This week I am doing a series on early reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I don’t cover by the end of the first week of July, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
One of those early reviews posted is by Loren Rosson III (at The Busybody), a notable librarian who is well-informed and well-involved in the biblical studies community. Interestingly, he compares my book to another that I have on my shelf (literally right behind me as I type) but have not yet read, arguing that Mohammed was also mythical: Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist? (which I’ve been told by all accounts is the best book on the subject; but don’t ask me my opinion on that topic, I have not examined it).
Rosson’s review is thoughtful and well stated. He is fair and accurate even when critical. That’s a good sign that one is not engaging in motivated reasoning nor has emotional or ideological blinders on. His review is also overall positive, and only focuses on his disagreements because they are more interesting to him (as one should expect).
I should note, however, that though Rosson makes a good point about non-specialists being able to have good arguments (I’ve said as much of Doherty, for example), I am not comfortable with trusting Spencer’s master’s degree in religious studies when one should need a Ph.D. in medieval Arabic studies to confidently make the kinds of claims Rosson describes Spencer making. By contrast, I am writing about a historical claim in Greco-Roman antiquity, and I have a Ph.D. in Greco-Roman history. Consequently, I would want to hear a Ph.D. in medieval Arabic studies comment on Spencer’s claims before being confident in them. Whereas a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies is arguably less qualified than me to discuss the historicity of a person in an ancient religion, as their primary field is not history and historical methods, and its focus is obsessively scripture-based and rooted in a long history of Christian faith assumptions, and not as focused on the necessary background evidence pervading the period and time. The result is often disastrous: note the evidence even a superb scholar like Mark Goodacre thought existed (yet doesn’t), because the “consensus” in his field actually derives from unexamined Christian faith assumptions. If that can happen to Goodacre, it’s even more likely to happen to everyone else in his field. For more of my take on this issue (and the kinds of eye-rolling arguments Rosson is rightly criticizing) see summaries here and here and here, and more detail here.
I should also note that Rosson is (only slightly) incorrect in saying I don’t find any evidence for mythicism in the Gospels, since technically I did in the Rank-Raglan data, as I point out at the bottom of OHJ, p. 395. Due to the requirements of Bayesian logic, that data had to be removed from consideration when evaluating the rest of the Gospels as evidence, and it is then that I find nothing further that tips the scales either way. This doesn’t affect anything Rosson says, but I want to make sure people are clear on this point. Indeed, more elements of the Gospels could even be pulled into the Rank-Raglan scheme (I cover some examples in OHJ, p. 230), but the effect would not be statistically significant. That is, it would not lower significantly the probability that a historical person would have those added on. Once a historical person is already scoring near the top of the Rank-Raglan scale (and I allow that between 1 and 4 who do score that high were indeed historical: see OHJ, ch. 6), the addition of yet more mythical details does not much change things (basically, we are talking about the law of diminishing returns, applied to probability).
But on to Rosson’s few actual criticisms of my arguments:
- First, when Rosson says, “There is nothing improbable about an apostle who never knew Jesus, and was at loggerheads with those who did, and who wanted to avoid any reference to his earthly business.”
I actually already refute that argument on OHJ, pp. 525-28. It is, of course, already an unproven assumption, and an improbable one at that, that no references to Jesus’s earthly business were ever in any way supportive of anything Paul taught, or related to any disputes Paul had to answer or that he or his congregations were ever curious about (OHJ, pp. 510-28, where I document pretty much every expert examining the question in detail admittedly scratches their head over this: it is contrary to every expectation). But even if we granted that improbable assumption (which even as a 50/50 assumption, cuts the prior probability of historicity in half), it still makes no sense that Paul would never have to address the most powerful and obvious argument against the very things Rosson speaks of. Paul couldn’t win an argument by pretending it didn’t exist.
- Second, when Rosson says, “When you weigh all of Paul’s Jesus-death metaphors, the scales tip in favor of minimal historicity.”
Rosson does not put numbers to this. My method calls for critics to do that (OHJ, pp. 601-06, 616-18). I can’t properly evaluate the merits of this statement, or even know what he means by it, without his stating which number it changes, how much, and why. I am left with having to guess. From what he says, he seems to mean that it would be less probable of a celestial self-sacrifice to be described as a martyrdom than an earthly one. Given that the theory is that the first Christians genuinely believed the celestial self-sacrifice happened, and was indeed voluntary (as Paul’s use of the “Philippians Hymn” makes clear, in Phil. 2:5-10), I do not see how one can argue this. Why would they not see that as a martyrdom as much as any other martyrdom? Rosson seems to be projecting his own (?) anti-supernatural bias onto persons like Paul. But Paul fully embraced the supernatural realm as a real place. He even claims to have visited it (2 Cor. 12). It doesn’t matter at what elevation you are standing when you are martyred. It’s not as if being martyred on Mount Olympus suddenly no longer counts as a martyrdom, because it’s “too high up.” It’s possible I am misreading the logic Rosson intends. But that’s why the method needs to be followed.
- Third, when Rosson says, “Paul would have little reason to bring up a lesser non-apostolic James in the context Gal 1-2, as such a figure would be beneath mentioning.”
I actually already refute that argument on OHJ, pp. 588-91. I need say no more. Rosson also already grants that in my a fortiori estimates I count this as evidence for historicity just as he does. So I already accounted for views such as his. Even though I find they don’t hold water.
- Fourth, although this is minor, when Rosson says, “a genuine case from the gospels [of an embarrassing detail someone couldn’t omit] would be Jesus’ mistaken prophecy about the apocalypse.”
On the methodological point, Rosson mischaracterizes my argument (this time in Proving History) as being that authors could always omit whatever they wanted, when in fact I actually agreed that was sometimes not the case, and rather this is something one needs to take more seriously than those using the criterion of embarrassment have. So I fully concurred with what Rosson says here, even explicitly (e.g. PH, pp. 136, 159, 166-67). I suspect Rosson is here succumbing to a common mistake in understanding probability and the language of probability: when someone says x is unlikely, it is not an apt rebuttal to say that x sometimes happens. “Unlikely” already entails x sometimes happens, so the person who said x is unlikely is already conceding the point. Once you make that mistake, it is then easy to forget about or overlook even explicit statements of that point (such as the three I just cited from PH). But hopefully Rosson now stands corrected.
On the factual point, I fully agree with Rosson’s example, and even (presciently!) explained why he is right in PH, pp. 148-49. Jesus’s failed prediction of the end times was indeed embarrassing, and not merely so, but a problem Mark had to address. The problem is that we know where Paul got Jesus’s predictions of the imminent end: revelation. That does not support historicity–any more than the Book of Revelation does. That was probably a fabrication, not even an honest vision. But even as an honest vision, it is not a historical Jesus who is saying anything in it. So, too, for Paul’s source of Jesus’s teachings about an imminent end. So even here, one of the rare cases where it works at all, the Argument from Embarrassment does not get you to a historical Jesus.
In the end, Rosson admits that, even with his objections voiced (which I enumerated above), what remains is “not so as to leave me supremely confident” in the historicity of Jesus. In this respect his position now resembles that of Philip Davies: though still clinging to historicity, nevertheless granting that it’s respectably possible Jesus didn’t exist. And that tenuous thread dangles on the four objections above, whose flaws I noted. But I am impressed with how well-considered Rosson’s pro-con analysis of OHJ is, and would love to see more reviews like it. I am also impressed that even despite his objections, he has added my book to his list of recommended readings for the study of Jesus. We are moving the debate forward. That’s a good thing.
For a complete list of my responses to critiques of OHJ, see the last section of my List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus.