When Was Acts Written? Joe Tyson and the Acts Seminar Attempt an Answer

I’ve been a fan of Joe Tyson’s work from the first time I read anything by him.  Since then, I continue to grow more impressed with everything he publishes.  This is a book I will have to pick, both because he had a part in its creation and because it is a product of the Acts Seminar as a whole.  Here is a snippet form the blurb:

The dominant view in Acts scholarship places Acts around 85 CE, not because of any special event linking the book of Acts to that date but as a compromise between scholars who believe it was written by an eye-witness to the early Jesus movement and those who don’t. Acts and Christian Beginnings argues for a more rigorous approach to the evidence. The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts was written around 115 CE and used literary models like Homer for inspiration, even exact words and phrases from popular stories. “Among the top ten accomplishments of the Acts Seminar was the formation of a new methodology for Acts,” editors Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson explained. “The author of Acts is in complete control of his material. He felt no obligation to stick to the sources. He makes them say what he wants them to say.”

via When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century. « Westar Institute Westar Institute.

Give it a read and then pick up a copy for yourself!

(Fake!) Epitaph to Jesus

For my Historical Jesus class this semester, we were asked to create an obituary for Jesus through the lens of someone from the period.  We were given some examples which I felt were a little anachronistic (Osama bin Laden’s obit from the New York Times was one of them).  So instead of doing a modern obituary, I chose to produce an epitaph like those commonly found in the ANE around Jewish settlements in what was Judaea and also the Diaspora (in Egypt, for example).  I drew heavily upon the translations by Hurbory and Noy and lengthened it considerably; I also added a little academic analysis (though not comprehensive, obviously–I didn’t want to bore the professor).  It was tons of fun to produce and I had fun ‘analyzing’ the ‘inscription’.  Here is the “translation” and analysis (lengthened slightly from the original assignment)–it presumes that no New Testament writing survives:

———————————————

Necropolis near Nazareth: 1st Century CE. Epitaph on tomb; Bilingual (Greek text with Hebrew names).  Unknown scribe, commissioned inscription.

Inscription translation:

Hold! Passers-by!  Weep and mourn for the man in this tomb.  This is the tomb of the good man Jesus, only son of Joseph, of Nazareth.  He was taken down to the underworld in the 19th Year of Caesar Augustus.[1]  Look on this tomb, passersby, and beat with your hands thirty times for the thirty year old that has was snatched by Hades.[2]  For his mother, Mary, grieves for the loss of her son that pleased her, and had caused pain to none.  Grieving also are his companions, with whom he traveled, Peter, Mary, Judas, and John.[3]

For though he spread the news of the Lord, a path of righteousness and salvation, he was harassed by Death and woes![4]  Beset upon by the wicked, he was tempted, yet prevailed only to be met with a senseless end, to be hung on a tree![5]

[…] three days […] he will be raised […] unto the Lord![6]

O! All-subdoer, great Hades, why have you forsaken this man to his fate?  Hear me, wayfarers! Glory be given to the soul of the body with which they have placed in this tomb.  Though he was borne into a humble home, loved by all, and raised by his family to love the Lord, he found strength in the path of righteousness.  Majestically he traveled, never set to one place, teaching about the law as though a prophet.  To the tomb he went, as a man unmarried and chaste unto the Lord.

Weep for the dead Jesus, taken from his elder years by the wickedness of betrayal.  Set to earthly destruction for crimes he did not commit.[7]

Passers-by, speak softly when you go by of this tomb!  Do not disturb the stone walls or the sleeping dead within.  Rest now, Jesus, child of the Lord, untimely dead.  Grieve for those who are left behind. Farewell.

On behalf of Joseph the Arimathean, follower and friend of Jesus, lover of the Lord, who has commissioned this inscription, with those names of the community listed below.  Fortunate was the man, Jesus, who had companions such as these, though unfortunate in his demise.[8]


[1] “19th year of Caesar Augustus”, that likely is the 19th year of his reign, about 33 CE.  Information on 1st Century CE Nazareth is limited; not much archaeological evidence for the type of settlement in this period.  Likely a small village and scarcely populated.

[2] “Hades” (άδης); unlikely to have been incorporated at the behest of the commissioner of the inscription (see below), probably added by the scribe in place of Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). If incorporated by the original commission, it may imply that the group that associated with this figure Jesus wereat least slightly Hellenized, and that their sectarian views were developed, in part, through syncretism (see note 3 below).

[3] Given the rarity with which one includes so many individuals on funerary inscriptions (outside of the family names), it is likely these individuals were part of a sectarian group who held up Jesus as their sect leader.

[4] Death is here personified, similar to the Testament of Abraham in the Pseudepigrapha.

[5] “Hung on a tree”, perhaps indicative of Deut. 21.23, “…his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” This probably implies that he died by crucifixion, which might explain why the inscription bares the statement that his demise was ‘unfortunate’.

[6] This section is very badly damaged.  Unsure what the implications are of the phrase ‘he will be raised’ (ἐγερθήσεται).  Too many words obscured from the original inscription to make any clear indication of its actual meaning, though perhaps the translation is similar to the Hazon Gabriel, if one were to accept Israel Knohl’s translation: ‘to rise from the dead within three days.’

[7] “Crimes…” Possibly indicating that he was falsely accused of something that warranted ‘hanging from a tree”, i.e., crucifixion.  If this was indeed a sectarian leader, possibly associated with his teachings (maybe radical?) or with something he may have done or said against the Romans who occupied Judaea at this time.

[8] The list of names has been destroyed by time.  Likely Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Jesus or a member of his sect; he must have been wealthy in order to commission such a large inscription.

UPDATE 10/3/13: No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus

Note: Additional updates from 10/9 and 10/10 are below–scroll down to see them.

Apparently Joe Atwill has made a “documentary” of his book Caesar’s Messiah.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish texts discovered in caves in Israel in 1947, give a different picture than the idyllic first century Holy Land of the Gospels. From year one, there were battles and confrontations between the Romans and the Jews, the Scrolls note, and there was no turning of the other cheek by the likes of rebel leader Judah of Galilee. And there was nary a mention in the Scrolls of the peaceable prophet Jesus Christ.

“This is where I came into Christian scholarship,” says Atwill, 63, an investor who lives by the proceeds of a dot-com sell off in the 1990s. “There was supposedly this character, Jesus, wandering around in Galilee. Nobody knew anything about him. Galilee is only 30 miles long. Jesus and other historical figures of the time would have known each other.”

Atwill, an admittedly bookish man, dived in headfirst, digging out whatever historical records he could find, studying the Scrolls, and reading Roman accounts, notably that of a family member of the Flavian dynasty of Caesars named Josephus. He found no historical Jesus in any of those writings. But there were some uncanny connections between the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels and the family of Roman emperors who took power after Nero was forced to commit suicide following a coup d’état.

I mean this is just golden cow scat. Seriously. Why? Because that is what you’re watching.

Let’s start with the blurb itself. Just the little snippet above should put anyone off from even considering this hypothesis.

  1. The Dead Sea Scrolls were not all written in the first century, but spread out over many. There are more than 200 years of texts here, from the terminus a quo of the earliest manuscript to the terminus ad quem of the latest (3rd Century BCE – 1st Century CE). So no, Atwill, you’re not going to find a match to the Gospels because these were written after the Dead Sea Scrolls had been hidden away in the caves of Qumran. In fact the site was probably destroyed by Romans during the First Jewish War–prior to when it is generally believed Mark wrote the first Gospel around 70 CE.
  2. The Gospels follow a pattern of what is called ‘Biblical Rewriting’ which was a common Jewish practice, just as ‘Homeric rewriting’ was common with Greek and Roman writers. So actually the Gospels fit quite well within the scribal framework of the Jewish community at the time.
  3. Why would the Dead Sea Scrolls mention Jesus when the settlement where these scrolls were probably written is over 130km (80 miles) away from Galilee? That is the distance between New York City and Philadelphia. Additionally, the sect at Qumran seems to have kept to themselves, living strict pious lives of obedience to god and to their laws. I do not believe them to have been Essenes–though probably quite close to them.
  4. Who else would have mentioned him? We have no contemporary attestation to anything from the 30’s CE from Galilee beyond archaeological finds (coins, epigraphical evidence, etc…). But that does not mean to suggest none existed from the region. Between the Jewish wars, the passing of time, we’re lucky we have anything from the region. This is a weak argument from silence.
  5. If you’re coming ‘into Christian scholarship’ from this position, you’re doing it wrong.
  6. Your argument that “Nobody knew anything about him” is incredible (Fixed!) since we have Gospels and epistles probably dating to the First Century CE. These may not have been accounts of what Jesus said and did, but they certainly demonstrate that a figure of Jesus was well-known to at least some people in the First Century.
  7. If you’re claiming to have ‘dived headfirst’ into the sources, does that mean you have a grasp of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Nabataean, and Hebrew? What about just Greek–since you predominately use Josephus? I suspect that, given your book only has something like 7 footnotes and almost all of them are from Josephus, you haven’t quite managed to take into account all the sources.

Atwill then suggests the following hypothesis so centric to the thesis of his book:

Sometime in the mid 70s AD, Atwill suggests, Greco-Roman intellectuals wrote the now-well-known stories—in Greek, not the popular Aramaic of the Judaic populace—about the Jewish messiah who defied the Judaic traditions of militancy to preach a sweet, accommodationist message.

I’ll break this down too. What the hell.

  1. You’re not using ‘Greco-Roman’ correctly. (You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means)
  2. Greek was commonly used by Jews in antiquity–Josephus, Philo, some of the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various Jewish pseudepigrapha, the Maccabees (though maybe from a Hebrew original–uncertainty here), Jesus ben Sira (i.e., Sirach), various apocrypha (Tobit, for example–though maybe originally written in Aramaic, more uncertainty here). It depended upon their education and their level of assimilation which anyone familiar with the socio-cultural period of the Hellenistic-Roman periods would be able to explain easily. Atwill clearly has no grasp of these concepts, probably because he didn’t bother reading anything related to this despite his self-acclaimed ‘bookish-ness’.
  3. Jesus’ message in the Gospel is not new or anti-Judaic. In fact, it is quite Jewish (see anything written by James Crossley, for goodness sake).

All in all, Atwill proves he is incapable of taking this subject seriously–his not being a scholar aside, he completely misses the more logical argument to make from the Josephus-Gospel parallelisms, which also happen to be the same arguments made by Steve Mason in his now-famous work on Josephus and the New Testament: that either the Gospel authors or Josephus were using each other as intertextual references (I think it quite obvious that Luke had copies of Josephus, actually–a point Mason glosses over in a paragraph but never admits fully, but also what Richard Carrier argues here).

If you are planning to go see this movie, please, bring a disposable bag so you can properly rid yourself of the dung that undoubtedly will be thrown at you during the presentation.

**UPDATE 10-9-13**

Since this “documentary” first appeared, it seems that Mr. Atwill is again trying to profit off the ignorance of others. Now, self-styled as an ‘American Biblical scholar”, Mr. Atwill is peddling his book of lies and misleading theories to those in the UK. This nonsense does not deserve another post; but I will update this one because it can’t go along unopposed.

First, and let me be clear, nothing Joe Atwill has written is ‘conclusive’. In order for it to be conclusive, it would have to surmount all arguments against it. Unfortunately for him, he fails to grasp even basic knowledge about the subject. For example, he makes the rather bizarre claim that:

“In fact he [Jesus - ed.] may be the only fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. Once those sources are all laid bare, there’s simply nothing left.”

Yet this is simply false. The Hebrew Bible is full of fictional literary characters whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. His hyperbole is bizarre. But even so, is Atwill seriously suggesting that fictional stories cannot be written about historical people or events? Wonder Woman is a highly fictionalized and heroicized literary figure inspired by an actual person, the creator’s wife, Elizabeth Marston. Wonder Woman meets Atwill’s classification as a “fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources.”

So it might be argued that maybe he was referring t ancient literature, but even then he is ignorant of basic figures that anyone with a minutiae of Classical education can speak upon. In ancient literature, the figure and legendary king of Sparta, Lycurgus, is entirely mythicized in literature yet may have been a real person (scholarship is split on this). The mythological tale of Gilgamesh, who we have no actual historical information on, is considered to be a historical figure and ancient king by most leading Sumerologists and yet his entire life story is one of our earliest extant written sources and one of our earliest written myths period. The biographies of Plutarch are propagandist fantasies of his about the lives of historical people like Alexander the Great (mixed in with purely fictional figures like Romulus).

This should be enough to make my point; Atwill makes claims that cannot be supported when those with some basic knowledge of the subject explore the claims further. This is a serious flaw in Atwill’s work. He makes claims but doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous they actually are; it is that scholars find his work “outlandish”. It is just plain wrong. I mean it is still crazy talk, but it is more that his whole premise is wrong.

For example, like all sensationalist crap-dealers, Mr, Atwill claims to have discovered the secret, super-dooper, hidden code in the text. Amazing! I self-proclaimed “Biblical scholar”, with no formal training in the material, has used his magic decoder ring and stumbled upon a code! How clever of him. He states:

Atwill’s most intriguing discovery came to him while he was studying “Wars of the Jews” by Josephus [the only surviving first-person historical account of first-century Judea] alongside the New Testament. “I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts,” he recounts. “Although it’s been recognised by Christian scholars for centuries that the prophesies of Jesus appear to be fulfilled by what Josephus wrote about in the First Jewish-Roman war, I was seeing dozens more. What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus. This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern. The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.”

First, and let me be clear, are there striking similarities between Josephus and the Gospel of Luke? Yes, there are. Steven Mason, a real scholar, has published an entire volume on the subject called Josephus and the New Testament. Richard Carrier has also written on the subject of the parallels between Josephus and Luke-Acts. Joel Watts, an actual student of Biblical Studies who has done graduate work in the field (unlike Mr. Atwill), has written an academically-published book on some interesting mimetic elements between Mark and Josephus.

The difference between what these scholars have written and what Mr. Atwill have written is threefold: (a) all of them have academic training in Greek, (b) all of them published through an academic press (Carrier is the exception, but he has published academically and is qualified on the subject), (c) None of them make the illogical leap that similarities between Josephus (a Jew) and the Gospels (written by Jewish authors) mean that the Romans did it. In fact it is the same misguided leap that some evangelicals make about God. “We don’t know, ergo ‘God did it’.” Instead, all of these scholars agree that the most rational reason for these similarities is that the Gospel authors had copies of Josephus, or Josephus had copies of the Gospels. This sort of interplay of texts is not new in the ancient world.

Second, notwithstanding this damning evidence against him, Atwill’s premise is quite narrowed and simplistic, demonstrating a critical lack of understanding of the cultural dynamics of Judea in the first century.

"Crap...why didn't we just use psychological warfare against these guys?"

“Crap…why didn’t we just use psychological warfare against these guys?”

There exist over 30 Jewish sects that we know of from the first century, and have some basic understanding of their belief structures. There are some dozens more we just know by name. On top of that, we have to conclude there are perhaps dozens, if not hundreds, more Jewish sects of which we simply have no record. What is so interesting is how incredibly different each sect is from each other.

Despite Atwill’s unlearned claim that the Jewish people were expecting a ‘Warrior messiah’, in truth there is no universal version of a messiah. Even among the same sect, over time, the concept of their messiah would change. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Mr. Atwill seems to think he knows so well, the language of the messiah and his purpose changes (in fact at one point, we see two distinct messiahs at once–one a priestly messiah and another a kingly messiah). Some sects did not even expect a messiah at all. Any of the numerous works on messianic expectations published in the last two decades utterly annihilates any claim that Atwill is making about some uniformity in Jewish thought and ritual.

Even logically, his analysis is flawed. If this tactic was used against the Jews, why didn’t the Romans use it against an even greater threat: the Gauls?! The Jewish people were never as serious a threat to the Empire as much as the Gauls were–who sacked Rome twice and destroyed Legions. Atwill never seems to consider how basically incompetent his thesis is in this regard. If the Romans had such success against the Jews using this “psychological warfare” (anachronism alert!! Danger! Danger!), why don’t we see this happening against all of their enemies? It is just so beyond absurd. It really is.

Here is the thing; it may be that Mr. Atwill is completely clueless about this. Maybe he isn’t just trying to scam everyone and sell a bunch of books to a group of gullible people. Maybe he legitimately hasn’t read anything relevant on this subject or any recent scholarship on it.

"What?  'The Romans Invented Jesus'?  What a rip off!"

“What? ‘The Romans Invented Jesus’? What a rip off!”

But that is troubling–would you want to read a science book written by a layperson who hasn’t read a single relevant scientific study? Would you pick up a book on engineering written by someone with a background in computer science, and trust that book enough to build a house based upon its designs? I hope not. I sincerely hope that no one would agree to trust either of these books.

This is the issue with Mr. Atwill. He may sincerely believe he has discovered the secret code off a cereal box with his 3-D glasses he found inside; that doesn’t make him an expert in the subject, it doesn’t make him knowledgeable enough to give lectures on it. It certainly does not make him credible.

Mr. Atwill is just like all the other amateur-Scholar-wannabes who refuse to put in the time and effort to earn a degree in the field, who want to advance their pet theories to sell books and dupe you over. He relies on popular media and the ignorance of the layperson to score points rather than publishing in a credible academic journal or publishing academically. He knows he can’t do that, because he has no clue how academics work, how they think, or what they actually argue on the subject. He might as well claim that Jesus lived on Atlantis, which came from Mars. That theory is about as ridiculous as the notion that Rome invented Jesus.

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Image courtesy of Steve Caruso.

*UPDATE 10-10-13*

You’ll want to check out some additional take-downs:

(Shameless plug): For an academically published volume on the historicity of Jesus (which does not contain wild conspiracy theories), consisting of essays from scholars all over the world (the first such book of its kind to my knowledge), consider my co-edited volume ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (Sheffield: Equinox/Acumen, 2012/2013).

Students, What Have I to do with Thee?

So we are now finishing up our first week of class and it seems like it is going to be an interesting semester.  In my ‘Jesus’ class, most of the students are very religious.  That’s fine.  But I am concerned about why they have chosen to take a class on the historical Jesus when they clearly only seem to care about the Jesus of their particular faith tradition.  Worse, although students are required to have a background in New Testament (you have to have completed the Intro to New Testament course in order to take the course on Jesus), some don’t appear to have any clue.

The professor asked us all to write out a ‘Gospel'; that is, to give a brief explanation of who Jesus was, why he is or isn’t influential, and why do we think we should or shouldn’t study him.  It was a fantastic exercise that I enjoyed.  But some of the other gospels out there were just..well… terrible.  There is no other way to put it.

One student listed the birthplace of Jesus as Nazareth(!) while another seemed to think that kings sought advice from him.  Yet another believed that Jesus was discussed in the Septuagint!  I shake my head.  One student who seemed to have a greater grasp of the concepts knew of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, but her ideas about the text imply that she hasn’t actually read the gospel.  She must have watched a program about it on History or some other similar channel because she thought that Jesus was fashioning pots out of clay (actually it was sparrows in a stream) and has some silly notion that Jesus just goes around hurting people in it (far from it actually).

So I guess I have concerns.  What exactly did these students learn in Intro to New Testament?  I had a great professor and the class seemed to take away a lot.  So what happened with these students?  Granted, the class is about Jesus so chances are that by the end of the semester these students will have a better understanding of the historical Jesuses (I hope); but why even bother taking the class if you don’t at least have some basic knowledge of the Gospel accounts?

And why do religious individuals just presume that taking a course on the historical Jesus will be like attending a second church?  Nearly 2/3 of the student gospels written were faith statements.  Do they not realize they will have their faith shaken?  And how can one call themselves a religious Christian when they don’t even know where Jesus was born?  I mean that is pretty basic stuff.

A Response to Dr. Witmer’s Article on the Evidence for the Figure of Jesus

Dr. Amanda Witmer recently wrote up a rather interesting response to the question of the historicity of Jesus; her conclusion, pointedly stated, “As it turns out, historical information about Jesus can be found, but sifting through the data requires some work” and “[The gospels-ed.]…reflect the impact the historical figure, Jesus, had on those who were marked by his life.”  These conclusions, stated with such conviction in most New Testament circles, betrays the confidence—perhaps misplaced—in the available evidence of the figure of Jesus.  This is quite problematic, as many of the arguments Dr. Witmer raises are quite dated and, with some critical eyes, seem rather superficial.

Dr. Witmer starts off muddying the water, categorizing the argument that Jesus did not exist as ‘fashionable’.  The type of denialism which is latent in some wings of the secular community is indeed problematic, and I would agree that some members of the mythicist camp fall prey to that “tendency to insist on absolutes”.[1]  But I would not call the position, as a whole, ‘fashionable’, as if it were some fad or trend, as none of these positions are necessarily new, nor have they ever fallen ‘out of style’.  Some of the earliest German critical scholars of the Bible that we learn about in our introductory New Testament classes—Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, and David Strauss—all produced mythic figures of Jesus, arguing that the historical Jesus is simply unknowable.  As the minimalists of their day, they were more than capable of pointing out the fact that the Christian Jesus—that Jesus which wears the collar of a protestant or catholic—had been a product of their contemporary society.  On this latter point, I am certain Dr. Witmer would agree.[2]

Where we disagree, it seems, is on the level of certainty one can place on the available arguments for the historicity of the figure of Jesus and in the reliability of gospels themselves, especially as works of historiography. Dr. Witmer insists on using the argument that the gospels represent ancient biographies.  But she does not address, even in passing, the many studies which have raised issue with Charles Talbert’s conclusions, initially published in 1977. Michael Vines, Mary Ann Tolbert, Thomas L. Thompson, and Marianne Palmer Bonz have all voiced opposition to the concept that the gospels represent the genre of Greco-Roman biography;[3] the attempts by Richard A. Burridge, Craig Keener, and others to revive Talbert’s conclusions have not been successful—in this author’s opinion—towards producing any solid argument which might contradict the modern literary critical studies that suggest that the gospels fit more in line with ancient Jewish fictional literature (as Vines argues, contra Burridge and Aune specifically). Anyone with a strong Classics background can immediately see the flaws of comparing the gospels with Philostratus’ work on Apollonius.  That is to say, to put it bluntly, they are not at all comparable.[4]

Even under the presumption that the gospels do fit into the mould of Greco-Roman biography, that does not ipso facto mean that they are based on historical individuals.  Plutarch dedicates whole biographies to fictional figures like Romulus, Lycurgus, and so on.  Is the reader to presume that in the writing of Plutarch there exists the impact of a historical figure, Romulus?  His works are Greco-Roman biographies, after all; by the very logic of Dr. Witmer, we should expect to locate a historical kernel of figure of Lycurgus.  Though I highly doubt Dr. Witmer would be rushing to defend that conclusion!  And I don’t blame her as it is a silly conclusion.  Marianne Palmer Bonz was absolutely correct when she wrote that the genre of a text will ultimate influence how a text is interpreted. Leaning rather apologetically on Greco-Roman biography as if Vines, Tolbert, Thompson, Bonz, Brodie, and others haven’t challenged it since the publication of Talbert’s book in the late 70’s is rather unfortunate.

Still, Dr. Witmer does ask some good questions which should be taken seriously.  She remarks on the relationship between John and Jesus that, “Reading between the lines, or against the text, we learn from these two passages that John had perhaps initially been viewed as the more important of the two men, and that this perception gradually shifted. Again, why invent this issue?”  Indeed, why invent it? It’s a really fantastic question and one that deserves some serious consideration and study.  But one cannot just assume that there is no other viable answer than “because it happened” or “because it indicates a historical memory.” By what evidence does one judge one narrative event to another historically? Is this event any more or less authentic of an event than Mark’s portrayal of the disciples?  Of course not; that sort of thinking is narrowed and uncritical.

It is also speculative and it presumes the very case in dispute, while ignoring the broader categories of literary genres by Greco-Roman Jewish authors. Why would the authors of Matthew or Luke invent anything not found in Mark?  Why would John include elaborate scenes that don’t appear in any other gospel? Why do Jesus’ actions in Mark reflect so clearly the Elijah-Elisha narratives? Why does Mark portray Jesus as running off into the wilderness to be attended to by angels while being temped?  Why does he have John wearing the same outfit as Elijah?  Why does Matthew imitate various narrative elements from Exodus about Moses? Why would any author, at any given point in history, fabricate anything? With careful research, one might locate the answers to these questions. But one should not just make the leap in logic that “I don’t know, therefore it must be a historical kernel.” That requires a whole level of biased rationalizing from which one should just stay away. Reading “between the lines” is just as dangerous as looking down Schweitzer’s well; when the spaces between the lines are empty, a blank canvas is the only thing that exists.  Anybody can inscribe whatever they want there.  Most likely what comes from that exercise looks more like the Jesus we want, not the Jesus that was once.[5]

Dr. Witmer then follows with the same old argument that Jesus’ name occurs in extrabiblical source material, therefore she concludes that these references are useful in dating events in Jesus’ life.  The trouble with this claim is that it has been handled so often by scholars (not mythicists) that it should cease to be of any value to any discussion on historicity.  Case in point, Tacitus’ use of Jesus is so clearly modeled upon Christian interpretations that it cannot be considered independent. Some scholars (again, not mythicists) have even postulated the case that the passage is an interpolation, but as this author has not spent the time necessary to evaluate this argument, it won’t be used here.  It is more than likely this reference is authentic and comes from his friend Pliny who, as Dr. Witmer probably knows, was a great and dear friend to Tacitus,[6] who had come face to face with Christians and was at a complete loss for how to handle them. It seems probable that Tacitus and Pliny communicated about these strange Christians who followed a ‘superstition’ about a dying savior figure named Christus.  Another option is that Tacitus had access to a gospel.  Either way, this is dubious evidence at best, as it is not independent.

Dr. Witmer also utilizes Josephus’ reference, but it is also problematic. Aside from the fact that our earliest Josephan manuscripts comes from the middle of Medieval Period, more than one version has been highly interpolated with Christian references to Jesus which are quite specious. In this regard, Ken Olson has taken the Testimonium Flavianum to task quite recently, demonstrating definitively, in this author’s humble opinion, that it was an interpolation. This author’s opinion aside, the reader is encouraged to examine his arguments and judge for themselves their value.[7]  Even if one were to accept the authenticity of Josephus, it would not necessarily tip the scales in favor of historicity (though it couldn’t hurt).

The reference to the logically invalid criterion of embarrassment is something else. This is again where a strong Classics background helps one understand the social world of the Romans. It doesn’t get more embarrassing for a Roman than following a castrated deity. Yet somehow the Cult of Attis not only thrived, but continued to thrive for some time—despite the fact that many of the most elite in Roman society saw it as a bizarre religion and an embarrassing and emasculating one. Priests would castrate themselves in honor of Attis.  This doesn’t make Attis any more real, does it?  Should scholars start using the criterion of embarrassment to prove the historical Attis?  Neither should the embarrassment of crucifixion or that of the death of John somehow make Jesus any more historical.

Additionally, the criterion of embarrassment presumes that the crucifixion or the death of John the Baptist was embarrassing for everyone. Certainly early Christians did not find this embarrassing at all.  On the crucifixion, Paul even writes that this is a stumbling block for Jews, but interestingly he does not consider this an embarrassment.[8]  He saw Jesus’ death as a point of jubilation with his resurrection in the same way that followers of Attis saw the glory and appreciated the message of his castration.[9]  Likewise, the death of John seems to be a prime example of a righteous martyrdom, wherein his death—a necessary thing—occurs as an echo towards Jesus’ own fate.  Whether the elite found anything wrong with Christianity seems to have not bothered the Christian at all.  It certainly doesn’t bother many Christians today.[10]

There is the additional problem, one found in many studies from the past few decades on the figure of Jesus, with the many bizarre claims that run through her article.  The conclusion that the sources we have for Jesus’s life “were actually written closer to his lifetime than were those on Alexander the Great” is just wrong and echoes of E.P. Sanders own thoughts on the figure of Jesus which, even at the time when they were written, were tiringly old.[11]   For the sake of argument alone, if one takes into account all the evidence for Alexander the Great, actually a very well-documented and attested figure in history, Dr. Witmer’s case falls apart.   Take any one gospel (or all four, if one would prefer) and examine it next to Arrian’s history of Alexander’s campaigns.  Even as late as he is, Arrian uses methods that surpass those (if any at all) used by the gospel authors.  Arrian compares his sources which consisted of eyewitness (actual contemporary written) accounts from Alexander’s generals (he explicitly cites his sources, even if they are now lost) and tells us why he is choosing one account of an event over the other, or why one seems to hold more weight.[12]  These sources (primarily the eyewitness accounts of Ptolemy, a general in Alexander’s army, and Aristoboulos who traveled with him as an engineer) are also attested to elsewhere as well, which indicate that Arrian didn’t simply invent them ex nihilo.[13]   In addition to Arrian’s work, there are still perhaps hundreds of extant contemporary attestations of Alexander the Great from manuscripts,[14] artwork (busts), coins, and inscriptions.[15]  If we had this sort of evidence for Jesus’ life and ministry, there would be no need to write this paper, and that is precisely the point.[16]

Now, one may make the argument that we cannot expect this sort of evidence for a historical Jesus, as he’d be relatively insignificant compared to a figure such as Alexander the Great—indeed, this is precisely the argument that Dr. Witmer seems to be making.  That’s very astute, assuming a historical, itinerant, impoverished Jesus as laid out by some historical Jesus scholars.  Granting this objection’s validity, there is an obvious contradiction: Why would any scholar so desire to suggest, erroneously, that the evidence for a historical Jesus is somehow greater than that of Alexander when the fact is, quite clearly (and demonstrably), the evidence for Alexander is so superior to that of any provided for Jesus?  Not only is it superior, but it is improbable—near impossible perhaps—that a historian should expect anything similar between Alexander and an insignificant historical Jesus as far as evidence goes.  This is just an example of how false confidence in the state of evidence can lead good scholars to make claims that overestimate the value of said evidence.

This author wholeheartedly disagrees with Dr. Witmer when she writes that, “To sum up, it is important to interpret the evidence about Jesus’ existence in a balanced way that neither dismisses all biblical evidence as worthless, nor assumes that every aspect of the biblical account should be read as pure history.”  No, Dr. Witmer, the evidence should be examined in the manner that it exists—to the extent that it is not examined to prove preconceived notions, whether by secularists or fundamentalists.  To start from a balanced approach is to make presumptions about the text that are simply unknown and possibly unknowable.  After all, “Jesus existed” and “Jesus didn’t exist” are both conclusions that do not follow from the evidence—they are both is simply taken for granted by two opposing parties, and then the evidence is examined in light of this presumption.  Instead, one needs to first follow the evidence and see where it leads.

To be clear, one should not discount the biblical narratives; the bible can provide a lot of inspiration, but it can also be very dangerous when used as an instrument to reinforce an individual’s own prejudices against others.  Because of this, the bible is far from worthless.  In fact, it should be respected. But one should not just accept the biblical narratives as evidence.  Evidence is the raw data—it holds no notion of one conclusion or another.  One draws conclusions from the evidence, one should never use the evidence to support a conclusion.

This last bit is quite important.  The biblical narratives are, in and of themselves, making certain historical claims that require validation.  One does not simply accept the historicity of the Telemachia based upon the narratives in the Odyssey. The historical claims made in the biblical narrative—and all ancient texts—need to be evaluated for their accuracy prior to the point when one puts their trust in them.  If none exists, where does that leave us?  One should not simply draw a conclusion that Jesus didn’t exist.  There is no evidence to that fact.  But neither is there any solid evidence that such a figure lived.  The available data is not conclusive nor does it portray any sense of probability.  Maybe using dated arguments, like those used here by Dr. Witmer, is enough to convince those reading this paper.  This author prefers to follow the words of Stephen Prothero in his review of Reza Aslan’s recent book:

But the real problem is that Aslan, like thousands of “historical Jesus” experts before him, refuses to say “I don’t know” with anything near the frequency required for the task. He, too, purports to be an intrepid archaeologist for historical truth, excavating the “real” Jesus out of the “propagandistic legend” that has grown up around him. But he, too, remakes Jesus in his own image.

In conclusion, Dr. Witmer makes a lot of claims in her article. Unfortunately, most of these claims have either been dealt with by more recent scholarship or fail a secunda facie analysis of the arguments.  This does not mean Jesus was not a historical person.  Maybe he was!  I just don’t know.  That is what Dr. Witmer’s article was missing: some acceptance, some humility, that the evidence we have is generally just too inconclusive for any sort of certainty.  Dr. Witmer may believe the evidence situates Jesus in a historical setting, a Sitz im Leben, but she has not made a case for it here.  I recognize that old arguments die hard. It is difficult for rebuttals to make the rounds in academia, especially when most scholars don’t have the time, due to faculty commitments and publishing requirements; but that doesn’t mean that scholarship can continue to move forward as if rebuttals to our most sacred arguments don’t exist.  These arguments, and other arguments from many historical Jesus scholars, need to be revised.  They need to be reexamined in a new way that takes into account rebuttals, new scholarship. It is always possible that the rebuttals are wrong, but one cannot simply continue to proceed in confidence that they just are wrong without ever taking the time to deal with them.[17]


[1] I would note that the real false dichotomy here isn’t between fundamentalists and mythicists, but between historicists and mythicists.  In fact, both have tendencies to insist on absolutes; the mythicist would say, “Jesus never existed” and the historicity would say “Jesus definitely existed.”  The conclusions drawn by Dr. Witmer here are in the latter category.

[2] On this subject, the reader is directed to read Roland Boer’s very fine treatment of the so-called ‘German Pestilence’; “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer” in T.L. Thompson and T.S. Verenna, eds, ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (CIS; London/Sheffield: Equinox/Acumen, 2012/2013), 33-56.

[3] M.E. Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Academia Biblica 3; Atlanta: SBL, 2002); M.A. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989); T.L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books, 2005); M.P. Bonz, The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000); but also by T.L. Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (NTM 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2004).

[4] It helps that we in fact have additional attestation to both Philostratus and Apollonius; e.g., the inscriptions at Athens and Olympia to Philostratus and the Adana inscription to Apollonius. Philostratus’ work is also very different from the work produced by the gospel authors.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus using multiple known sources.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not just telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.  The same could not be said for the gospels. The gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.  The gospels do not belong to this genre; they are the antithesis of it.  All that is needed is a critical eye and careful evaluation of the two sources to see that.

[5] Dr. Witmer places strong emphasis on the Johanine tradition, specifically that from the Gospel of John.  She would want to consider James Crossley’s recent discussion on the value (or lack thereof) of John’s gospel on the reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus in his contribution to ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, entitled “Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View?”, 163-184.

[6] This friendship is well established in their correspondence (i.e., Letters 1.6, 20; 4.13; 7.20; 8.7; 9.10; and so on).

[7] While valiantly defended by Lester Grabbe in his “‘Jesus Who Is Called Christ’: References to Jesus outside Christian Sources” in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, 57-70, the authenticity of the TF has been taken to task.  G.J. Goldberg argues that the TF is a mish-mosh of Lukan-style passages in his “The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke,” in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha (Vol. 13, 1995), 59-77 and more recently Ken Olson, “Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61 (1999) 305-322, and “A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum,” in Aaron Johnson & Jeremy Schott, eds., Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations  (Hellenic Studies 60; Cambridge: Harvard University Press/Center for Hellenic Studies, 2013), 97-114.  Also, his guest post on Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith’s blog, “The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus (Guest Post) – Olson” (Accessed Online 8/16/2013).   He concludes, “In summary, the six arguments against Christian authorship of some elements of the Testimonium that Van Voorst has culled from the scholarly literature do not hold with respect to Eusebius. At the very least, this should remind us to be wary of arguments from authority. The fact that one or more scholars has endorsed a particular argument does not mean it is sound.”  Richard Carrier takes down the Minor TF in his paper, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 (Winter 2012): 489-514.

[8] 1 Cor. 1.23-5.

[9] 1 Cor. 1.27.

[10] This criterion has been dealt with more recently by Rafael Rodriguez, “Truth about Jesus: The Demise of the Criterion of Embarrassment” in, C. Keith & A. Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (New York: Blumsbury, 2012), 132-151.

[11] E.P. Sanders wrote, for example, that “we know more about Jesus than about Alexander [the Great]” and “The sources for Jesus are better…than those that deal with Alexander.” The Historical Figure of Jesus (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 3-4.  These claims are made often and are absolutely not true.  Not in the slightest bit.  Ironically, I see these claims made by historical Jesus scholars when, instead, I expect this sort of line to follow from a Christian apologist like Josh McDowell.  That troubles me greatly.  If I, an undergrad, can point out the error in logic and content in such an argument, what does that say about the argument?

[12] He also compares conflicting accounts for the reader; e.g. Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6.

[13] Pseudo-Lucian and Plutarch both appear to have access to Aristoboulos and Ptolemy, for example.

[14] The authors preserved who were contemporaries of Alexander and mention him or facts about him include: Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Dinarchus, Theocritus, Theophrastus, and Menander.

[15] Not only are there inscriptions dedicated to Alexander the Great and his victories which are contemporaneous to him, several inscriptions commissioned by Alexander himself still exist; e.g., there is one at the British Museum from Priene in Asia Minor, dedicated to Athena Polias.  See B.F. Cook, Greek Inscriptions (Berkeley: UCP, 1987), 21-22.

[16] While Arrian’s methods are exceptional, they fall short of modern standards.  Even though he is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect.  He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.”  (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) Still, if a good historian like Arrian, whose methods are far superior to those of his contemporaries, those before him, and many after, can succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be more concerned with how much bias and error effects those writers of lesser quality—especially the anonymous ones.

[17] For a fuller treatment of the common fallacies of historical Jesus scholarship, of which many pertain to Dr. Witmer’s article, see my review of Bart Ehrman’s recent book Did Jesus Exist; “Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship”, Bible and Interpretation, May 2012.

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Now in North America!

ISD (twitter and Facebook) has informed me that ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ has finally hit the shores of North America and you can get it at a huge discount!

isdcarpenter

Click to embiggen.

20% off!  Consider ordering your copy directly from ISD, follow the instructions in the image, cut out the middle man, save 20%, and get your copy sooner!  Sounds like a superb deal to me.

They also asked me a series of questions yesterday and I thought I’d share with you their questions (slightly modified for formatting) and my answers in full below:

  • ISD: I was hoping you might be interested in providing a personal statement about compiling the book.

Tom: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ was a project that started five years ago and was my first step into academia.  It was definitely a labor of love for Thomas and I, and I am pleased to say that we both survived the project.

  • ISD: What were some of your experiences?

Tom: Besides owing a huge debt to my colleague and co-editor Thomas L. Thompson, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of contributors, all of whom are just superb human beings; they were all very patient with me despite my lack of experience.  I will say that my first time indexing reminded me of Hell Week when I attended Valley Forge Military Academy–except it lasted for a lot longer than one week and I got less sleep.

  • ISD: What you’ve learned from this project?

Tom: As an undergrad working with some really amazing scholars–Thomas Thompson of course, Roland Boer, Emanuel Pfoh, Niels Peter Lemche, Mogens Muller, James Crossley, everyone who contributed to the volume really–who are all very well established, I took away a lot from this project.  Besides developing a greater appreciation for the scholarship of all those involved, the most important lesson I’ve taken away from this project is the need for patience.

  • ISD: Why are your passionate about the subject?

Tom: I can’t think of a time in my life where I’ve never had an interest in history; my love of the ancient past is perhaps just deeper than my love of, say, American history.  I think it has a lot to do with the questions that are being asked–every person living today comes from an ancient family line; we are all descendents of some great empire or another that thrived thousands of years ago.  Digging into that ancient history, in a lot of ways, brings me closer to those ancestors. .  In other words, I don’t view history as a random series of dates or names. It is so much more personal than that.  History, for me anyway, is the study of the human experience.  And I feel that needs to be protected for my children, and their children, and so on.  Of course, I’m an idealist and probably far too optimistic for my own good.

The Paperback of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Has Arrived!

At least my copies have arrived, which means that those of you who have pre-ordered your own copy (hint, hint) can expect to have them in hand soon!

My first impressions upon holding a copy were how heavy it feels and how thick is the book.   Despite being a paperback it has some weight to it (almost as much–if not more–than the hardback) and it is just as full in volume.  I was quite impressed.

Acumen Publishing did a fantastic job (though one of my copies has some wear from the trip across the ocean, but that can’t be helped–handling issues during transit); the book is crisp, the colors are sharp, the quality is excellent.  I could not be happier with the way the volume has turned out.

Also, I was grateful that Acumen was able to correct some of the left over copy-editor errors–minor typos mainly–in the production of the paperback.

Anyway, the book is here!  That is exciting! Friends and readers in the UK can get a jump ahead of those of us across the pond, as it is currently available on Amazon.co.uk! I am told that Amazon orders in North America will be filled within about a month (about how long it takes for a shipment of books to reach the NA distributor and for the distributor to release the books to vendors like Amazon and Barnes and Noble).

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