must be a pseudohistorical crank.

                Funny, I had just that situation with James McGrath on the link I posted earlier in this thread.

            • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

              ‘Partially independent’ is something apologists use when they have been reminded that the Gospellers plagiarised from each other.

              You can’t count people who copy from each other as independent, even if they are two different people (which is what I think Ehrman means by ‘partially independent’)

              • Glenn Butler
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                While Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources, they each have unique material not found in Mark. Some of that non-Marcan material comes from Q and a good number of scholars have dated Q to the 50s, prior to Mark.

                It’s fair to say that Matthew and Luke are partially independent of Mark regardless of how you would like to spin it.

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

                Some of that non-Marcan material comes from Q …

                That’s a rather definite statement for what is largely conjecture!

                … and a good number of scholars have dated Q to the 50s, prior to Mark.

                And such claims are only worth the evidence they’re based on, and that evidence is meagre in the extreme.

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                If someone is “spinning” it, problems of the observation that there was a lot of dependent copying going on (see Carr’s reply to your original comment), it seems to be you. It seems to be the case however you parse sources.

                I may as well comment on this too, since I am curious:

                “I agree that there is serious scholarly opinion against it, but that opinion is in the minority.”

                These are biblical scholars that wish to produce more and independent sources. I think coelsblog makes a good observation, this hypothesis needs strong evidence (for several reasons). Is any such evidence offered?

              • Glenn Butler
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                I can’t read Greek nor any other ancient language so I must depend on scholars who can. I’ll throw my lot in with the majority of NT scholars and avoid the embarrassment of associating with irrational mythicists. Good day.

        • TruthOverfaith
          Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:28 am | Permalink

          The Book of Mormon is also independent of Mark.
          So would you say that it must be accurate?
          That seems to be the logic.

          It matters little whether a source is “independent” from the gospels or not, but whether the source has access to factual information regarding the life of Jesus.

  4. Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    (sub)

    (WP needs a function to subscribe to comments on a post without commenting)

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      yes, I’ve felt that too. Often I’d like to express my support for a comment without making one of my own.

    • Scote
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Doh!

      I thought all the people with “Subscribing!” posts were just being narcissistic, announcing to the world that they were subscribing and that we should all know of this important occurrence which would thus elevate the status of the thread. I think I read a bit too much into those posts…

      (So, yes, WP should have a comments RSS that doesn’t require posting…and has fortune would have it, it does, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/eric-macdonald-on-the-historicity-of-jesus/feed/ Not exactly the same as an email alert, but it does serve the same purpose.)

      • Marta
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        D’oh!

        Me, too!

        “I thought all the people with “Subscribing!” posts were just being narcissistic”

  5. Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    by reworking their myths they came to the “realisation” that their real vindication had already come and they had not recognised it.

    Cf Harold Camping

  6. Jacob
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Matthew appears to use the Bethlehem setting as a means of fulfilling prophecy (not Jewish prophecy obviously, but invented prophecy; the fact that none of this was seen as prophecy until after the book was written is perhaps one of the more powerful pieces of evidence that it is all a human contrivance). Matthew as a whole is more predisposed to using prophecy to prove his point anyway.

    I am inclined to believe that there was a single historical figure but that figure became irrelevant to the myth-making practices that followed. It is impossible now to tell what the real historical Jesus said and did, except perhaps that he was probably executed by the Romans. All the rest can be questioned as an embellishment. The Christian argument that a myth of such extravagance could not develop so quickly without being exposed assumes that the facts of Jesus’s life were well-known long after his death. The probable reality, however, is that Jesus was a minor figure and that the facts of his life were unknown or had already been mythologized by the time that they were committed to writing. Are we to believe that someone living in Rome in 100 AD would even have the ability to check on the facts of something that occurred generations ago and hundreds of miles away, or would they simply believe in the gospel account because they want to believe?

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      ‘The probable reality, however, is that Jesus was a minor figure and that the facts of his life were unknown or had already been mythologized by the time that they were committed to writing. Are we to believe that someone living in Rome in 100 AD would even have the ability to check on the facts of something that occurred generations ago and hundreds of miles away, or would they simply believe in the gospel account because they want to believe?’

      So why did all these Gospellers have to put Jesus in Nazareth, if Jesus was so unknown that people did not know where he came from?

      The argument that the Gospellers had to include known facts (even though the stories include mass resurrections and the sun being dark for 3 hours) is fantasy.

      They claimed the sun was dark for 3 hours.

      They weren’t constrained by facts!

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        Perhaps it was cloudy?! 😉

      • Jacob
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

        I’m not sure which side you’re arguing. If they weren’t constrained by facts, then why would they feel the need to put Jesus in Nazareth? I’m willing to accept that some broad outlines of the narrative were based upon fact. But for all we know most of the events of his life were witnessed by very small groups, and therefore it is easy to spin myth out of it.

        • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

          Mark puts Jesus in Nazareth because he has a prophecy to fulfil about Galilee.

          Isaiah 9
          But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.

          So Mark placed Jesus in Nazareth, and the others copied.

  7. Kurpali
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    A great case for the Jesus myth is made in Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle. Here is his article from Journal of Higher Criticism: http://www.jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/jhcjp.htm

  8. joe piecuch
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    mr macdonald describes his thinking a little further in a comment following his column:

    “There are two reasons for trying to prove that Jesus is or is not an firgure (sic) of history, from my point of view. (i) It would go some way towards confirming Christian beliefs, at least so far as the source and historical foundation of them goes, (ii) It may go some way to showing that Jesus was not a real person, and that the story of his life and teachings, and especially of his death and resurrection are fictions, and cannot be taken to ground belief in a risen Saviour.”

    i think historical interest is an additional, valid reason! he also says:

    “…it may in fact be right that there was an original single person underlying the story, but the story is not his. It is a theological construction…”

    uhh…yeah. he’s hardly at odds with ehrman there.

    • daveau
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Out of curiosity, have you read Mr Goren’s appended critique of Mr Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” Now that he has had a chance to read it, I believe he disagrees with Erhman on a number of points.

      • Dermot C
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        I’ve read both, Daveau.

        Ben’s piece is, as usual, entertaining and rhetorically amusing. Ehrman’s book is of course fascinating. As I understand it, he posits 2 principal pieces of evidence for very early confirmation of the Jesus figure’s existence. Firstly, Paul’s report in Galatians of his meeting with Peter and James, the ‘brother of the Lord’ which he approximates to around 32-33 CE (I think). Secondly, and I found this not so clearly propounded, Paul’s report of his earlier anti-Christian activities.

        He also dwells on other textual analysis from the usual sources, Mark, Q, L, etc. using his usual historical method.

        As an ‘undecided’ and a complete amateur, I would like to know more of the Essene question which Ben raises; why did they not mention Jesus? A priori, it seems reasonable to me that the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls (if indeed they were Essenes, and I have seen even that disputed) might have made reference to Jesus. Ehrman characterises them as complete ascetics, withdrawn from the world, but I have seen allusions to them as inhabiting population centres. I would like to know more.

        The absence of evidence which Ben remarks on about the Qumran scrolls is possibly Ben’s strongest point. I find less convincing his comment that the Jew Philo might have mentioned Jesus. Philo, an inhabitant of Alexandria, died in 50 CE, around the time of the dating of the first Letters of Paul; it is equally likely that Christianity had not reached his hometown. While Ben is at it, he should amend the mistake he makes that Philo was Herod Agrippa’s brother-in-law; Philo’s nephew was married to Herod Agrippa’s daughter.

        The general point about the lack of references to Jesus in non-Christian sources, I find pretty weak. Many of the authors Ben has cited (although they do not appear in the article to which WEIT has linked) are not concerned with the subject matter, one flourished in the fifth century and one has no works extant.

        Ben’s rhetorical point about the lack of references to Jesus from independent Greek and Roman sources seems impressive until you learn that there are none to the influential Jew Josephus either.

        Ben, in other pieces, seems to want to push back the dating of the earliest sources to some time early in the second century, although he does not say so in ‘Ehrman’s Folly’. This would entail a Kuhnian paradigm shift in Biblical studies, a knowledge of the ancient languages and half a lifetime’s work from many in the field. I, for one, am not up to that and leave it the experts to figure it out while I spectate from the sidelines. I look forward to Carrier’s forthcoming book with interest.

        • Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

          It is my understanding that Philo did write a bit about Pilate and his conflicts with the Jews.

          If Jesus was just a minor criminal in the eyes of Pilate, it makes sense that Philo wouldn’t have anything to say about him. Jesus probably ended up in an unmarked grave along with the other guys he was hanging with.

          A related point…It seems though that actual Christians who hold the resurrection to be true SHOULD expect Philo to mention Jesus, or failing that, at least some of the noteworthy events that also occurred that day. The graves of the saints opening up loosing them on the area would have merited more than at least one raised eyebrow.

          • Dermot C
            Posted April 14, 2012 at 3:24 am | Permalink

            Yes, Max,

            Philo excoriates Pontius Pilate, from XXXVIII (299) – (305), in his On the Embassy to Gaius, (better known as Caligula), so he didn’t lack bottle.

            “http://cornerstonepublications.org/Philo/Philo_On_The_Embassy_to_Gaius.html”

            And he doesn’t mention Jesus (Christ). Philo mentions Pilate in a digression serving to demonstrate how previous Emperors had stepped in to prevent their subordinates from acting in a sacrilegious manner towards mainstream Judaism. Rather surprisingly – perhaps in order to protect them – Philo names none of the High Priests involved, no Sadducees, although he mentions the ‘four sons of the king’ as the spokespersons for ‘the multitude’. This was a dispute between the official representatives of the Jewish State and Synagogue and those of the Roman Empire; indeed, Philo, in full supplicatory, but nevertheless brave, mode underlines his family’s social ties to those of Caligula.

            If Philo had heard of Jesus (Christ), there is no particular reason why he should cite his case in this context. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating document.

            • Posted April 14, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

              Dermot,
              Thanks. I was just reading some of those particulars over at Wikipedia.

              I do have a follow up question. Do you think that Philo’s silence on Jesus should give pause to fundamentalists, and even more sensible believers who hold the resurrection to be an ascertainable event in history? The gospels seem to indicate a Jesus who was a popular, charismatic character in the region, and the events surrounding his crucifixion would certainly have been news worthy. Is it too much to expect that Jesus (the one depicted in the Gospels) would have ended up in Philo’s writings?

              • Dermot C
                Posted April 14, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

                In answer to question 1, yes (assuming those modern Christians think that the Christ figure was contemporaneously extremely well-known); in answer to question 2, no (again assuming Jesus as an influential figure at least within 20s CE Judaism, or that Christianity had reached Alexandria by the time of Philo’s death in 50 CE – I have seen no evidence that it had).

                But please, Max, don’t ascribe expertise to me; I’m just an amateur.

      • joe piecuch
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

        yes, i’ve read it; i guess one man’s rhetorically amusing entertainment is another man’s tiresome psychodrama (for the love of lizards, will someone tell ben goren that a epithet-heavy bloated word count does not lend evidentiary weight to an argument?). the main point i take from ben’s piece is his conviction that “…we really don’t know anything at all about much of history,…”, unless you are ben, in which case your interpretation is so obviously the only possible one that anyone who claims to disagree can only do so dishonestly. that’s because he knows which writers and texts are reliable, and bart ehrman and his ilk are “…making up pleasing lies based on the slim pickings they have.”

        for example, prof. ehrman interprets the presence of aramaic words in the otherwise greek gospels of mark and john as suggesting a pre-greek oral aramaic tradition of jesus stories. he additionally discusses how a confusing greek text in mark makes sense when translated back into aramaic. it sounds plausible to me, but i’m not a bible studies scholar, nor am i a student of greek or aramaic. ben says this is all a fabrication; what is his basis for saying so? well, it’s academic dishonesty! and with unmitigated gall, and chutzpah, no less. ok…but, why? because ehrman is not at all to be trusted? because there is more evidence for the existence of julius caesar than there is for the existence of an historical jesus? he does not exactly say why, but he does say a lot of stuff. and his ideas about the origins of christianity seem to me to be within the realm of possibility, but they seem to me less plausible than professor ehrman’s; it would not, however, occur to me that it would thus be reasonable to accuse him of lying.

  9. Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    As with the above comments, I have heard ad nauseum when I was a choirboy, that the ‘prophecies’ were the one from Micah, & the Isaiah a “shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit” bit supposedly being about Nazareth, blah blah blah… but that is like a two year old trying to bang a square peg into a round hole, or searching for nits on a bald head. Really we could make any amount of things fit ‘prophecies’.

    I would tend to the view that there were people who formed the basis of a Jesus figure, but I am open to the view that there were none. However I think this is certainly unresolvable without further evidence, & would say it is up to those who support the historical Jesus(or Jesuses) to find new information (which seems unlikely).

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      The Christmas carol service at our local C of E included a sermon on the theme of Isaiah as prophecy. That the Gospels mirrored Isaiah was presented as firm evidence for prophecy having come true, not as e.g. whoever wrote the books in question having a copy of Isaiah to hand to work from. I politely restrained myself from commenting at the time …

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Handel’s Messiah is almost entirely based on OT (Hebrew scripture) prophesies, especially Isaiah, with little more than the nativity section from the NT (Greek). If you read Isaiah in context, it is clearly about then-current events. I suspect a lot of Christians get a lot of their Christianity from the Handel. (cue jokes about those who fly off it.)

        • Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

          The typical CoE member gets their theology from Sunday school and certainly never cracks open a Bible. (I suspect this is a slight disappointment to our really quite smart, knowledgeable and on-the-ball vicar, but you get the congretation you get, not the ideal one you might want.)

  10. Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you’ve misunderstood both Ehrman’s point and MacDonald’s. The historical figure of Jesus is not identical with the Jesus depicted in any particular source, much less with the Jesus of later legends and creeds. Saying that there was never a Jesus of the later sort who really lived does not mean that either Ehrman or MacDonald is denying that there is likely to have been a historical human being around whom the legends grew up.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      I don’t think I’ve misunderstood anyone. Ehrman thinks that there was a definite single individual around whom the Jesus myth grew up, and that individual was convicted by Pontius Pilate and crucified. I believe Eric is saying that the Jesus myth grew up around several to many individuals, not just one person. It is clear that neither Eric nor Ehrman give any credence to Jesus as a divine being or miracle-worker.

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        He says that there is no one figure who fits the Jesus of Christianity, which seems to agree with exactly what Ehrman says in the book. He does go beyond that and say that he thinks that there might have been more than one figure combined to make the later portrait, a viewpoint for which there is no evidence and which no secular historian seriously entertains. And so I am concerned about your seeming desire to give credence to the junk pseudoscholarship of mythicists. It undermines your defense of mainstream science when you give credence to denialism in the domain of history.

        • Dermot C
          Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          I have read the new Ehrman book and can recall no place where BDE posits the Jesus figure as a composite of several Apocalyptic preachers à la McDonald; nor can I recall BDE saying that in ’Misquoting Jesu…’, ‘Jesus, Interrupte…’ nor in ‘The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot…’.

          I quote from the latest tome,

          ‘…it defies belief that Paul would have spent over two weeks with Jesus’s closest companion (i.e. Peter – DC) and not learned something about him – for example that he lived.’

          Kindle edition: 38%.

          Could you please provide a reference for an Ehrmanian indication of a composite Jesus (Christ)?

          • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

            There isn’t one. There is no evidence for that, and that is my point. But I also pointed out that there is still a significant difference between MacDonald’s tentative entertaining the suggestion that more than one historical figure may have influenced various portraits of the historical figure of Jesus, and the claim made by most mythicists that not several but rather NO historical figures contributed to the portraits.

            • Dermot C
              Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

              @James McGrath:

              “He (Eric McDonald) says that there is no one figure who fits the Jesus of Christianity, which seems to agree with exactly what Ehrman says in the book.”

              Me:

              “Could you please provide a reference for an Ehrmanian indication of a composite Jesus (Christ)?”

              James McGrath:

              “There isn’t one.”

              I can not debate with someone who feels free so blatantly to contradict themselves. Sorry.

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

                Sorry if my wording wasn’t clear. Ehrman says that there was no historical figure who matches the miracle-working savior of later Christian belief. He doesn’t say that there was more than one figure who, when properly assembled, might.

            • Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

              I should just like to point out that my point was very very tentative. However, there seem to have been a number of messianic pretenders, some taken very seriously by the Romans and some dismissed with contempt. The Essenes or the community associated with the scrolls at Qumran, clearly had messianic intent.

              The rich proliferation of gospels which can only be reduced to the canonical four by arbitrary decision, and the fact that those four gospels are obviously opposed to the more narrowly Jewish project associated with the rabbinic scholars gathered at Jamnia (Yavne) (having been allowed out of Jerusalem by the Romans while it was under siege, if memory serves) suggest to me that the Jesus persona was a condensation from several different narrative trajectories, which may or may not reflect the actual life or lives of one or a number of different messianic figures.

              There does not seem to me to be enough evidence to justify speaking about an historical Jesus, something that was a continual challenge in trying to speak with some purpose about Jesus and his significance for our lives. The fact that Bethlehem as the city of David is a misrepresentation of the OT confering of that title on Jerusalem, suggests that there was a local mythmaking tradition to which Bethlehem was central for mythical, not historical, reasons. The same could easily be true about Nazareth, especially if the prophetic witness is as weak as ordinarily supposed (as weak or weaker than Bethlehem). That might point to an historical datum, but for the odd characterisation of Bethlehem, and both Nazareth and Bethlehem are common to the very different accounts of Matthew and Luke, which suggests that myth is more likely than history to have played a role in relation to the place names. It’s hard to see how their occurring in supposedly indpendent “sources” L, M, Q, and John (if the latter is plausible as an independent source at all), can affect this particular concern. (Indeed, the independence of the sources is very dubious, since Q is derived from L and M, Mark was probably familiar to both Luke and Matthew, and John is only very doubtfully an independent witness for anything about history.)

              Judaism was obviously in a state of ferment at the time: the yeast being the Roman occupation of the country and its local rule by Helenising (and not obviously Jewish) kinglets. There were several protests put down vigorously and savagely by Pilate, for which reason he was withdrawn, and the war of 66-72, and the Bar Kokhba insurrection indicate how parlous the state of governance was at the time. The destruction of the Temple, and the eventual renaming of the city played into the parallel development of a textually oriented Judaism not dependent on the Temple. The early Christian (messianic) community was related to by distinguished itself from the growth of rabbinic Judaism, as is evident from the largely negative response in the canonical gospels to the Pharisees. Perhaps its main distinction lay in its messianic myth-making by which it snatched victory from defeat.

              Having said all this, which is very much said with the qualification that I do not have sufficient scholarly expertise to speak of the texts to be able to speak with authority, my main point was that whether or not there was an historical Jesus is largely irrelevant, since the mythical overlay makes it impossible to distinguish the historical person (if there was one) from the non-historical, as so many quests of the historical Jesus seem to confirm, and the Jesus worshipped by Christians is simply not the historical Jesus, even if the gospel narratives do preserve the memory of a man who was at the origins of later myth-making about him. It makes more sense to think that this will remain unproven, until more evidence is acquired, something that is very unlikely to happen.

              • raven
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

                The rich proliferation of gospels which can only be reduced to the canonical four by arbitrary decision,

                This is an important point that not too many people know about.

                There are more than 4 gospels. Even after 2,000 years of neglect and suppression we know of at least 60. They differ wildly. It was a popular literary form of mostly fiction.

                The ones included in the bible were included based on political and theological grounds.

              • raven
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

                Whether or not there was a historical jesus is an interesting but unanswerable question. It’s been too long and the data is lost in the sands of time.

                But it is clear that whoever it was has as much supernatural power as my cat.

                There are the dogs that haven’t barked.

                1. We have no documents from jesus himself. If he existed, he was probably illiterate like most people of his class. It’s no failing for a carpenter from an obscure village like Nazareth to be illiterate. But the xian claim is that jesus is god, the most powerful force and creator of our universe.

                2. If jesus really was god, he could settle this point in a heartbeat. He could you know, just show up, do a few miracles, and say here I am. So where has this guy been for 2,000 years. Nowhere.

                If jesus was god and the gods existed, they would be as obvious and noncontroversial as trees, rocks, or water.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

                “If jesus was god and the gods existed, they would be as obvious and noncontroversial as trees, rocks, or water.”

                Hear hear! Like psychic powers or UFOs, why have they spent so long on the brink of detectability, being attested to by only the most unreliable of witnessses with the shonkiest, most indirect kind of evidence, so much of it patently fraudulent?

              • ROO BOOKAROO
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

                Raven is correct.
                Wikipedia mentions 37 Gospels with varying degree of evidence — 10 “completely preserved”,including the 4 canonicals and the famous “Gospel of Thomas”, 6 infancy, 4 “partially preserved”, 8 “fragmentary preserved”, 9 “reconstructed” — plus 23 “lost” Gospels, known only by inference from other sources.
                Gospel writing must have been the major game in town for educated writers who wanted to grab their audience’s attention. It must have been the easy road to fame, or infamy. But it must have been fun for everybody involved.
                Even today, our dear contemporary Dorothy M. Murdock/aka “Acharya S” has written her own “Gospel according to Acharya”. which, to everybody’s great disappointment, is not yet listed by Wikipedia in its “Modern” Gospels.

              • raven
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

                Gospels are still being written even today. Why not, it is mostly fiction.

                The last one to catch on was the Book of Mormon which is just a gospel set in North America. Did you know that…the Amerindians were Jewish, had horses before the Spanish invasion, and rode around waving iron swords at each other?

                No one but the Mormons know that either.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          Denialism? As I understand it there are no historical evidence of this religious founder. (Which is not expected, since other similar fictions lack historical evidence as well.)

          Isn’t that what we are debating, the lack of evidence, not the value of any presented such since nothing has as of yet been presented?

          Or do you think religious texts are historical descriptions? Why anyone would accept such a notion, much less entertain it, is a a mystery to me. That would be further testament to the lack of historicity, if people misconstrue sources.

          • Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

            Excluding sources simply because they were written by Christians is like excluding Roman sources because they were written b Romans who would then be biased, or Plato because he was biased towards Socrates. Figures without the wealth or power to leave behind tangible remains in antiquity are largely limited to textual evidence. That is the nature of studying ordinary poor people in antiquity.

            • Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

              A question: is your study of history exclusively of Bible-related history, or do you have published papers in other areas of ancient history?

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

                My main field is New Testament/early Christianity, but I’ve published things that have dealt with the Acts of Thomas, Rabbinic sources and Mandaean sources, also from a historical critical perspective. Being a religion professor, it is probably not surprising that I haven’t published on history unrelated to religion.

            • Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

              I simply cannot understand this:

              Excluding sources simply because they were written by Christians is like excluding Roman sources because they were written b[y] Romans who would then be biased …

              The analogy doesn’t work, not because Roman sources are known to be unbiased, but because the sources we have are relatively more independent of each other. Some of them certainly are biased, as Tacitus points out from time to time, as in “making a desert and calling it peace.” The fact that we do have a rich tapestry of testimony about the Empire, not all of it favourable, gives us a better sense of objectivity than seems to be available for the existence of Jesus, and gives us a richer diversity of evidence, some of it conflicting, which increases the reliability of consensus when it is reached.

              The point is that in the case of Jesus there are no sources without a Christian ideological bent, and the sources we do have are interpreted, for the most part, by people with the same ideological bent, who have an interest in maintaining the historicity of a figure that stands at the centre of Christian faith, a figure who, in the same text, is also given so many non-historical attributes as to call his historicity into question.

              It would not only be helpful, it seems to me to be essential, to have some non-Christian attestations to Jesus’ life and work, and that is what we do not seem to have. Being a Roman is not the same as being a Christian believer, and is likely to include a greater number of sceptics about Roman power and justice. But in the case of Jesus the scholarly consensus around the existence of Jesus is so bound up with religious believing that it is itself reasonably though to be open to question. I have myself no interest in showing that Jesus did not exist, but as a matter of history it does not seem to me that there is enough evidence to claim certainty about his existence as a particular person. The person recorded in the gospels certainly never existed as he is there portrayed.

              • ROO BOOKAROO
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

                Couldn’t be better said.
                So many analogies or comparisons alleged by apologists seem superficially valid, especially to the non-thinking, uncritical believer, but are on examination, artificial and all made up.
                Your answer cannot be improved.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

                We must remember that when a historicist mentions “scholars”, particularly “the consensus of scholars” … “scholar” is actually a weasel word. Far too many of these people are theologians, who are exceedingly unlikely to decide against historicity. Look at the stick Ehrman got when his study of the Bible caused him to lose his faith.

                It’s worth asking the question “Who is this scholar, and what are his investments in the issue?” If he is a theologian, then it is worth asking “Would this theologian ever be able to even say that The Christ did not exist, or would his theological underpinnings prevent him from saying that?” When apologists quote scholars or ‘experts’ of Jesus’ historicity, they are often quoting theologians whose focus is theology, and whose vestment in the argument is clear.(e.g. 1) Further, those who have a bias towards not challenging the theology as they know it have often preselected the texts that are “canon” and “authentic”. (e.g. 2) Hector Avalos details the differences between the seminary and secular streams of Bible-related study in his 2007 book The End of Biblical Studies.

                tl;dr biblical scholars are frequently not working to the standards a non-biblical scholar would, even as they claim such scholars’ reputations.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

                This risks becoming simply the inversion of the conservative Christian claim that all scientists are atheists and so biased. Apart from being untrue, it is also irrelevant. One can set aside all scholars and historians who are Christians, who teach at or studied at seminaries, or who in any other way might seem to be biased. The situation remains that historians and scholars in the relevant areas all but unanimously conclude that there was most likely a historical figure of Jesus.

                The only relevant question is what the evidence says, what the academic tools are to be applied to the question, whether they work, and what results when the matter is studied in a rigorous manner.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

                “The only relevant question is what the evidence says, what the academic tools are to be applied to the question, whether they work, and what results when the matter is studied in a rigorous manner.”

                Yes, it seems Carrier did a detailed survey of this precise question …

            • TruthOverfaith
              Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:33 am | Permalink

              McGrath,

              Richard Carrier thoroughly embarrassed you and your so called “scholarship” on a recent blog post at his website.

              It’s recommended reading.

              • Posted April 14, 2012 at 5:19 am | Permalink

                I’m no more embarassed by what Richard Carrier has written on his blog about me than Jerry Coyne might be by something William Dembski or Michael Behe wrote about him and his work.

                I definitely encourage people to read what he says, but also to become profoundly familiar with what mainstream historians and historical scholarship says on this topic. If you immerse yourself only in the world of denialism and conspiracy theories, then the claims made by promoters of those viewpoints will come to seem serious and you will imagine that mainstream scientists and historians are all doing shoddy work exposed by internet campaigners. That someone would think that is indeed embarrassing – but not for the professional academics, but for those who are poorly informed enough about scholarship to find fringe claims not merely interesting but somehow the only ones who’ve grasped the truth while everyone else is wrong, if only they could see themselves as others see them.

            • Posted April 14, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

              My problem with this process is that there seems to be a great deal of massaging and selective reading to extract historical data from the Gospels and the NT generally.

              Having read several of BE’s books I certainly never fail to find them fascinating but I am always left feeling he is probably going a little too far with a sketchy data set.

              I am not in any way an expert on these matters but the case for a historical Jesus seems just as ill-supported as the case for a historical Hercules. I will say that I find the idea of an apocalyptic preacher named Jesus more parsimonious than assuming a combination of such characters (and this mostly just from details in Mark). Having said that, I don’t find the case for a historical Jesus to be spectacularly more convincing than the case made by the mythicists. The quality of the historical evidence that attests to Jesus’ existence just doesn’t seem that good to me, and sometimes seems over-interpreted.

              • Posted April 14, 2012 at 5:50 am | Permalink

                I think the one additional thing that needs to be said is that those who conclude that there was most likely a historical Jesus are dealing with the relevant evidence, while mythicists – those who claim that Jesus was more likely originally a purely celestial figure – make false claims about the evidence, which it be about dying and rising gods, meanings of Greek words, or something else. In some cases they are merely repeating things they read on Wikipedia or in books from the 19th century or somewhere else, but sooner or later false claims about the evidence are always a part of the case for mythicism, and that is perhaps the most important thing that Ehrman’s book highlights.

                I think those who merely feel that the evidence is not as strong as they would have liked should call themselves “Jesus agnostics” or something else to distinguish themselves from the mythicists who engage in deception to promulgate bogus claims.

              • Posted April 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

                James, I am certainly not qualified to adjudicate on the claims of the mythicists. You seem to be saying that none of them are being honest about the data that do exist.

                The mythicists don’t seem to be making outrageous claims to me, even though I am not quite convinced. And the syncretic nature of Christianity and its practice indicate that some religious traditions from other faiths were indeed grafted on to the stories of Jesus.

                The only intellectually honest thing I think we can say, is that we can know very, very little about the historical Jesus…at all. It seems this would be true even if we had hard copies of Q, L and M.

                Jesus agnostics indeed!

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      Dr McGrath, hi! You didn’t answer last time, but since you’re here I’ll ask again:

      Last time, you said, “The overall rethorical thrust of the book is, atheists, stop saying that Jesus was a complete myth, that such a man never existed; to the knowledgeable historians, this makes you sound almost as
      silly as creationists sound to biologists.”

      A few people (1, 2) asked if you were including such persons as Richard Carrier in such a characterisation, or if you were saying he wasn’t a knowledgeable historian, or just what you were saying.

      Unfortunately, in your several comments over several days, you never quite found time to address this one. But if you could, I’m sure it would help clear up your position tremendously. Thanks!

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Sorry for letting your question get lost in the discussion last time – I had to drop out of the degenerating trend of the conversation.

        Richard Carrier has done some impressive work, and so I really don’t know how to account for the fact that he thinks Doherty’s work is not bunk. I don’t know how to account for the fact that he finds plausible things that no other historian does. And so he, like the occasional person with a PhD who says they find young-earth creationism, or intelligent design, or climate change denial plausible, I don’t know what to make of him. He’s an anomaly – and more so for me, because I found some of his earlier writings insightful, interesting and helpful, before he jumped on the mythicist bandwagon.

        • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

          Right, so you think Carrier is a crank? OK. Thanks!

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

            I think he says that “mythicists” are cranks, not the “historians” that have no historical evidence. =D

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Eric MacDonald doesn’t understand religion.
    .
    I have no intention of defending that, I just don’t like to have my rights of free expression threatened.

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      People who were priests for decades should of course be expected to know nothing of religion.

      You have no intention of defending that, because it’s a completley ridiculous statement.

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        Don’t get your knickers in a twist, David! Reg’s comment is an obviously facetious rejoinder to Jerry’s “And nobody can say he doesn’t understand religion!”

        /@

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      – You have the right to remain silent.
      – Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of your peers.
      – You have the right to speak to the peanut gallery.
      – If you cannot find a peanut gallery, one will spontaneously form for you.
      – Do you understand these rights to be heckled as they have been read to you?

  12. Raymond Briggs
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I have read Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist and Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man (as well as Price and Wells om the same subject) and my opinion is that a good mythicist case can be made to explain the Jesus stories we have and a good case can also be made for there having been a real 1st century person behind them. Unfortunately, I do not think there is killer evidence for or against either position. But if there was a real person behind the stories (as Ehrman claims), he agrees that there is no reliable evidence supporting the divine miracle making Jesus who is preached from the pulpit.

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Even Carrier says the myth position isn’t a near-certainty, but only the balance of probabilities.

      • Dermot C
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Are you sure, David? I thought I’d seen a video of his wherein he uses Bayesian anaylsis to, as I think he says, disprove absolutely the existence of Jesus of the Gospels. Isn’t that what he promises in his forthcoming book?

        • Posted April 12, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          Is it actually possible to disprove anything absolutely with Bayesian analysis?

          I doubt that Carrier would have made such a concrete claim. (But I’m open to being shown wrong! ;-))

          /@

        • Posted April 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          A good Bayesian shudders at the notion that 0 and 1 are meaningful probabilities 😉 But he wouldn’t class “Jesus never existed” on the same level of certainty as “evolution is true” or “gravity works”. In an interview with John Loftus, he puts it like this (near the end):

          “However, my conclusion does come close to the Granicus example above. I am not supremely certain. I just think it’s more likely than not. But this won’t be any comfort to Christians, since the next most probable hypothesis is that Jesus existed but we know essentially nothing about him. Which, incidentally, a lot of experts in the field are starting to agree with. It’s slowly becoming the consensus position. There are still hold outs, like Bart Ehrman, but I don’t think their position is going to survive in the long run. There are just too many cats out of the bag at this point. But what will be the fate of the next-step position, that there wasn’t even a Jesus at all? Time will tell. But someone needs to present the case properly before it can be conclusively accepted or refuted. No one has done that yet. My future book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ will. In the meantime Proving History does a good job already of showing why that currently growing consensus is correct; and it’s just one step from there to full mythicism.”

          • Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

            So, Carrier is saying that On the Historicity of Jesus Christ will “present the case properly” rather than actually refuting the historicity of Jesus… ?

            /@

            • Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

              I guess we’ll have to wait for the second book, next year!

              (I’m in the UK and have to wait another month for the first book, unless I want to pay a fortune in shipping …)

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

                Kindle? iBooks?

                I’m going to wait for the pb anyway… probably.

                /@

              • Dermot C
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

                Shouldn’t someone suggest to Carrier that On the Historicity of Jesus Christ lacks pith?

                The God delusion, God is not Great, Did Jesus exist?; good snappy titles, can’t be bad for sales.

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

                PS. OT. Cheers! It’s Hitch’s birthday! Just about to pour myself an amber libation.

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

                @ Dermot

                How about, Well, That About Wraps It Up for Jesus?

                /@

              • Dermot C
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

                Or, quoting C.S. Lewis and Ehrman, “Jesus; Lunatic, Lord, Liar or Legend?”
                “Jesus: Messiah, Sire or Liar?”
                “Jesus Crossed Out.”
                “We were only kidding; How Jesus’ disciples invented satire and how it’s all been a dreadful misunderstanding.”
                “The Lamb Passed Over.”

              • Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

                Mutton Dressed As Lamb?

                /@

              • Dermot C
                Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

                Lamb to the Slaughter – I really must to beddy-byes and count sheep.

  13. Howard Klaaste
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I followed Erhman via his book Misquoting Jesus, and others, and in debates with noteworthy scholars such as Craig Evans, and am astonished at the amount of time and energy he injected in the study of the NT.

    His life’s work is basically encapsulated in the NT. The books and references (to others with PhD badges) assume that Jesus was a literal figure.

    I personally think that he has too much to lose should he admit that his studies in fact proved that Jesus was just as real as Spider Man.

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      That is exactly what young-earth creationists say is the reason why scientists cling to evolution in spite of what they think are powerful criticisms of it.

      • Scote
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        “That is exactly what young-earth creationists say is the reason why scientists cling to evolution in spite of what they think are powerful criticisms of it.”

        Bias is a real phenomenon–so much so that much of the methodology of science is dedicated to accounting for and compensating for human bias, to help us separate what is true from what merely seems to be true. The claims of bias by Creationists don’t stand up because of the overwhelming tangible evidence and subsequent refinement and confirmation of science through what might be called an adversarial system of study. Ehrman’s position, while scholarly, is much more subjective and speculative, and accusations of self-interested bias cannot be so easily refuted.

        I’m not sure that what seems to be an unjustified, or at least an exaggerated, vehemence on Ehrman’s need be attributed to bias on his part, but I am sure that the claim for a historical Jesus is not analogous in terms of the quality and body of evidence to that of evolution. So the analogy to creationists accusing evolutionary scientists of bias is a superficial and spurious one. Science tries to account for bias. But what about Ehrman? What are the methods by which New Testament scholars objectively, and verifiably, account for and correct for human bias?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        Or what physicists say is the reason Pons and Fleischmann clung to cold fusion despite the lack of independent evidence.

        Which is exactly the “historians” position here. There is no independent actual historical evidence, which makes the myth claim at least historically equal and empirically the strongest.

    • DrDroid
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      That’s exactly my opinion also. If Jesus is a myth on a par with Zeus and Santa Claus it makes his academic career look like the equivalent of theologians arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. He also self-identifies as an “agnostic”, which may seem to him a safer stance than “atheist” given that he is a faculty member at UNC, a state populated with Southern Baptists. On the other hand, maybe he hasn’t quite even yet let go of that religion thang.

  14. procrastin8or
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I hope you don’t mind me post a link to my secondary blog on this subject but I have further discussion to add to the debate here.

  15. Pray Hard
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    For most, the mythicist position is at least as difficult to grasp as natural selection. To accept and or realize that all of these various Easter Bunnies didn’t even exist is simply beyond the ability of most. I know there’s already been one recent book written about whether Mohammed existed and that another is in the works on the same topic by a well known mythicist. Except for the fact that a whole bunch of people have believed these things for a long time, there is almost no evidence that any of these “heroes” existed as anything more than folktales, myths, plagiarisms, frauds and or fairy tales. And, seriously, to what depth must it be proven that they didn’t exist? I think the mythicist position books are a good source for people with non-science backgrounds and even for people with science backgrounds, but, as a famous guy once said, what can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. And, really, Erhmann? Meh.

  16. Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    For a less scholarly (but equally impassioned) critique of Ehrman, regular Ben Goren has produced a long one, “Ehrman’s folly,” that you can read here.

    The link is broken (you have linked to a file on your computer)

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      I’ve fixed it now; thanks!

  17. Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    What’s missing from this entire historicity/mythicism debate, that I’ve only seen in one essay in one publication — by a lawyer, no less — is what it means when we say “Jesus existed”.

    For example, if we say “Moses existed”, we have particular historical situation, the Exodus, that can only make sense if Moses existed. Since there was no Exodus, it doesn’t make sense to say “Moses existed” because his entire ontology which binds him to history is the Exodus.

    There could have been some guy in antiquity named “Moses” who had a stutter and like to tell tall tales in the pub, one of those stories was the Exodus, but I don’t think we could call that the “historical Moses”.

    Jesus’ only defining historical role is that he came back from the dead. Since coming back from the dead after three days doesn’t happen — much like the Exodus — what else can we mean when we say “Jesus existed”? What if there was a guy from whom almost all of the teachings in the gospels goes back to, yet wasn’t crucified? Is that the historical Jesus? What if there was some guy who got crucified but was a mute? Is that the historical Jesus? What if there was some bloke named Jesus who had a brother named James, but other than that has no relation to anything in either the gospels or the epistles in the NT? Is that the historical Jesus?

    I think this is the “threshold problem” that hopefully Richard Carrier will address in his next publication about the HJ.

    • Scote
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      That is an important issue. Jesus is a myth. The only real question is *how much* of a myth he is. And even if he was based on a real person, he’s still a myth, just as fictional characters like Harry Potter are still fictional, even if they were based on a real person, like J K Rowling’s son (though I’m not saying HP was.)

      • Dermot C
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        In response to J. Quinton, I think rational people (mythicists, historicists, undecideds)are all perfectly aware of what it means to say the man Jesus existed.

        But the debate re-illuminated by Ehrman et al. is whether there is evidence from the early texts for the existence and acts of a character called Jesus; he being the same man as the one about whom later mythological and theological literature circulated. The debate is about what is more or less reliable as historical evidence.

        What it means to say Jesus existed can only be answered after you have studied the evidence, to the best of your ability.

        • Scote
          Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          “What it means to say Jesus existed can only be answered after you have studied the evidence, to the best of your ability”

          We can speak of it more generally than that, especially given that the evidence is all indirect at best.

          The essay by Ben Goran which the thread update links to gives an analogy:

          “Santa is real! He lives year-round in Florida, his name is, “Harold,” he hates kids, he’s allergic to reindeer, and he’s never given anybody a Christmas present in his entire life. But he’s the real Santa!”

          When someone claims that so much of the claims about Jesus are false, but also claim he “really” existed, the claim of “real existence” becomes a bit tenuous.

          • Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

            I’m pleased to see that Ben is using that analogy I posted (originally from Dan Dennett, I think)!

            But it is vital I think to note that this does explain why a “composite” account doesn’t fly either.

            Why? Because if any of the “origins” are so unlike the figure of the gospels, etc. why would you regard this as the historical case either? So there was a guy named Jesus? No mythicist denies that – it was apparently a common name. Were there “apocalyptic” preachers in the 1st century CE in Judea, etc.? Sure. But one needs the same person for many of these things, or it really is a case of myth again.

        • Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          I read one story in Josephus‘s autobiography about a guy named Jesus who led a bunch of poor people and fishermen to mutiny against a general. One among this entourage of fishermen and poor people decided to betray Jesus and got him arrested. When this Jesus was arrested, his group of fishermen and poor people abandoned him.

          Is that the historical Jesus?

          A different Jesus preached “woe to Jerusalem” for a number of years and pissed off the locals. A mob brought him to the Roman leadership where the procurator questioned him. This Jesus said nothing in his own defense. The procurator released this Jesus because he just thought he was a harmless crazy.

          Is that the historical Jesus?

          Of course, there is a second Jesus in the gospel narratives, and his last name is “Barabbas”. Barabbas just so happens to mean “son of [the] father”.

          Is that the historical Jesus?

          The question isn’t that cut and dried.

          • Dermot C
            Posted April 12, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I know the stories.

            The historical task is to evaluate the evidence (if it exists) that links any of these three Jesuses to the Jesus about whom later mythological and theological literature circulated.

            As you would do for the Jesus of Galilee figure; and then to determine on the balance of probabilities whether none, any or all existed.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      Of course, that is the key point. How do we define the “historical” Jesus if we disconnect him from the character depicted in the Gospels, the famous “Jesus of faith”?
      How far can we allow the “disconnection” to proceed? How much do we have to retain to make sure that the residual is still connected to the Jesus of faith and legend?
      The Enlightenment, which fist considered the problem (with Reimarus, Voltaire, baron d’Holbach), had a simple solution: take out all the supernatural, and the residue is what allows us to describe the “real”, i.e. “historical” Jesus.
      Thomas Jefferson did it physically by using a scissor to snip out all the passages dealing with the supernatural aspect of Jesus (he had to use two Bibles for that, first to cut out on one side,then on the other). Then by pasting the remaining texts, he got the famous “Jefferson Bible”.
      This is also what all the writers of the 19th century did, writing their immensely popular “Life of Jesus”.
      Until Albert Schweitzer, reviewing all this cutting and snipping activity, and all those new “Lives of Jessus” in his famous 1906 book “the Quest for the Historical Jesus” concluded that all this elimination work would never succeed in reconstituting the original 1st century “historical” Jesus.
      All the debate on “Jesus – History or Myth” has since revolved around that point. If we reach an “uncoverable” Jesus, what have we got? How do we know this was “Jesus”? What kind of Jesus? Or anything left of Jesus?
      So are we then left only with a phantomatic figure, a shadow disappearing in the mist of time, and for ever unknowable?
      In this case of going all the way, we’ve lost any sense of what connection that evanescent figure had with the initial Gospel figure of faith. We have eliminated so much that we’ve reached a disappearing entity, a bit like homeopathy claims to do.
      Jesus mythicists simply go all the way: That evanescent, phantomatic figure is an illusion, a mirage, it doesn’t exist.
      It’s only the asymptotic limit of our elimination process. We knew where we started from, we’ve followed each step of that elimination process, but in so doing, we’ve removed the last molecule of “existing” Jesus, to the point that it becomes a new act of faith to call the residual shadow by the name of Jesus or claim that no, there’s nothing left of Jesus. There’s is no “real”, i.e. “historical” Jesus, only in our imagination.
      The final debate between “historicists” and “mythicists” is exactly the same as in the case of homeopathy.

  18. Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Wow, McDonald’s piece is a complete disaster. He completely fails to engage with the view developed by New Testament (NT) scholars about the historical Jesus.

    He emphasizes the conflicting birth narratives as reasons “against the existence of a single figure around which the Christian myth crystallised.” But why would anyone look to the birth narratives for evidence of such a historical figure? Mark’s gospel was the first one written, and it doesn’t have a birth narrative. (Neither does John.) NT scholarship suggests these narratives were built for theological/Christological purposes. This is the last place to expect good evidence of a historical figure.

    Then he goes on to the resurrection narratives. OF COURSE these are mythical accounts: no one except an ardent believer thinks these are straight eyewitness accounts. Even many scholars who are Christian accept that these accounts were created at a later time to bolster the Christ myth.

    He completely ignores the scholarship that reflects points where there is strong evidence of a historical person. E.g., the baptism of Jesus “for the forgiveness of sins.” Why would someone inventing a mythical, perfect Jesus make that up? Mark reports it straightforwardly, Matthew fudges to make it more palatable, John leaves it out entirely. That makes sense if there was a Jesus who was actually baptized and who successive generations of Christians came to see as an increasingly exalted figure. It makes no sense if there was an original mythical Christ who was later historicized.

    As an atheist, I don’t particularly care whether Jesus existed or not. But I find it embarrassing for so many prominent atheists to ignore the existing scholarship, to ignore the evidence, to propound alternate views that have little or no evidential support.

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      E.g., the baptism of Jesus “for the forgiveness of sins.” Why would someone inventing a mythical, perfect Jesus make that up?

      This assumes that Mark thought Jesus was perfect.

      Mark 10.18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone.”

      All of those embarrassment criteria assume catholicism (both big C and little c “catholic”), thinking that the views of those who decided to collate the books of the NT applies to all of the gospel authors. 2nd century Catholics thought that Jesus was perfect. Obviously, a heretical adoptionist Mark did not.

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        J., my comment was directed against those mythicists who claim that the story of Jesus as god-man came BEFORE the story of Jesus as historical person. The question is, on that view, why the earliest gospel (Mark) would have the LEAST exalted view of Jesus.

        I agree that Mark did not think Jesus was perfect. That view developed later.

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t that remark of Jesus intended to imply that he was perfect, and hinting at being God? That’s how modern christians seem to interpret it. Is there any reason to suppose that the rhetorical device is recent?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      E.g., the baptism of Jesus “for the forgiveness of sins.” Why would someone inventing a mythical, perfect Jesus make that up?

      I invoke Hanlon’s razor
      “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

      There is certainly plenty of other evidence that the early Christians were not overly bright.

      Matthew vs. Mark vs. John – these are not entirely independent accounts.

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        “Matthew vs. Mark vs. John – these are not entirely independent accounts.”

        Yes, that’s precisely the point: that by looking at how Matthew changed Mark in the process of adapting his gospel, we can discover things about how Matthew’s Christianity differed from Mark’s. One difference is clear: Matthew was more embarrassed by the baptism than Mark was.

        I don’t see the relevance of your comment about Christians not being very bright. I expect they weren’t any brighter or stupider than average….

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Why would someone claim to have been at Woodstock when they were not? Woodstock at least was real. Likewise, stories attempting to tie JC to JtB may indicate that JtB was real.

  19. bacopa
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    What about John the Baptist? I think the John the Baptist (JTB) part of the Gospels is pretty strong evidence that there was some unique person the Jesus stories were loosely based on. The whole JTB baptizes Jesus part of the story reads like there were two factions, one following Jesus, and one following JTB. Later on, the factions joined forces and JTB was written into the Jesus story.

    Why have a JTB story at all? Seems to suggest there were real movements following two separate real people.

    And not all the JTB followers joined up with the Jesus faction. The Mandaean sect survives to this day, barely. They consider Jesus a false messiah. John the Baptist is their moat important prophet.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Maybe JTB was real, and the Jesus-heads incorporated that bit to give their own saviour river cred. I mean, why would someone born without sin need to be baptised anyway?

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      In Did Jesus Exist?, G.A. Wells argues that the evidence for JTB is much better than that for Jesus.

  20. Gareth Price
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    While I will ultimately defer to the experts on this, I do find it a little hard to believe that there was not a single historical figure on whom the stories were based.

    Are there other examples of religions where the central character is near-universally agreed not to have existed?

    • Curt Cameron
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Well, as was said earlier upthread, Moses is a pretty central character of Judaism, and he never existed. At least, the person involved in the events described in Exodus didn’t exist because that stuff didn’t happen.

      • Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        The evidence for Abraham is even scantier than for Moses.

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      would you say the same thing about the various figures in other myths? I can see no reason for there to have had to be a “real” person that was the basis for, say, Gilgamesh. To say that every mythic figure had to be based on a real person is like saying that all fictional characters have been based on real people who did similar things, etc. I can be pretty sure that no one has climbed a beanstalk like “Jack” did.

      • Dermot C
        Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        @clubschadenfreude 12:01 pm

        I am not entirely clear whether you think Gilgamesh was a real person or not, but this might interest you.

        I knew I had a memory of the Gilgamesh of the epic being a mythicisation of a historical character (and, yes, I know this is parenthetical to your substantive point, but I find the following worthy of note, so here goes).

        According to Dr. Arno Poebel, Gilgamesh appears in the ‘important list of partly and mythical historical dynasties found among the tablets of the Nippur collection…as a King of an Erech dynasty, whose father was Â, a priest of Kulab.’ An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic edited by Morris Jastrow, Project Gutenberg ebook, 4%.

        Admittedly, the work dates from 1920; yes, assuming the scholarship stands up, the myth differs hugely from the real person, but it does seem that a historical character called Gilgamesh ‘inspired’ the epic – and a thoroughly good romp it is, too.

        • Dermot C
          Posted April 12, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          @ me 1:34 pm

          D’oh…erratum: ‘…partly mythical and partly historical dynasties…’

          Apologies. Never blog with kids in the room.

        • Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

          interesting information and I thank you for it. I love mythology and the study of it. I find that to claim that any one person was the basis for any mytholgical magic-using character is far fetched because there is no reason to assume that the character isn’t simply an accumulation of generic human traits. There is no need for a “patient zero”, so to speak. Humans are quite able to make things up out of whole cloth.

          • Dermot C
            Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

            Yes, in the epic, the human theme of the fear of death and the hubristic desire for immortality. Puts me in mind of Ozymandias and, on the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, Hardy’s poem The Convergence of the Twain.

    • Sajanas
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard dates for the Buddha’s life that range from the 800s to the 400s BC. Surely if its that flexible, in time, its not impossible that he could just be like Moses. Then nice thing is that he doesn’t have to be real for his wisdom to be important.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Paul Bunyan. JOhn Frumm. Xenu.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Was Jonah real? How about Adam?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      As for the historicity of such figures, some well known examples:

      – “the Buddhacarita is the earliest full biography, an epic poem written by the poet Aśvaghoṣa, and dating around the beginning of the 2nd century CE.”

      Wikipedia on Buddha, claimed to have lived 563 BCE to 483 BCE. So no contemporary historical evidence. I believe the region was pre-literary.

      – “The earliest surviving written sira (biographies of Muhammad and quotes attributed to him) is Ibn Ishaq’s Life of God’s Messenger written ca. 767”.

      Wikipedia on Muhammad, claimed to have lived 570 – 632 CE. So no contemporary historical evidence. I believe the region was pre-literary.

      – “Zuo Zhuan (Chinese: 左傳), or Chunqiu Zuo Zhuan, sometimes translated as the Chronicle of Zuo or the Commentary of Zuo, is among the earliest Chinese works of narrative history, covering the period from 722 to 468 BCE. … Most notable modern scholars of this book such as Yang Bojun (楊伯峻) hold that the work was compiled during the Warring States Period, with a compilation date not later than 389 BCE.”

      “The Analects was traditionally attributed to Confucius and was written approximately around 500 BC. … the work was probably finished during the Warring States Period, though the exact publication date of the first complete Analects cannot be pinpointed.”

      “No contemporary painting or sculpture of Confucius survives, and it was only during the Han Dynasty that he was portrayed visually.”

      Wikipedia on Confucius, claimed to have lived 551 – 479 BCE. So no contemporary historical evidence.

      And so on and so forth. The first religious founders with historical evidence surfaces after the Enlightenment with global literacy, when known scammers like Smith, Blavatsky and Hubbard found their religions.

      So we would expect all ancient religions to have unhistorical myth figures as central character, and all modern religions to have historical scam artists as cc.

  21. Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    “especially when it comes to the mythical parts” there are any other parts?

  22. Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    An event that seems to me to be more important in the story of Christianity than anyone gives it credit for (I’m open to correction) is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

    It’s like the Jews’ September 11. It overthrew their whole system of sacrifices and hence the role of the priests. Verses about it are written into the gospels, and it has a lot of echoes in Revelation.

    My hypothesis (=wild guess) is that it enabled previous (numerous, and contradictory) free-floating stories about a quasi-divine preacher to coalesce into a Jesus conveniently placed before the destruction – rather as we now sentimentalise the 70s or the Beat poets.

  23. Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    Here is Ehrman trashing the Gospels as sources ‘You have the same problems for all of the sources and all of our Gospels. These are not historically reliable accounts. The authors were not eyewitnesses; they’re Greek-speaking Christians living 35 to 65 years after the events they narrate. The accounts that they narrate are based on oral traditions that have been in circulation for decades. Year after year Christians trying to convert others told them stories to convince them that Jesus was raised from the dead. These writers are telling stories, then, that Christians have been telling all these years. Many stories were invented, and most of the stories were changed. For that reason, these accounts are not as useful as we would like them to be for historical purposes. They’re not contemporary, they’re not disinterested, and they’re not consistent.’

    Rather fortuitiously, it turns out the Gospels are ideal historical material for refuting mythicists, being full of early written sources dating back to just after Jesus died, not to mention all the rich oral traditions that were dutifully noted down in the Gospels.

  24. joe piecuch
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    one could read eric macdonald’s piece, and note that he discounts the historical reliability of the gospels on the basis of their conflicting narratives; then, based on a cursory reading, one could assume they’d caught him contradicting himself when he points to agreements in the the matthew and luke birth narratives and ascribes it to ahistorical ‘common myth-making’. but that reading would depend on not paying attention to what he is saying. i think you are not paying attention to what professor ehrman is saying. the gospels are obviously not historically reliable; that does not mean that they contain no historical evidence.

    many scholars have devoted a great deal of time to analysing the iliad, finding substantial evidence for an oral tradition predating its written existence. charles maclaren and frank calvert believed there were clues to historical realities in the iliad, and excavations based on their ideas produced enormous quantities of archaeological evidence for cities that almost certainly were the inspiration for troy. the iliad is undoubtedly largely mythical, but it is also the case that it contains historical evidence.

    professor ehrman believes that the historically unreliable gospels, as well as other ancient texts, can be analysed for evidence of an historical jesus. you may well disagree with his methods and conclusions, but your disagreement alone does not warrant questioning his competence or honesty. if you believe he has erred, then please explain how that is the case. i’m certainly interested in hearing other explanations; but i’m not much interested in ignorant mockery, facile ‘gotchas!’, and name calling.

    • Dermot C
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      As an example of historical evidence in the Iliad, there is Homer’s description of the famous boar’s bone helmets which pre-date by a long while Homer’s day.

      Schliemann of course located Troy as being where Homer said it was; the latest I know, in the debate amongst scholars, is that they have not determined which of the 9 layers of settlement was the inspiration/site of Homer’s Troy.

      There is a theory that Troy was part of the Hittite empire; therefore we might expect references to the seige/conflagration to turn up in the 150,000 clay tablets from Hatusha, the Hittite capital, which the scholars are laboriously translating. Hittite was an Indo-European language – it’s word for ‘water’ was something like ‘watter’, which I have heard pronounced with a decidedly Old English accent. Any young linguists out there looking for a job for life might want to consider learning the language.

    • andreschuiteman
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      As cited by Ophelia Benson, Ehrman wrote in his book:

      ‘The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced.’

      If he had been a competent scientist, he should have written:

      ‘Stories, possibly partly or entirely fictional, about one or more preachers, collectively identified as ‘Jesus’ in the New Testament, may have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced.’

      This is all that the available evidence allows him to state. Anything stronger than that is speculation, isn’t it?

      • joe piecuch
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        both statements are speculative; the difference between them is largely the degree of assurance with which they are made. whether or not ehrman’s statement is well founded is a matter of opinion. i don’t think ehrman claims to be a scientist, competent or otherwise. the ‘science’ of bible studies is carrier’s thing, isn’t it?

        • andreschuiteman
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          What’s wrong with Ehrman’s statement is that it is presented not as opinion but as fact, claiming that prior to the Gospels there were ‘multiple independent sources’ of which the authors accepted the existence of Jesus. How does he know that they were independent? How does he know that they were not based on still earlier sources? How does he know that the Jesus character was not made up?

          • joe piecuch
            Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

            ‘must have been’ is a phrase that allows room for doubt. i have a crazy idea: why don’t you try reading the book and see for yourself what he has to say? perhaps then you will be in a better position to argue with his thesis.

            • andreschuiteman
              Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              I have no interest in reading a book on this subject that presents no new evidence and is evidently poorly written.

              Still, it would be nice to know if the Gospels are 99.99% or 100% fiction…

              • joe piecuch
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                you have no interest in reading ehrman’s book, but you nevertheless feel justified in mischaracterising his field of work, questioning his competence, criticising his writing skills, and arguing with his conclusions. you’ve come to the right place!

              • andreschuiteman
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

                Ehrman:

                ‘The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced.’

                Any scientific article containing the equivalent of this sentence would not pass peer review. It is poorly expressed and utterly misleading, because the sources are not extant and maybe never were. It could have been a quote from a dishonest apologist like W. L. Craig. Based on Ehrman’s piece in the PuffHo and articles by Carrier, MacDonald and Benson, I am fairly confident that I should not waste my time and money on this book. That’s what the evidence tells me.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                If you are willing to read historical monographs that pass peer review and let those guide your conclusions on this topic, then you do not need this book by Ehrman aimed at a popular audience prone to ignore what peer-reviewed scholarship has to say on this topic.

              • Dermot C
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

                @ André 1:16 pm,

                You ask serious historical questions, viz.

                ’How does he (Ehrman) know that they (the sources) were independent? How does he know that they were not based on still earlier sources? How does he know that the Jesus character was not made up?’

                – which Ehrman attempts to answer in his book. You cite Ophelia Benson quoting BDE, i.e.

                ‘The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced.’

                Two sentences after the above, Ehrman writes,

                ’Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his (Jesus’) death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others. And these are just the ones we know about…’

                He then continues by encapsulating to a popular audience how History scholars have arrived, yes, through peer-reviewed work, at these conclusions. Ehrman constantly refers to the fact that he is critically building on the work of other scholars; this is not, contrary to the impression often given in this thread, of BDE just making it up.

                With reference to the question of scientificity, Ehrman borders on the tedious in prefacing almost everything I have seen him do by underlining that what he does in not science but history; he affirms categorically that the historian’s task is to look at the evidence, evaluate it and give the most likely story on the balance of probabilities; that is all a historian can do and all we can expect her to do.

                I really do think we should give this serious scholar some credit and respect. An anecdote: through no fault of his own, he was the subject of the only time I have ever seen Hitchens genuinely taken aback in a debate. Hitch mentioned, in passing, BDE, ‘the atheist’; he was corrected by his Christian opponent and told that BDE was an agnostic. CH’s eyes widened in surprise. Unfortunately, the Christian in question was William Lane Craig. Homer nods.

                My point is that we owe BDE a lot for the work he has done in his popular demystification of the New Testament and, yes, in his prose, which could have been obfuscatory, given the field he works in, but which is concise and the opposite of bombastic; the man is a proper academic and, if you want to gain an insight into your questions with which I started this post, worth a few quid and a few hours of your time.

              • andreschuiteman
                Posted April 14, 2012 at 4:47 am | Permalink

                There are interesting methodological parallels between phylogeny reconstruction in biology (a subject with which I’m familiar) and reconstructing missing sources in history. In the former you can to some extent infer the features of ancestral organisms by analysing those of their extant descendants. Similarly, extant documents may tell you something about the missing sources for those documents. But there are fundamental differences. In particular, historical sources are not the result of a mindless, undirected process. They were created by people and are therefore susceptible to every possible kind of corruption. In the case of the Gospels we already know that they contain statements that are at odds with everything we know about physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, etc. The most likely explanation for these statements is that they do not refer to actual historical events but were made up in the process of creating religious propaganda.

                Now, going back to biology, if all the extant descendants of an extinct organism agree in the possession of a certain character trait, say a long tail, then it is reasonable (i.e. most parsimonious) to assume that the extinct ancestor also possessed this trait. Such a trait can be called primitive. Applying this logic to the Gospels, we can infer (1) that statements common to all the Gospels were derived from one or more sources that are no longer extant, or (2) that such statements were derived from one of the Gospels that acted as a source to the others. What are those ‘primitive’ statements? It would take a biblical scholar to answer that question, which I’m not in the least, but as far as I can tell they include a large number of items that we could call tales of the supernatural. If you reject such statements as being religious propaganda then you are forced to conclude that the sources of the Gospels were themselves as unreliable as the Gospels are. Or rather, they would have been even more unreliable, for the writers of the Gospels may (I’m being charitable here) have genuinely believed that they were reporting historical facts, but at some prior stage people must have knowingly been making things up. Someone must have invented the raising of Lazarus, the walking on water, etc., not to mention the virgin birth and the resurrection.

                In short, the fact that there may have been earlier sources for the Gospels (Q, M, L, or whatever) does not increase the likelihood that the Gospels are based on historical facts, because these sources were if anything even less reliable than the Gospels themselves, having been produced by deliberate swindlers.

                When Ehrman writes ‘Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his (Jesus’) death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span,’ then this does not support the historical but insignificant Jesus figure that Ehrman propounds. On the contrary, these accounts can only refer to the supernatural Jesus, because otherwise there would have been no interest for such a person in a ‘broad geographical span.’ Therefore it can only be concluded that the accounts, if there were any, contained the same or similar fraudulent claims as are found in the Gospels and therefore can be rejected as historical evidence.

              • derekw
                Posted April 18, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

                In short, the fact that there may have been earlier sources for the Gospels (Q, M, L, or whatever) does not increase the likelihood that the Gospels are based on historical facts, because these sources were if anything even less reliable than the Gospels themselves, having been produced by deliberate swindlers.
                I don’t think we’re arguing the Gospels don’t contain historical facts (there full of em actually.) The focus on is on a historical Jesus existing. Now these early sources being ‘swindlers’ what were they desiring to gain in risk against possible witness testimony against their stories and/or persecution by Roman/Jewish authority?

              • Posted April 18, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

                Would you care to list the secret, previously unknown historical sources to which you have sole access, which allow you to know that these sources were composed by deliberate swindlers?

              • andreschuiteman
                Posted April 19, 2012 at 1:13 am | Permalink

                @ derekw,

                In 1829, Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon. Within a few decades Mormons were willing to die or murder for their faith. Does that mean that the Angel Moroni and the book with the golden plates were real?

                What motivated the early Christians? I don’t know. A craving for shellfish, perhaps? 🙂

                @ James McGrath,

                I refer to multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted April 19, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

                you criticize prof ehrman’s postulation of pre-gospel sources, then characterise those sources as deliberately dishonest; then you apply specious logic and circular reasoning to argue that those sources are evidence for the non-historicity of any jesus figure at all. i don’t think you have a coherent perspective on the matter.

              • andreschuiteman
                Posted April 19, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

                @ joe piecuch,

                No, I didn’t argue for the non-historicity of Jesus. I merely indicated that hypothetical sources of fictionalised accounts are hardly useful when you want to establish historicity.

                btw, what do you have against using capital letters?

              • joe piecuch
                Posted April 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

                oh, come on! you wrote:

                “…this does not support the historical but insignificant Jesus figure that Ehrman propounds. On the contrary, these accounts can only refer to the supernatural Jesus…”, “…it can only be concluded that the accounts, if there were any, contained the same or similar fraudulent claims as are found in the Gospels and therefore can be rejected as historical evidence…”, and “…it can only be concluded that the accounts, if there were any, contained the same or similar fraudulent claims as are found in the Gospels and therefore can be rejected as historical evidence.”

                either you are saying that the idea of a historical jesus is a complete fiction, or that the historical jesus is someone other than the person referenced in any source, extant or inferred.

                “In 1829, Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon. Within a few decades Mormons were willing to die or murder for their faith. Does that mean that the Angel Moroni and the book with the golden plates were real?”

                it does not mean that joseph smith is a fictional creation.

              • andreschuiteman
                Posted April 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                All I’m saying (sorry if I’m too subtle) is that there can be no evidence for a historical Jesus in Ehrman’s ‘sources’. That is not the same as claiming that there never was such a, relatively insignificant, person. There is probably not enough evidence for that position either.

                The relevance of your remark about Joseph Smith escapes me. It is not in dispute that someone wrote the Book of Mormon. The same with the Gospels. My point was that people are willing to do outrageous things on the basis of the most grotesque nonsense. That does not vindicate the nonsense, does it?

              • joe piecuch
                Posted April 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                i heartily disagree with you. a mention of a specific person in a purportedly historical text is evidence that the person existed. whether it constitutes good evidence, especially in the absence of direct and hard physical evidence, is a matter that people with some relevant knowledge can fruitfully debate. the debate can be informed by the existence of other, multiple attestations; but it is not well served by inapt comparisons with hard science.

                joseph smith was as much actor as author, and a part of the myth he fabricated. he was a con man who quite plainly perpetrated a fraud. what fraud would you suggest that 1st century fabricators of ‘jesus’ were trying to put over on his early followers? it is quite plainly the case that in short order a legend developed, with considerable embellishment, and that it was put into the service of all sorts of nefarious nonsense, but the question i put to you is, what knavery were those early authors seeking to accomplish by inventing from whole cloth a non-existent jesus?

                “My point was that people are willing to do outrageous things on the basis of the most grotesque nonsense. That does not vindicate the nonsense, does it?”

                certainly not; but your point does seem to wander a bit.

              • andreschuiteman
                Posted April 20, 2012 at 2:26 am | Permalink

                ‘i heartily disagree with you. a mention of a specific person in a purportedly historical text is evidence that the person existed’

                No, it is evidence that the person may have existed, nothing more. Did Moses exist? Abraham? Samson? Job? Adam and Eve? When a person described in a ‘purportedly historical text’ is claimed to have done impossible things (parting the waters of a sea, living to hundreds of years, conversing with a snake, walking on water) then that should set your alarm bells ringing.

                ‘the question i put to you is, what knavery were those early authors seeking to accomplish by inventing from whole cloth a non-existent jesus?’

                If I would have to speculate about this, I would say that the figure of Jesus was invented (assuming that he was indeed entirely invented ) to lend credence and authority to the theological reforms strived for by the person or persons who invented him. Why would they have invented a dead messiah? They couldn’t produce him, so he must have been dead. Why have him crucified? Well, they could hardly let such an all-powerful figure die from a simple accident, like a fall from his donkey. Nor could he have died from a disease, since diseases are caused by demons, and our hero was such an ace at casting out demons, wasn’t he? So he must have died as a result of a powerful force. The Romans were the most powerful force in the area, so it seems logical that they got the blame.

                You see, it is easy to speculate as long as the actual evidence is flimsy and evidently made up to at least a very large extent. I could think of scores of other scenarios, but I don’t want to waste too much of my time.

                I consider it likely that St. Paul was a crook, a con man who made Joseph Smith look like an amateur. Everything Paul wrote was then potentially a lie. He may also have lied about persecuting Christians in his younger years. Perhaps there were no ‘early’ Christians prior to Paul (the few Aramaic elements in the Gospels may have been planted there deliberately, in the way a novelist lets a foreigner say a few words in his mother tongue or speak with an accent to mark him as a foreigner).

                The whole fabric of the New Testament hangs together by cobwebs; it crumbles to nothingness whenever a breath of fresh air is let in. The resulting pile of dust may contain some grains of historical truth, but these cannot serve to support the grandiose claims made in the NT. In that sense, I don’t really care whether there was a historical Jesus or not.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted April 20, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

                talk about subtle…i think there is no difference separating my distinction between good and bad evidence and your categories of some and no evidence. yessir, at this remove, anything is speculation based on scant evidence. i will happily acknowledge that the scenario you propose is possible, but it seems less plausible to me. and it may be that the evidence (or lack thereof) that resonates with each of us says more about us as individuals than it does about the likelihood of the explanation we each find believable.

                “The resulting pile of dust may contain some grains of historical truth…”

                and teasing them out is the point.

                “…but these cannot serve to support the grandiose claims made in the NT.”

                i have not seen anyone here arguing that they do; certainly i am not.

                “In that sense, I don’t really care whether there was a historical Jesus or not.”

                i think you must, or you wouldn’t, one week on, continue to argue about it.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

                why is it that even the most vehement deniers of the existence of an historical jesus don’t seem to have a problem accepting the existence of an historical paul? there’s no physical evidence for him, either. paul’s view of jesus fits into a human-jesus-evolving-over-the-course-of-a-century-into-a-miracle-working-son-of-god scenario.

              • Raymond Briggs
                Posted April 20, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

                Certainly you recognize that while Paul wrote profusely, Jesus never wrote anything.

              • Posted April 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

                Because we have Paul’s writing – or, to be precise, we have writing which appears to all have been written by the same person (which is how we can call some of the books forgeries) and that claims in itself to have been written by this guy Paul. It’s possible the Paul in question is a fictional character, but it’s still a lot more than we have for Jesus.

                It’s like finding Scientology texts and treating them as evidence for the historical Ron Hubbard versus the historical Xenu.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                then how are you not both granting to paul’s purported writings an authority that mythicists will not allow, say, the synoptic gospels? and if you are willing to accept paul’s claim to existence, then why not paul’s claim to have met jesus’s brother james?

              • Raymond Briggs
                Posted April 21, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

                First, not all of Paul’s epistles are accepted as having been authored by Paul. Also, the Gospels, while purportedly telling the same story, have some glaring conflicts and (unlike Paul) are loaded with miracles, some of which are downright silly. Of course they both have the big miracle of Jesus’ resurrection but even here Paul only refers to people (including himself) as having had visions of the resurrected Jesus. The world has experienced (and still does experience)numbers of people who claim to have had visions.

  25. Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, here’s the second half of my review of Ehrman’s book:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/04/review-of-bart-ehrman-did-jesus-exist-part-two.html

  26. blueshifter
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    That Goren piece was awesome. I particularly enjoyed being introduced to Peregrine, and how fantastically his time with the Christians matches up with the Paul’s bio.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] the mythicist agenda and whose interests seem to be driving it. The reactions on blogs from some biologists who are atheists has appalled me, and seems to confirm Ehrman’s point. That academics who […]

  2. […] Eric MacDonald on the historicity of Jesus (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] ERIC MacDONALD On the historicity of Jesus […]

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