James on Jesus: Reopening Pandora’s Box

I would first like to again thank James McGrath for providing his blog as a venue to discuss this subject; it is no doubt a highly-charged and, sometimes, volatile subject at that.  While James and I have had many conversations about this in the past, including a few phone conversations, we have always remained cordial and that is a credit more to his patience, I think, than to mine. That being said, James has opened the conversation once again and I, as usual, am willing to fire back.

His most recent aspirations to dispute the claim has been two-fold.  Of the first, he has brought up an age-old Philosophy of History problem: the problem of being too skeptical.  This is a very valid perspective on James’ part.  After all, and James is right, we can only know someone existed from the past by examining the evidence left behind about them and by them.  We cannot travel back in time and examine the data as it was then.  Only by evaluating the available data, with the best of our understanding, through the lenses of several fields of study (anthropology, archaeology, and so forth) can any determination be made about history (in general) and individuals from history (specifically).  If all we have are written records of an individual, however, then we can only evaluate the credibility of the accounts.  If they are deemed credible, at least believable to some degree, historicity can be established—but this is often situational and I will cover this briefly below.

James, however, makes a false analogy from the start.   He erroneously compares the state of evidence for the historicity of Jesus to the state of the evidence for that of George Washington.  The elephant in the room, of course, is that the state of evidence for Washington is so incredibly good that to dispute it would be non-sense and delusional; conversely, the state of evidence for Jesus is not even comparable to the evidence for Washington and to make such an analogy is a sign of desperation.  James is bluffing, hoping that the mythicists at the table will fold before he has to show his hand.    And just why would James ignore all of the vast physical evidence we have from Washington (clothes, equipment, blankets, odds and ends, his remains—ahem) in his analogy?  Unless James is coveting Jesus’ gourd or sandal somewhere, that’s rather dishonest of him.  Now, it might be that this was unintentional—which then leads me to question how much thought James has actually put into his position?  James may indeed try to retort by saying that we cannot expect the same sort of evidence for Jesus that we have for Washington.  Well, d’uh…he would be correct in saying so; but then just why would you use that example then, James?

There is, of course, a huge problem, besides the one mentioned above, with this line of argumentation.  The source evidence we have for Jesus, being written down as it is, presents itself as a part of a literary tradition that is well known to scholars of all fields of ancient history.  James can probably present some good instances where individuals who were highly mythologized did, most probably, exist historically.  However, I can also produce instances of mythological individuals in antiquity that were historicized and yet, most probably, never existed historically (Lycurgus [the Spartan, not the Athenian statesman], Romulus and Remus, Moses, Abraham, Joshua, Job, Enkidu, Gilgamesh, the Greek demigods associated with other mystery religions like Dionysus, Bacchus, and Orpheus, etc…).  Often it is very difficult to tell the difference between these two literary scenarios and often scholars will work towards a compromise; a middle ground which, oddly enough, does not exist with Jesus.  This begs the question: Where does that leave the evidence for Jesus?  This is precisely the problem that James, and most historical Jesus scholars, fails to address.  In order for me, however, to address the situation in its entirety, I would need to rewrite the first, second, fifth, and seventh chapters of my book and, to be frank, I have no urgent desire to do so.

James’ second venture to refute the position is a little more, shall we say, devious.  James should reevaluate his continuous appeals to emotion, hyperbole, and a false consensus (despite what James and others say, no real consensus exists on the state of evidence for a historical Jesus—it truly is just an assumed, oft taken-for-granted, position and one, as James is demonstrating for us, that is notoriously hard to break from) in fragile efforts to harangue and dissuade people from, essentially, disagreeing with him.  Yes, James, I believe we are all capable of recognizing hyperbole when we see it.  Fortunately, it is a correctable occurrence—one that I have worked hard to overcome, myself.  It is very easy to get carried away and overstate the evidence; we should all be cautious about doing so, including mythicists (who, sadly, do it quite often as well—Zeitgeist is a good example of a mythicist position full of overstatement).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; James and others have reason to distrust the mythicist position as a whole, but that should not suggest that the position itself is flawed.  The direction some mythicists have taken the discussion might be flawed, but really it all comes down to the state of the evidence.  I don’t believe James, or anyone, can produce an argument strong enough to show probability in favor of Jesus’ historicity anymore than one can produce a strong enough argument for the historicity of Lycurgus, or Horatius, or any other substantially historicized or mythologized figure that a great deal of individuals believed in throughout antiquity.  And unlike James, I can produce, as well as others, a steady line of Jewish scribal tradition where history was not only invented, but utilized to express theological and philosophical perspectives.  And how convenient for me, these authors often did just this by using invented fictional characters placed in historical settings (i.e. Moses, Abraham, Job, etc…).  It is not merely a Jewish phenomenon either; it is a literary tradition that extends beyond borders through long-standing socio-cultural ties and utilizes story-telling techniques (like cuing the reader with eponymous names, for example).

This is not the first time I have had to come down on James for using hyperbole and I sincerely hope he will stop this nonsense and correct the flaw in his rhetoric now; otherwise I might be forced to reconsider my position on his level of honesty and integrity and, as a person who respects James’ work and him as a human being, I really hope it doesn’t come down to that.  That aside, I continue to look forward to the work James has done on this subject.  Hopefully he will come up with something soon that will surprise me.

23 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting on this Tom. My point was not to suggest that the amounts of evidence for Jesus and George Washington are comparable. They clearly aren’t, and in one sense that is indeed to be expected, since a president and military leader tends to leave a more tangible impression on history. So no surprises there. My point was simply that we know about individuals through the same process of deducation in the sense that if we have a hat, or a place Washington supposedly slept, we still have work to do to connect it with him (or call the connection into question, if appropriate). My point was simply that an assessment of the evidence for what a person said and did, or if more tangible evidence exists, wore, involves comparable methods of deduction.

    I probably should have gone with a more ancient figure, so that the situations and distances in time would be more comparable. But since it was an analogy, I went with the first person who came to mind!

    As for whether there is a consensus, there clearly is about Jesus’ existence. To deny that would be the equivalent of suggesting that disagreement about genetic drift and/or punctuated equilibrium involves a lack of consensus about whether evolution itself happened.

    I do apologize for my sarcastic tone. The representative of mythicism who “interacts” with me most often on my blog (If you can call posting the same things over and over again without even acknowledging responses “interaction) is Steven Carr, and it does indeed get frustrating. If my interactions were usually with you or Neil Godfrey, for instance, I suspect (or at least hope!) I would be less inclined to resort to sarcasm! :)

    But that said, mythicism is a fringe view, whose acceptance is largely by people with web pages and a very small number of token scholars. At present, making comparisons with the relationship between young-earth creationism seems an obvious thing to do, and as you point out, there certainly are viewpoints that can be called “mythicist” but which are full of unsubstantiated claims and various other problems. And so I’m delighted to hear that there will be a volume that will make a more rigorous, documented and systematic case for the mythicist viewpoint. I may not agree with it, but disagreeing with one another is what scholars do for a living! What distinguishes scholarship is less the conclusions than the rigor with which the subject is investigated and evidence is examined and evaluated. I look forward to such a more serious treatment and perhaps reviewing the book on my blog, if not elsewhere.

  2. A few brief points.

    1) I think Dr. McGrath’s point was primarily comparative and not absolute, as you seem to take it with your facetious questions about physical evidence. If the historical Jesus was who scholars claim he was – a relatively unremarkable Jewish preacher whose mission was primarily to the marginalized – then the textual evidence is pretty solid.

    2) Look up “consensus” in any dictionary. That is precisely what the state of affairs is.

    3) It seems you are expecting scholars to take you at your word that there is a solid case for the ahistorical Jesus out there, even if no one has made it yet. Sum total of monographs, essays, and articles published for a scholarly audience on the topic in the past 40 years? My guess is 0. Doherty, Price, Wells, etc. work through popular, not academic, presses and/or write with those audiences in mind. If there is a solid, academic case out there, no one’s made it yet.

    4) There are zero narratives to which this statement does not apply: “history was not only invented, but utilized to express theological and philosophical perspectives.” All history is revisionist. Once more, the question should not be absolute, but comparative. Moreover, this question of historicity only seems to matter if you’re concerned with some pointless debate about the social legitimacy of contemporary forms of Christianity and want to contest it vis-a-vis “ultimate origins.”

    5) And mostly unrelated, your condescension against Dr. McGrath in the last paragraph is untoward and unproductive.

  3. I am more concerned with what your position does to other “historical” figures like Socrates and the Buddha. I also wonder what we could really claim to know about human prehistory if the same criteria were applied.

    Too much skepticism while preventing erroneous historical knowledge filters out things that are legitimate but lack strong historical documentation.

    Is the evidence for Jesus as strong as Washington? . Hell no! but that doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t exist. It just means that the evidence is not as strong. But you know that already.

    I think there is a question of historical epistemology surfacing here. What are the “true” criteria for attaining historical knowledge?

  4. James,

    Thanks for your response. I’m not certain I can agree with your use of Washington; it paints for us a picture that is decidedly false about Jesus. Someone who reads your blog, for example, who does not understand the nuances of the debate, even just about the historical Jesus himself, will assume we have some sort of physical entity we know to have existed with the same certainty that we know George Washington existed with. In essence it is the same sort of flawed analogy that is made when a scholar claims to have more evidence for Jesus than for Alexander the Great. Its sickening and, to be blunt, ignorant. But, even as I have shown above, using figures from antiquity doesn’t help either as the determination of whether or not a figure is a mythicized figure from history or a historicized myth is hard to make.

    I think you’re wrong about a consensus. A consensus is an agreement; just because a good portion of Jesus scholars believe he existed historically does not mean there is a consensus–precisely because there is no agreement beyond that. What Jesus historically said, did, did not do, where he was when he said, what he ate, where he was from, what language he spoke, etc… is in constant disagreement. It doesn’t matter how much effort is put into trying to determine which bits are historical or not, because in the end historical Jesus scholarship is a biased enterprise with individuals who cannot see the forest through the trees. Trying to historicize Jesus is like trying to historicize Lycurgus; it is rationalizing the past because we want to believe such a figure existed, and the continued failed attempts to produce a historical Jesus everyone can agree on is just another reason why skepticism towards his existence is something that must be taken seriously and not condemned to the realm of conspiracy.

    As for sarcasm, I have no trouble at all with it. My problem is your hyperbole–specifically your overstatements of the evidence. You cannot produce an entity, Jesus, which everyone agrees upon so stop pretending as if you can. And yes, Mythicism is a fringe perspective but I fail to see how it can be taken seriously if all scholars do is pass it by without considering the arguments. You’re essentially poisoning the well and not giving people a chance. And, further, I’m not sure how useful your statement is that you disagree with something before the book is even published and you had a chance to read it… are you saying that even if a solid argument was presented, you would not accept it? I do hope that is not what you’re saying.

    I’d enjoy it if you reviewed the book when it is completed. Thank you for the offer.

  5. Charles,

    I do not believe Buddha existed historically any more than I believe Jesus did. As for Socrates, this is a poor example as we have contemporary attestation to his existence (Xenophon and Plato, for example). Not only that but we have contemporary enemy attestation to his life which is strong evidence indeed (Aristophanes).

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by your second statement. I think you’re also making a logical leap with what you write next. I never said that because Jesus’ evidence isn’t as strong as Washington that Jesus did not exist; if I had made such a statement I would be in trouble! And I agree with James too much skepticism is a bad thing at times.

    I don’t believe there are true criteria for determining historical knowledge; we can only deduce what is more probably from the evidence and in almost all instances it is situational based upon the data. My problem is not that James disagrees with the mythicist position–my problem is that he refuses to give it a fair shake and read the evidence. I have never once seen James review a book on mythicism by a credible individual (Price, for example) or analyze someones’ arguments in a collection of essays (Richard Carrier has three chapters in the Empty Tomb on Paul which are exceptional scholarship that I doubt James has even read). I have, on the other hand, read them and also read nearly all modern literature on the historical Jesus by nearly every secular scholar who focuses primarily on this issue. None of them address the arguments. It isn’t because the arguments are less valid or silly or crazy–its because its fringe (and fringe, by the way, does not mean the arguments are invalid) and scholarship is a beast that hates to be changed.

  6. Chris,

    1) See my statements in regards to this for James above. Add: The textual evidence we have for Jesus is not about a unremarkable Jewish preacher, the textual evidence we have is about a demigod who performs miracles and rises from the dead. Which Bible are you reading? Can you produce a Gospel in the canon or elsewhere which is just an unremarkable Jewish preacher who does no miracle or just dies at the end? No? I didn’t think so; this rationalization on your part is precisely the problem with academia today. We focus too much on rationalizations and not enough on what the text really says–so much so that you just created a fictional Gospel and passed it around as if it were an entity that we have in the canon. The only textual Jesus we have is the myth; we do not possess any evidence of a historical figure. It is only after we rationalize the mythological content that we come to a plausible historical individual–but that person remains elusive and can not be discovered. Until that day, you cannot claim the evidence is solid. In point of fact, there is no evidence.

    2) What is the consensus about who Jesus was? I’m sorry I must have missed that scholarly ecumenical council that decided upon that. Until there is a consensus about how the evidence needs to be addressed, how the evidence is interpreted, and a solid criteria that all scholars in the field can accept, there is no consensus. A true consensus is one where everyone agrees with the means as well as the conclusion. For example, the consensus that evolution occured in the National Academies is a true consensus. Just saying that because most Jesus scholars accept the historicity of Jesus is not enough to establish a consensus–most Americans own cars too; does that mean most Americans are of the consensus that pollution is acceptable and that we need to stay dependent on limited natural resources? I suspect that the answer is ‘no’, but I also suspect that they own cars because it is convenient. The consensus that exists on Jesus in scholarship is a convenient one–it has nothing to do with an agreement on the historical Jesus or the means by which we attain that knowledge.

    3) I never once said I want scholars to take my word for it, nor was it implied. Have you read Thompson’s work The Messiah Myth? Have you read Carrier’s work? Have you read Prices? Since when does an argument rest on who publishes it? Is an argument only good if it is published through T&T Clark? How incredibly irrational and hyperbolic of you to imply such a thing. If anything, my problem is that too many scholars do not read this material, they do not examine the evidence from serious credentialed scholars like Thompson (whom, by the way, nearly single-handedly turned a fringe view into the dominant perspective on the same issue, but with Old Testament patriarchal figures), Price, and Carrier. I don’t want anyone to take my word for it, I want them to read it and examine the evidence for themselves instead of relying on me or whomever to constantly bring the arguments to them.

    4) I agree with the first part about history being revisionist to a large degree, but not quite sure what your second point is. Could you clarify?

    5) Good, I’m glad you’re in agreement. I also think it is unproductive–in fact all hyperbole and condescension is unproductive, which is precisely why I wrote that the way I did–as james is little more than condescending to mythicists and I highly suspect he has read a single book by a credible scholar arguing for mythicism.

    Thanks for the post, Chris.

  7. I hate making point-by-point arguments, but it seems unavoidable here.

    1) “Can you produce a Gospel in the canon or elsewhere which is just an unremarkable Jewish preacher who does no miracle or just dies at the end? No? I didn’t think so.” Yes, in fact. GThom and Q, setting aside the miracle issue, which I see as an unhelpful distinction.

    Likewise, this statement is also applicable to all biographies and histories: “The only textual Jesus we have is the myth; we do not possess any evidence of a historical figure.” To paraphrase a former professor, there is no point at which telling a narrative is EVER about “the facts.” The Enlightenment myths of progress and objectivity have led us astray in this respect. Again, I implore you to read Lincoln’s “Theorizing Myth.”

    2) You claimed there was “no real consensus exists on the state of evidence for a historical Jesus,” not Jesus’ exact character. Also, where are you getting your definition of “consensus” from? I’ve never heard it used like that; if it’s something peculiar to the hard sciences, I question its relevance in relation to the humanities.

    3) Carrier’s work? What would that be, aside from some internet articles? I own most of Price’s books, two of Doherty’s, and Hoffmann’s edited one. I’ve even published an article in JHC about them, but who cares? This name-dropping is irrelevant. The point is not the prestige of the publisher, but for whom the argument is made. If the author’s work is for laity, then inevitably they can’t assume knowledge about various complexities of the field, so the quality of the argument must suffer. Price, Doherty, and others end up wasting time addressing arguments that were made popular (and thus written at a non-academic level) and best-sellers instead of cutting-edge research that isn’t anywhere near as accessible. In short, why address the mass-appeal arguments of Borg, Wright, and Funk, when much stronger material exists – albeit in more esoteric domains.

    5) You misunderstood me. I was referring to your post. But Dr. McGrath seems to have made nothing of it, so I set the issue aside. But things like this “How incredibly irrational and hyperbolic of you to imply such a thing” are far too shrill and condescending for public discourse.

    I think my main problem with “mythicists” is that they’re consistently a few generations behind on what constitutes “myth” and what its cultural functions are. I’ve seen nothing theoretically sound published on the topic, and what I know of Carrier’s work isn’t making me terribly optimistic about his upcoming on either.

  8. Your posts are coming off extremely defensive and I’m not sure why; it may just be me reading them that way, but its hard to tell.

    1) Gos Thomas is not a historical Jewish preacher but Jesus Christ–who is ascended and talking to his students (read vs. 24–they don’t know where he is) and is reminiscent, in fact, of The Sophia of Jesus Christ found at Nag Hammadi, where the disciples are questioning Jesus and he is teaching them from an ascended plane or realm.

    Q, on the other hand, has been thoroughly refuted as an entity that existed (see Mark Goodacre’s analyses on this subject, as well as some treatments by E.P Sanders, et al).

    2) If that was my statement then it remains unrefuted. You can quibble about the symantics of the word, but let me ask you this: how can there be a consensus on someone’s historicity when what that historicity implies or what it is cannot be established with any certainty? For example, it is a near certainty that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, that he was assassinated, that certain events occured during his lifetime that can be substantiated. To say there is a consensus on the historicity of Caesar is an accurate statement to make, as we can analyze often excellent corroborating evidence. Even a figure as vague as Alexander the Great, with histories that were contemporaneous to him no longer extant, has an incredible amount of substantiated life accounts that make a consensus possible. How can you have a consensus with the certainty that you and james are claiming to have without any substantially (or anything, period) accepted life accounts? Can you give me one event in Jesus’ life that is universally agreed upon to have happened that has not, at some point, been refuted by a credible treatment in an academic journal or, for that matter, a study published through a credible press? Its doubtful and I think you’ll be hardpressed to find one. This is extremely significant to my point.

    3) I again fail to see why you appeal to elitism instead of argumentation. What about Thompsons’ work? You surely would not say that he has not published on the subject! (He has, in fact, published in an academic venue on the ahistoricity of the Jesus narratives and Jesus)

    5) What problems do you find with Carrier’s work? I would agree with you on the problems with many ‘mythicists’ but I ask you don’t lump us all together that way. I do not like being lumped in with Acharya S or Joe Atwill.

  9. I think that the major difference between Washington and Jesus in regards to historicity is that Washington did not walk on water, raise the dead or performed miracles. Outside of the points Tom made here, what would you think if a manuscript was found in some old home in Virginia, that talked about George Washington walking on water, healing the sick, raising the dead etc.. This is an authentic document written 40 years after George’s life..etc.. based on the evidence that we have for jesus, one would then have to accept it as truth. But would you? Even if Jesus was a historical figure, you would have to question whether his “extraordinary feats” were real.

    If Jesus were to have been a true historical figure, at least the one the bible authors claim him to be, then I would think there would have been a bit more contemporary evidence, or, evidence period. I mean it’s not like this guy was just another jewish philosopher. He was doing some extraordinary stuff.

    But more so, why would god in light of humanity’s plight, give us as the only evidence his existence a man 2000 years ago in a part of the world that was isolated from the rest of the world and a book written around 40 years after his death, that has so many interpretations and versions and with other chapters left out as decided by man? This is hardly revelation.

    Extraordinary proof, requires extraordinary evidence (as Carl Sagan once said) and since Jesus is supposed to be the guiding light for how to live, which requires humans to sacrifice their income, lifestyle and (assumingly) their eternal life to him, you would think that god’s revelation would be a bit more revealing and credible. The very notion that the evidence for Jesus is shaky, considering who he was, is enough for me to doubt the very existence of this man.

  10. Tom, you seem not to be using the term “refuted” in anything like its normal English sense. On the one hand, you state that Mark Goodacre has “refuted” the existence of Q – by which I assume that you mean “I find his arguments persuasive, or like his conclusions, and it doesn’t matter how many other people have been persuaded.” Mark’s points are certainly provocative, and may be correct, but he would be the first to admit that his work is part of an ongoing scholarly conversation and has not brought the discussion to an end. (That said, knowing Mark he might be happy to use the term “refuted” but I suspect he’d do so with a wink and a grin).

    Then you say that no one has refuted your points – but using the same definition, I’ve found the arguments against you persuasive, regardless if anyone else has, ergo you’ve been refuted. Presumably in this instance you mean that no one has answered you to your satisfaction. But if we look closely, the points made seem adequate to address your objections. Sure, there is disagreement about what Jesus may have meant by “kingdom of God” – but almost universal agreement that he spoke about it, because of the variety of different sorts of material in which the term is found. There may be some differences of opinion about the date of the crucifixion, or whether the temple action directly led to it, and who most wanted Jesus apprehended – but no one apart from mythicists and apologists for Islam denies that it happened.

    But I think before I address any of your substantive points in the future, I should wait for your clarification as to what you found wanting in my qualifications and scholarship. I’m genuinely puzzled, and await your clarification as to what you meant.

  11. 1) First, he is never called “Christ” in all of GThom. Second, can you refer me to an article making your argument? I’ve not come across it so far and I’m a bit dubious about it, especially on such weak grounds; 13.6 says Jesus took Thomas aside, which the Coptic means is merely speaking in private, not any mystical experience of ascension. I’ll set aside Q, even though counterarguments have been recently proffered by inter alia Kloppenborg, Derrenbacker, and Burkett. The beliefs of our surviving sources are supposed to be irrelevant if you’re trying to find out what people thought before them (which is what you’re claiming – that there WAS no historical Jesus, not just that the Gospel writers did not believe in one). My counter-challenge is this: can you find an example of an ahistorical demi-god being portrayed as a human midst historical figures that lived approx. 50 years before the author was writing? That is, all of this in one text?

    2) Your Caesar example indicates a weakness in your case: there IS agreement that Jesus went to Jerusalem, was executed, and that some of the events of his life are historically likely. But comparing the expected evidence for the life of a marginal Jewish preacher to Caesar makes little sense to me. More helpful would be comparing the evidence for Honi, Jesus ben Hananiah, and Judas the Galilean. Finally, the extent of the academic “certainty” is relative to the individual; we needn’t write a biography to deem someone “historical.”

    “Can you give me one event in Jesus’ life that is universally agreed upon to have happened that has not, at some point, been refuted by a credible treatment in an academic journal or, for that matter, a study published through a credible press” Why do “events” matter so much to you? So what if the evidence for Jesus isn’t enough to write a full-life biography?

    3)I’m getting a touch frustrated with this point. Scholars publishing in popular presses necessarily reduce the complexities of their arguments to present them to a non-academic audience. Is this agreed? Such nuances are NECESSARY when writing academic works, but not popular volumes. Via analogy: Scholars usually don’t spend time responding to arguments in textbooks because of their necessarily partial/introductory nature. Why would it be any different from books of similar sort from highly marginalized sectors of scholarship?

    If I said I had read Thompson’s volume, what would your point be? Why does such name-dropping matter?

    5) Carrier’s modernist quasi-“rationalism” and quest for objectivity comes off as outdated to me. I haven’t read Atwill, Acharya S or really anyone other than those I already mentioned.

  12. Larry, you seem to be combining two issues. Miracles are attributed to all sorts of figures – emperors of Greece and Rome, for instance – and historians do indeed question whether those things happened. Most would agree that, on principle, we cannot assert that such things happened based on the testimony of ancient texts. But this situation indicates that such stories could accrete to historical figures, and illustrates why many think that Jesus DID exist but DID NOT perform supernatural feats.

  13. First of all historical study is not deductive. It is by nature inductive and probabilistic. Scholars being the illogical ego driven creatures that they are often forget that.

    It is by no means certain that Jesus existed or certain that he did not exist. Tom is correct to point out that even if Jesus existed we have little solid data on him. That said I think the evidence suggests that he probably existed and did a few of the things attributed to him.

    Tom you wrote ” I don’t believe there are true criteria for determining historical knowledge; we can only deduce what is more probably from the evidence and in almost all instances it is situational based upon the data”

    Tom, we don’t “deduce” history we inductively infer it based upon situational and often very limited data. As I said history is not a matter of applying deductive logic. History is not computer science.

    It is not the data but your skeptical methodology that we disagree most upon. It is a question of methodology and historical epistemology.

    I’m willing to risk drawing data from sub optimal sources when they are the only sources. I would rather err on the side of believing too much rather than too little.

  14. James,

    I by far am no historian. But I try make clear that I don’t think Jesus as portrayed in the bible is a historical figure. Perhaps some man named jesus? Sure, but at the time of jesus were there not others claiming to be the son of god, claiming to be performing miracles? At least that’s what Discovery Channel tells me. :)

    I’m trying to learn more about this subject and the historicity of jesus. I’ve heard the basics on the apologists side of things regarding why they consider the jesus story to be true. Have any books your recommend?

  15. I’d recommend avoiding apologists and reading a mainstream historian or New Testament scholar, someone whose conclusions are balanced and widely respected even among those who may not accept them. E. P. Sanders would probably be high up on my list. But if there is some particular question, story, or saying that interests you, it might be worthwhile finding a monograph that specifically looks at that particular piece of evidence in great detail. Books on “the historical Jesus” are attempts to cover his life inasmuch as it can be reconstructed, and so they have to build on other publications that go into more minute details. And for those who want to get beyond generalities to look at how individual pieces of evidence and individual questions are addressed, a monograph (something based on someone’s doctoral dissertation, for instance) might be a good choice. Let me know if you want more specific suggestions if a topic comes to mind.

  16. James,

    There seems to be some misunderstanding about my statement on your blog “scholars and legitimate academics with legitimate credentials (which far outweigh the ones you have, by the way–Richard Carrier among them) by calling them ‘pseudoscientists.'” I apologize for not being more clear and if you took offense to this because of the lack of clarity in the statement. In no way was I trying to suggest your credentials are inadequate.

    However, what I am saying is that Carrier (who has a BA, an MA and an M.Phil., now a Ph.D. in ancient history) is an actual secular ancient historian. He doesn’t have a BA in divinity, for example (which is still prestigious). I’m also not quite sure what sort of point you make with being more prolific than Carrier; I was always under the impression that quality is more useful than quantity, as a practice? To stay any of your presumptions about my meaning, I’m not saying what you write is of lesser quality–I haven’t had the pleasure of reading most of your work, so I am no authority on the matter. But it seems rather odd of you to simply suggest that, because Carrier has published less, this makes him less authoritative than you. I’m not so certain that logic holds.

    Also, Thomas L. Thompson is a mythicist as well; would you say his qualifications are less or greater than yours? He, along with a handful of others, changed the face of Old Testament studies in the course of a few decades. This grand idea of a consensus which you keep bellowing about didn’t hold up to his “fringe” ideas which, at one point, were just as ridiculed as mythicism is today. The continuing trend of this anti-change mentality in academia is depressing and you, of all people, being the open-minded individual you are (and the honest and likable person I know you to be) should not be following this trend but working towards correcting it.

    And by ‘correcting it’ I do not mean that you need to agree with it, but really James; likening mythicism to creationism is a false analogy and dishonest of you. You really should know better than to compare an inductive investigation of the evidence to something hard like evolution and religiously motivated like creationism. Its distasteful and I’m offended by it. if anything, it just continues to prove my point that historicists do not know what the mythicist position really is and that you’re just as unfamiliar with the literature on the subject as anyone else is.

    By the way, I was not calling you to apologize; I had already written this last night but had not yet posted it as I was working on other projects. I was calling you to discuss something else.

    I look forward to our continued conversations.

  17. Tom, what you wrote was clear, and I never suggested that I was more prolific than Carrier, nor that it mattered. I said very explicitly that, as Carrier’s PhD is more recent than mine, it would be ridiculous to compare the number of publications we have. I simply pointed out that your denigration of my qualifications did not seem justified. If you wanted to say that his qualifications are more relevant you could easily have done so.

  18. Dear James,

    What I said was clear, but my intentions were not. I could have made my intentions more concise, as you have just demonstrated. You have my sincerest apologies for “denigration of your qualifications.”

  19. JAMES
    Sure, there is disagreement about what Jesus may have meant by “kingdom of God” – but almost universal agreement that he spoke about it, because of the variety of different sorts of material in which the term is found.

    CARR
    Of course it is missing in the earliest Christian documents.

    Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter, James, Jude never talk about this ‘kingdom of God’

    If Biblical scholars were genuninely interested in proving that their methodologies work, they would point to cases where their disparate criteria have been used successfully on other figures of 2000 years ago to find out what sayings of person X Y or Z were authentic.

  20. Well, after my last snit with John Loftus, I said I was swearing off arguing Jesus history with other non-scholars. (No offense, James. I know you’re well educated, but unless I’m mistaken, you aren’t a legitimate academic in the field of ancient literature.)

    I’m going to keep to my promise, and not argue. I’ll just hit and run post, and then let the chips fall where they may. With the caveat that I don’t have any position whatsoever on the genre or intended audience of the original Gospel, I have always had one huge problem with the assumption of Jesus’ historicity:

    I can’t find any other historical figure for which there is literally zero corroborating evidence for decades, and for whom the only evidence is in the form of legendary or mythological style stories.

    I have a secondary problem with the assumption of Jesus’ historicity:

    Jesus existence or nonexistence apparently has no effect whatsoever on the historical narrative. In other words, if the gospel story is a myth, there are no glaring questions that demand unreasonable answers. If Ceasar, or Alexander, (or George Washington… pshah!) didn’t exist, historians got a lot o’ splainin’ to do.

    In other words, it looks to me like hundreds of scholars are beating each other over the head arguing over whether an entirely irrelevant figure existed. Once we agree that nobody ever rose from the dead, and that if Jesus existed, he was just some heretic or another, or a monk, or a pharisee, or a rabbi, or a prophet, or a madman, or… gee, how many different versions of this “historical” figure are there?…

    … hmm. Lost my train of thought. Anyway, the point is, nobody argues over whether Alexander was a general or a prophet. That’s because his narrative is an integral part of history. The fact that Jesus’ historical existence doesn’t alter the narrative either way doesn’t prove he didn’t exist. But it surely does make me wonder why people work so hard to demonstrate “consensus” and why entire aisles in university libraries are devoted to proving that he exists.

  21. Mind it to say that most of what can be said in response to Tom’s post has been said – sans the following observation:

    My take on this stance (Mythicism), is somewhat different than Tom’s and is so blatantly obvious that it almost need not be said – except that apparently it does need to be stated given the state of the discourse that has transpired over this topic.
    Simply put- No person who lacks a belief in deity or simply lacks a belief in Christianity can defend the premise that they are not ipso facto (latae sententiae) a Mythicist.

    We understand Yeshua ben Yosef (Jesus) by only one kind of general characterization of him. That he was endowed with the ability to perform wonders. He it was written, could cast out demons, walk on water, raise the dead and let’s not forget the impressive miracle of killing an innocent fig tree for being out of season (Although one has to wonder why he missed the golden opportunity of performing the larger miracle of making the fig tree actually bear fruit.

    Well what are we left with? A superhero none the less – we are asked to believe this, both the Historian and the layman. It is from this that we most regularly identify the character of Jesus. It makes no sense in my mind to dwell on the foundation for this characterization since that person is not the Jesus we are colloquially referring to. It’s Superman not Clark Kent that has interested the millions of his followers both young and old, the educated and the credulous alike.

    Was there a historical Jesus? Maybe, but who cares? Do we ask whether Odysseus was based on a real King of Ithaca? Sure as though we might, we rarely have the gull to ponder if he truly made himself appear old or was actually marooned on an Island inhabited by a Goddess.

    We cannot simply state as a matter of history that although the Odyssey was fable, the Cyclops in the story undoubtedly must have been based on a historical Cyclops. But is there any alternative? That is what we must inevitably do if we are to continue to cross the line between historical and legendary characters. Typically this problem is not one that the Historian has to make since attestation is generally available for most of the characters already mentioned in the previous posts. However, the character of Jesus has no such attestation or support from any contemporary authorities.

    If we are to ignore this fact and continue to allow this type of exception, then one has to ask why we are not dedicating equal amounts of resources into the life of Asclepius, Apollonius of Tyana and the numerous others whose character are supported by equal insufficient evidence. Surely by this reasoning, Apollonius and Asclepius have to be based on historical personalities… do they not?

  22. Rich, when I say that I am not a mythicist, I’m referring to a very specific kind of mythicism, which asserts that the gospel (and thus, all of Jesus’ existence) is a specific genre of ancient fictional literature. I am not an ancient literature scholar, and have no way of having a formed opinion about that.

    Certainly, I agree with you that the search for a “historical Jesus” is much ado about nothing. As you clearly point out, Jesus alone among the mythical figures of ancient literature has been singled out in an effort to find the “historical inspiration.”

    When we really break it down, everything writers have invented was based on something. Griffins? That would be a cross between a lion and an eagle. Minotaurs? Men and bulls. Dragons? Not so clear, but a flying, reptilian creature with intelligence? We surely see all of those characteristics in other animals.

    In other words, it’s pretty much impossible to find any made up story that isn’t based on something historical. So was there a historical Jesus? Of course, if we look at it from that perspective. But the answer is so trivially true that it isn’t worth mentioning. Something someone saw somewhere sometime gave him the idea to make up the story of Moses, which gave someone somewhere else the idea of Jesus. (With a few intermediaries, of course.)

    But when we’re done with all that nonsense, we’re still back to the original questions:

    1) Why do we assume historicity for Jesus and none of the other purely legendary figures in similar literature?
    2) Why do we insist there *must* be a Jesus even though there’s literally no hole for him to fill in the historical narrative?

    ** Note that I am not going back on my promise. I am not arguing over Jesus. Rather, I’m agreeing with someone making points I agree with.

  23. […] James on Jesus: Reopening Pandora’s Box […]

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