Fernando Bermejo-Rubio is one of the most impressive new scholars in biblical studies. His work on the “quests” for the historical Jesus is paradigm-challenging and superb (see The Fiction of the Three Quests). It is thus no surprise that he would publish the only defense of the historicity of Jesus against its opponents that is actually worth reading. Usually such tracts are awash with errors, distortions, a substitution of assumptions for facts, or blatant fallacies, or bundles of all of these–even when coming from experts who ought to know better (like Erhman, McGrath, and so on and so on and so on–and on and on–even Goodacre, a little, who otherwise did the best job I know short of Bermejo-Rubio, and indeed the two together make the strongest case overall).
Biblical scholars often read the online trade periodical The Bible and Interpretation (I have published with them myself, and have cited other articles there on my blog before). It’s somewhat informal, but run and read (and usually only contributed to) by serious scholars. Respected bible scholar Phillip Davies (himself a historicist) published his plea to take the question of historicity more skeptically there. Now, Bermejo-Rubio has published his best defense of historicity there: Prolegomena to a Dispassionate Plea for the Historicity of Jesus the Galilean. It’s not the best conceivable (since it isn’t comprehensive in the way I’d want the best defense to be), but it commits far fewer errors than any others I know.
I had read this months ago, but could only find time now to write about it (evidence of my backlog). But for anyone keen on hearing my response to his case, here you go.
The Ideal Pro-Historicity Position
Right from the start Bermejo-Rubio’s approach is singled out by “trying to tackle this issue in a rather irenic and respectful attitude,” and by making clear he is not a Christian and has no skin in the game. Indeed, I would add, as his paper on the “Three Quests” shows, he is more than happy to tear down beloved traditional views in the field. He is not cowed by consensus and does not appear to fear for tenure or backlash. As he outright says, “too often I have realized that common opinion, including in the field of Jesus scholarship, is based on wrong assumptions, and I myself maintain some views on the historical Jesus…which are in a minority.”
Indeed some of his views, I have to agree with the majority, are wrong (although I fear he may be right about the fiction of the “three quests”). But like Mark Goodacre, he knows what it is like to openly defend a minority position and be attacked for that, and thus he sympathizes with anyone in the same position, more so than comfortable snipers at the top of the tower ever do. He knows full well, as we do, that the privileged often become arrogant, and terrified of interlopers who would crumble everything they thought was certain and have based their careers on.
Bermejo-Rubio also rightly criticizes mythicists for often undermining their cause by constantly repeating false information (or, I would add, not using valid logic), and often having as much an anti-religious bias as apologists have a religious one, but he knows this cannot be used as an argument to dismiss them. I’ve often made both points myself (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here). Lay readers may be curious to know what the German says in Bermejo-Rubio’s fifth note on this point, about Bauer–often touted as the original mythicist–so I’ll translate it:
[Bauer's mythicist stance probably sprung] from the impression the German Christian apologists of the time, as they stood against Strauss [the first widely influential skeptic and critic of traditional views of Jesus--ed.], must have made in any rigorously honest and deep thinking person. Consequently, he amused himself with a certain demonic pleasure witnessing their helplessness after breaking the crutches of pseudo-science and tossing them aside [...] a wild desire, in other words, to rob the theologians of everything, tore Bauer much farther away [from their position] than his critical knowledge [alone] would have led him.
That’s arguably true, and I think true for most mythicists today: justifiably outraged, even betrayed, by the constant and egregious lies Christian apologists employ in defense of their historical Jesus–repeated even by secular scholars fooled by Christian rhetoric and too lazy or conformist to check their facts or logic first–many a mythicist goes balls out to destroy and embarrass them. They are thus led to extreme and immoderate views. After all, it’s hard to have sympathy for such an absurd and dishonest and illogical position, and it can be satisfying to assume everything they argue is likewise false. But that’s not the reality. In reality, some of what critics of mythicism and defenders of historicity say is true, and mythicists ought to exercise more caution and care, and be more self-critical and self-reflective in building their position and their case for it.
Like historicist Phillip Davies (whose editorial I linked above), Bermejo-Rubio wants to elevate mythicism, or at least agnosticism regarding historicity, to a position that can be at least treated as a respectable, honestly debatable position within the field, even if he personally isn’t persuaded by it. That requires effort from both sides: from establishment scholars, it demands attitudes like those of Davies and Bermejo-Rubio; from mythicists, it demands more rigor, caution, and humility.
Towards an Ideal Pro-Historicity Case
Bermejo-Rubio rightly characterizes the Gospels as very problematic evidence to build a case for historicity from. Although he does not dismiss them as evidence entirely (he constructs his own theories of the historical Jesus from details within them, based on his own assumptions about how those texts were composed and for what purposes), he admits “the Canonical Gospels are indeed extremely biased sources, and their accounts are too often scarcely credible,” hence he approaches them with “deep distrust.”
This is an honest admission even some secular scholars are too afraid to make, although I think it is now the most commonly held view among them (it is thus not even controversial anymore to say, as he does, that “the Jesus (or rather the Jesuses) proclaimed by the evangelists and their present heirs–preachers and theologians–did never exist”). But such pervasive distrust of the Gospels is certainly a view Christian scholars have every reason to fear taking themselves, which is why their opinions in the matter can hardly be trusted. They cannot be honest about this, because to do so would be tantamount to admitting their faith is built on fiction. And one can only do that by abandoning one’s faith first (or at least so radically altering it that it no longer rests on anything the Gospels say, except as metaphors for abstract truths about the human condition: welcome Shelby Spong and Thomas Brodie).
Bermejo-Rubio also agrees “mythicists are right…that some material which is often used as supporting the historicity of Jesus is not helpful for that aim,” such as the passages in Josephus, which he believes may be authentic (I could not more confidently disagree), but rightly perceives are utterly useless, since their most plausible source is Christians referencing the Gospels (by one route or another), so Josephus cannot be used to corroborate the Gospels.
Nevertheless, he maintains the following conclusion: “I think that the (by far) most probable thing is that a single identifiable person named Jesus lies at the root of the Gospel tradition.” So how does he reach that conclusion, having admitted the evidence so pervasively sucks? He gives basically three arguments, and they are in some respects novel, in that they aren’t the legs usually rested on (although neither have they not been voiced before, yet I think never have they been stated so well). He says he has more arguments that he omitted for word count, but I cannot speculate what those would be, so I shall comment on the three he states. Indeed, he intimates that his others are sufficiently weaker than these that if these should fail, so will they.
Argument the First: Bermejo-Rubio starts with “one of my main arguments against the non-historicity of Jesus,” which is “that–after having analyzed sine ira et studio quite a few works of the proponents of the idea, since Bauer to the very present–[I] have found no compelling arguments in its favor” and “although this, of course, is not an argument, I am not alone in this judgment: I know quite a few agnostic and atheist scholars in Europe who do not harbor serious doubts about Jesus’ historicity.”
The latter of course is, by his own admission, not an argument. Every change in the consensus begins with a view contrary to what every other expert thinks. We have a model for this already: the idea that the Old Testament Patriarchs were mythical started as a fringe view against a firm and broad consensus; it is now the mainstream view. Consensus is a valid argument for laypeople to side with that consensus until enough experts disagree with it to represent a serious debate (or there are at least enough to warrant not yet taking sides without examining each side’s best case), but it cannot be an argument for an expert not to side against the consensus, as otherwise that would become circular, and prevent all progress in knowledge. We then are looking at dogma, not a quest for knowledge.
So Bermejo-Rubio’s only argument here is that he has not yet been persuaded. I am not surprised, as so far most mythicist literature is confused, flawed, and full of excessive speculation in place of fact. Although I do wonder if he has yet read Earl Doherty’s works, which in my opinion are far more persuasive (being far more carefully constructed and argued), I have noted before why even his might dissuade experts, by creating his own straw men. For example, in The Jesus Puzzle, Doherty rests his case on a complex and implausible theory (albeit from a mainstream scholar) of the layering of the hypothetical Q document (which I don’t even believe existed), so anyone who doesn’t buy that premise can easily, albeit mistakenly, reject his entire thesis–such is the inherently defective cognitive machinery in every human brain, that the idea of reconstructing his thesis without that premise won’t typically be tried in one’s own mind before rejecting the thesis altogether, even though that is precisely what one ought to do (and I have done: hence my book, On the Historicity of Jesus–expected, hopefully, this April from Sheffield-Phoenix: I cast away all unnecessary speculations and premises and build a case solely on what can be strongly demonstrated to be true).
So my response to this argument is simply: let’s see what Fernando Bermejo-Rubio thinks after reading my forthcoming book–and its essential prequel, Proving History, which will challenge his confidence in the method of criteria that he still relies on too much.
Argument the Second: although “the question whether everything in [the Gospels] is to be reduced to myth and legend” is “a possibility that, a priori, should not be discarded,” he still thinks he can find “a core of material that does not seem to have been concocted or shaped according to the mold of older stories” and “the best and most natural explanation for this material is that it corresponds to a historical figure.” My forthcoming book will deeply challenge that assumption, particularly chapter ten, which will likely show him a lot of what he thought was genuine is obviously mythical–and the more one realizes that, the less confidence one retains in the remaining material, as I know from experience: that is precisely what has happened to me. Already Proving History exposes the difficulties, or indeed impossibility, of discerning truth from fiction in the Gospels if even there were any. I would be curious to know if reading even that will weaken his confidence in his premise here.
But he does not rest merely on this dubious premise (that he can “identify” authentic information hidden in the noise of these fictionalized narratives). He gives three corollary arguments:
He claims he is even more convinced by this premise because “the figure which is thereby reconstructed corresponds to a quite concrete, individualized person,” “unmistakably a Jew of his age, and at the same time it is a person with his own personality.” That is a fallacy. The same criteria applied to Odysseus would give us a “figure which corresponds to a quite concrete, individualized person,” “unmistakably a Greek of his age, and at the same time it is a person with his own personality.” But alas, that affords zero evidence that Odysseus was a historical person. He almost certainly was not. So the same reasoning cannot function for Jesus.
A more important error in this thinking is that it is entirely circular: one “finds” a plausible person in Jesus by using criteria specifically designed to discard everything implausible about him. I should hardly have to explain why that method would find every fictional character in the history of literature to be a historical person. Whereas, when we look at Jesus as actually written, he is in fact massively implausible as a person–indeed, virtually none of what he says or does makes any plausible sense on any known human psychology. That’s the character that was written. Does that make his existence more likely or less? I would argue less. But certainly not more. When we read a story about someone who behaves not at all like any human being we know, our proper inclination is not to be persuaded a real person is being described.
His other arguments are equally fallacious:
That a fictional person would be “quite plausibly ascribed to the period in which [he] is supposed to have lived, and faithfully reflects the socio-political, religious and historical circumstances of that period” is exactly what is expected of fiction written near that time and place, about that time and place. And yet, often the stories told of Jesus do not in fact accurately match the time and place, by exactly the degree to which the author is distanced from it. Thus, for example, none of the accounts of the trial of Jesus make any plausible sense in the actual legal context in which they are supposed to have occurred, and the original Gospel author, Mark, can’t even get the geography right, while even Matthew–indeed even the supposed author of the hypothetical Q–doesn’t even use the Bible in Hebrew or Aramaic (not even when having Jesus quote it), using instead, and even basing arguments on, the Greek translation of it. So, insofar as the Gospels in fact do not show accurate knowledge of the time and place they set their scenes in, they refute Bermejo-Rubio, and insofar as they get anything right, that is already to be expected of fiction written within decades of its setting by educated people culturally near to the context imagined. It is the fallacy of selection bias to ignore the misses and count only the hits and then use the hits as an argument for authenticity. By that device I could prove any historical fiction to be genuine history.
Finally, that his imagined portrait of Jesus “is convergent and consistent,” after having used a method designed to cause exactly that result (and thus would do so on any fictional character ever) is enough to show the fallacy in this reasoning. Likewise, that this reconstructed Jesus “does not fit well–in fact, it ultimately debunks–the exalted image of the figure conveyed by the evangelists themselves” is yet more circular reasoning: using a method that casts off all the things that make a figure exalted, obviously what you will always end up with is a contradiction to the exalted figure originally described. You would get that same result for any demigod in history. That doesn’t make them historical; rather, it just makes you good at inventing more believable fictions than the original authors did.
I point out much more along these lines in Proving History, and address Bermejo-Rubio’s other implied arguments (such as intimating that Jesus having named siblings in the Gospels makes him historical–as if mythical heroes never had named siblings in Hellenistic and Jewish literature) in On the Historicity of Jesus.
Argument the Third: Bermejo-Rubio’s best argument is that “a basic rule of method in scientific research is that (all things being equal: the ceteris paribus clause must be respected) the simplest explanation that also covers the largest amount of data is to be preferred,” and therefore, at least prima facie:
…the explanation that an all too-human being named Jesus did indeed exist as a first-century Galilean Jew, that his unexpected failure triggered among his followers a considerable reinterpretation of his fate and that, despite the inflating and divinizing process which was carried out by them, traces of his historic personality and activities remain embedded in our biased sources is, in my opinion, by far the simplest and most cogent explanation for the whole available evidence.
Because “the alternative hypotheses contrived to oppose this solution happen to be somewhat convoluted–and not infrequently far-fetched, often requiring further auxiliary hypotheses and implausible conjectures.” Indeed, I quite agree with him: most mythicist theories suffer this enormous defect (hence my point earlier about how even Doherty straw mans himself). But that is precisely the defect I have removed in my new formulation of the case in On the Historicity of Jesus.
And it’s worth dwelling on the methodological point here. Many complications adhere in any application of Ockham’s Razor (which is what Bermejo-Rubio is talking about here), as I explain in Proving History (index, “Ockham’s Razor”). Bermejo-Rubio is at least aware of this generally (hence his remark about the importance of ceteris paribus). But one has to be more specific, because here many an error is commonly made. An “auxiliary hypothesis” is only ad hoc when it is not independently confirmed in evidence as true or probable. Only auxiliary hypothesis that are posited without that support, posited merely “out of the blue” as it were, reduce a theory’s plausibility (= prior probability) compared to alternatives that rely on fewer such presumptions. That’s why Ockham’s Razor does not tear down the Periodic Table: the theory that there are only four elements is vastly simpler than that there are over ninety, yet a slew of very well confirmed auxiliary hypotheses establishes that the four element theory just can’t explain the evidence anywhere near as well as the Periodic Table can. Thus a vastly complex theory ends up being, in fact, the simplest.
Thus we must admit that the historicity of Jesus also depends on hundreds of auxiliary hypotheses, and not only ones that can be independently confirmed in evidence as true or probable (such as background facts about the ancient world, ancient Palestine, sectarian Judaism, and so on), but also ones that are in fact ad hoc: such as all the assumptions underlying the “criteria” Bermejo-Rubio himself relies upon to “reconstruct” a historical Jesus. Mythicists do not have to adopt any of those assumptions (assumptions for which there is not only no evidence, but often evidence against, and thus are not merely not probable, but are often outright improbable: see Proving History for numerous examples). Thus bare mythicism starts off, in fact, much simpler.
Historicists also need a lot of “out of the blue” assumptions to make sense of a lot of the data: the trial of Jesus makes no sense as-is (Proving History, index “Criterion of Crucifixion”), and therefore one has to devise a complex hypothesis (and I mean complex: no simple hypothesis fits, any more than four elements can fit the evidence of chemistry) about what actually happened and how it got altered into the stories we now have; likewise the betrayal and suicide of Judas (Proving History, index “Judas”); or how a crucified convict could be so immediately quasi-deified by Jews; even more so to explain how Christians east of the Roman Empire believed Jesus was executed a hundred years before the Gospels claim; or how no clear mention of the historical impact of Jesus appears anywhere in Paul’s 20,000 words (Paul appears to know only of a celestial Jesus known only by revelation and scripture); and so on and so forth. In short, historicity is plagued with ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses. It is therefore not a simple hypothesis.
Hence in On the Historicity of Jesus, I show that a minimal mythicism can rest on far fewer ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses than even a minimal historicity, and that all other auxiliary hypotheses minimal mythicism requires are as well established as those historicity depends upon. Mythicism thus becomes the simpler hypothesis, ceteris paribus. That’s why it’s compelling.
Thus, while Bermejo-Rubio claims “we can easily explain Jesus, we cannot so easily explain those people who would have invented him,” this is not actually true.
To begin with, there have been hundreds of mythical persons historicized in history, in fact it was a particularly popular trend for demigods and in antiquity precisely where and when Christianity originated (it was called Euhemerism). So why do we think it’s hard to explain this? It can’t be any harder for Christianity than for any other instance (from the invention of Moses and elaborate biographies of him, to the invention, likewise, of Hercules, Romulus, Osiris, and so on; for a rather good explanation of this, see Noll’s chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter?).
By contrast, explaining a historical Jesus is extremely hard. Too much evidence is simply too baffling. We can imagine simple earthly Jesuses later mythicized, but so too can I imagine simple cosmic Jesuses later historicized. But to get them to fit the evidence is no simple business. Prima facie, it can’t even be done, for either. Bermejo-Rubio would like to use circular logic and just arbitrarily discard all claims about Jesus that he doesn’t find plausible, and then inexplicably declare surprise that what he has left is plausible, and therefore a simple explanation of all the evidence. It isn’t. A mythicist could do the same: just arbitrarily discard all claims about Jesus that he doesn’t find plausible, and then inexplicably declare surprise that what he has left is plausible, and therefore a simple explanation of all the evidence. That the same method vindicates both is enough to prove the method invalid.
Thus, prima facie doesn’t work. We can only reach a valid conclusion secunda facie. We cannot easily explain Paul’s (authentic) letters on historicity, but we can easily explain them on mythicism. We cannot easily explain the incredibly rapid and massive legendary development around Jesus in the Gospels on historicity (as well as, already in Paul, his immediate quasi-deification), but we can on mythicism. We cannot easily explain the complete absence of such a rapidly glorified man in the historical record (outside the cult of mythmakers recording his stories) on historicity, but we can on mythicism. We cannot easily explain how two different branches of Christianity placed Jesus in history in different periods a hundred years apart on historicity, but we can on mythicism. On historicity, we cannot easily explain why Jesus’s entire family (including his mother and all his brothers and sisters, even James) vanish from the entire history of the church in Acts as soon as the cult goes public, whereas on mythicism, that’s exactly what we would expect. And so on.
Historicity might look sound prima facie. But secunda facie, not so much.
On arguments for and against historicity, see remarks and linked materials here, and view my presentations here. Meanwhile Proving History builds out half the case and is available now. On the Historicity of Jesus completes the case and will be available in a few months.