One of the many things I did when I was in England was go on a radio show that then aired in London just this last weekend (Saturday, December 15th, 2012), called Unbelievable with Justin Brierley, for Premiere Christian Radio. There, I had a cordial and informal debate with professor Mark Goodacre on the merits of the theory that Jesus didn’t exist (but is instead as mythical as Hercules or King Arthur).
Justin was an excellent host, and we both mused over the irony of the fact that he had an American in England debating an Englishman in America. I had stopped by the studio in person while I was in London; Goodacre was kind enough to phone in from his office at Duke University, North Carolina, where he’s an Associate Professor of the New Testament. So we were both at a disadvantage, he by being on the phone (having been there myself, I can testify to how difficult it is to carry on a conversation that way), and me by having almost literally just landed after a twelve hour flight from Los Angeles, which had immediately followed a six hour drive by car, and after which we had just enough time to get our bags and drive to the city and drop me off at a tube station en route to Premiere. Fortunately, I’m pretty resistant to jet lag. But it definitely felt weird. I had that “wired” feeling one gets after being awake for far too long.
If you want to listen to the show, it’s available online (for just this week it’s the featured show but after that it will be in their archives; and if that link doesn’t work properly try this) and via iTunes. I will comment on the show here. So if you’re keen to hear my thoughts on it, read on.
Goodacre as Goodscholar
Mark Goodacre is one of my favorite scholars in the field. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the intertextuality of the Gospels, and is most famous for being, like me, an ardent advocate of a “fringe” theory: that there was no Q source behind what the Gospels of Luke and Matthew added to Mark, that Luke just copied and redacted Matthew (and Mark). He is also a strong critic of the same “method of criteria” now used in Jesus studies that I took down in my book Proving History, citing Goodacre’s work several times (especially his critiques of the criteria of embarrassment and multiple attestation).
But on that point, everyone relevant agrees with him (i.e., everyone who has published studies on the validity of those methods). It’s on the other point that he and I share a more pertinent bond: we have both faced astonishing irrationality and stubbornness from our peers, who cling to “consensus” rather than sound argument. Indeed, I really don’t understand why Goodacre’s conclusion about Q is fringe. When I finally did read his Case against Q (given to me by a fan, who wanted me to read it–thank you!) I found his evidence more than sufficient and his argument thoroughly persuasive. Arguments for Q, by contrast, uniformly suck, in respect to both logic and evidence.
I have since read more on the subject (both his work and that of others who agree with him; especially his website on Q which is an excellent resource; and then what critics of his arguments I could find), and I have concluded that the evidence is fairly conclusive from any objective standpoint: Luke very certainly used Matthew as a source. Yet Goodacre’s arguments and evidence are flippantly dismissed, without valid rebuttal, even by such luminaries as Bart Ehrman–who couldn’t even be bothered to present a single valid argument against him in his latest book, where he just casts him aside as “lively” and “spirited” (and buries even that in an endnote), and goes on to base his arguments on the existence of Q, as if it were not even in doubt. I wonder if Ehrman really even knows what Goodacre’s arguments are.
The point here is that this is the same stonewalling I face when I advance the hypothesis that (like Q), Jesus didn’t exist, either. I face the same stubbornness, irrationality, erroneous and distorted treatments of the evidence, and fallacious appeals to the nebulous “consensus” (a consensus of people who actually haven’t examined the case and thus can’t possibly have formed a consensus in any responsible sense). I’ve extensively documented examples of this appalling behavior from Bart Ehrman and James McGrath (see my Ehrman on Historicity Recap). So Goodacre definitely knows how that feels. He’s been there.
This, plus his solid expertise in the field, makes him a good candidate for objectively reviewing the case I have to make. I trust his critique of my book (On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, which will be out next year) will be among the best and most important. I’m looking forward to it.
Forty Minutes on the Air
Just forty minutes of informal conversation on the radio won’t be of much use in that regard (our participation in the show clocked in at about an hour, but that’s after adding commercials and intros and lead-ins and close-outs and such). We were only able to present our respective positions in the shallowest and least explored terms, barely touching the tip of the iceberg. Our actual collective speaking time was probably around twenty minutes each–especially after subtracting the time taken to discuss our respective backstories and thoughts about the role of bias on both sides of the debate and other such topics. Our exchange was also informal and unstructured, and largely led by the host as moderator, who kept the conversation interesting to listeners by changing the subject from time to time. I was also a bit wired (as I noted earlier; perhaps I should have asked Justin for a whiskey instead of tea before the show…and that’s kidding on the square).
But for all those faults, this has been the best debate on the subject I know so far. Goodacre wasn’t flippant or dismissive but took the possibility seriously, and he agreed with me on several things, such as that the only evidence really worth debating are the letters of Paul, which became the main occupation of the show, so we zeroed in on that issue more than usually happens. Yet that is exactly what should happen.
It was refreshing that he got that. We thus bypassed most of the tedium of the usual red herring exchanges on other evidence that is always, in the end, a waste of time (being so conclusively inconclusive). So if you are wondering why my following comments are almost solely about that (with nothing about the more usual nonsense like Josephus or Nazareth or Aramaicisms in the Gospels), it’s because we ended up talking almost solely about that. Which, to my view, is properly cutting right to the heart of the matter.
1. What theory are you defending? Some might prefer I start by suggesting you watch (either before or after listening to the show or finishing this commentary) my thirty minute talk, “So…if Jesus Didn’t Exist, Where Did He Come from Then?” which provides a brief précis of my book’s argument that Jesus didn’t exist. This, too, just touches the tip of the iceberg, but if you want a more coherent picture of what I was defending on the radio, that’s the best way to get up to speed (Goodacre might not have seen that video yet; at least I don’t assume he has–he knows my work, we’ve been exchanging information for over a year, but not as much on this subject).
2. What was the main objection to it? Paul’s epistles. I was actually surprised to find that Goodacre has been so thoroughly indoctrinated by “the consensus” that he actually thinks all sorts of things are in Paul’s Epistles that in fact are not there. In general he argued “Paul is really very good evidence, very good evidence, for the existence of a historical Jesus” because “it’s very clear from his epistles that [Paul is] talking about a real human being,” but as I said in the show, no, that isn’t clear at all. Just read them all through (the authentic ones, not the forgeries), without the assumption that Paul means anything other than a celestial being who underwent an incarnation, death, and resurrection in outer space like some taught Osiris had done. You’ll then find, for example, Goodacre’s claim that “[Paul] refers on several occasions to different things in [Jesus’] ministry” is conspicuously false. Paul does not refer to even a single thing in Jesus’ ministry. Ever.
3. No evidence at all? One can imagine only two possible exceptions, Jesus having sayings and a passion. But even when Paul says he “has a saying” from Jesus, he never links it to a ministry, but only (if anything) to private revelation. Likewise all he knew of Christ’s passion. Paul uses the exact same phrases and vocabulary in Galatians 1:11-16 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (a point Goodacre, like many scholars, was not aware of). Even the last supper (the only passage anywhere in Paul that references anything like a narrative for Jesus): Paul says he learned that directly from Jesus, which means, by revelation–and accordingly, Paul does not mention anyone being present at that event, but instead quotes Jesus as speaking (as if from heaven) to future generations of Christians. Accordingly, even Gerd Lüdemann concludes this does not derive from any historical tradition (see his chapter on the evidence of Paul’s epistles in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, which I reviewed last year).
4. What about those two passages about his birth? I didn’t have time to address (beyond generally) two other facts Goodacre mentioned, that Paul does indeed say Jesus’ flesh was “descended from the seed of David” (actually Paul says “born/made,” not “descended”) and “talks about [Jesus] being born of a woman.” I remarked that these claims are also explicable on mythicism, but didn’t elaborate. In the second case (Gal. 4:3-5) Paul is speaking allegorically (Gal. 4:23-26); and in the first, prophetically (the Christ must have been Davidic, so that was simply assumed–hence Paul does not mention how he knows Jesus was Davidic, like mentioning who his father was; yet to effect an incarnation God can make any seed he wants, including a seed from David: 1 Cor. 15:36-38). See Thomas Verenna’s chapter on this (and other evidence in Paul) in Is This Not the Carpenter? (which I reviewed in July). I don’t agree with Verenna’s every point, but he adequately illustrates how ambiguous these references are when understood in context.
5. What about the people Paul knew who knew Jesus? Goodacre said “Paul knows loads of people from that early Christian movement, people like Peter, people like James, the brothers of Jesus, the twelve” and so on, but the question is whether these people knew a living Jesus, or were merely claimed to have generations later in the Gospels–which they did not write. Paul never mentions them knowing Jesus in life. Never. Not once. As far as Paul seems to know, Peter and James learned of Jesus by the same revelatory pathway Paul did (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). And as far as we can tell, “brothers of the Lord” (whether James, Gal. 1:18-19, or generically, 1 Cor. 9:5) was just Paul’s way of saying “Christian” (perhaps of a specific rank), since otherwise all baptized Christians were “brothers of the Lord,” and the status of James or anyone as peculiarly the “biological” brother of “the Lord” is never claimed or implied by Paul (see my previous summary of this point, which answers our host’s worry that having a brother of the Lord “wouldn’t make any sense if you didn’t have a historical person to tie that to,” since, in fact, being a fictive brother of the Lord routinely made sense to Paul). It’s therefore not clear what Paul means in these two passages. It is certainly not “very” clear. And when considered against the backdrop of the complete absence in Paul’s letters of any clear reference placing Jesus in earth history, a “historicist” interpretation of such a grandiose title as “brother of the Lord” starts to look less likely.
6. What was all that about Paul mentioning Judeans? We were briefly talking over each other (a common problem with dial-in conversations; and a big reason why I don’t like dialing in myself), so I misheard Dr. Goodacre’s reference to “the Judeans in 1 Thessalonians 2″ and went on assuming we were still talking about Galatians 1-2 (where the Judean churches come up) and we moved on. The audience will be confused because neither of us explained what his remark was about. I am certain on listening back that he meant the famous passage that most experts deem an interpolation: 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, where Paul says the Jews have finally been punished once and for all for killing Jesus. As that is plainly a reference to the Jewish War, which hadn’t happened when Paul was alive, it’s plainly an interpolation. He never wrote it. For the arguments and scholarship on this point see my past blog on Pauline Interpolations.
7. Why was Goodacre so convinced? Goodacre’s overall argument was that, for him, “it’s very difficult to see lot’s of this stuff in Paul’s epistles as being/talking about some kind of figure that began life as a sort of cosmic, mythological being,” but it’s not difficult when you read passages like Philippians 2:5-8 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 and 1 Corinthians 8:6, where we see clear hallmarks of Paul talking about a cosmological Jesus (this is even clearer in the early pseudo-Paulines: see Hebrews 1:1-4 and 8-9 and Colossians 1:12-20), yet we never get anything comparably clear from Paul talking about an earthly Jesus. Allegories and metaphysical fulfillments of prophecy were normal then, and thus should not be difficult to see for someone who immerses themself in how the ancients saw and thought about the world. And once we realize that, the passages in the Epistles usually touted as evincing an earthly Jesus instead look very strange. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, it’s conspicuously odd that no mention is made of Jesus ever “appearing” to anyone before he died, only after. It’s as if Jesus had no ministry, and the only way he was known to have died is through “scripture.”
8. What did you mean by his objections often being in error? I’ve mentioned some examples already (where he thinks things are said in the Epistles that are not), but there were two very pronounced examples of this. The first of these is when Goodacre said of Paul:
He didn’t meet Jesus himself in the flesh, and that was a cause of great anxiety to Paul. I mean, if Jesus had never appeared in the flesh, then Paul wouldn’t have to have any of that sort of great stress that he has, that he never actually met Jesus, and his big battle in early Christianity is with people who knew Jesus in the flesh, and so Paul has to say, ‘Hey, look, you know, I’m not in the least inferior to you lot, you know, you superapostles, I’m still, you know, important in my own right’.”
Here he gives Paul an argument that I then pointed out is found nowhere in the Epistles. I wish we had Paul saying anything like that! But he doesn’t. This is a modern Christian apologetic interpretation of Paul (which has been internalized even by secular scholars), and is both ad hoc (modern Christians just made it up to explain away oddities in the Epistles) and strains badly against the evidence, where in fact we have Paul declaring the exact opposite attitude throughout Galatians 1-2, as I explained on the show. Goodacre is thus reading into the Epistles what isn’t there, and worse, something that actually comes from modern apologetic attempts to explain away the deeply odd features of the Epistles that mythicists have been pointing out for over a century. He has even internalized that apologetic to the point that he thinks it’s based on evidence (that it is a “fact,” and not a contrived interpretation), and he assumes that that evidence is in the Epistles. As I once did. But when I looked for it, I was shocked not to find it.
9. Why is that important? Because when you realize that, it turns everything upside down, leading to a paradigm shift in how you look at the Epistles. It is precisely because Paul doesn’t ever say anything like “I’m not inferior to you, even though you knew Jesus,” nor even hints at anything like it, that historicity looks dubious. Not the other way around. Paul is therefore good evidence against historicity, not for it. Goodacre’s immense certainly that Paul made such an argument proves my point: he is so sure Paul would have, that the fact that he actually didn’t is very bizarre. This is evident again in the passages where Paul uses the phrase Goodacre uses (“super-apostles,” hyper lian apostoloi, lit. “apostles beyond exceedingly”). Paul never says this relates to their having known Jesus, but only to their being much better speakers than him (2 Cor. 11:1-7 and 12:7-13, which in context I suspect indicates that the “thorn in his side” he is talking about is a stutter or speech impediment; remember that “apostle” means “messenger,” so being a “super great messenger” has a more obvious meaning in the Greek). Paul might also have been concerned about the fact that they were apostles first (as that could be a problem for him even if Jesus didn’t exist), but he never says that, and he doesn’t mean that when he calls them “apostles super exceedingly.” He means they are spectacularly good at selling the gospel, while he is but a poor speaker with a humble heart. So when he asserts that he’s as good as them, he refers to his ability to receive “revelations of the Lord” like they did (2 Cor. 12:1-7) and perform miracles (2 Cor. 12:12) and demonstrate spiritual knowledge (gnôsis: 2 Cor. 11:6); his only failing compared to them, Paul says, is not being a good speaker (cf. 1 Cor. 2:3-4). Conspicuously absent is any argument that his revelations ought to be reckoned as good as their knowing the man personally. To the contrary, he always assumes his access to Jesus was identical to theirs (see 1 Cor. 15:5-8 and 9:1). This is, to put it mildly, weird.
10. What was the second big error? Goodacre actually thought that in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 Paul wrote that he got the gospel he summarizes there “from those who were in Christ before him.” This was even a key part of Goodacre’s argument that Paul knew the people who knew Jesus, and that he got his gospel from them. In fact, Paul insists up and down exactly the opposite (in Galatians 1-2; the extent to which Paul may be lying there is not relevant to the present point). And in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul nowhere says the gospel he summarizes there came “from those who were in Christ before him.” But that Goodacre was so certain it said that gave me a surreal experience–I couldn’t believe he could make such a mistake, leading me to doubt my own memory, so I looked the verse up on my iPad during the show (and read it out), just to make sure that phrase really wasn’t there. It’s not. Yet Goodacre was so certain it was. This exemplifies the stranglehold dogma has even on so skilled and experienced a scholar as him, to the point that he again confused apologetic with fact. Goodacre can only have been thinking of either Romans 16:7, where Paul only asks the Romans to salute the apostles Andronicus and Junias who were “in Christ before me,” or Galatians 1:17, where Paul says exactly the opposite of what Goodacre was claiming (Paul there says “I did not go to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me” to learn the gospel).
11. Why is that important? Because historicists have this idea in their head that Paul talks all the time about receiving traditions from the “disciples” of Jesus who traveled with Jesus and to whom Jesus taught the gospel before he died. Why? I don’t know. Paul never mentions disciples (the word never appears in his letters), nor does he ever mention traditions. Goodacre went on to say that Paul is talking about a received “tradition” in 1 Corinthians 15, but that is not there, either–Paul never uses the word “tradition” in this sense (as something he heard from another, except Jewish traditions, Gal. 1:14), and never refers to the gospel as such anywhere. Instead he uses the same words in Galatians 1:11-12 that he uses in 1 Corinthians 15:1,3 to refer to receiving (and transmitting) a revelation, not a tradition. So when Paul assumes everywhere that he saw Jesus the same way Peter and everyone else did (as I noted above), we should sooner conclude they saw Jesus in visions, not in “real life.” There is no evidence of the latter anywhere in Paul’s letters. Which is, again, weird.
12. Are the epistles really that lacking in Jesus tradition? Yes. And this is where perception was trumping reality in our debate. Goodacre kept saying things like “1 Corinthians 15 especially is pretty rich in Jesus tradition,” which is odd, because it’s really not–very conspicuously not. Almost nothing about Jesus is mentioned there, beyond that he died, was buried, and rose (no details being given for any of those points), and then appeared (still no details–and no mention of his appearing or having been known to anyone before any of that). The rest is about a celestial Jesus Lord ruling at the right hand of God. Nothing about a ministry, miracles, biography, family, travels–no historical details whatever. And no sayings or teachings, either. In other words, almost nothing we would call “Jesus tradition,” much less a “rich” one.
13. But surely Paul tells us lots of things about Jesus? Yes, lots…but only the cosmic Jesus, the one he prays to in heaven. Hence when Goodacre said at one point “it’s amazing how much stuff [Paul] tells you about Jesus,” I found that ironic, considering that nothing Paul ever tells us about Jesus places him on earth or relates even a single story about him being on earth or having been personally known to anyone before the resurrection epiphanies. That is what is amazing. Otherwise, it simply isn’t true that Paul tells us loads of stuff about Jesus. Apart from a cosmic Jesus, Paul tells us next to nothing about Jesus. Lüdemann himself was surprised to discover this was true in his survey of references to a historical Jesus in Paul (in Sources of the Jesus Tradition). Even Mogens Müller had to concede the same point when trying to argue Paul attests to a historical Jesus (in Is This Not the Carpenter?).
14. Okay, Paul never uses the word “tradition” like that, but can’t we assume that’s what he means? No. That would be making a circular argument. You can’t assume an explanation is true in order to argue that it’s true. You have to ask what the relative consequent probability is of the same evidence on either explanation, not just the explanation you prefer (as I explain in Proving History). Thus, for example, when Goodacre argued that the “traditions” Paul and Peter shared “only really make sense” if they were about a historical Jesus on earth, his only examples are “that he died” (which Paul certainly says a lot), and that Paul talks about knowing some moral teachings of Jesus (for example, 1 Cor. 7:10), and that Paul “mentions [Jesus’] family on several occasions” and “talks about his other disciples.” But Paul never identifies anyone as a disciple (or as ever having known Jesus in any comparable sense), and never clearly refers to the “family” of Jesus (as I noted above, his few vague references are as easily explained on mythicism–we find no discussion of who his mother or father were, for example, and he does not say anyone was biologically related to him, or that he was from Nazareth or Galilee), and Paul says teachings of Jesus came to him by revelation (so that he would know some of them is no argument against mythicism: Jesus teaches from heaven), and “that he died” (in outer space, like Osiris did, and as the Ascension of Isaiah originally said) is the mythicist theory–it cannot be evidence against it!
15. What about all the other stuff Paul says happened to Jesus? What stuff would that be? I was surprised to find Paul doesn’t say much at all–and what little he does say is entirely compatible with mythicism. For example the notion of Jesus’ suffering and being tempted: the mythicist theory is that Paul believed all that did indeed happen–in outer space. Hence, notably, it’s happening “on earth” is precisely what is never said or implied anywhere in Paul. Similarly, in Philippians 2, Goodacre notes, Jesus “takes the form of a slave” and “that’s the whole point of a crucifixion, it’s a slave’s punishment.” But he cannot mean this literally, as Jesus was not by any account an actual slave (so Philippians is obviously speaking metaphorically, leaving us to debate what the metaphor is), nor is crucifixion specifically a “slave’s” punishment (all subjects who lacked Roman citizenship or a state-recognized status as an honestior were subject to crucifixion for capital offenses). Philippians is only saying Jesus became as obedient as a slave, to the point of allowing himself to be crucified–which, on mythicism, occurred in the sky at the hands of Satan and his demons, exactly as the Ascension of Isaiah once said it did. So there is nothing in Philippians 2 that contradicts the basic mythicist theory. Indeed, any historical details that would rule that interpretation out are conspicuously absent from this passage. Again Goodacre keeps saying this is taking place “on earth,” but that word or concept is again not in this passage. Or anywhere in Paul. And that’s the problem.
16. What about his argument that Christians would never come up with an idea of a crucified messiah unless there really was one? I already answered that well enough on the show. Goodacre argues Paul had a hard time explaining the idea of a crucified savior to people. But that would have been just as true of a crucified celestial messiah as an earthly one. So that argument is a wash. One is as much a stumbling block as the other. Both are equally weird–so anything that would inspire the idea in the one case, would inspire it just as easily in the other. That was my point in mentioning the seductive logic of Hebrews 8-9: that explains the idea behind a crucified messiah and why they needed one (to replace the corrupt temple cult). A celestial crucified messiah would accomplish that goal just as well–and indeed, the author of Hebrews appears to know of no other kind. The host’s claim that it “wouldn’t make any sense” to compare a Christian’s own dying and rising with that of a cosmic Jesus (as Paul often did) is similarly mistaken: that was the whole reason Jesus assumed a body of flesh to die in, so he and his new brethren would share in the same process. That can happen in outer space as easily as on earth.
17. Why did Paul persecute the Christians then? Goodacre argued that Paul persecuted the Christians (before his own conversion) “presumably because of this idea that the messiah was going to be crucified.” I am aware of no actual evidence to support that. It’s a common Christian apologetic today. But it has no basis in any evidence. Jews actually had no demonstrable problem with dying messiahs: the Talmud shows it even became an orthodox notion, and no one there shows any idea that it was ever blasphemous or criminal, and it clearly was not inconceivable, since the Talmudic Jews readily conceived of it. So did the author of Daniel. And possibly the author of 11Q13. (On all these points see my Dying Messiah Redux.) In contrast, there is not only no evidence, but there isn’t even any logical reason why preaching a crucified messiah would be a persecuting offense to the Jewish authorities. Why would they care? It violates no law in Torah or Mishnah. If I had to guess, a more likely reason Paul persecuted the early church is the fact that its gospel replaced the temple cult (and thus Levitical law: Hebrews 8-9), but we don’t really know, because Paul never says. Of course, even apart from the legal question, if the idea of a crucified messiah was preposterous, it would be just as preposterous (in fact more so) for a celestial messiah to be crucified, so again this argument is a wash. One stumbling block is as stumbly as the other.
18. But why come up with a stumbling block at all? All religions do. There are bizarre, shocking, counter-cultural doctrines at the heart of Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology–and for antiquity, I mentioned Attis cult on the show as a prime example. Why invent a castrated Attis? They had some reason. So did Christians. I could have said more on that point–in particular, that this is how you separate insiders from outsiders: you invent a shocking doctrine, to be the Kool-Aid that prospective members must drink to prove their loyalty, and their separation from the “orthodoxy” they are abandoning. Only people who “buy it” can be trusted to have shifted their loyalty from one system to the other. This is why the church later committed mass murder and went to war over bizarrely trivial differences in arcane creedal statements. Who cares whether God is a trinity or a unity? Those who want a test of loyalty care. Who wants a crucified messiah? The same people. We can add to that the fact that the whole notion was already widely popular: every other national cult had adopted a suffering cosmic savior son of god, many even a dying-and-rising one; we should actually have expected the Jews to jump on the same bandwagon eventually. And on top of all that, the whole notion of a crucified messiah was a brilliant way to eliminate dependence on the temple cult, exactly as Hebrews explains (and as I explained on the show).
19. So the first Christians just made it all up? A couple times it was suggested that the mythicist theory I am defending entails that the first Christians (Peter, Paul, etc.) were “colluding together” to invent a mythical Jesus (as our host said around timestamp 18:50; later Goodacre similarly objects that the crucifixion “is not something they were manufacturing”). Though that’s possible (see chapter ten of Not the Impossible Faith), it’s not necessary. When Paul says he and others “saw” Jesus in revelations (and thereby “learned,” from that or scripture or both, that this Jesus had recently undergone an atoning sacrifice), he could well have been telling the truth as he knew it. That does not require a historical Jesus. Nor does it require them to have “manufactured” anything (beyond subconsciously).
20. However, the Gospels are another story. Our host said he was “having trouble buying [the idea] that” the authors of the Gospels are making it all up, but that’s more a sentiment one expects from a layman or a Christian apologist. Because objectively, you won’t have as much trouble buying it once you see that the authors of the Gospels are making things up. Once you admit that they have done that at least a few times, it no longer becomes so hard to imagine they did the same thing in every other part of their narrative. And the fact is, most mainstream scholars admit every Gospel author has made stories up at least a few times (and many agree they made up almost everything: see my review of the latest books by Crossan and MacDonald). The construction of the nativity accounts is a prime example–Goodacre himself agrees (though he didn’t have time to mention it on the show) that Luke invented his version of the Nativity by changing-up the version he inherited from Matthew. If Luke felt free to do that, what would stop him doing the same in every other chapter of his Gospel? Look at what we’re learning about how fabricated his book of Acts is, for example (see Pervo’s The Mystery of Acts for starters).
21. Did Goodacre also cite the Gospels as evidence? Sort of. He made no specific argument from the Gospels to historicity, other than the fact that they tried to explain the theological point behind a crucified messiah (which, contrary to his assumed logic, is not any less expected on mythicism, as I noted above), and the argument that the Gospel authors “are thoroughly persuaded that Jesus is a figure in history.” That may be true (and is not a problem for mythicism: Plutarch was thoroughly persuaded Romulus was a figure in history, and so wrote a whole biography about him, a man who in fact never existed; and if Plutarch could do that, so could the authors of the Gospels). But I think he may be confusing what they were selling with what they believed…
22. Why does that distinction matter? It is demonstrable (and I will prove this in my next book) that all the Gospel authors are extensively fabricating the stories they tell. Which means they cannot have believed those stories were true–they were the ones making them up. If they were “thoroughly persuaded that Jesus is a figure in history,” why did they make up stories about him, instead of tell the stories that “thoroughly persuaded” them? It’s hard (not impossible, but hard) to maintain that they really believed what they were saying. They almost certainly did not believe most of it actually happened. And if they were comfortable selling things as having happened that they knew didn’t, it’s not far to go to conclude they were comfortable selling the whole thing as having happened when they knew it didn’t (or had no idea whether it did). We cannot get into the mind of the Gospel authors so as to know why they made up so much and felt free to do so, and even to shamelessly pass it off as known history. But that is what they did. Whatever their motives. So a case for historicity cannot be made on the premise that the Gospel authors were “thoroughly persuaded that Jesus is a figure in history.” We actually don’t know that they were, and even if they were, we have no idea what persuaded them of that. Because it certainly wasn’t the stories they tell–those they were making up themselves.
23. Was there really a pre-Christian idea of a celestial Jesus? Yes, Philo does write about a Jewish belief in a pre-existent celestial firstborn son of God named Jesus, which Christians appear to have simply converted into a dying-and-rising demigod, as we see in Philippians 2:6-11. Philo was writing from Egypt between the 20s and 40s A.D. It’s very unlikely he would “coincidentally” invent the exact same celestial figure as Christians imagined Jesus to be; this therefore is far more likely to have been an earlier belief that Philo is describing. I discuss this evidence in Not the Impossible Faith (pp. 150-51). But in short, Philo quotes Zechariah 6:11-12, which speaks of a man named Jesus [which is simply Greek for “Joshua,” hence the actual name is “Jesus” in the Greek of Philo and the Septuagint] being crowned in heaven and given the name “Rises” (anatolê in Philo’s Greek, as also in the Septuagint), which Philo says is not an earthly man but God’s celestial high priest and “firstborn son,” a preexistent being, God’s agent of creation, and his Logos (“Word” or “Reason”), all the same things the Christians believed of Jesus (see image to the right; click to enlarge). Zechariah, of course, meant the first high priest of the second temple, a historical (or at least legendary) man, Jesus ben Jehozadak, though that, when translated, means “Jesus son of Jehovah the Righteous,” so anyone reading this text like a pesher (as many Jews were then doing with the scriptures) could easily take this as a veiled reference to something else. And that is exactly what Philo does, and most likely others had before him. Christianity almost certainly derived from a cult that did so.
24. And that’s why things are very much the other way around. Goodacre says “the evidence we would expect to find is exactly what we do find, which is Jesus surviving in the memories of those who were closest to him.” That is indeed the kind of evidence we should expect to find. Yet it is precisely the evidence we don’t find. Not a single document from anyone who knew a living Jesus exists, nor a single document that we can demonstrate derived anything from any such person (no Gospels even claim to do so, except John, and his claim, that he had an anonymous witness absent from all other accounts, is demonstrably bogus, as many scholars have pointed out before, as I’ll show in my next book). All we have from Paul are references to people like Peter and James who had revelations of Jesus after his passion–no references to anyone knowing him before that, much less to their memories of it.
25. Thus what Goodacre ultimately said of mythicism is actually the case for historicity. As I see it, it is defending historicity that “becomes tortuous after a while” because “there are so many difficult moments in the argument it just becomes terribly strained,” whereas instead we should go “for the simplest hypothesis.” Quite so. I have found that, indeed, the simplest hypothesis, the one that requires the fewest ad hoc assumptions to explain all the oddities in the evidence (and none against the grain of demonstrable background evidence), is mythicism, not historicity. One step toward realizing that will be realizing that everything Dr. Goodacre thinks is in the Epistles isn’t there at all. Step two will be grasping the relevance of the background evidence I drew attention to (such as, but not only, my points in the show about the Ascension of Isaiah and the celestial Jesus in Philo). But my next book is needed to frame that all up in the proper way. I do not believe this debate or my Madison video are at all sufficient to convince anyone. For that, you’ll have to await my book. It’s first complete draft is just ten or twenty pages from being finished, after which I have a load of double checking and revising to do, peer review, contract negotiation, and production pipeline. I estimate six months from now to publication.
P.S. Dr. Goodacre also posted the show on his blog and a lot of discussion ensued in the comments there. I unfortunately didn’t have time to read all of it. But it looked mostly constructive, even when critical (except I saw one instance of me being called dishonest by a commentator, a claim Steven Carr quickly refuted, which I appreciate).