Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: an argument in favour of the latter


I seem to have had a few comments on here in recent weeks about the Jesus mythicism question (for those who are unfamiliar with the argument, this is the question of whether a real Jesus actually existed in the first place or whether Christianity started with a belief in some kind of celestial being). For the record, I’m on the ‘historical Jesus’ side of this particular debate, meaning that I believe that the whole thing did start with an actual Jewish preacher and founder of a Messianic cult. This is something I’d like to post a series of posts about at some point, but it’s a long way down my to-do list at the moment, so look out for those in about… 2030, maybe? However, one particular comment I got did catch my attention as raising an important point. I started writing a comment in reply, and realised it was actually long enough to be a post. So here we are.

 

 

Owlmirror wrote:

I have to admit, it is weird no matter which way things are supposed to have gone: How a Son/Christ who supposedly had no earthly incarnation could have suddenly gotten one in the specific time and place of Judea in the 30’s. Or the other way; how a Jesus who was presumably real and taught in the 30’s could be so easily ignored/erased by those who came later.

Which is an excellent point. If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers. If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things. And this, as it happens, gets to the nub of why I believe in a historical Jesus; I’ve found other reasons as I looked into the topic more, but my initial reason is simply that I believe the former scenario is a lot easier to explain with the data we have than the latter. So, I want to explain why.

First, here are some key points to bear in mind:

  • We have four official accounts portraying Jesus as a real person, which have been established as having been written within a century (the earliest probably within a few decades) of the events alleged in them.
  • These accounts include quite a few things which were clearly quite awkward for their authors. Jesus was supposed to have been the Messiah – despite this being a Jewish title that referred to someone who would rule over the country in an era of peace and prosperity, which Jesus clearly hadn’t done. He apparently came from Nazareth – even though this was another big problem for his followers’ claims that he was the Messiah, requiring two of the gospel authors to make up complicated and contradictory accounts about how, despite having grown up in Nazareth, he had actually been born in Bethlehem. He was executed by the Romans for sedition – which would have made the cult widely unpopular and could have got them into real trouble (if you read the gospel accounts, you can see the writers coming out with some wildly implausible stuff intended to paint a picture of Pilate as really innocent in the matter and the Jews really being the ones to blame for the whole thing). And apparently, despite the gospels painting a very anti-Pharisaic picture, his teachings as portrayed were in fact rather typically Pharisaian (Maccoby, Revolution in Judea and The Mythmaker). So… these things all got included, and we need to ask why.
  • These accounts also show signs of getting increasingly fantastical over time, suggesting the stories are getting embroidered as they go along.
  • In the early years of the Church, the person who seems to have been doing more than anyone else to spread this new belief to Gentiles in far-flung places was someone who joined only after Jesus’s death, showed astonishingly little interest in finding out about the doctrines of this new group, thought it quite OK to spread teachings that he believed to have come to him through personal revelation rather than from others in the group, and clashed with the existing group over the things he was teaching, of which they didn’t approve at all. Which gives us a rather bizarre situation where this man has gone off at a complete tangent and is energetically spreading his version of this new belief, which ends up being extremely influential despite being quite different from what the original grou believed.
  • All this was happening within a society where the majority of the population came from cultures other than the minority culture from which Jesus supposedly came, whose beliefs, and hence their interpretation of stories and events, might be very different from that of the culture in which the beliefs originated. On top of that, it was a society with widespread beliefs in amazing happenings, including the possibility of gods visiting the earth in human form.

Against this background information, how does the above question look?

Firstly, let’s look at the hypothesis that Jesus was actually a historical person. How does the above evidence fit with this? Well… according to this theory Jesus creates a bit of a splash in his local area, gets killed, and his local followers reach the belief he’s miraculously risen from the dead and thus keep his cult alive. A few years later, along comes Paul of Tarsus, who appears to have converted dramatically to the faith but has in fact converted dramatically to his own rather peculiar version of it, which he then energetically preaches to other communities over the next several years. Meanwhile, the existing stories about Jesus are getting embroidered as they get passed on. Some of those stories are getting passed out to the groups of converts in other cities, and some of the theology that those converts hold is filtering back to the original Jerusalem community, and a lot of people are ending up with a mixture of ideas that’s moving away from what was originally intended.

By the time people get as far as writing the stories down, a few decades later, the stories they have to work with are a mishmash of things that actually happened, embroidered versions of things that actually happened, stories that people have made up out of whole cloth because they sound good, and some rather strange mythology around the whole thing. So that’s what gets written down. Some of the stuff is pretty awkward for them, but, because it goes back to things that did actually happen, it’s firmly embedded in the traditions and can’t just be erased or ignored, so the gospel authors include those bits but do what they can to sugar-coat them or explain them away. We end up with an odd mix of stories, many of which are clearly embroidered or mythicised but many others of which seem to be describing a historical Jesus. Which, as you have probably spotted, pretty much describes the NT.

So far, so good; the historical theory fits well with what we have. Now, time to look at the other hypothesis; the idea that Jesus was originally a myth about a celestial being, and the stories about him were historicised later. How does that fit with the evidence we’ve got?

Well, the epistles seem to fit reasonably well, purely as far as theology goes; the theological descriptions of the Lord in the epistles could plausibly fit with a group who believe in a spiritual leader somewhere up in the heavens. (Even then, there are a lot of lines that wouldn’t plausibly fit with this; the epistles do contain several lines about Jesus having existed according to the flesh, or being born of a woman, or being of the seed of David, or having brothers, one of whom Paul mentions meeting, all of which is rather difficult to reconcile with mythicism and requires some highly strained logic on the part of mythicists. But if we ignore all that – which mythicists do, on the whole, tend to prefer to do – and focus just on the theology, then that seems at first glance to fit.)

However, once we get to the gospels, things get a lot more difficult to explain. If the group at this stage believed that the person they held so dear was in fact a celestial being who had never visited this world as a human, how did we end up with multiple books telling detailed stories about his time living in this world as a human?

Of course, explanations exist. Earl Doherty, in The Jesus Puzzle, presents the first gospel as being written as a deliberate attempt to give a group an apparent historical founder that would appeal more to converts. Richard Carrier, in On the Historicity of Jesus, explains it as being an example of euhemerism, a practice of the time in which historicised stories were written about mythical beings. Adam Lee from the Daylight Atheism blog, in this essay, suggests the gospel writers might have been following the precedent of midrash, a rabbinical method for analysing verses from the Jewish scriptures and coming up with further explanations and illustrative stories about them. All these explanations have their problems, but I can certainly see how any of them could explain the existence of a few historicised stories about a Jesus who was originally thought to have lived, died, and risen on a heavenly plane only.

But what do we actually have? Multiple different books describing a historical Jesus. (While the gospels are not independent in terms of what information they give us, each one does nevertheless represent a different person sitting down and putting a lot of effort into writing a detailed and lengthy story.) Highly awkward claims – that the authors seem to be desperately trying to soft-pedal, but nonetheless include – that a specific and powerful public figure was responsible for the death of this founder. Further highly awkward claims that the revered founder was making claims that got him (rightly, under the prevailing Roman law) executed for sedition. Complicated and contradictory stories attempting to explain how a man from Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem, when it would surely have been so much simpler to leave out the Nazareth claim and write Jesus as coming from Bethlehem in the first place.

What would lead people to make all this stuff up – all of it – from scratch? Not just embroidering or adding to existing stories about an existing person, but inventing all of the above, including the bits that clearly work against their purposes? So far, I have not heard an adequate explanation for this. Of the two theories, therefore, the theory that Jesus did actually exist – that, at the start of the story of Christianity, there was an actual Yeshu or Yeshua who preached and had a following and was executed by the Romans – fits the available data a lot better.

And that’s why I believe in a historical Jesus.

Comments

  1. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I dislike seeing bad arguments against mythicism, and misportrayals of the mythicist position.

    We have four official accounts portraying Jesus as a real person, which have been established as having been written within a century (the earliest probably within a few decades) of the events alleged in them.

    Most people who were at least teenagers at 30 AD would be dead by 66 AD, which is a consensus date for the earliest that Mark could have been written. The other gospels come several decades later, i.e. 95 AD or later, where it’s a virtual certainty that every eye witness of any events of 30 AD was dead. “Just a few decades” is a huge amount of time when life expectancy was much shorter.

    We also have accounts, written by actual named-eye witnesses, about the savior John Frum.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Frum
    On this facet alone, the evidence for John Frum is way better, being written by named eye witnesses, who were alive during the claimed events, and who personally wrote down their testimony of the events.

    In other words, you have the color all wrong on your claims. The perspective “this is good evidence” is wrong. Rather, this is really, really poor evidence. It was a really long time, and not a really short time, and the writers were very probably not eye witnesses, and – at best – most of the eye witnesses would be dead by the time Mark was written, and all of the eye witnesses would be dead by the time that the other Gospels were written.

    being of the seed of David,

    How is this any better on historicity? Think about it. It’s not. People just assume that it’s a statement about the ancestry of Joseph, husband of Mary, but if you think about it, it makes no sense. Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus. Jesus was born by magic semen from Yahweh. Thus, this claim cannot be about the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph. For historic cultural reasons, it’s very probably not a claim about the ancestry of Jesus through Mary either. Thus, even on the assumption of historicity, Yahweh must have had a cosmic sperm bank where he kept the sperm of David on magical ice until Yahweh needed it.

    born of a woman,

    This is not hard at all for mythicists to explain. This is part of a passage with clear theological intent. In that passage, Paul is explaining that Jesus was born as a Jew and under the old covenant or something in order to show how Jesus could fulfill certain Old Testament prophesy.

    Multiple different books describing a historical Jesus. (While the gospels are not independent in terms of what information they give us, each one does nevertheless represent a different person sitting down and putting a lot of effort into writing a detailed and lengthy story.)

    So what? This is one of the worst arguments that I’ve ever heard. We don’t have many different sources. We have one or two, depending on how you count John. John contains new material, but it’s likely also written with knowledge of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

    Highly awkward claims – that the authors seem to be desperately trying to soft-pedal, but nonetheless include – that a specific and powerful public figure was responsible for the death of this founder.

    What? The idea that there was a yearly custom where the Romans would release a death-penalty prisoner to appease the Jewish population is silly. Also, the entire thing is an obvious allegory for Passover (Barabbas is a transliteration of “son of the father” from Aramaic, and Jesus is also the son of the father, and one is a criminal sent away, and the other is a purely innocent sacrifice, e.g. Passover), and it’s obviously constructed with hugely important theological intent (they need Jesus to fulfill the functions of the Jewish Temple Cult, and blood magic is how you do it, and the son of god is the best blood magic sacrifice that you can do, which should last forever instead of just one year for the goat sacrifice, thus eliminating the need of the Jewish Temple Cult, and there’s no way that this coincidence would happen by chance), and all of that is good reason to believe that it’s wholly fiction instead of being based on anything real. I don’t know why anyone would argue that there is a kernel of truth in the Pontius Pilate story when it seems way more likely to me that it was invented whole cloth.

    PS:
    There’s more that I see which I think is wrong, but I’ve written enough, and I’m less comfortable arguing the other claims.

    • Dr Sarah says

      Hi,

      The threading is getting a bit complicated here, so I’ve put my reply to this and your next comment at the bottom. Thanks for your thoughts, even though I disagree with them.

  2. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Oh, one more.

    These accounts also show signs of getting increasingly fantastical over time, suggesting the stories are getting embroidered as they go along.

    I think Carrier discussed this in one of his debates on youtube with a real professional academic. Sadly, I forget which one. It’s almost certainly in his book too. A mythicist would put a different color on this. They would argue that the earliest Gospel, Mark, was intended wholly as allegory, and perhaps a spiritual guide by providing examples of how Christians should behave, and that’s why Jesus was portrayed as so weak. As time went on, population started believing in historical magic Jesus, meaning that the wimpy Jesus in Mark didn’t make any sense because Jesus is supposed to be a god-man. Thus, the early Gospels can be described as more closely resembling allegory, and the later Gospels, especially John, can be described as matching the expectations of Christians of a real historical account of their god-man. In other words, the increase in use of magic and power in the later Gospels is an indication of more belief among the contemporary Christians of historicity.

    So, they’re definitely getting embellished over time, but the embellishment is a possible indication of a shift of belief in the Christian population away from god-man that lived only in the heavens to a god-man that lived and walked on Earth for many years.

  3. says

    I’m not a historian but I’ve been studying this very question with great interest for quite a while, having had my interest piqued by Adam’s Lee’s essay which you mentioned. My conclusion is that there never was a human Jesus.

    You bring up a lot of common objections to the Christ-myth theory, probably too many to address in a blog comment, but the truly curious I might have a look at a talk I gave on the subject.

    The point you come back to repeatedly is that we have four gospels, each of which is sort of a biography of a living person, and that this amplifies the case for his historicity. But consider: On the one hand, we have only one gospel that means anything in this debate, the Gospel of Mark, because the rest are later redactions of Mark. Mark was obviously written first, all by itself, and as the decades rolled by the others were written to correct Mark’s mistakes and to reflect the evolving (and coalescing) theology of the first generations of Christians. But on the other hand, we have way more than four gospels — we have more like 40, most of which were suppressed as an “orthodox” or “catholic” (meaning, “universally accepted” — ha!) doctrine took hold. They all say all kinds of wildly different things about Jesus. Even among the four canonical gospels, Jesus is depicted as a regular guy who was somehow possessed by the spirit of God for a few months (Mark), the biological offspring of a god and a human female (Matthew and Luke), and a timeless supernatural being who was never born at all (John).

    The letters of Paul, as you say, seem to depict Jesus as some kind of angelic being whom no one ever saw in the flesh. The established congregations to which he was writing must have believed the same thing, otherwise he would have tried to change their minds. Paul adamantly maintained that everything he was saying about Jesus was revealed to him in visions and his own esoteric reading of Scripture, and not from any eyewitness or other source. And Paul’s letters preceded the first gospel by decades, which would make them that much closer to any actual historical events, and therefore less subject to changes in the retelling over time.

    It doesn’t help the historical-Jesus case that there isn’t the slightest bit of information about Jesus from any non-Christian source.

    So there is good reason to doubt there was an actual teacher at the root of Christianity, and no good reason to believe it.

    • Tim O'Neill says

      It doesn’t help the historical-Jesus case that there isn’t the slightest bit of information about Jesus from any non-Christian source.

      This is wrong too. While there is a genuine and legitimate debate about how much if any of Josephus Antiquities XVIII.63-4 is genuine, there is no such debate about the other reference to Jesus and to his brother James in Antiquities XX.200. And no, the Mythicist attempts to claim that too is interpolated don’t work. Then there is Tacitus Annals XV.44, which, again, is accepted by all recent mainstream scholars. Again, Mythicist attempts to undermine that consensus have failed as well. So we actually have more non-Christian material for Jesus than we have for pretty much any other early Jewish preacher, prophet or Messianic claimant.

      • neilgodfrey says

        Yes, mainstream NT scholarship either does not accept or does not address the arguments of mythicists. We can all agree on that or else we would not be having a discussion. Simply saying authorities disagree does not advance the discussion. Though it should be noted that Bart Ehrman did declare that he was the first scholar ever to sit down and systematically go through the evidence to see why he believed Jesus existed — as far as he knew. That admission tells us something, too, I think.

    • Dr Sarah says

      You bring up a lot of common objections to the Christ-myth theory, probably too many to address in a blog comment, but the truly curious I might have a look at a talk I gave on the subject.

      Let me know if you’d like me to address that in a future post; happy to do so when I can get time.

      To answer a couple of the points from your comment, however; while Paul’s theology certainly seems to focus on Jesus as some kind of angelic being, there are still a lot of references in his letters to things like Jesus being born of a woman, or according to the flesh… things that don’t make sense if Paul wasn’t at least picturing a human Jesus at the end of this. And, as Tim O’Neill has pointed out, it’s not correct to say there are no historical references to Jesus.

    • neilgodfrey says

      Peter N wrote: “It doesn’t help the historical-Jesus case that there isn’t the slightest bit of information about Jesus from any non-Christian source.”

      We do have late references to Jesus in non-Christian sources but when we look at the way historians critically evaluate evidence we have to conclude that these late references cannot be used to establish the case. Historical evidence as a rule needs to be contemporary with the person or events being studied, or at least be traceable to sources that are contemporary with the person or event. This is what makes certain ancient sources valuable and others worthless, as prominent historians will point out in their discussions of how they do history (e.g. Moses I. Finley … but I have posted on several such names prominent in the field.) Yes, that means that there is much that we simply don’t know about the ancient past but as critical historians do point out, that’s how it is; we can’t change the rules to get the answers we want. Rather, we have to change the questions we ask that we know the evidence is capable of answering.

      Ancient historians did often make things up and relied upon dubious sources for their information. The idea that even historians like Tacitus thoroughly checked the archives to get their facts right is a fantasy much of the time, especially when they try to tell readers that’s what they were doing. So a late historian like Tacitus or Josephus mentioning Jesus can at best only tell us what their contemporaries told them.

      The reason I don’t accept the historicity of Jesus is simply because by the normal standards of historical inquiry we have no evidence for such a figure; but that also means I do not dismiss the possibility that there was a Jesus figure upon which certain stories accumulated over time. We simply have no evidence either way to settle the question.

      When it comes to explaining the NT epistles and gospels, that’s another question entirely. But the bottom line is exactly as Albert Schweitzer — who was definitely NOT a mythicist, he wrote at length against the mythicist arguments of his day — exactly as A.S. said, nothing in the gospels or epistles can yield us any independently confirmable evidence and therefore cannot be used as a foundation for certain belief in the historicity of Jesus. And that’s also partly why S tried to argue that the church ought to forget about the historical Jesus entirely.

  4. Bruce says

    I think Jesus was a myth that later got set in an Earthly setting, and there was no historical Jesus figure.
    I think the mistake of the analysis (otherwise good) of the original Dr. Sarah blog post was to assume a unified point of view of the authors of the New Testament.
    I think Paul and the other writers of the epistles would have considered all of the gospels to be heretical fan fiction. I think the authors of the gospels considered much of Paul to be heretical, but his letters were too well established to purge entirely. So they purged all other documents from the past, then rewrote or edited the parts of Paul they could put up with and suppressed the rest.
    So Paul and his colleagues believed Jesus was born an angel and never came to earth until AFTER he was crucified in outer space near the moon.
    Then a few decades later, ‘Mark’ the Greek composed a symmetrical novela that was an allegory about this but set on earth in a past decade. But later people took it literally, along with the rewrites from the supposed Matthew and Luke. And later John.
    So by this theory, Mark was the first document set on earth. But the author of Mark didn’t mean it literally, so he could compose things that looked inconvenient in order to illustrate his fictional points better. But every document written or rewritten after that either had the same attitude or else now assumed the earthly setting was literal.
    Ultimately, we can’t be sure. But the above hypothesis fits the facts better.

  5. Curt Sampson says

    Most people who were at least teenagers at 30 AD would be dead by 66 AD.

    This is almost certainly quite wrong. If you’d phrased it as, “most people born in CE 10-20 would be dead by CE 66, that would be correct, as childhood mortality was very high. But the average life expectancy for an adult (who had obviously passed through childhood without dying) in ancient Rome was something more like 50 years. So there would always have been plenty of people alive who were present at events 35 years earlier, and probably at least a few people around who were present at events 50 years earlier.

    I found this case for the historicists’ point of view to be pretty convincing.

    • says

      @Great American Satan: One interesting consequence of that would be that, since from the POV of the people there you’d be appearing mysteriously out of nowhere to kill their leader and then magically disappearing again, you’d probably then get written into the gospel stories as demons. So that would mean that you would literally get to be Satan, which would be cool. 🙂

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Curt Sampson
    15 AD + 50 = 65 AD < 66 AD
    "Most" can be reasonably interpreted to mean "more than half". Ergo, by your own numbers and reasoning, most eye witnesses would be dead by the time that the Gospel of Mark was written.
    You pretty clearly intended to rebut something that I wrote, but I'm not entirely sure what. It seems pretty obvious to me that you made a mistake somewhere.

  7. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@2,

    John Frum seems to have been based on one or more historical people. How does bringing this up help support the idea Jesus was not historical?

    being of the seed of David,

    How is this any better on historicity? Think about it. It’s not. People just assume that it’s a statement about the ancestry of Joseph, husband of Mary, but if you think about it, it makes no sense. Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus.

    Paul makes no mention of nor reference to a virgin birth, and there is no reason to think that Paul believes anything other than Joseph being Jesus’ biological father. The idea or a virgin birth comes later in Christianity, as far as we can tell.

    The rest of your argumentation is equally poor.

  8. Andrew G. says

    @ Curt Sampson:

    See here for an actual life table (with sources). It gives the life expectancy at age 15 as age 46, with a ~44% chance of survival to age 50.

    But assuming all the eyewitnesses were aged 15 is a bit optimistic. If instead we assume a population of eyewitnesses whose ages were representative of the population as a whole, and exclude persons under 10 years of age, we find that the expected proportion alive 35 years later is only about one-quarter (nearer to one-fifth if you start at age 15 rather than 10). So saying that “most” eyewitnesses would be dead by AD 66 is entirely justified.

  9. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To One Brow
    Your arguments appears to be internally contradictory. It appears as if you’re arguing that Paul believed that Joseph’s sperm was used to create Jesus, but you’re also arguing that the Gospel writers believed that it was magic sperm from Yahweh. From my experience, it’s unusual for a person arguing for historicity to so casually admit that a huge piece of theology was invented by the Gospel writers and that Paul and the earliest Christians believed something different. Think about what you’re doing. If you’re going to take this line of argument, then you lose almost all arguments for historicity, because in my experience, most arguments for historicity depend on the assumption that there are kernels of earlier tradition in the Gospels, but it seems right now that you’re repudiating that notion. That, or you think that this is a special case, e.g. special pleading.

    PS:
    Does Paul even mention Joseph? If, according to you, the Gospel writers invented the virgin birth, and Paul didn’t know about it, and if Paul didn’t mention Joseph and Mary at all, why do you stop there? Why not go a little further and say that the Gospel writers invented Joseph and Mary too? It really does seem that you assume that the Gospels are talking about pre-existing tradition when it suits you, but then you say “but not that thing; the virgin birth was created by the Gospel writers and Paul didn’t believe in it, but Paul still totally believed in Joseph and Mary and a Jesus on Earth and Joseph’s sperm used in the creation of Jesus in the normal way”. It really seems to me to be special pleading.

  10. Tim O'Neill says

    I just tried to post a long comment responding to “EnlightenmentLiberal” but it seems to have gone into the void. So I’ll try again.

    I dislike seeing bad arguments against mythicism, and misportrayals of the mythicist position.

    Well, I dislike seeing bad defences of Mythicism – which given that Mythicism is a bad thesis, tends to be all of them.

    Most people who were at least teenagers at 30 AD would be dead by 66 AD, which is a consensus date for the earliest that Mark could have been written. The other gospels come several decades later, i.e. 95 AD or later, where it’s a virtual certainty that every eye witness of any events of 30 AD was dead. “Just a few decades” is a huge amount of time when life expectancy was much shorter.

    Except these later accounts didn’t spring into being out of thin air. Nor are they the first references to Jesus as a recent historical human being. The latter are to be found in the Pauline texts, which date to the 50s AD. That’s just 20 years after Jesus’ death. Then we have indications in gMark that it was based, at least in part, on earlier textual material, most likely written in Aramaic. Then we have gMatt and gLuke sharing another earlier textual source or (more likely) sources, which accounts for their overlaps in material they clearly didn’t get from gMark. Then we have at least gLuke depending on still more earlier textual material, indicated by its prologue referring to the “many” who have written down accounts of Jesus’ life which the author says he used to create his “orderly account”. So we have good evidence of an earlier stratum or strata of written accounts of Jesus.

    This does not mean that we can therefore read any of the NT material as documentary journalism by any means. But it does mean that the source material that our surviving texts depend on gets pushed back well and truly into the period in which there was some memory of the man himself.

    “being of the seed of David”

    How is this any better on historicity? Think about it. It’s not. People just assume that it’s a statement about the ancestry of Joseph, husband of Mary, but if you think about it, it makes no sense. Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus.

    As One Brow has already pointed out to you, it is not a statement about the ancestry of Joseph. It’s a reference to Romans 1:3 – “regarding his Son [Jesus], who according to the flesh was a descendant of David”. Paul makes no mention of Mary, let alone Joseph, and seems to have no inkling of any later stories about any “virgin birth”. He is stating clearly that Jesus was a descendant of David. This means Paul – writing just 20 years later and having spoken to people who knew Jesus personally including Peter, John and Jesus’ brother James – knew Jesus was a (recent) historical human being and believed him to be descended from an ancient, historical, human king. And he seems pretty clear that Jesus was a human descendant of humans, given that he also refers to Jesus as being a descendant of the Israelites and patriarchs (Romans 9:4-5) and of David’s father Jesse (Romans 15:12). So this is Paul talking about Jesus as a human and descendant of human ancestors and doing so just 20 years or so after the fact.

    Jesus was born by magic semen from Yahweh. …. Thus, even on the assumption of historicity, Yahweh must have had a cosmic sperm bank where he kept the sperm of David on magical ice until Yahweh needed it.

    First of all, no Christian claim about Jesus ever mentions any “magic semen from Yahweh”. The later “virgin birth” stories make it clear they believed no sex and therefore no “semen” was involved – that’s kind of the point of the whole “virgin” part. That aside, as I’ve already noted, Paul had no idea that Jesus was born of a virgin anyway – he saw him as an incarnation of a heavenly being in human form as a human descendant of humans. And there is no reference anywhere to any concept of some “cosmic sperm bank”. That’s a bizarrely contrived idea constructed by Richard Carrier out of some tortured linguistic twisting of Romans 1:3 that is probably the silliest argument I have ever seen in print from a supposed scholar.

    “born of a woman”

    This is not hard at all for mythicists to explain. This is part of a passage with clear theological intent. In that passage, Paul is explaining that Jesus was born as a Jew and under the old covenant or something in order to show how Jesus could fulfill certain Old Testament prophesy.

    Yes. An argument that only makes sense if he was … “born as a Jew”. Which means, again, here we have Paul – writing just 20 years later after having mixed with people who knew Jesus personally – talking about Jesus as a human being. Non-existent celestial beings who never come to earth and have no earthly existence can’t be “born as a Jew”. And the part that means “born as a Jew” was the phrase “γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον” (“born under the Law”). But just before that he says Jesus was “γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός” (“born of a woman”). And “born of a woman” is a common Hebrew and Aramaic phrase used to emphasise someone’s human nature. So it can mean “Hey, I’m only human” (e.g. “Am I not one born of woman?”) or simply a poetic form of “everyone” (e.g “All those born of a woman know this”). We can find this phrase used in many places in Hebrew in the Old Testament (e.g. Job 14.1, Job 15.14, Sirach 10.18) and in the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g. 1QS 11.21a and 1QHa 5.20b) and in the Greek form of the phrase, as used by Paul, (e.g. Matt 11.11, Luke 7.28, Thomas 15, Josephus Antiquities XVI.382 and Wars IV.46). In all these cases it means “a human being”, emphasising someone’s human nature. So Paul is saying Jesus was “born a human being and born a Jew”. He’s clearly talking about human, earthly person.

    What? The idea that there was a yearly custom where the Romans would release a death-penalty prisoner to appease the Jewish population is silly. …. I don’t know why anyone would argue that there is a kernel of truth in the Pontius Pilate story when it seems way more likely to me that it was invented whole cloth.

    I can’t quite follow what the Barabbas story has to do with the point being made. No-one is saying “there are ‘silly’ elements in the story therefore there is a kernel of truth to them”. The point is that there are elements in the stories which don’t fit Jewish expectations about the Messiah and don’t even fit what the gospel writers are trying to argue about who and what Jesus was. Yet they are not only still there, but we can see the gospel writings tying themselves in knots to accommodate them and “explain” them. So why are they there if they are so awkward? Where did they come from? The most logical explanation is that they are there because they are historical and so the later writers had to accommodate them.

    One example of these is the one given by Christopher Hitchens as a reason he thought there may well have been a historical Jesus. Most people who have done any critical reading on the gospels at all will know there are two “infancy narratives” about Jesus’ birth which are riddled with internal and historical problems, which contradict each other and which are set 10 years apart. gMatt has Jesus’ family living in Bethlehem, with him being born there, and then they have to flee the persecution of Herod (died 4 BC) and eventually settle in Nazareth. But gLuke has them living in Nazareth and only visiting Bethlehem for the census of Quirinius (AD 6-7) where Jesus is born, and then returning to Nazareth. Both stories are unlikely and neither can be reconciled with each or with history. But both serve the same purpose – to “explain” how a guy everyone knew to be from Nazareth could be born in Bethlehem, as the Messiah was meant to.

    So it makes most sense that these two gospel writers are going to all this effort because people we objecting that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he was born in the wrong place (John 7:41-42 even depicts some Jews making precisely this objection). So they had to come up with a way to have their Jesus from Nazareth somehow born in Bethlehem to fit him with the interpretation of Micah 5:2. All this makes the most sense if … Jesus did come from Nazareth.

    There are several other examples of this – the baptism of Jesus by his supposed subordinate John is another and the whole crucifixion thing is a third. In all of these cases we see the gospel writers using different tactics to accommodate these elements in ways that look most likely to be them shoehorning a historical preacher into their expectations. If Jesus was not historical, we not only wouldn’t find these clumsy elements, but he would also fit the archetypes of the Messiah more neatly. As Jews have been pointing out to Christians for centuries, he doesn’t.

    they’re definitely getting embellished over time, but the embellishment is a possible indication of a shift of belief in the Christian population away from god-man that lived only in the heavens to a god-man that lived and walked on Earth for many years.

    Then it is very strange that it is in the earliest NT material that he is depicted as largely human and it is only the much later material that he is depicted as some kind of celestial saviour and god. That is precisely the opposite of what we would expect if Mythicism was true. But it is precisely what we would expect if a human Jewish preacher came to be regarded as the Messiah, was thought to have risen from the dead and gone off to heaven and then eventually came to be seen as a saviour and, finally, as God. The progression goes completely against what Mythicism requires.

    These are just some of the many, many reasons Mythicism is rejected by almost all of the scholars who are best qualified to assess this stuff. It’s also no co-incidence that it it is largely only accepted by people who are not qualified and have little grasp of the relevant material, texts and linguistics, but who also get pretty much all of their information on this subject from … other Mythicists.

    • neilgodfrey says

      Then it is very strange that it is in the earliest NT material that he is depicted as largely human and it is only the much later material that he is depicted as some kind of celestial saviour and god.

      This is a very debatable assertion. Quite a few NT scholars say the opposite is the case.

  11. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Except these later accounts didn’t spring into being out of thin air.

    What exactly do you mean, and how do you know that? The Doherty / Carrier position is that the Gospel Of Mark is basically entirely fictional allegory.

    Nor are they the first references to Jesus as a recent historical human being. The latter are to be found in the Pauline texts, which date to the 50s AD. That’s just 20 years after Jesus’ death.

    And you know that mythicists will say that only the standard 7 letters are authentic, and the rest are later forgeries, and that the standard 7 authentic letters can be explained. I simply saw you make what I considered to be an error of color, of nuance, when describing the reliability and worth of the Gospels as evidence.

    Then we have indications in gMark that it was based, at least in part, on earlier textual material, most likely written in Aramaic.

    A point which is disputed.

    Then we have gMatt and gLuke sharing another earlier textual source or (more likely) sources, which accounts for their overlaps in material they clearly didn’t get from gMark.

    Also disputed.

    Then we have at least gLuke depending on still more earlier textual material, indicated by its prologue referring to the “many” who have written down accounts of Jesus’ life which the author says he used to create his “orderly account”.

    You’re taking Luke at his word that he relied on other sources? Are you a Christian fundie or something?

    But it does mean that the source material that our surviving texts depend on gets pushed back well and truly into the period in which there was some memory of the man himself.

    You’re making a circular argument. The Gospels are based on earlier traditions because they’re based on earlier traditions. No, you have to show that.

    Regarding the sperm of David. What you say makes no sense to me, just like what One Brow said makes no sense to me. Did the early Christians, circa Paul, believe in a virgin birth or not? If they did not believe in a virgin birth, then why does the virgin birth appear in the Gospels? Elsewhere even here, you seem quite adamant that the Gospels are based on earlier tradition, but here you argue that the Gospels are not based on earlier tradition concerning the virgin birth. This seems like fallacious special pleading to me. On what basis do you believe that the virgin birth was a creation of the Gospel writers and Paul did not know about it? Because you interpret Paul to be talking about an Earthly Jesus? But then you use conclusions from this assumption in order to justify that Paul was talking about an Earthly Jesus! You’re doing circular reasoning.

    Non-existent celestial beings who never come to earth and have no earthly existence can’t be “born as a Jew”.

    Why not?

    And “born of a woman” is a common Hebrew and Aramaic phrase used to emphasise someone’s human nature.

    Certainly. Like IIRC the god Inanna, the mythicist proposition is that Jesus was incarnated as human, under the old covenant, and killed by demons not on Earth (either in heaven or hell), and rose 3 days later, and granted their followers a boon of eternal life. It sounds like you’re not even familiar with the Doherty Carrier thesis. Have you even read Carrier’s book?

    The point is that there are elements in the stories which don’t fit Jewish expectations about the Messiah and don’t even fit what the gospel writers are trying to argue about who and what Jesus was. Yet they are not only still there, but we can see the gospel writings tying themselves in knots to accommodate them and “explain” them. So why are they there if they are so awkward? Where did they come from? The most logical explanation is that they are there because they are historical and so the later writers had to accommodate them.

    Only if you assume that the original readers of Mark unedrstood Mark to be literal history, which is a point that Carrier contests. Many of the points that you make have perfectly sensible explanations on mythicism. Many of the stories which are claimed to be embarassing are not. Many of the stories which are claimed to not fit the Jewish Messiah is part of the point – one hypothesis is that the writers were doing their thing either foreseeing or being after the miserable war with Rome, and instead of a military leader as per standard Jewish myth, they changed the story to make the Jewish savior into a savior in the afterlife, in order to avoid the fight with Rome which they would lose and/or to help explain how Jews can be Yahweh’s chosen people or something after the defeat by Rome and the fall of the Jewish Temple Cult.

    So it makes most sense that these two gospel writers are going to all this effort because people we objecting that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he was born in the wrong place (John 7:41-42 even depicts some Jews making precisely this objection). So they had to come up with a way to have their Jesus from Nazareth somehow born in Bethlehem to fit him with the interpretation of Micah 5:2. All this makes the most sense if … Jesus did come from Nazareth.

    One of the comments by Carrier here:
    https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/12334
    addresses this specifically.

    Based on our interaction here, it seems likely that you haven’t even read Carrier’s book. Assuming this to be true, don’t you feel even a little bit of embarrassment attacking a position without having read the strongest defense of that position? And if you have read it, then how can do you such a bad job attacking strawmans and attacking the weak arguments of your opposition instead of attacking the strong arguments of your opposition?

    Then it is very strange that it is in the earliest NT material that he is depicted as largely human and it is only the much later material that he is depicted as some kind of celestial saviour and god. That is precisely the opposite of what we would expect if Mythicism was true.

    Impressive that I already explained this, and that you didn’t engage with my explanation at all. I don’t know what to say to someone who literally didn’t bother to fully read the few sentences before the quoted bit, or someone who is being willfully dishonest, and I fail to see another choice. You should be better than this.

  12. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@11

    Your arguments appears to be internally contradictory. It appears as if you’re arguing that Paul believed that Joseph’s sperm was used to create Jesus, but you’re also arguing that the Gospel writers believed that it was magic sperm from Yahweh.

    Even if that were my position, why is that a contradiction? Why do later Gospel writers have to have the same beliefs as Paul?

    I agree with Tim O’Neil that “magic sperm” is ridiculous. I acknowledge there is no reason to think Paul identified the father of Jesus as “Joseph”, although that is as convenient a name as any other. Since Paul knew James, he might well have know the name of James’s father.

    From my experience, it’s unusual for a person arguing for historicity to so casually admit that a huge piece of theology was invented by the Gospel writers and that Paul and the earliest Christians believed something different.

    In that case, I would suggest you do not have much experience in these arguments. I see little reason to think any of the 4 gospel writers had identical beliefs about Jesus compared to any other Gospel writer, much less compared to Paul.

    Think about what you’re doing. If you’re going to take this line of argument, then you lose almost all arguments for historicity, because in my experience, most arguments for historicity depend on the assumption that there are kernels of earlier tradition in the Gospels, but it seems right now that you’re repudiating that notion.

    Not at all. Rather, I see a difference between “kernel of tradition” (or “kernel of truth”, for that matter), and full-throated agreement.

    Why not go a little further and say that the Gospel writers invented Joseph and Mary too?

    If they had been invented by the individual Gospel writers, it seems unlikely they would have had the same names in each Gospel.

    It really does seem that you assume that the Gospels are talking about pre-existing tradition when it suits you, but then you say “but not that thing; the virgin birth was created by the Gospel writers and Paul didn’t believe in it, but Paul still totally believed in Joseph and Mary and a Jesus on Earth and Joseph’s sperm used in the creation of Jesus in the normal way”. It really seems to me to be special pleading.

    None of it particularly suits me or fails to suit me.

    To my knowledge, Mark never mentions a virgin birth, either.

    Religions change over time, especially when the primary method of transmission is oral. I don’t see the reason for such incredulity here.

  13. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal,

    May I suggest, before you speculate too much more on how well Tim O’Neil understands Carrier, that you do some browsing at his website History for Atheists?

  14. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Not at all. Rather, I see a difference between “kernel of tradition” (or “kernel of truth”, for that matter), and full-throated agreement.

    Acceptable.

    I agree with Tim O’Neil that “magic sperm” is ridiculous.

    I must have missed a memo, because how else would you describe a virgin birth where Yahweh caused the pregnancy? If the Gospel writers who wrote about a virgin birth also assumed that Jesus was descended from David, then this means at least some of the Gospel writers believed in the same sort of cosmic sperm bank theory that is required for mythicism. Are you going to say that at the same time that some of the Gospel writers gained a belief in a virgin birth, they also conveniently dropped belief in Jesus being descended from David, even though this tidbit is vitally important to maintaining their theological aims?

    PS:
    I admit that I have to modify my argument to accept some of your correct rebuttals, and thank you for that.

    PPS:

    Why not go a little further and say that the Gospel writers invented Joseph and Mary too?

    If they had been invented by the individual Gospel writers, it seems unlikely they would have had the same names in each Gospel.

    Ehhh!?
    Of course they would use the same name, because Matthew is just a rewrite of Mark, and Luke is just a rewrite of Mark and Matthew, and John also knew about the other 3 canonical Gospels before writing his Gospel. There would be decently compelling reasons to keep the same names. What you wrote seems astonishingly wrongheaded and/or ignorant about the literary history of the Gospels.

    • Tim O'Neill says

      I must have missed a memo, because how else would you describe a virgin birth where Yahweh caused the pregnancy?

      Given that it is a virgin involving a disembodies spirit, obviously no sex and therefore no semen is involved. That’s kind of the idea and what makes it all miraculous.

      then this means at least some of the Gospel writers believed in the same sort of cosmic sperm bank theory that is required for mythicism

      That does not follow at all. Can you cite anyone talking about “semen” in relation to the conception stories? Can you cite anyone at all before Carrier even suggesting, let alone describing this bizarre “cosmic sperm bank” idea? I can’t believe I’m even having to argue against something so patently baseless.

      they also conveniently dropped belief in Jesus being descended from David, even though this tidbit is vitally important to maintaining their theological aims

      Both gLuke and gMatt include references to him as “son of David” (Matt 9:27; 21:9; Luke 1:32) and have tangled genealogies supposedly tracing his ancestry to David through Joseph. Given the “virgin” conception element in both, this seems to be more figurative for them than strictly biological, but the point is that Paul does not include the complication of the virgin birth and he flat out says that Jesus was a descendant of various Israelites, including Jesse and David.

  15. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    May I suggest, before you speculate too much more on how well Tim O’Neil understands Carrier, that you do some browsing at his website History for Atheists?

    Given that while I was looking for Carrier’s position on these matters, I happened to stumble across several blog posts detailing Tim’s incompetence and dishonesty, I’d rather not. Currently, I’ll take Carrier’s word over Tim’s, especially given that Tim is behaving very badly in this thread with respect to me by responding to a point I made and apparently without even having read it, and also because Tim is seemingly grossly ignorant of basic details of Carrier’s updated hypothesis based on Doherty. So, it seems that Carrier is correct that Tim is just a semi-crank, or at least ethically challenged. I may continue good faight engagement with Tim depending on how he responds to my post, and particularly the bit where he completely failed at reading comprehension, but I don’t think the odds are good right now that Tim will admit his huge error of failing to respond to what I wrote, and effectively strawmanning my position by telling me what a mythicist must believe even though literally in the sentence before I explained what I actually believed which was the exact opposite, and all without Tim even giving mention to my preemptive rebuttal.

    • says

      EnlightenmentLiberal@17,18
      I must have missed a memo, because how else would you describe a virgin birth where Yahweh caused the pregnancy?

      Are you asking me to provide a rational basis in 21st century understanding for a miracle story from the 1st century? The first century writers would have had no concept of sperm.

      If the Gospel writers who wrote about a virgin birth also assumed that Jesus was descended from David, then this means at least some of the Gospel writers believed in the same sort of cosmic sperm bank theory that is required for mythicism.

      Matthew seems clear that Joseph’s parentage is sufficient for Matthew; Luke is clear that Mary’s parentage is sufficient for Luke.

      Ehhh!?
      Of course they would use the same name, because Matthew is just a rewrite of Mark, and Luke is just a rewrite of Mark and Matthew, and John also knew about the other 3 canonical Gospels before writing his Gospel.

      Mark does not mention the name Joseph, and while there are exceptions, my understanding is that the general consensus is that Mathew and Luke are independent. For example, when they write about things not in mark, Matthew and Luke will sometimes present contradictory versions of events (the virgin birth being one example).

      There would be decently compelling reasons to keep the same names. What you wrote seems astonishingly wrongheaded and/or ignorant about the literary history of the Gospels.

      You sling insults around quite freely. No wonder you are fond of Carrier.

      Given that while I was looking for Carrier’s position on these matters, I happened to stumble across several blog posts detailing Tim’s incompetence and dishonesty, I’d rather not.

      So, you are the sort of skeptic that does not evaluate evidence for yourself firsthand when it is easily available and convenient, but instead follow the teachings of another person?

      Currently, I’ll take Carrier’s word over Tim’s, especially given that Tim is behaving very badly in this thread with respect to me by responding to a point I made and apparently without even having read it, and also because Tim is seemingly grossly ignorant of basic details of Carrier’s updated hypothesis based on Doherty.

      I disagree with your assessment of O’Neil’s behavior in this thread. He has responded to you directly and in detail. From what I can tell, it’s mostly that his arguments are not the ones you expected.

  16. Tim O'Neill says

    What exactly do you mean, and how do you know that?

    I explained exactly what I meant and how we can conclude this.

    The Doherty / Carrier position is that the Gospel Of Mark is basically entirely fictional allegory.

    Of course it is – they have to put as much distance as possible between anything that refers to Jesus as human, historical and earthly and the origins of the sect to maintain their house of cards. But pretty much no-one agrees with these two nobodies. And there are good reasons why. There are elements in gMark which simply don’t fit this “entirely fictional allegory” idea. For example, Mark 15:21 inserts the detail that a passer-by – a “Simon of Cyrene, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus” – was compelled to help Jesus carry his cross. Not only is this an oddly unnecessary detail to include in an otherwise sparse account, why are we told this random stranger was “the father of Alexander and Rufus”? Who are they? We aren’t told, so the writer obviously expected the readers to know. This kind of thing doesn’t fit with the idea that this serves some ” fictional allegorical” function, but it fits the idea that it is connecting this event with people known to the audience very neatly.

    And you know that mythicists will say that only the standard 7 letters are authentic, and the rest are later forgeries, and that the standard 7 authentic letters can be explained.

    As someone who has been dealing with Mythicists almost daily for over 15 years now, I think you can assume I know all about what they would say. Why you’ve bothered to make this point I have no idea, given that when I refer to the Pauline texts I am referring to the seven that everyone agrees are authentic. If you notice, they are the only ones I ever cite. As for how Mythicists say these letters can be “explained”, I’m well aware of that too. They have to be “explained” to exclude all of the many references to Jesus as earthly, human and historical by reference to laughably bad arguments like Carrier’s “cosmic sperm bank” disaster, which are a laughing stock among real scholars.

    A point which is disputed …. Also disputed

    Big deal. NT Studies is most most well-trodden humanities field in western history, so you can find someone who has “disputed” pretty much anything you care to mention if you look hard enough. Just because people like Carrier have “disputed” something or plumped for a minority view on a given point because it assists his thesis doesn’t count for much. The fact is that the things I note are “disputed” by very few because they are solidly supported.

    Did the early Christians, circa Paul, believe in a virgin birth or not? If they did not believe in a virgin birth, then why does the virgin birth appear in the Gospels?

    It appears in just two of the gospels – gMark and gJohn seem to have no knowledge of this idea. And it appears because this was a period in which the early Jesus Sect communities were coming up with various ways to reconcile Jesus and his teachings with their own evolving theology. So the writer of gMark sees Jesus as becoming Messiah at his baptism and so had no interest in him before that. The more mystical writer of gJohn sees him as the Logos who existed since the beginning of time and so has no need of a human origin story. But the writers of gLuke and gMatt see him as a Jewish hero in the mould of Samson, Issac and Melchizedek, so like them he is given a miraculous conception story in these two gospels – almost certainly inspired by the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14.

    Elsewhere even here, you seem quite adamant that the Gospels are based on earlier tradition, but here you argue that the Gospels are not based on earlier tradition concerning the virgin birth

    Yes. So? Obviously the stories about Jesus evolved over time, so there is no contradiction here. Some elements are based on early traditions and so are more likely historical, others (especially the miraculous ones) are most likely later accretions and developments.

    On what basis do you believe that the virgin birth was a creation of the Gospel writers and Paul did not know about it?

    On the fairly straightforwardly logical basis that the earlier material (Paul, gMark) neglects to make any mention of this remarkable element, only some of the later material (gMatt and gLuke but not gJohn) details it and then the later material (everything from the second century onward) accepts it completely and expands on it.

    Because you interpret Paul to be talking about an Earthly Jesus? But then you use conclusions from this assumption in order to justify that Paul was talking about an Earthly Jesus! You’re doing circular reasoning.

    No, you just assumed that I was basing this on any “interpreting” Paul that way. See above for my actual reasoning. And you have completely skipped over all the evidence that “descendant of David”, “descended from Israel’, “descended from Jesse” can only refer to a human being.

    Why not?

    Because being a Jew means you are descended from Abraham – a (to Paul) human, historical person. It only makes sense as something that can be applied to a human.

    Many of the stories which are claimed to be embarassing are not.

    Where did I say anything about things being “embarrassing”?

    one hypothesis is that the writers were doing their thing either foreseeing or being after the miserable war with Rome, and instead of a military leader as per standard Jewish myth, they changed the story to make the Jewish savior into a savior in the afterlife

    So how does that account for all the convoluted efforts to “explain” how a guy from Nazareth was “actually” born in Bethlehem? How does that explain the four different versions of the Jesus/John the Baptist encounter, three of which are trying to deal with the fact that Jesus was baptised and forgive by someone supposedly lesser than him? These are elements that indicate these awkward things happened.

    One of the comments by Carrier here: https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/12334 addresses this specifically.

    Yes, and badly as usual. (i) There is no evidence that anyone regarded Jesus as a “Nazorian” and all the variants of the cognomen form connect to forms of the place name Ναζαρὲτ as a gentilic. (ii) gMark does not “consistently imply he came from Capernaum” – that is another crappy Mythicist argument that requires some bizarre text twisting and snipping.

    Based on our interaction here, it seems likely that you haven’t even read Carrier’s book. Assuming this to be true …

    You’re dead wrong, so you need to be very, very careful what you “assume to be true”. Stick around and you will quickly learn that I have indeed read Carrier’s clunker of a book, and I have read key parts of it many, many times. Look at my blog’s articles on Mythicism and you’ll find that I refer extensively to Carrier’s book in several articles, with detailed analysis, complete with quotes and citations, of several of his arguments. I know his book very well.

    how can do you such a bad job attacking strawmans and attacking the weak arguments of your opposition instead of attacking the strong arguments of your opposition?

    Please show me these “strong arguments”. I and all the scholars in the field must have missed those ones.

    Impressive that I already explained this, and that you didn’t engage with my explanation at all.

    Your “explanation” made no sense, for the reasons I detailed. Again, the pattern we see in the source material is precisely the opposite to what we would expect if Mythicism’s thesis were true. Try this – find me a reference to Jesus as divine in Paul. Or anywhere in gMark. Or even in Acts. Good lcuk. Yet we are supposed to believe it’s in this early material that we have a divine Jesus and he becomes more human later. In fact, what we find is precisely the other way around.

    • neilgodfrey says

      As someone who has been dealing with Mythicists almost daily for over 15 years now,….

      Seriously? And you said I was the one with an obsession??

  17. Tim O'Neill says

    I’ll take Carrier’s word over Tim’s, especially given that Tim is behaving very badly in this thread with respect to me by responding to a point I made and apparently without even having read it

    Have you noticed that just about everyone who has ever criticised Carrier is denounced as a “liar”? Not just as mistaken, or wrong or even just stupid – no, we are all “LIARS” apparently. Does it really strike you as likely that, by amazing coincidence, all of these people are actually having to resort to “lying”? Do you know of any professional scholar who characterises all of his critics that way?

    And I responded to that point after have read it just fine thanks. You just misunderstood what I said in response.

    Tim is seemingly grossly ignorant of basic details of Carrier’s updated hypothesis based on Doherty.

    Again, stick around and you’ll soon find I am very well-acquainted with Carrier’s stuff.

  18. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Tim
    You didn’t engage with my arguments at all on the point that I called out above, and you’re still not engaging with them. If you’re not even going to acknowledge my argument, and instead you’re going to say “if you’re a mythicist, then you must believe this”, even though I said that I believed something else, then I don’t see the need to engage with you any more. One of my lines when dealing with any kind of troll is when the troll tells me that they know my own beliefs better than I do.

    I still hold out some hope for you. Are you going to engage with my arguments and not tell me what I believe? You can say that my argument is silly, and you can say that my argument doesn’t fit the facts, and you can say that you think that some other argument would be stronger than the argument that I’m advancing. However, the one line that I won’t permit anyone to cross is someone telling me that I don’t know what my own beliefs are, and that the other person knows my own beliefs better than I do.

    Shall we try this one more time?

    Again, stick around and you’ll soon find I am very well-acquainted with Carrier’s stuff.

    Bullshit.
    No one who is well acquainted with Carrier’s work would describe his mythicist position as the following:

    Try this – find me a reference to Jesus as divine in Paul. Or anywhere in gMark. Or even in Acts. Good lcuk. Yet we are supposed to believe it’s in this early material that we have a divine Jesus and he becomes more human later. In fact, what we find is precisely the other way around.

    The standard mythicist position is that the Gospel Of Mark was written entirely as allegory and possibly as allegorical instruction to Christian followers, as an example to follow in their own life, and also while sharing the Christian creed. It was not written as literal history, and likely it was not understood as literal history by Christians who were high ranking / initiated in the movement. As time went on, the Christian population changed to a belief of a literal historical Jesus on Earth, and thus they needed to “touch up” and fix the Gospel Of Mark to make Jesus fit their new conception of a god-man that walked the Earth. There were other motivating factors for the later gospel writers, but this is one motivation. On this reasoning, we should not be surprised that the later gospels contain more extreme claims of extreme magical feats and impossible happenings.

    As to your point that you don’t see any part in Mark where it says that Jesus is divine. You’re trying to saddle me with a position that I have not expressed, and demanding that I defend a position that I have no interest in defending. I, and Carrier, disagree with your assessment that if mythicism is true, we should expect that the amount and power of miracles in the Gospel accounts should be less in the later Gospels. Carrier and I advance the exact opposite position. As I said before, you can say that this is a silly position, or that this position is contradicted by particular evidence and reason, but the one move that I will not allow you to do is to say that you know my position better than I do and that when I say that my position is X, you try to tell me that I’m wrong and my position is really Y. It’s like a very poor kind of gaslighting. Knock it off already.

  19. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    PS:
    I expect an acknowledgment that you will not (again) do it. I expect that after I tell you what my position and argument is, you will not tell me that I’m wrong and my position and argument is actually something else.

    • Tim O'Neill says

      You didn’t engage with my arguments at all on the point that I called out above, and you’re still not engaging with them.

      What on earth are you talking about? If you’re referring to your claim that “[the stories are] getting embellished over time, but the embellishment is a possible indication of a shift of belief in the Christian population away from god-man that lived only in the heavens to a god-man that lived and walked on Earth for many years” I responded to that. Twice. I replied that we actually see Jesus as not a “god man” at all in the early material and more and more of one in the later stuff – exactly the opposite of what we would find if Mythicism were true and exactly the opposite of what you claimed. Again, I’ve noted this twice and even challenged you to respond by showing us any claim of Jesus as God in Paul, in any of the synoptic gospels or in Acts. It was you who failed to respond. Try now.

      Are you going to engage with my arguments and not tell me what I believe?

      Anyone can see that I have responded to absolutely every single one of your arguments and nowhere that I can see have I told you what you believe. So I have no idea what you’re talking about here either. This is actually getting somewhat surreal.

      No one who is well acquainted with Carrier’s work would describe his mythicist position as the following:

      “Try this – find me a reference to Jesus as divine in Paul. Or anywhere in gMark. Or even in Acts. Good lcuk. Yet we are supposed to believe it’s in this early material that we have a divine Jesus and he becomes more human later. In fact, what we find is precisely the other way around.”

      I was responding to your claim that we see Jesus as a “god man” in the heavens and then this develop into a more human Jesus in the later texts. Whereas what we actually see is the exact opposite.

      The standard mythicist position is that the Gospel Of Mark was written entirely as allegory

      So you keep saying. So I noted that there are elements in it which means that claim makes no sense. I noted the reference to the sons of Simon of Cyrene and asked how that element, one that clearly makes a connection between the anecdote in Mark 15:21 and people expected to be known to the gospel’s audience, fits this “allegory” idea. You failed to answer that one as well.

      we should not be surprised that the later gospels contain more extreme claims of extreme magical feats and impossible happenings.

      Except we see “magical feats and impossible happenings” throughout all of the gospels, so this doesn’t fit your claims either.

      You’re trying to saddle me with a position that I have not expressed

      So is the Jesus in gMark a “god man” or not? How about in gMatt? Or in gLuke? What about in Acts?

      I, and Carrier, disagree with your assessment that if mythicism is true, we should expect that the amount and power of miracles in the Gospel accounts should be less in the later Gospels.

      I made no such point. What I said was that we see Jesus as a human Messiah in the early gospel material and him only really becoming this “god man” in gJohn. He still performs miracles in the early material, but by the power of God as God’s anointed one, not because he is God. But in Mythicism he’s supposed to start out as this celestial “god man” and get more and more human. Again, that is precisely the opposite of what we find.

      when I say that my position is X, you try to tell me that I’m wrong and my position is really Y

      Says the guy who just attributed a position to me that I don’t hold.

      Have you actually read his book? I don’t think you answered the question. Please answer the question clearly.

      *Polite silence*

      Wait, you did answer. I need to stop posting for tonight.

      *Even more polite silence*

      • EnlightenmentLiberal says

        I was responding to your claim that we see Jesus as a “god man” in the heavens and then this develop into a more human Jesus in the later texts. Whereas what we actually see is the exact opposite

        Yeah. I guess I’m done. This is like 3 times now that you have misrepresented what I wrote, and it also shows that you didn’t bother to pay any attention to what Carrier actually wrote in those purported several times that you read his book. I see no reason to engage with you any further.

  20. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    > As to your point that you don’t see any part in Mark where it says that Jesus is divine.

    Correction: Or Paul. Or whatever gaslighting you were trying to do to me.

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    PPS:
    Have you actually read his book? I don’t think you answered the question. Please answer the question clearly.

  22. says

    @EnlightenmentLiberal 2:

    “Just a few decades” is a huge amount of time when life expectancy was much shorter.

    It’s a huge amount of time in terms of being able to rely on the details of the gospel stories (and would be even if life expectancy was longer, for that matter, as it’s still a heck of a lot of time for stories to get embroidered when being passed on by word of mouth). However, it’s an unusually small amount of time when looking at the prospect of someone making up a historical biography for someone who’s thought to have existed only on a celestial plane as some sort of heavenly being.

    What I’m thinking of here specifically is Carrier’s explanation that the gospels are an example of euhemerism, a practice of the time in which historicised stories would be told about a deity or other being believed by society to exist in some kind of celestial plane. Interestingly, it doesn’t look as though this explanation works anyway, since it seems euhemerism was actually practiced by skeptics wanting to give rational explanations for the stories about the gods, which is hardly the case here. But also, Carrier himself says in his book that other known examples of euhemerism place the supposed historical figure hundreds of years earlier, not just a few decades. Carrier doesn’t consider this to be important, but it caught my attention; if that’s so, then surely the fact that we have a story of someone who supposedly did live just a few decades earlier points towards euhemerism being less likely?

    I agree that that’s certainly not conclusive by itself, and, if this was the only point we had in favour of a historical Jesus, then I’d agree that Jesus was unlikely to have been historical. However, it’s one of the (many) things that point towards a higher probability of historicity, so I included it with my other points.

    We also have accounts, written by actual named-eye witnesses, about the savior John Frum.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Frum

    Do we have entire biographies (well, hagiographies) for John Frum that give details of his life events and family? As I say, I can see how we could get a few stories about Jesus walking the earth/appearing to people even if he was believed to have existed on a celestial plane (in fact, the reason Christianity exists at all is because several people believed they’d seen him at a point where he definitely wouldn’t be expected to be walking the earth), but I can’t see how we could get multiple hagiographies with multiple life details, including some which are seriously awkward for the writers.

    It was a really long time, and not a really short time, and the writers were very probably not eye witnesses, and – at best – most of the eye witnesses would be dead by the time Mark was written, and all of the eye witnesses would be dead by the time that the other Gospels were written.

    And yet, even allowing for all of that… how would we get people completely inventing this sort of life story about someone who actually didn’t walk the earth? Embroidering or exaggerating existing stories, sure. Adding invented stories to the existing ones, sure. Starting from the point of view of ‘this is a celestial being’ and inventing a life story for him? That’s a different matter. No, it’s not impossible… but it’s a heck of a lot more improbable than someone writing a life story (however embellished) about someone who actually lived.

    being of the seed of David,

    How is this any better on historicity? Think about it. It’s not. People just assume that it’s a statement about the ancestry of Joseph, husband of Mary, but if you think about it, it makes no sense.

    Why not? The virgin birth story seems very likely to have been a later development, so it’s extremely plausible that it wasn’t even around at the time that Paul was writing that letter; far more plausible, anyway, than the idea that Paul had some kind of cosmic sperm bank in mind. (It’s also hardly impossible for Paul to have held genuinely contradictory beliefs on this point; look how many Christians manage precisely that today, despite having both the ‘seed of David’ line and the virgin birth stories.)

    In that passage, Paul is explaining that Jesus was born as a Jew and under the old covenant or something in order to show how Jesus could fulfill certain Old Testament prophesy.

    So, if Paul believed that Jesus had to be born as a Jew in order to fulfil prophesy… how was he managing to hold a belief that he had only existed on a celestial plane?

    Multiple different books describing a historical Jesus. (While the gospels are not independent in terms of what information they give us, each one does nevertheless represent a different person sitting down and putting a lot of effort into writing a detailed and lengthy story.)

    So what?

    So… what would motivate those authors to invent entire books’ worth of stories about someone who didn’t live on earth? The explanations we get from different mythicists (that I’ve mentioned above) are somewhat strained already, but they only get more so when they have to account for multiple different people writing biographies of someone who didn’t have a biography (not to mention the fact that some of the stories appear to trace back to earlier sources).

    This is one of the worst arguments that I’ve ever heard.

    Out of curiosity, is it better or worse than the argument about the cosmic sperm bank? 🙂

    What? The idea that there was a yearly custom where the Romans would release a death-penalty prisoner to appease the Jewish population is silly.

    Of course it is, and the idea that a crowd would spontaneously all choose to shout a line like “His blood be on us and on our children!” is even sillier, so I agree that we can safely say that the Barabbas story is invented. But that should raise the question; why was it invented?

    Within the story, that particular claim serves the function of absolving Pilate from blame for crucifying Jesus; look, says gMatthew, it wasn’t his fault really, it was those nasty Jews who made him do it, it’s all their fault. Which makes perfect sense from ‘Matthew’s’ POV; it’s completely natural that he wouldn’t have liked the idea of his account pointing the finger at a powerful Roman.

    But all of that leaves us with a key question: why was Pilate included in the story at all? ‘Matthew’s’ trying to blame the Jews. If he’s writing the story from scratch (or, more accurately, if ‘Mark’ is), why not simply write it with the Jews executing Jesus? Why all this nonsense about how Pilate did it but really it was the fault of the Jews because of [ridiculously improbable story]? Why put Pilate in there at all… unless it was because it was already known that Jesus, a real-life Jesus, actually had been crucified by order of Pilate, and so that was the story the gospel writers were stuck with using?

    (they need Jesus to fulfill the functions of the Jewish Temple Cult, and blood magic is how you do it, and the son of god is the best blood magic sacrifice that you can do, which should last forever instead of just one year for the goat sacrifice, thus eliminating the need of the Jewish Temple Cult

    It’s possible, though unlikely, that someone in that day and age could have not only come up with such a belief but also linked it with a term (Messiah) that, for the Jews, had the utterly different meaning of a king ruling over a liberated Israel. The trouble is, that theory then raises the problems of having to explain all the bits of Acts that don’t fit with it. If the early Jerusalem church really did believe that Jesus’s death had eliminated temple sacrifice… why does Acts mention the disciples attending the temple daily (Acts 2:46 and 3:1) and the church elders expecting Paul to carry out a temple purification ritual to prove his good faith (Acts 21:18 – 26)? Why do their speeches make no mention of this new and radical belief, focusing instead on Jesus’s resurrection rather than on any supposed benefits from his sacrifice?

    Sure, the author of Acts made bits up when it suited him… but why make those particular bits up? If the theory you’ve just described really was the accepted belief of the early church, why would the author of Acts write an account that not only gave no sign of this, but flatly contradicted it in some places?

    (@comment 3)

    So, they’re definitely getting embellished over time, but the embellishment is a possible indication of a shift of belief in the Christian population away from god-man that lived only in the heavens to a god-man that lived and walked on Earth for many years.

    That gives us a theory that’s describing a journey from celestial godman to earthly godman via allegorical account of a human… which is somewhat convoluted and strange, and leaves us with some hard-to-explain questions. If the early church really believed Jesus was a celestial being who’d never walked the earth, why would anyone be making allegorical stories about him at all when they had so many OT characters to choose from? Why did his godman status apparently pass by the author of Acts, who quoted Peter as referring to him as ‘a man attested to you by God’ (Acts 2:22) rather than as God?

    It’s not that any one point here is impossible to think up some kind of explanation for. It’s that we end up with convoluted explanation piled on convoluted explanation, to the point where the hypothesis that Christianity started with an actual preacher is far more likely. Put it this way… given all the points that can be more simply explained by the previous existence of a historical Jesus, why should we believe in a mythical Jesus?

    • rationalrevolution says

      @Dr Sarah

      “Put it this way… given all the points that can be more simply explained by the previous existence of a historical Jesus, why should we believe in a mythical Jesus?”

      Actually its quite the opposite. All of the questions you posed are addressed in my article here: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_evidence.htm

      It’s actually the case that a historical Jesus requires a much more convoluted explanation. To quote from myself:

      “The second scenario is actually far more plausible [mythicism] than the first scenario [historicity]. In terms of questions, the first scenario needs to be able to answer many paradoxical questions, including the following:

      Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus describe who he was as a person?

      Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus convey any of his teachings?

      Why didn’t Jesus produce any writings of his own?

      If Jesus couldn’t read and write, then why would people, in a culture that highly valued the reading and writing of scripture, worship such a person for their “teachings”?

      Why would people think that a person, who presumably didn’t perform miracles or rise from the dead, was “the Lord Jesus Christ”, an eternal being with godly powers?

      If people did think that this person was some eternal Lord, then why didn’t they record anything about him or things that he said that convinced them that he was this eternal all-powerful Lord?

      Why would someone’s brother, who grew up with him and likely had fights with him as a child and saw him get in trouble, get sick, etc. think that he was a perfect all-powerful deity – the only being in existence capable of bringing justice to the world?

      Why does the letter to the Hebrews “quote” Jesus by quoting from scriptures and give no details about this person’s real life?

      Why does the letter to the Hebrews say explicitly that Jesus is a heavenly High Priest?

      Why does Paul talk repeatedly about Jesus being a divine mystery?

      Why doesn’t Paul attribute any of his teachings to Jesus?

      Why would Paul think his teachings were better than, or even on par with, people who had personally known Jesus and learned his teachings directly from his mouth?

      Why does the Gospel of Mark use so many literary sources?

      Why does the Gospel of Mark use teachings of Paul as Jesus’s teachings?

      Why does the Gospel of Mark portray the disciples so poorly?

      Why does every single story about Jesus share text with the Gospel of Mark?

      I could go on, but really, all of these questions, and many more, need reasonable answers in order for the idea that the Jesus of Christianity is based on the life of a real person to have any plausibility.

      On the other hand, there is really only one question that needs to be answered for the scenario that the Jesus of Christianity isn’t based on a real person to be plausible and that question is:

      How do you explain the five or six short passages in the letters of Paul that suggest Jesus was a real person?

      That question has been answered multiple times by various scholars. Each of the passages that are pointed to as evidence that Paul was describing a real person named Jesus has been explained as either a later interpolation or a misinterpretation caused by reading the passage through the wrong lens.”

  23. rationalrevolution says

    Very interesting discussion. I wish I had come across this earlier. My new book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed I think clearly address the main original question: “how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things.”

    My book explains exactly how this happened, with compelling concrete evidence.

    I’ve got an overview of my book here: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/deciphering_the_gospels.htm

    Essentially what I show is that it was the story that we call the Gospel of Mark that introduced the idea that Jesus was a real person. That story, however, is entirely fictional and wasn’t intended by its author to convince people that Jesus was real. It is easily proven that the story is fictional because essentially every scene and teaching an be shown to be literary allusions to the Jewish scriptures and letters of Paul. The character of Jesus in the story is actually based on Paul. This is all clearly demonstrated.

    • db says

      Quoting the OP, Neil Godfrey asks per (26 November 2018). “A Response to Dr Sarah, Geeky Humanist, on the Jesus Question“. Vridar.

      [T]he epistles do contain several lines about Jesus having existed

      • according to the flesh,
      • or being born of a woman,
      • or being of the seed of David,
      • or having brothers, one of whom Paul mentions meeting, all of which is rather difficult to reconcile with mythicism and requires some highly strained logic on the part of mythicists.

      But if we ignore all that – which mythicists do, on the whole, tend to prefer to do – and focus just on the theology, then that seems at first glance to fit.)

      I am curious to know which mythicist arguments Dr Sarah has in mind when she characterizes their arguments as “highly strained logic”. Who are those mythicists? What are their “highly strained” arguments?

  24. db says

    Per the OP:

    [T]he epistles do contain several lines about Jesus having existed according to the flesh, or being born of a woman, or being of the seed of David, or having brothers, one of whom Paul mentions meeting…

    Per comment by Dr Sarah (1 November 2018):

    [W]hile Paul’s theology certainly seems to focus on Jesus as some kind of angelic being, there are still a lot of references in his letters to things like Jesus being born of a woman, or according to the flesh… things that don’t make sense if Paul wasn’t at least picturing a human Jesus at the end of this.

    Dr Sarah, the following references by Paul are typically given in support of the historicity of Jesus. Do you wish wish to add any more?

    • Brother of the Lord
    __1 Corinthians 9:5 and Galatians 1:19 make reference to “the brothers of the Lord” and “James, the brother of the Lord” respectively.

    • Jesus’ birth/genealogy
    __Galatians 4:4 and Romans 1:3 make reference to Jesus’ birth/genealogy.

    • Eucharist
    __1 Corinthians 11:23–26 make reference to “the night” Jesus handled bread and wine.

    • Jesus dying and being buried; people see Jesus
    __1 Corinthians 15:3-8

    • The Jews killed Jesus
    __1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

    Cf. “Did Jesus Exist? Silence of Paul 1”. YouTube. Fishers of Evidence. 27 February 2016.

    • db says

      Per Dr Sarah (25 November 2018). “Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price”. Freethought Blogs (FtB). Geeky Humanist.

      [There are] multiple passages in Paul that fit with historicity rather than mythicism; and ‘five or six’ is an underestimate there. I’ve been through the undisputed letters and count 11. (That isn’t counting the ‘killed by the Jews’ passage on 1 Thessalonians, which I left off the list as there are reasonable unrelated grounds for suspecting it to be an interpolation.)

      And, yes, it’s possible to look at any individual one of those examples in isolation and say, maybe this one was an interpolation or we’re interpreting it wrong or there’s some other explanation we’re not aware of. But the more such examples there are, the more difficult it is to explain all of them away.

  25. neilgodfrey says

    Apologies for the test comment — I have been having trouble logging in; keep getting a message that I’m an imposter of myself. ….. Here is post I wanted to make:

    It’s become something of a cheap put-down, effective in debating contests but less productive wrt genuine scholarly inquiry, to characterize an opponent’s arguments as “highly strained” or “convoluted” or “strained logic” — though I’m not sure how any logic can be considered “strained”.

    I think if we were to be fair we would have to admit that the historicist explanations for such odd terms as “according to the flesh” and “born of a woman”– not odd in themselves but they are certainly unusual expressions in context — that such phrases are not so easily embraced as “obviously referring to a historical person”. Just check some of the commentaries on those sorts of phrases and you can find hundreds of words used to try to grapple with their meanings and contextual usages.

    Ditto with the book of Hebrews, which I see discussed at length on another thread.

    Again from another thread but it is appropriate for this point, — it was said

    And, yes, it’s possible to look at any individual one of those examples in isolation and say, maybe this one was an interpolation or we’re interpreting it wrong or there’s some other explanation we’re not aware of. But the more such examples there are, the more difficult it is to explain all of them away. When we’re looking at needing this many convoluted and improbable explanations to sustain a theory, then that theory has become overwhelmingly unlikely and needs to be discarded.

    I don’t follow the logic here. If there are reasonable cases to be made for a few why is it problematic that reasonable cases can be made for many. It is not some “get out of jail free” card to point to textual difficulties, emendations, references to heterodox teachings, interpolations in the extant Christian literature. Rather, it is dealing with reality because we have abundant evidence that even in the life-times of ancient authors (not just Christians) all sorts of textual emendations and rewrites and interpolations were introduced into speeches, texts, letters, epic poems, etc, and we have even more reason to acknowledge the same thing happened with Christian texts.

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