Strange Notions: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus

The Catholic website Strange Notions asked me to write two brief articles on why questioning the historicity of Jesus is more plausible than commonly assumed. I was asked to respond to two earlier challenges to that thesis on their site, written from the perspective of Catholic apologetics: Did Jesus Exist? An Alternate Approach by Jimmy Akin and Four Reasons I Think Jesus Really Existed by Trent Horn.

My first article, responding to Akin, is Questioning the Historicity of Jesus. My second, responding to Horn, is Defending Mythicism: A New Approach to Christian Origins. Together these have accumulated almost two hundred comments, often long and thoughtful, which sadly I haven’t the time to read through. (If anyone has the gumption to do it and would like to summarize the whole thread and/or report to me which comments might be worth my attention or blogging a reply, feel free to post anything like that in comments here.)

Akin then replied to me in Jesus Did Exist: A Response to Richard Carrier. And then Horn replied in Four Reasons to Believe in Jesus: A Reply to Richard Carrier. Here I shall respond to those…

Akin Misses the Point

Akin fails to notice that I only begin addressing his article after the fifth paragraph of my first contribution, and that I plainly state that I was required to be brief (each entry under 1200 words), and that all I aimed to do was describe generally how we reply to the claims I was asked about, not to prove the thesis I am proposing (in both essays I explicitly note that I shall only do that in my forthcoming book). In fact the first four paragraphs are about (1) why this debate is newly important and to be taken seriously and why it can’t be dismissed by simply noting that it’s not yet the majority consensus; (2) what exactly mythicists are arguing (i.e. what their hypothesis is); and (3) where anyone interested in exploring this debate can go to learn more.

So all of Akin’s complaints about all that (spending over two hundred words) indicate he didn’t understand what I was asked to do, which is a bit surprising because I actually explain that in the essay itself (in the fifth and last paragraphs, which he even quotes, uncomprehendingly). He apparently wanted an 800 page thesis. For free. Once we recognize that’s silly, we can move on to what we’re really talking about, which is what answers mythicists give to arguments like his, and whether they have merit.

Although it’s worth noting Akin seems to operate from a position of bad will when he assumes I’ll attack him unjustly for anything he says, and indeed even implies I deliberately set it up so I could. Evidently Catholicism doesn’t teach its adherents to think well of people. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. But in any event, I already conceded in my article that I had not proved the mythicist thesis, only described it and what it says about the few things his article said, so I was actually graciously making things easier for him: all he had to do was assess the value of the points I did actually make. He could have just done that. Instead he burned two hundred more words complaining about this.

Efficiency is not his forté.

It is also ironic that he complains about my stating positions without defending them, then states positions without defending them (the Gospels and Acts “are nowhere near so late as Carrier seems to think”…even though what I stated was the mainstream consensus on their dating, and he gives no reason to disagree…not even a bad reason).

Apparently consistency is not his forté, either. (One would think a fan of Jesus would at least do the Golden Rule well.)

Defects in Akin’s First Point

But now to his actual argument. In making his first point, Akin errs twice:

(1) First, that he “meant” the Gospels by the “earliest accounts” attesting how Christianity began is a red herring fallacy. My point was that those accounts are not corroborated in earlier Christian writings (and that mythicists regard the Gospels as fabricated). He thus gave no response to my actual point.

I can think of many responses one could have given. And those I do indeed address in my forthcoming book. The debate essentially must rest here until then. I fully acknowledge this means the debate is not thereby resolved. But since I explicitly said so in my essay, he can’t complain that I’m moving the goal posts. I’ve kept them consistently in the same place.

(2) Second, he is incorrect to say the Gospels are the “earliest accounts” attesting how Christianity began. Paul attests to how Christianity began in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. Where we hear nothing of Nazareth, a ministry, or Jesus appointing and training disciples, or commissioning anyone to do anything until after he died (the only place in this account that we first hear of his ever appearing to anyone). Contrary to Akin, this is a “relevant account.”

And again, I can think of many responses to this point. I have similarly found there are many other passages in Paul that concur with the Corinthians account, but not the Gospels account, of how Christianity began (I’ll end my discussion of Akin here with one of them), and I can likewise think of many responses to that point as well. All of which I address in my book. So we’ll just have to wait until my book comes out to continue that debate. In the meantime, all I was tasked with doing was stating what the mythicist argument is. Not to prove that it prevails over all possible objections. And I explicitly said I had not.

Defects in Akin’s Second Point

In making his second point, Akin doesn’t deliver a valid response. Akin says “Paul acknowledges that his relationship was different than that of the other apostles” but all Akin offers as being that difference is that Paul “related to Jesus as ‘one untimely born’ (1 Cor. 15:8)—that is, out of the normal sequence that governed how the others related to Jesus.” But that sequence consists solely of post mortem revelations of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Thus confirming my point, not Akin’s: Paul seems only ever to know of Jesus communicating with his apostles by revelation (and hidden messages in scripture). Paul never once shows any awareness of any other way anyone knew or met Jesus, or any other way in which Jesus communicated with his apostles.

And that’s weird.

I should also note that Paul does not say ‘one untimely born’ in the sense of ‘born late’–he says he related to Jesus as an abortion [ektrôma], which is a premature birth, not a late one, and in fact worse, as it typically indicated an outright miscarriage. And Paul says he related to Jesus as an abortion not because he was appointed late but “because [Paul] persecuted the church” (1 Cor. 15:9), and for no other reason. The term ektrôma was in antiquity a term of contempt, implying monstrosity or rejection or enfeeblement. Paul thought of himself as a rejected monster because he did awful things to the church he now loved; but Jesus was willing to overlook that, and appear even to a rejected monster (an abortus) such as himself.

I include that digression because it illustrates how easily misled one can be who reads the Bible only in English translation. Akin apparently actually thought Paul used a word meaning born late. He thus didn’t even come close to grasping what Paul actually meant. And consequently, he didn’t notice that what Paul actually meant does not support the point Akin was trying to make.

This is a common occurrence in the mythicism debate: those defending historicity routinely assume the certainty of their position, and thus advance ad hoc arguments for it that they are sure must be correct, but that mythicists have long noticed are not–and can easily show are not. As I have just done. The real lesson here is not that Akin’s argument is invalid (though it is), but that he didn’t know it was invalid. This is extremely common. Even from the lips of what should be well qualified experts like Bart Ehrman (and for the travesty of his errors and fallacies in this matter, see my summary in Ehrman Historicity Recap).

This is why arguments from authority in this field are particularly unreliable (hence Proving History, chs. 1 and 5). Which was nearly the first point of my essay in this exchange.

Defects in Akin’s Third Point

Akin then attempts to respond to my point that we can’t tell for certain whether Paul refers to “brothers of the Lord” as biological or spiritual brothers. But he doesn’t do anything but gainsay. Again Akin implies the Gospels are “early sources [which] indicate that [these brothers] were familial relations of Jesus” but he doesn’t demonstrate either that these sources are actually any earlier than I (and the mainstream consensus) said, or that the Gospels can even be trusted on this point (or any point), or that they even say anything about any brothers of Jesus being at all involved in the church (they don’t–in fact, they pretty much depict Jesus renouncing them, as if having no idea they would take leadership positions in his future church). Indeed, the earliest Gospels unanimously say the three pillars, the top three apostles Peter, James and John, did not include any familial relation of Jesus at all. In all their accounts, the James in this top trio is not the brother of Jesus, but of John. (The Gospel of John, meanwhile, never mentions any James at all.)

Acts also conspicuously shows no knowledge of any brothers of Jesus having any leadership role in the church. It mentions Jesus’ brothers having been absorbed by the church in Acts 1, but then they disappear, and neither of the two men named James subsequently depicted as taking leading rolls in the church is the brother of Jesus. Neither do any of the epistles (not those of James nor Jude, nor any at all) mention they are the brothers of Jesus. The letter of 1 Clement also conspicuously shows no knowledge of any brothers of Jesus. To get the first evidence of any such brothers taking leadership roles in the church, we have to go almost a hundred years after the founding of the cult, to the most unreliable of sources: Papias, whom even Eusebius condemned as unreliable.

One might bring up Josephus here, but I already mentioned in my earlier essay that I have proved Josephus never mentioned a James being the brother of Jesus the Christ–the “Christ” part was instead a later accidental interpolation. And to interact with that argument, you’ll have to go to and confront the published academic literature where it is laid out. (Akin seems to complain that my peer reviewed articles are behind paywalls…as if I had anything to do with that–I agree academic journals stifle the arts by profiteering, but alas, we aren’t taken seriously unless we publish in them, which is a nice racket for them, but that’s not a Goliath this David can fell. At any rate, it’s unfair to insist we publish our arguments in real academic journals, then complain when we do.)

It’s also worth noting that even if we trusted this passage, Josephus conspicuously does not say this James was even a Christian–or, conversely, that his brotherhood with Jesus was biological. Josephus might not have even known there was a difference, mistaking Christian filial language as literal. But that’s all academic anyway, since the evidence goes to show Josephus never originally mentioned Christ in this context to begin with.

Again, this is not the end of the argument. I can imagine lots of responses. I address the best of them in my book. But the point to observe here is how all of this betrays the fact that Akin doesn’t really know his own source materials very well. He even thinks they prove things that in fact they conspicuously don’t.

Defects in Akin’s Fourth Point

Akin then argues that “Paul also tells us that Jesus was ‘descended from David according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1:3).” But the word “descended” in fact is not there. Nor is the word that is used there the usual word Paul employs for being born, but instead the word for being manufactured, like Adam was, leaving us to ask what exactly phrases like that mean. This was so disturbing to later Christians, in fact, that they tried doctoring this passage to contain the correct word for biological birth, which meddling we can now see in later extant manuscripts, as famously proved by none other than Bart Ehrman.

Likewise Akin cites Paul saying Jesus was “born of woman, born under the Law [of Moses]” (Gal. 4:4), but again the actual word used is the same as above (and later Christians again tried to get away with changing it), and the context is of allegorical births to allegorical women (read the whole of Gal. 4), so we can’t be sure Paul means this literally. So contrary to what Akin says, this does not “clearly” indicate Jesus’ birth as a Jew in any earthly manner. There are deep questions about this passage as well as the other and just what they mean.

Both, as it happens, are entirely compatible with the mythicist thesis. Such is their ambiguity. But once again, I am not pretending to have ended the argument here. I am only explaining what the mythicist argument is. To continue the debate we will have to await the publication of my book, where all the issues and objections are fully addressed. We can then proceed from there.

It’s important to reiterate that the mythicist thesis does not deny that Jesus was originally regarded as having become incarnate, as a human man, manufactured from Davidic flesh, and was then killed and buried (and rose again). It just holds that this all occurred in the lower heavens, not on earth. I extensively supply the background evidence making all this plausible in my forthcoming book. But here my point is that insisting Paul said Jesus was a Davidic human man does not even contradict the mythicist thesis. Whatever merit that thesis has is a separate question.

Defects in Akin’s Fifth Point

Akin then throws out a litany of what he thinks are verses establishing historicity in the epistles of Paul. But here is where it becomes disingenuous. He cites a passage in 1 Thess. 2, but does not mention that a significant number of mainstream scholars regard that as an interpolation (a fact widely known). And the evidence strongly favors their conclusion (as I lay out in Pauline Interpolations). Not mentioning well-known facts that undermine their case is another common strategy of historicity defenders which undermines their reliability. Possibly Akin is too out of touch with the literature to know of this particular problem. But that doesn’t bode well for his reliability either.

Similarly, he cites the Lord’s supper commandment in 1 Cor. 11, but omits the part where Paul says he learned this directly from Jesus. In other words, via revelation. Of course, I assume Akin is also resting on the historically implausible Catholic assumption that a real Jesus would ever have said or done any such thing (as it entails he fully planned to die, and for his death to operate as a Passover sacrifice, and for his death to be annually celebrated with ritual cannibalism and blood drinking…and his Jewish followers were totally fine with this). That is also seriously doubted by a large number of bona fide experts in Jesus studies.

I should also note that the word Akin renders as “betrayed” here is actually “handed over,” which word Paul always uses, when in respect to Jesus’ sacrifice, as an act performed by God (e.g. Rom. 8:32), and thus not as a betrayal, thus eliminating any allusion to the later myth of Judas–which myth is also missing in 1 Cor. 15:5, where Paul shows no knowledge of there being only eleven disciples for Jesus to visit after his death. This is another example of not reading the Bible in its original language, and not checking to see how Paul uses certain words, particularly in reference to the same facts. (For more on the Judas myth, see Proving History, index “Judas.”)

I won’t even discuss Akin’s reference to 1 Timothy, which is almost universally regarded as a second century forgery. Evidence forged by historicists cannot prove historicity. Period.

Thus when we actually look at Akin’s evidence, it quickly dissolves into an unreliable or unclear mess. This is why mythicism must be taken more seriously than the likes of Akin will allow. It can’t be gainsaid by ignoring points like the above. There is a case here, one Akin was not even aware of, and seems ill-equipped to address. Where we go from here depends on the arguments and evidence I shall be publishing this February (the release date my publisher tentatively expects). But in the meantime I’ve adequately explained where mythicists are coming from when confronted with evidence like this. The debate thus begun shall have to continue next year.

Defects in Akin’s Sixth Point

Akin then completely misses the point of my argument from analogy when he says:

It’s true that Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism each had a founder who organized a movement that spread rapidly, but in each case the movement’s early writings point to that founder being a historical individual: Jesus, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith.

Note that, in my essay he is responding to, I said the analog (the revelatory being communicating the cult’s new teachings) is not the founder, but the celestial revelator: Jesus for Peter (and Paul), Gabriel for Mohammad, Moroni for Smith. The actual historical founders are Peter/Paul, Mohammad, and Smith. Akin simply has not addressed this argument. (I am aware there are challenges to the historicity of Mohammad, but testing that thesis is outside my knowledgebase, so I am assuming his historicity here.)

Defects in Akin’s Last Point

Akin closes by claiming my statement that “Paul says no Jews could ever have heard the gospel except from the apostles (Romans 10:12-18)” is false. Well, this is easily tested. Let’s look at what Paul says there:

[H]ow are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?

“Sent” in that last sentence being apostalôsin, the verb form of “apostle.” Paul is thus saying there is no way anyone can ever have heard of Jesus unless they hear it through an apostle.

This entails they can’t have heard it from Jesus–as for example supposedly thousands of Galilean and Jerusalemite Jews had done (according to the Gospels). Paul is adamant here, and absolute. He thus is not aware of anyone having heard the preaching of Jesus from Jesus himself (except the apostles). Paul therefore has no knowledge of Jesus having a ministry, or preaching to anyone except his apostles. Which Paul only ever says Jesus accomplished by revelation (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:3-8; Gal. 1; 1 Cor. 9:1; Rom. 16:25-27; etc.).

Indeed, Paul basically says here that it is impossible for anyone to have heard of Jesus (and what he preached) except from apostles (and those who heard it from apostles). In the very first line he says the Jews never even heard of Jesus (or from Jesus, depending on the meaning of the genitive) until the apostles preached him. So even the knowledge that Jesus existed could only be reported by apostles. Paul evidently couldn’t imagine Jews having heard about Jesus from anyone else, like the thousands of supposed non-apostolic witnesses to his ministry, or having heard of Jesus directly from Jesus, such as having seen him and heard him in person, as many Jews of Paul’s day would have…if Jesus existed in the ordinary historical sense.

Note that Akin again betrays his lack of knowledge of Greek here, or else his failure to check the Greek before pontificating an ad hoc argument, as his interpretation of this passage is not even remotely plausible. He weirdly thinks Paul is making a distinction between preachers and apostles, when in fact he is equating them. Indeed, no such distinction exists anywhere in Paul, nor makes any sense in the context of Paul’s understanding of the gospel.

Conclusion on Akin

Throughout this analysis it has become clear that it is Akin’s position that “gives the appearance of a castle built of shaky inferences that strain to get us away from the plain meaning of the texts.” He is the one not paying attention to the actual Greek or the context or range of possible meanings or even authenticity of the passages he is relying on. If this is what has to be done to defend historicity, is not historicity done for? I won’t straw man historicity that way. Akin is just not the best defender of it. But I have found that even the best cases look similar (even if not quite so bad). Case in point…

The Horn Rejoinder

So much for Akin’s rebuttal. Horn is more respectful, thoughtful and efficient. He cuts right to the chase, assumes no bad will, and appears to know more of what he’s talking about.

Horn’s Fourth Reason

Horn reiterates his “fourth” point honestly, and I agree with him that the state of the field entails I “must put forward substantial evidence in order to defend a claim that nearly every other scholar in the relevant field, including fellow skeptics, have not found convincing.” The one thing he leaves out, though, is that they have not found it convincing because they have only looked at bad arguments for it, and have yet to reason correctly on the matter in any publication I know.

In my experience (and by now I have a lot at this) the “vast majority” of experts in this field are astonishingly ignorant of many pertinent facts, and even assert things confidently that are indisputably false, or make arguments that are indisputably fallacious. Even the excellent Mark Goodacre did this; as did Bart Ehrman, a lot; and James McGrath is the veritable poster child for this kind of thing. I document that this holds for the whole field in Proving History, chapters 1 and 5. This seriously undermines any claim like Horn’s that we should trust the consensus on this.

Thus, though Horn admits this is his weakest argument, it is actually far weaker than even he seems to know.

Horn’s Third Reason

Horn doesn’t really have a rebuttal to my point that we cannot demonstrate that the extrabiblical sources we have are independent of the Gospels.

He complains that I “provided no reason…to think the references in Josephus are unreliable,” but then simply ignores the arguments in my cited article, even though he knows that was my stated reason (so he can’t really say I provided “no” reason). Here he acts like those arguments don’t exist, simply because they are in a peer reviewed academic journal. Which is a perverse standard of evidence if ever there was one. Basically, he just pretends he can gainsay my arguments by not reading them, and accepts that as an adequate reason to trust the passages in Josephus.

This is yet more evidence that defenders of historicity are not engaging in any valid reasoning in defense of their position. Horn evidently doesn’t realize that his own behavior here proves my point about our not being able to trust the scholarly consensus. Because the scholarly consensus is based on head-in-sand argumentation much like this. “I won’t read any peer reviewed papers proving I’m wrong; I’ll just declare I’m not wrong because everyone else who hasn’t read those papers agrees with me.” That’s just about the most illogical thing he could say.

Horn then attempts to defend the independence of Tacitus’s explanation of Christian origins by saying “Tacitus’ disdain for Christians and his reputation as a careful historian” would entail he would fact-check this. But, no. Tacitus would do what his best friend Pliny did: ask Christians (Pliny, notably, did no further fact-checking–and Pliny is actually Tacitus’s most likely source here, since they were governing adjacent provinces at the time and Tacitus frequently corresponded with Pliny to get source material for his histories). Their story would be so embarrassing to Tacitus’s aristocratic sensibilities that he would have no reason to fact-check it. In other words, Tacitus’ disdain is precisely why he wouldn’t look for independent corroboration of the Gospels (or Christians quoting the Gospels). He wouldn’t need to.

It’s even incredible to imagine he’d think it at all worth the bother to waste days combing through the Roman archives (quite a feat considering they had burned up twice in the interim) just to verify a howler of a story even the Christians themselves aren’t denying. And that’s even besides the fact that what it meant to be a “careful historian” in his day is not what that means today. This is well demonstrated by actual historiographers of Tacitus, who don’t find him to be the best of historians by Horn’s required standards (see Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation, just for a start). Simply repeating what Christians told him is exactly in accord with the standards of history Tacitus exemplified throughout his opus. Whereas arduously and laboriously fact-checking such minor details is not. At all. (And this all assumes the passage in Tacitus has not been meddled with, even though we have reason to believe otherwise, as I show in another peer reviewed article soon to appear in Vigiliae Christianae.)

Horn then tries to justify the passages in Josephus by citing his “intimate knowledge of Galilee after Jesus’ death,” but that’s a non sequitur. Even apart from the fact that the evidence shows Josephus never mentioned Jesus (a point, I just noted, Horn presents no argument against, nor even seems inclined to care to), if we assume in some respect Josephus did, that does not at all mean he learned of their movement from anything other than Christian sources. Indeed, the evidence strongly indicates the central passage in question was derived from the Gospel of Luke, or at least Luke’s Christian source (see The Testimonium Flavianum), and there is certainly nothing in it that suggests otherwise; while the other reference (if again we trusted it against the evidence that we shouldn’t) reports nothing but that Josephus was told a certain James was called a “brother” of a certain Christ, which I explained above does not prove he knew this meant biologically. So that doesn’t even verify historicity.

This is simply the weakest of tea. Historicity cannot stand on such unreliable evidence as this. But this will only be completely clear in chapter eight of my forthcoming book On the Historicity of Jesus, where I treat all this evidence in detail, with citations of the relevant scholarship. For now, the point is that Horn is not even interacting with the actual facts relevant to evaluating these sources, and is relying on naive assumptions about ancient historiography that have no basis in fact. Yet this is a typical way to argue for historicity. And that’s precisely what makes historicity increasingly doubtful.

Horn’s Second Reason

Here Horn argues that:

It seems incredibly unlikely that early gnostic heresies about Jesus being God disguised in human form could plague the Church for centuries but the mythicist “Gospel” preached by Peter and the other real founders of Christianity could simply disappear into thin air in the span of one generation, a length of time where those who knew the apostles could object that the events described in the Gospels never happened.

The “early Gnostic heresies” he means are all mid-to-late second century. Thus, this argument simply ignores everything I said. We don’t know what “heresies” were about in the century before that, or how they were dealt with. And that’s the material point. The battle for historicity was fought and won between 60 and 120 AD. Precisely the period we conspicuously have no texts from.

I had left aside the circular argument implied by Horn’s calling all alternative Christianities “heresies,” when the Christianity defended as “orthodox” in later second century texts is as heretical as any when measured against the original faith of even Paul, much less Peter. But now the circularity of this is even more relevant. Because Horn seems not to realize that “the original Gospel preached by Peter and the other real founders of Christianity” wasn’t even discussed much (beyond cursorily) by the likes of Irenaeus or Hippolytus (and it was so uninfluential even in the East that we really have only one substantive discussion of that original sect of Christianity, in a hostile 5th century treatise), and they seem to know little or nothing about the heresies combated by Paul in his epistles, yet plenty about sects (even in their own day) that regarded Jesus as a cosmic being and stories about him as allegories. So Horn’s incredulity is invalid: evidently, earlier forms of Christianity rejected by those later “orthodox” sources could get eclipsed or ignored by them, and yet even they were aware of sects that could plausibly have evolved from original mythicism, for whom the Gospels were allegories and Jesus’ birth was in outer space. (Even Paul’s sect, with its baptisms for the dead and glossolalia and near gender equality and assignment of Jesus to sub-god status, is pretty much not even discussed anywhere afterward, only later deviations from it are.)

Horn also relies here on the equally self-refuting Christian apologetical argument that “those who knew the apostles could object that the events described in the Gospels never happened.” How do we know that argument is false? Because there are numerous plainly false things in the Gospels that no one on record ever gainsaid (or affirmed, either–we simply have no texts from anyone who knew the apostles even mentioning the Gospels…at all, pro or con). Thus clearly “those who knew the apostles” didn’t object “that the events described in the Gospels never happened.” So we cannot expect them to have done so at all, because we have no instance of their doing so in any single case.

I give examples of this point in chapters three and five of Proving History. The most prominent: the sun going out for three hours; the Gospels egregiously contradicting each other on doctrine and chronology and geography (e.g. did the apostles flee to Galilee and see Jesus there, as Matthew and Mark claim, or did they stay in Jerusalem and see Jesus there, as Luke and John claim; and was Jesus born under Herod the Great as Matthew claims or under Quirinius ten years later as Luke claims?); not to mention the earthquakes and hordes of resurrected dead descending on Jerusalem in Matthew, but unknown to any other Gospel author, likewise Matthew’s entire empty tomb narrative, and John’s entire resurrection narrative. And so on.

Evidently, the Gospel authors could say tons of false things, and somehow no one ever gainsaid a single one of them, much less with the argument “I spoke to the apostles who were there and they said that didn’t happen” (even the Gospels don’t say that). So as arguments go, this is a non-starter. Somehow everything written about the church in the period between Paul and the mid-second century has simply been deleted from the historical record. Even though there must have been hundreds of letters and volumes in that period, and countless battles over what Jesus said and did and over the doctrine and history of the church, yet not a single one was preserved or even mentioned in later centuries. So we simply do not know what they said. We therefore cannot claim to know what they did not say.

So my point stands: we simply cannot argue from the silence of documents we don’t have.

Horn then makes the irrelevant argument that 2 Peter 1:19 doesn’t give us any more details about the sect it is attacking other than that they taught the Gospels were “cleverly devised myths.” That’s irrelevant because all we need here is what is here: evidence that a Christian sect existed that taught the Gospels were “cleverly devised myths.” That was my point. And yet, moreover, we hear nothing else about them. Thus all record of what this unknown sect taught, and even what was argued against them, was deleted from history…apart from this one example that managed to slip through, which in fact shows us evidence had to be forged to argue against them. Which makes historicity look close to indefensible.

Horn then cites McGrath against Doherty on the Ascension of Isaiah, but McGrath is routinely wrong about a great deal when it comes to facts and source materials (as I have repeatedly shown). So he is not a reliable authority. Indeed, he tends to be among the least reliable authorities I know. (And indeed in this case, a great deal of what he says about the Ascension of Isaiah is dubious or fallacious…and though the same might (?) be said of Doherty’s treatment of the text, any errors Doherty may have made cannot be imputed to me.) But at any rate, that debate will have to continue after publication of my book, which treats this source in detail from the cited scholarship of actual experts on it.

Horn’s First Reason

Horn doesn’t seem to have an argument left here. He basically just admits I was right that his first reason was wrong: Paul actually never mentions “disciples,” or Jesus choosing or teaching disciples during his life. Horn thought that was true. I showed it wasn’t. So now Horn backtracks from that argument (essentially abandoning it) and jumps onto the same bandwagon as Akin in attempting to find references to Jesus having parents at least. I already addressed what’s wrong with that tactic above. Likewise regarding Jesus having brothers.

But here Horn commits a major factual error. When attempting to “save” his theory that “brothers of the Lord” means actual rather than figurative kin, he falsely claims that in 1 Corinthians 6:5-6 “Paul refers to any believer as a ‘brother’ in Christ” (emphasis mine). No, there is no preposition “in” there at all (or the word Christ). Horn strangely then makes a whole argument out of that preposition being there, when in fact it is not. Nothing more need be said against his argument than that. Paul never once uses that preposition in this way (there is no instance in Paul of “brother in the Lord” or “brother in Christ”; even in Php 1:14, the preposition goes with the participle, “confident in the Lord,” not the noun “brother”).

(And as for Ephesians, that is a later forgery, not written by Paul, so not relevant to the facts of what Paul said or knew, but it also does not say “brother in the Lord,” it says “deacon in the Lord”; it cannot be circularly presumed that the preceding statement that he is also a brother was meant to go with the same preposition: Eph. 6:2.)

This is another instance where a historicity defender thought there was evidence for their position, yet the evidence they thought there was doesn’t even exist. This is quite common for historicity defenders. Which is yet another reason we should question historicity–and certainly question the excessive confidence in historicity displayed by its defenders, as it is so routinely based on what is factually false. Another common folly of historicists is making up arguments on the fly without thinking them through…

Case in point, Horn makes the illogical argument that Paul does not call Peter a brother of the Lord, even though he was one. But Paul already called him an apostle. So he did not need to add that he was also a baptized Christian. Horn’s expectation that he would is therefore unfounded. Indeed, the only times Paul ever uses the full appellation “brother of the Lord” is when he wants to contrast apostles with mere Christians, or to make clear Christians are meant and not biological brothers (a confusion that would arise, for example, if Paul had simply said “James the brother,” since in Greek that could imply he meant a biological brother of Peter).

But as I noted before, here is where further debate can ensue. And that will have to await my book, which treats the evidence and scholarship and objections on this matter in detail. For now the point is only that there are definite ambiguities in these passages, and thus historicity cannot rest so confidently on this evidence as has been pretended. These facts require more than prima facie examination. And that at least Horn recognizes. So we’ll have to resume all this in 2014.


  1. Sili says

    (Akin seems to complain that my peer reviewed articles are behind paywalls

    Funny that.

    Only people publishing in the peer-reviewed literature is to be taking seriously, but people who publish in the peer-reviewed literature are elitists who don’t want their work to be scrutinised by the polloi.

    How droll.

  2. CJO says

    I followed along with that, and read most of the comments, at least the ones that appeared within a couple of days of each post. Your initial foray got the bulk of the comments. Short answer, it’s not really worth your time, though I have to say that the general attitude of the (presumably Catholic) majority was a good deal more engaged with the idea without scoffing than, say, the commentariat at McGrath’s blog when he lofts one of his scattershot offensives against mythicism. But even given the lack of outright mockery standing in for argument, the arguments weren’t very good, and they didn’t really seem to understand the issues very well, any more than your illustration here shows that their top-posters did. Quite a bit of vague appeal to embarrassment: “why would they make it up?” (Nazareth vs. Bethlehem; the baptism; the crucifixion), lots of assertions to the effect that people would have known it wasn’t true and how we don’t have anyone saying that (which you deal with well here, but there’s an even more basic historical reason why that’s a bad argument), and general willingness to simply paraphrase Acts, the patristic writers, and (bad) English translations of Paul, as if those weren’t the first things that a good mythicist account has to grapple with (a point you also make here). Especially amusing was the general agreement that Romans 10:12ff couldn’t possibly mean what the Greek plainly says, regarding preaching and apostles and how Paul says one can come to know about Christ.

    Nothing original or very damaging to the thesis that I saw. Same ol’ same ol’, as you’d expect.

  3. says

    Only 200 comments? A while back even the most boring of article there would get over a thousand comments. But then the Catholics who run the site decided to kick off (without warning) atheists who presented good arguments against their case. The rest of the atheists followed by removing their presence. The site is not for it’s stated purpose of dialogue between Catholic and atheist, but for Catholics apologetics and proselytization.

    The site owner has an interested discussion tactic where he makes a poor response to the atheist argument as step 1. After being called on that he will “punt to Aquinas” (as one of the atheist posters puts it) in that he’ll tell you to go read Aquinas (or Feser). There is of course no step 3.

    • says

      I can’t speak to that, since I don’t know anything about their moderation history. But in general, I know lots of people who get moderated out of this or that site who insist they were being deleted because they were presenting good arguments, when in fact they were not presenting good arguments, or they were framing them with insults and other rudeness, or both. So please understand I have to be a little cautious whenever I hear claims like this. But at the same time, I also have had past experience with Christian moderators doing the sorts of things you describe (at other sites).

    • ignorantamos says

      I can concur with Graeme. Strange Notions has become a back slapping self appreciation society. It started off with some great discussions, but the mods, who are also the site owners, no bias there then, started castigating the atheists for no reason, or at best just minor indiscretions, while ignoring similar from the believers, it started getting tedious. The final straw came when a particular highly regarded atheist poster was banned without warning for nothing more than making a good case. The majority of the non-believers protested with their feet.

      With regard to the mythicism debate, it’s hard work. The main problems are, mythicism being dismissed as a kook fringe, the argumentum ad numerum fallacy, bags of confirmation bias, bags of circular reasoning and argumentum ad ignorantiam of Richards actual arguments are all apparent.

      The believers over there have the opinion that Richards arguments are based for the most part in the problems with NT scripture, they don’t appreciate that it is impossible to get books full of points into a couple of OP’s, but nevertheless, they are prepared to put the mythicist position down out of hand anyway.

      There is very much of their historical Jesus being hung on the Acts and much of that has to do with an early authorship, pre 63 CE. and therefore must be true, historically accurate and beyond criticism. I’ve not been back over for about a week, a break is required every once in a while or the will to live is lost.

    • says

      The final straw came when a particular highly regarded atheist poster was banned without warning for nothing more than making a good case.

      It would be more helpful to write an article explaining and documenting this, to point people to (you are welcome to post any such link in here once one exists), since it’s not possible to evaluate a claim like this without more details (e.g. what exactly is the “good case” in question and how do we really know that was the reason they were “banned”?).

    • ignorantamos says

      Since an article of that kind already exists on the subject, I shall post a link to same blog…

      Regarding the “good case” in question, it is difficult to post the comments in question as they were memory holed once the member was kicked off the site. The implosion seems to have occurred at Strange Notions on this discussion thread…

      So no one, not even Epeeist, knows why he was canned. No explanation has been forthcoming from Brandon Vogt other than he states that Epeeist continuously breached the T&C’s, so everyone bar Brandon is in the dark.

      I, and many others posting on the atheist webpages over the years, have been involved in many discussions where Epeeist was a valued contributor. He was always erudite, and in his technique he strives to avoid bad netiquette and debating techniques, a good argument stands on its own premise, hence the support he received at SN, Only that I should ever be so highly thought of in a forum.

      On a discussion thread over at the Friendly Atheist, those that got binned had a discussion on the issue of being banned and voluntary walking. On the cause of the exodus, Epeeist had this to say…

      “Brandon told the world that I had been sent multiple warnings, I hadn’t. Still, breaking the 8th commandment (different order for Catholics) doesn’t count when you are lying for Jesus.”

      I think Epeeist was miffed.

      Ironically, just this week another atheist, josh, was threatened with punishment for making a comment in reply to the assertion about WLC in that…

      “We have multiple, independent attestations of the empty tomb. On this point, I suggest reading William Lane Craig’s essay, “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus” which was published in New Testament Studies.”

      The offending remark was…

      “”Hilarious. William Lane Craig isn’t a historian, he’s widely regarded as a huckster.”

      Which I went on to prove the truth of the accusation of calling WLC a huckster is an ad hom attack is fallacious…I got no reply, but my comment was not removed.

      You’ll be interested to know that Brandon quotes you as agreeing with three of these four assertions..

      “The Resurrection is a *historical* claim.”

      “…facts like Jesus’ honorable burial…”

      “…his empty tomb…”

      “…his post mortum appearances, and the astonishing transformation in his disciples’ belief…”

      Are all historical facts. How that works for someone who doubts the historicity of the NT Jesus, I don’t think Brandon has grasped yet.

      Brandon says….

      ” I’ll offer just one more observation. Your rejection of the four historical facts I mentioned puts you in the extreme minority of historians (I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re an historian). Almost all mainstream historians, believers and non-believers alike, accept those four facts. In fact, even Richard Carrier, the well-known mythicist, accepts the latter three (which you appear to reject).”

      Best regards


    • says

      Thanks for all that. I appreciate the links, commentary, and quotes. That’s handy.

      On the resurrection thing, I’m assuming he just forgot. Much of my writing on the resurrection, which he may have once cribbed, was written before I was convinced of mythicism, and even after that I’ve conceded those points ex hypothesi in various debates, and one can easily confuse ex hypothesi with ex facto.

      Although I do still believe in the third and fourth facts, as at least 50/50, since a historical Jesus is not required for either of them–unless by “post mortem” you assume an actual death in the third fact, rather than a merely believed one, but that would entail agreeing with the first fact, so if one wants to allow disagreement with the first but agreement with the fourth, all non-death appearance scenarios must be included in “post mortem appearances,” such as survival-of-the-cross, faked-death, and, of course, celestial death only verified through visions and scripture. So, granting we drop that assumption, I would even assign this fourth fact higher than 50/50 if it wasn’t for all I’ve learned in anthropology about motivated lying in religious reform movements (e.g. Not the Impossible Faith ch. 10).

      The other three facts do require a historical Jesus. But I would say that if historicity is true (and I do believe that has a non-trivial probability), then all four facts are most probably true–but not to any high degree of certainty, a crucial distinction Christian apologists gloss over way too quickly. The most likely explanation of Christianity would then be a crucifixion resulting in death, which would have entailed a rapid burial most likely in a tomb*, followed by dreams or visions convincing his followers he had risen, which then transformed them into motivated evangelists. So all four facts make the most credible explanation of Christianity–second to the basic Doherty thesis (the most credible mythicist thesis, IMO). But those four facts neither require nor even imply anything supernatural, and their probability is not so high that we can say with confidence that they occurred (the anthropology of motivated lying raises serious suspicion of the fourth fact, as I already noted; there is a low but non-trivial probability Jesus would have been buried in the ground and not a tomb; and the probability of a survived or faked death, though also low, is still vastly greater than a spontaneous mass reversal of cell death caused by the telekinetic thoughts of a disembodied sky demon).

      But then, maybe saying that would get me banned at Strange Notions.

      * […though not the private tomb of a Jewish councilman, unless that was used solely as a Sabbath holding point and not the final resting place, as I explained in by “Burial” chapter in Empty Tomb–so if by “honorable burial” one means the former, then that is most probably false and I have always said so; but if one means by “honorable burial” any legally formal consecrated burial as opposed to being tossed in a mass grave or left on the cross to rot, then that would be almost certain to have occurred at that time and place, for every crucified person in Judea, not just Jesus. Komarnitsky has convinced me to be slightly less certain that the graveyard assigned to the condemned would have been a tomb complex and not an earthen graveyard, but I still deem the former more probable.]

    • ignorantamos says

      Thanks for your extensive explanation, I appreciate the time expended.

      “(e.g. Not the Impossible Faith ch. 10).”

      It’s on my Kindle, I’ll read it again to refresh my memory, thanks.

      “But then, maybe saying that would get me banned at Strange Notions.”

      I don’t know about banned, it would certainly get you a rap across the knuckle. I could envisage your scalpel like arguments getting you banned though. They get the “snark” rule out for a strong argument. rebuttal.

      BTW, am chomping at the bit to get my hands on your follow up to “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus”…it sounds as if it’s going be a good’un.

      Regards and thanks again for all your hard work.


  4. Giuseppe says

    report to me which comments might be worth my attention

    a such comment to your article in that blog from ”Randy Gritter”

    can be the seguent:

    There is just no reason for a guy like St Paul to become a Christian unless he was totally convinced it was true.

    In other terms, he thinks (if I am not mistaken) that only a profound *impact* can move Paul to quit his previous persecution of Judeo-Christians and to become a very Christian himself. And that profound impact can be only the (experience of) Resurrection of a failed messiah, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth.

    In this view, *historical* in Paul is not only the brief Gospel about Jesus (that is dead and risen) but the profound*impact* he endured from experience of conversion, too (and that Mythicism cannot explain, because other Pagan misteric religions lack that so profound *impact* on their supporters).

    This remember me about the idea of Mogens Müller, in his essay Paul: the Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus, printed in ‘Is This Not The Carpenter?’ (edited by Thompson & Verenna).

    I quote from him:

    Paul is himself witness to the circumstance, that, for faith, Jesus is only relevant in his impact – according to which he, thorugh his live, teaching and fate, brought about faith in the lives of those believing in him. Accordingly, the term the ‘historical Jesus’, in this context, should be extended to include also such effects as a valuable source.
    (p. 121, my bold )

    How do you answer to this ?

    Very Thanks,

    • says

      Paul says he was converted by a vision of Jesus (Gal. 1), not the historical Jesus. Therefore the “effects” Müller refers to are all the effects of visions, not a historical Jesus. And that means Paul did not need a historical Jesus to convert him.

      Hence Paul was “totally convinced” Christianity was true by a vision and nothing more. That is entirely compatible with mythicism. Indeed, that Paul knows of no one being convinced any other way (other than by hearing about those visions) argues for mythicism.

      And that’s granting the assumption Paul converted because he was “totally convinced” it was true–rather than seeing Christianity as a useful way to achieve certain objectives Paul valued. There are plenty of reasons Paul might have pretended to have a vision of Jesus in order to gain power and influence over a social movement whose values were in line with what he believed necessary to save Judaism from Rome (and save the Roman social system as a whole). I discuss these kinds of motivations (well known in anthropology) in Not the Impossible Faith (esp. chapter 10), which is also available on kindle or in an even more affordable PDF.

  5. Karl says

    There’s a comment thread in your initial “Questioning the Historicity of Jesus” post that might be worthy of reply – the commenter “Peter Piper” suggests (by means of quoting an unfavorable review of your UNCG lecture) euhemerization was a way to denigrate a deity, rather than simply creating an earthly backstory. Euhemerization would therefore not be in the interest of early Christians (unless they were employing it against other deities). This position appears to be an assertion (ie, presented without evidence), that even if true, doesn’t disprove the claim that “histories are created for deities”, but rather proves the claim (motives not withstanding).

    He also observes that the standard examples of euhemerization aren’t similar enough to the gospels to be of value. As your position doesn’t rely on the degree of the similarity, I fail to see how the observation is relevant – regardless of whether or not the observation is accurate.

    Lastly, he demands that the commenter he is mixing it up with “…understand the distinction between euhemerization … and euhemerism…”, which seems to be a semantic quibble that goes nowhere.

    The thread starts here, but it seems like the link takes the comments out of the context. I therefore recommend loading the article page, scroll to the bottom to “Load more comments”, and then doing a search for “euhemerization”. The first hit should be where the fun starts – that is, if you’re so inclined.

    I really appreciate the time you take to thoroughly research and document your claims. Keep up the good work! I look forward to February 2014!

    • says

      Thanks for posting. I’ll only answer your summary, since it doesn’t sound like the rest is worth my time.

      Plutarch’s biography of Romulus is classic euhemerization. Yet there is nothing in it to suggest he was euhemerizing Romulus to denigrate him.

      In fact, I am not actually aware of any cases in antiquity of euhemerization used to denigrate a deity. There might be some (I haven’t made an exhaustive check), but all the examples I am aware of are serious, not mocking. They are more often (but not solely) part of a philosophical trend to rationalize religion and thus make it more intellectually respectable, not less.

      As to the fallacy of “they aren’t entirely similar therefore they aren’t similar at all,” I suppose that same person will insist West Side Story isn’t based on Romeo & Juliet because they are not “similar enough” for that to be possible. Which is just nonsense.

  6. cornbread_r2 says

    Catholic authority sits on a three-legged stool (of the furniture variety): scripture, (capital-T) Tradition and the magisterium. When debating Catholic apologists on the subject of Jesus mythicism one has to be prepared to have to deal with everything written by the Early Church Fathers — no matter how poorly sourced and no matter how late — as well as scripture. In other words, if Eusebius or whoever claims that the disciples died horrible deaths because of their belief in the resurrection or that gLuke was a physician and companion of Paul or that the Gospel authors learned about the nativity narrative through personal conversations with Mary and Joseph expect some apologists to accept those claims unequivocally and to use them as evidence for historicity. Many of the comments seem to reflect that type of prior commitment as well as an overall suspicion of the historical-critical method.

  7. Logres says

    From the first link I read most of the comments, two thirds, and there is some great back and forth discussions between one atheist “Ignorant Amos” and one Christian “Fr.Sean” but then others joined in and went off topic but I think the first twenty comments would be good for you to read. Second post in was dealt with, I thought quite well, by Ignorant Amos:


    There is another way of looking at this, a less scientific view but way more fun.

    Let’s look at the so-called Jesus-mythers and their arguments. Let’s read people like Richard Carrier, who is regarded as the standard bearer in these efforts, and see that the “case” against the historical Jesus is a desperate, unfounded one, Let’s look at their arguments, such as they are, based pretty much on speculation and wishful thinking. Let us then note that even agnostics (like Bart Ehrman) and atheists (like John Loftus agree quite easily that the historical Jesus existed.

    And while we are ascribing motives to sources, which campaign seeks to discount the earlier sources because of their so-called Christian bias, let’s then also be honest and take into consideration the anti-Christian bias and motive that we may very well find in the Jesus-myth camp.

    Jesus existed. Make peace with it, and make your decision.


    Excellent Point Great Silence,
    i often find this is another “confuse the jury” tactic. if one doesn’t want to believe that he is the Son of God that’s one thing, but to postulate that the Christian movement had begun by some mythical idea that isn’t based on a real person is just confusing the issue and keeping one off topic. it falls into that; “how do you know, how do you know, how do you know” form of argument that one can use on almost anything to bring confusion in.

    Ignorant Amos

    it falls into that; “how do you know, how do you know, how do you know” form of argument that one can use on almost anything to bring confusion in.

    Yet you will have no such issue about the claims of other religions. Is the myth stories of other religions granted the same “”how do you know, how do you know, how do you know” or do you just know.

    “Many cultures have stories about divine figures whose death creates an essential part of reality. These myths seem especially common among cultures that grow crops, particularly tubers.One such myth from the Wemale people of Seram Island, Indonesia, tells of a miraculously-conceived girl named Hainuwele, whose murdered corpse sprouts into the people’s staple food crops.The Chinese myth of Pangu, the Vedic myth of Purusha, and the Norse myth of Ymir all tell of a cosmic giant who is killed to create the world.Similar is the Christian myth of Christ, whose death refashions the world.”

    Still, Christianity is not to be comparative…it’s above all that.”


    • Logres says

      I’ve just scanned the last third and I think the last twenty five comments maybe good to read aswell.

    • Logres says

      Sorry to spam you but while I’m annoying you I thought I’d better get it all out of the way for now 😛
      Having a discussion with a Christian friend, although he doesn’t go to Church anymore and isn’t a fundamentalist, of mine I was putting forward the notion of getting rid of Churches because in Youngs Literal Translation there is no mention of Church but assembly and the money that would be saved for charity would be better for the community. After finding some links, from Christians supporting my view, he asked me to ask his old pastor which I did but I’d also like to ask you the same questions and see what you say.:

      1) Does the word Church come from the Greek word Cerce?

      2) Was the word Church a mistranslation of the word assembly, which is the literal translation?

      3) Do you think a literal translation is better then a mistranslation?

      His pastor asked me if I was sincerely seeking the truth or if I was looking to criticize the Bible and I explained “I have found through researching that truth is a subjective term depending on one’s knowledge and life experiences and being critical of something as long as the criticism is positive and assists in further understanding and improvement can be invaluable. In all honesty I try not to fall into any category about these issues because after years of informing myself I have learnt that my opinions or thoughts that I had on these subjects, or other subjects, I quickly had to move away from when new information made these positions untenable. I’m looking for your information on these issues and what you think so I can add it to what other scholars have said.I am not taking any sides for or against I will remain objective, which is a new thing for me.”

      Looking forward to your answers.

      Be well.


    • says

      I’m not sure I understand what is being asked here or who is asking it.

      In the NT, the word translated “church” is ekklêsia, meaning congregation (it originated as a political term, it means “the summoned assembly,” it indicates a select body called to a task). It does not mean community, but a select body, and in the NT it is mostly used specifically to mean those called into the body of Christ, hence is closer to what we now mean by “Christianity” (indeed the Christian use more likely derives from the Jewish appropriation of the term to refer to the chosen people, i.e. the Jews, as a political body–the Christians used it as the true body of Israel, i.e. Christians).

      The modern word “church” derives (in a roundabout way) from the Greek term for the dedicated physical building that congregations later met in, a kuriakon, “Lord’s House” (there were no dedicated church buildings, so far as we know, until the second century, so this term did not get adopted until then or later–although the word is used to mean other things, since it is just an adjective meaning “Lord’s” and so when not used as a noun it prefaces such phrases as “Lord’s supper” or “Lord’s day,” and does so in the NT).

    • Logres says

      Sorry me again. I don’t really like left brained activities like reading and was wondering if you have thought about doing a vblog or podcast to go with your articles?

      Be well,


  8. Jet says

    My comment doesn’t appear to be in moderation anymore, so I’m trying again. Hopefully this isn’t a double post.

    I agree with CJO’s assessment of the comments, with one exception. Peter Piper, linked to this review of your lecture on mythicism.

    Search for “As it turns out, Carrier’s “euhemerization” is a myth” to get to what, IMO, is the part worth responding to.

  9. tallbacka says


    how did Christianity, in your view, start? Did Paul make it all up himself, or was there already a sect who believed in a mythical Jesus which he then joined? Where did the idea that Jesus was real come from and why did it prevail over the, according to you, original view that Jesus was myth?

    Why make up a Jesus in the first place? We know that there were lots of prophets and would be massiahs in this time and the Jews already had a concept of a coming messiah for centuries. Why is it unreasonable to believe there was an actual person behind it?

    • says

      Did Paul make it all up himself, or was there already a sect who believed in a mythical Jesus which he then joined?

      If it was “made up” it was most likely made up by Peter and his posse (Paul quite clearly says the cult predated him and he was even an enemy of it until he joined it). But it might not have been “made up” in a literal sense. Peter et al. might have had dreams or hallucinations they genuinely took to be real (in that case it was “made up” by their subconscious). Which is how most religions get made up (like Mormonism and Islam: either real hallucinations or pretended ones, but either way it starts with “visions” of the communicating celestial being).

      Where did the idea that Jesus was real come from and why did it prevail over the, according to you, original view that Jesus was myth?

      We can’t know because when this most likely happened (the sixty or so years from 60-120 AD) we have no documents discussing the changes occurring in the church over that time. And no documents later show any substantive knowledge of this period either (the most we get is a raw list of bishops, which is probably fictional, but even if genuine, is devoid of any historical context or content; and one defensive remark in the forged letter of 2 Peter that there were Christians in the early second century insisting the histories of Jesus were made-up myths, but we are allowed to hear nothing more about those Christians, and the only evidence the author of 2 Peter could level against them was to forge a piece of evidence against them, which does not look good for historicism).

      So we are left to rest on common anthropological models. How did all other celestial deities become historicized and assumed real? Why? Some of the reasoning is discussed by Noll in his chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter?. I discuss others (e.g. the formation of the King Arthur and Ned Ludd legends) in my forthcoming book.

      Why make up a Jesus in the first place?

      I’ll assume you include subconscious invention in that question (e.g. why would someone hallucinate or dream a celestial Jesus claiming to have been crucified by demons in outer space, and take that seriously). The answer is the basically same as the “why” of every other weird religion (Why make up, much less worship, a savior god named Attis who castrates himself? Why make up Mormonism? Or Islam? Or Zoroastrianism? Or Cao Dai?): because it solved certain pressing social and religious problems of the time, and did so by making certain solutions palatable by combining existing cult notions with new ones (often adapted from conquering cultures) and selling them as old. I discuss the anthropological models (e.g. cargo cults) in my forthcoming book.

      Why is it unreasonable to believe there was an actual person behind it?

      That is the subject of my entire next book. In short, because Paul does not appear to have any idea there was an actual person behind it (other than in heaven), savior demigods like Jesus are not usually historical people, and the idea of there being such a person only first appears in blatantly absurd mythical hagiographies, and only starts to appear to be generally accepted a hundred years after the fact, and solely based on those absurd mythical hagiographies (i.e. no other information appears to have existed, or at least to have survived for anyone then to mention it).

    • CJO says

      “Why is it unreasonable…”

      There is another reason that Richard doesn’t touch on, but which he may agree with. That is, if we take the gospels at face value, and factor in the Pauline timeline, a Roman provincial administrator became aware of a seditious movement, took the trouble to locate, arrest, and execute its leader during the run-up to a pilgrimage festival, and yet, within a short duration of time after this event, his followers are continuing that movement, in his name, in the very city where the execution took place, and furthermore are claiming as a central tenet that the disposition of the body is unknown. This flies in the face of everything we know about how the Romans responded to incidents of this sort. Historicists love to point out the inherent plausibility of the outline of the arrest and execution of a messianic claimant at the time and place, pointing to the several examples in Josephus of just this sort of thing. But, to my mind, they ignore the most glaring difference: in the comparable cases, the outcome was death by heavy infantry, for leaders and followers alike. The Romans (and Classical-era imperial provincial military administrators generally) did not make a practice of half-assing this kind of thing, or see the utility in “making an example” of a ringleader in the hope that his followers would be cowed. If a group was a threat salient enough for a potentially riot-inducing or otherwise destabilizing public execution of its leader at a time when the city’s population of pilgrims would have been at maximum, well, all I can say is there would have been more than three crosses on that hill.

      I should mention also that in reply to this kind of historical interrogation of the gospel outline is where historicist apologetics a la McGrath is at its most slippery. If you retain just exactly the bits and pieces of the story you need to assert a historical core, and reject the bulk of the narrative of the Passion as we have it, you can moot a scenario where Jesus was just a troublemaker, and the Romans didn’t know he had followers, or they all fled, only to reconvene in Jerusalem later and the authorities never connected the dots or forgot about that King of the Jews guy the minute he was in the tomb, etc. It should be obvious how tendentious this is.

    • says

      I do concur with that point. In fact, it’s a significant piece of evidence against historicity (I have made the argument myself in that way from the text of Acts, in a past Skepticon talk and a written online debate, and I formalize it in my forthcoming book).

  10. cassandro says

    Richard, is there a reason why those two passages that imply Jesus was a created being are rendered accurately in the KJV?

    Also, I seem to recall you saying elsewhere that there was precedent for an archangel named Joshua, but I can’t seem to find it (unless you mean the Joshua who battled Satan in that passage in the Old Testament). Where did you get that from, or did I remember wrong?

  11. Mikael Smith says

    I want to share what one Christian said when I asked that why nobody talks about “resurrected dead descending on Jerusalem in Matthew”. He responded with good old “it’s symbolic”-argument:

    “Lying and making up the story is not the only possibility here. It is possibly that it is what Matthew understood that happened. It could also be that it is an apocalyptic highlighting about the event.

    If this was meant to be apocalyptic, then what does it mean? It highlights the meaning of Jesus’ death. This would be acceptable and understood in the first century context where Matthew writes. He would also be “telling the truth”: like a poet says that “my heart stopped when I saw you”, it does not mean that the heart literally stopped. So it wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but symbolicly.

    Still, something interesting happened in the year 30. Rabbinic sources tell us that 40 years before destruction of the Temple, the huge doors opened by themselves (y. Yoma
    6:43c, b. Yoma 39b). They priests interpreted this as an event of destruction. Jesus’ death happened in the year 30, which is 40 years before destruction of Jerusalem:

    ”Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open”. Babylonialainen Talmud kirjoittaa ”Our rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-colored strap become white; nor did the western most light shine; and the doors of the Hekel [Temple] would open by themselves”(Soncino version, Yoma 39b).”

    The Christian also claims that the place where Josefus (The Wars Of The Jews, Book VI) tells that the doors of the Temple opened by themselves, and cow gave birth to a sheep, happened in the year 30. If I recall correctly, you cited same place in the NIF (or in the Empty tomb, I can’t remember where). I can’t figure out how he got the idea that Josefus is talking about the year 30 in the book that talks about Jewish war. I guess he just had a bad source.

    Personally I think it’s just a way out from difficult question. When they (Christians) see that it is highly improbable that nobody else mentioned the walking dead in the city, they just turn to “it’s symbolic”-argument. I think I can handle the “symbolic” argument myself, but I would like to hear your thoughts about the Yoma 39b and 6:43. And of course, if you have something to say about “apocalyptic highlighting”, then I would like to hear it. Have you come across this argument before?

    • says

      Yes. It’s somewhat incorrect. Only in-the-know elites would (wink-wink) accept that a story like the resurrected horde was not literally meant (or could be “interpreted” metaphorically, regardless of what the author meant). Everyone else (the hoi polloi) were meant to take it literally. And did. See my discussion here.

      But even if you granted the false assumption that everyone understood Matthew’s narration of events to be metaphor, then historicity goes out the window: then everything is a metaphor, including Jesus, and every single event in the Gospels. Which is actually correct (we can show how every single scene involving Jesus in the Gospels is a fiction designed to convey points metaphorically, not literally; even in Luke, who explicitly pretends not to be doing that in his preface, Lk. 1:1-3). But when you point that out, Christians suddenly sour on this “it was meant metaphorically” explanation, once they realize it destroys everything. They want to conveniently pick and choose (as if by telepathic magic) which passages are true and which are just metaphors. Even though there is no evidence any ancient reader read the text that way, or wrote these texts that way, much less picking and choosing which passages are literally true and which metaphor exactly the same way modern Christians want to do.

      P.S. I would also like to know where the claim originated that Josephus narrated the war-premonition miracles as occurring in the year 30. I don’t believe it’s in the text of Josephus (why would he imagine these occurring in that year, twenty six years before the war would even begin?), but maybe I missed something.

    • Mikael Smith says

      The whole thing is just a big cop-out. When I hear this argument, that something is meant to be interpreted as metaphorically, I consider myself a winner of that debate. It’s s shame. This Christian is very intelligent, but he made such a bad argument.

      Next time I see him, I’ll ask his source and explanation to the claim about Josephus.
      BTW. How do we actually know that Josephus is speaking of the year 66 CE?

    • says

      I think you mean “How do we actually know that Josephus is not speaking of the year 66 CE?” The claim we are curious about is why it is believed he was speaking of the year 30, not 66 (66 would make sense, and destroy any connection with Christianity).

  12. Mikael Smith says

    And hey, what about that b. Yoma 39b and y. Yoma 6:43c? Eventhought it just sounds like picking and choosing again, I would like to hear your thoughts of it.

    • Mikael Smith says

      I quote myself:

      “Still, something interesting happened in the year 30. Rabbinic sources tell us that 40 years before destruction of the Temple, the huge doors opened by themselves (y. Yoma
      6:43c, b. Yoma 39b). They priests interpreted this as an event of destruction. Jesus’ death happened in the year 30, which is 40 years before destruction of Jerusalem:

      ”Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open”. Babylonialainen Talmud kirjoittaa ”Our rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-colored strap become white; nor did the western most light shine; and the doors of the Hekel [Temple] would open by themselves”(Soncino version, Yoma 39b).””

      The Christian used this kind of argument as an example, that Jews did record something odd happening in the year 30 (and this odd thing would be connected to the death of Christ). So because there was something happening in the year 30, it could be related to the death of Christ.

      …shit. Now that I’m writing this, it’s just sounds so stupid. There is nothing in common between quoted Yoma 39b and the Gospels. Only that it conveniently happens to point to year 30, which is supposed year when Jesus died. Little bit far-fetched, eh?

    • says

      That’s the Talmud, not Josephus–a crucial point because there is no mention of this in Josephus, who was actually there, whereas the Talmud was written three to five centuries later, and obviously reflecting a great deal of post-Josephus legendary development. 40 years is a prophetic number, it probably doesn’t reflect an actual number of years (and even if it does, they probably back-counted to date the miracle after the fact, so that it would correspond to the significant number of 40). I would also inquire whether the Babylonian text indeed says “during” 40 years, not 40 years before, and whether in fact the Jerusalem Talmud actually doesn’t say the same (I can’t verify that myself). Indeed, the most obvious math using Daniel 9.23-27 gets us to the year 30 as the key year of events launching the apocalypse, which is why Christians thought Jesus was executed then–and why some Jews would have expected special events then, too, wholly apart from Christianity.

      But in fact, Jesus’ death did not occur in the year 30 according to the Synoptic Gospels (only John allows such a year: his narrative requires the year to have been 30 or 33, yet John was written in the 2nd century); according to the earliest and most reliable Gospel narratives, Jesus died in either 27 or 34 A.D.

  13. Yair says

    Not entirely on-topic, but a new mythicist is gaining some publicity and I’d very much be interested in hearing your take on his work.

    He seems to base his case on noting analogies between Jesus’ story and Roman literary works. He claims Christianity was a deliberate artificial fabrication, by the Roman elites, intended to infiltrate and pacify Jewish communities. I’m… hardly convinced. But I would be very interested to hear your opinion on it; which I suspect will be rather scathing.


    • says

      That’s Atwill. He’s not new. He’s been around selling this stuff for years. He’s one of the cranks.

      I’m going to blog about this soon, since I’m told he is even being tweeted by Dawkins now.

      Guys like Atwill are doing serious damage to mythicism by making it look ridiculous. It’s because of people like him that I constantly have to explain I am not advocating anything comparable to him and not using any of his awful methods or assumptions, before I can even get people to listen to me or take me seriously. Because everyone assumes the likes of Atwill define all mythicism. And he doesn’t even recognize the damage he is doing. It’s very annoying.

  14. robotczar says

    Forte does not need a diacritical. It is a long standing English word that was originally pronounced “fort” before we got pretentious and started pronouncing it like it is French.

    • says

      Except fort (ability) sounds like fort (place). The words are used in such a way that context often can’t signal what is meant. The development in pronunciation is therefore an improvement from a perspective linguistic pragmatism. And the diacritic signals the difference. (BTW, the two-syllable pronunciation isn’t French, it’s Italian; the Italian influence comes through music, e.g. piano forte. And the English forte is French…both in origin and pronunciation. Of course, ultimately it’s all from the Latin fortis.)

      This is how language works. It changes over time. There is little point in complaining about it. Objectively, it’s all just random sounds, whose assignment is arbitrary.

    • robotczar says

      While I don’t disagree with your assertion that language changes over time and how people use the language ultimately determines what is standard, I can’t find any dictionary that uses the diacritical. And, it doesn’t seem that hard to distinguish ability from a structure by context. What I really can’t agree with is that people intentionally (or implicitly) started pronouncing the word differently to distinguish high ability from sturdy structures rather than for the reason of sounding more sophisticated. You, of course, didn’t pronounce, you used text and the diacritical isn’t used in ether the French, Italian, or traditional English spelling of the word.

    • says

      Doesn’t matter. Everyone knows what it means, hence it’s useful. Welcome to the flow of linguistic change. Like evolution, it’s always happening right before your eyes.

  15. Mikael Smith says

    Have you written something about Jesus and Mosaic Law? You probably know the argument that Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic Law and that’s why Christians don’t have to obey it. But Jesus himself never says anything like this, quite contrary. At Matthew 5:17-20 he clearly says that people should follow the Law. Christians keep insisting that because Jesus said “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” it means that we don’t have to obey the Mosaic Law, because Jesus fulfilled it.

    Sorry for the place of this posting. I didn’t know any better place for it.

    • says

      That relates to later Christian theology that doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested in what was being said in the first two or three centuries. You are right that Christians today are playing loose with the actual meaning of Matthew’s words. But that’s just one among thousands of ridiculous distortions of ancient history that Christians entertain today in their desperate attempt to keep an ancient blood cult relevant in an age of science and sense.

  16. says

    “I am aware there are challenges to the historicity of Mohammad”

    What challenges are there on the historicity of Muhammad? Please elaborate.


  17. says

    @ Richard Carrier

    A little question.

    Have you read Quran?

    I am asking this because you have generalized your experience with Christianity or Judaism to Islam; in your article and in your reply comments.

    Thanks and regards

    • says

      Yes, I have read the Quran. I am sorry to say that it is predominately a dull and derivative treatise written by a barbaric and ignorant people. Like most holy books from over a thousand years ago.

      Anything that thinks it’s nice to force anyone (much less mere nonbelievers) to drink boiling water (6.70) is pretty much morally bankrupt from the word go. Evil in the Quran.

  18. Kerry Shirts says

    Richard I am new to the Bayes Theorem idea. Since reading both your newest books I am, of course, now seriously much more interested in it! Very stimulating books to read. Enormous efforts, which I appreciate. Your reviews here are outstanding in helping the rest of us get the feel, as it were, for Bayes Theorem and using it on historical issues. NICE. I know it is a lot of work, but this is a good fight and I also want to simply know what the probability of the truth is and where it lies. I have darn near printed off your entire section of reviews here along with the comments and its a HUGE book! I can take it with me everywhere I go. Thanks again, and don’t stop. If I end up asking dumb questions forgive me. Now that I am learning Bayes, I have a lot of friends who are asking me tough questions and some I have no idea how to answer. Some I think are misunderstanding Bayes, and your blogs here are very helpful! I also have several of your books on my Kindle and enjoy reading you and the other fellows who “hang out” with you in their articles in Loftus’s books – Lol! You’re analysis are a breath of fresh air.

  19. James van Luik says

    Dear Dr. Carrier,

    I am writing off the topic above. You mentioned in one of your talks a former catholic priest whom you praised as a theologian who had serious doubts of the Jesus scholarship similar to yours. I believe he was originally Irish and moved to the US and finally may have retired to Florida. He remained a Christian. I have listened to him on several occasions via the internet but somehow I managed to lose his name and internet programs His name was something like Classass perhaps.He always presented his arguments in a patient and scholarly way. I would appreciate your help in this matter.

    Yours Sincerely,
    James van Luik

    PS I saw you on a program with Victor J. Stenger, recently died. He was a colleague of mine, much missed.
    Professor Emeritus
    Philosophy of Science