‘Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Preface and Introduction.


Hey, guys, anyone up for a bit more Jesus mythicism debate? Yes… it’s time for me to start reviewing R.G. Price’s book!

A bit of background, for those who don’t know it: A few months back, I wrote a post here about why I’ve always found it more likely that Jesus did exist as some kind of real-life figure, rather than being a completely mythical figure as many non-Christians believe. (That post isn’t a comprehensive list of reasons for believing in Jesus’s historicity, by the way; just the reasons why I thought Jesus likely to be historical even before I started reading up properly on the debate and learning more about it.)

Anyway, the post sparked off some pretty major discussion, and Jesus mythicist R.G. Price came to join in. (This might, by the way, be a good moment to clarify that R.G. Price is not the same person as Robert M. Price, who is also a Jesus mythicist.) We had some further discussion, and he very kindly offered to send me a free copy of his book. I offered in turn to review it for him, and here we are.

This one, unlike some of the other stuff I’ve written, is not going to be snark. I’m up for a serious discussion about R.G. Price’s arguments and the reasons why I disagree with them (which I still do; I’ve read the whole book already). If that’s not for you, no worries, hope to see you on another review.

This book has both a preface and an introduction; I’ll try to cover them both in this post. As with previous reviews, I’ll then link all other chapter reviews back to the original post to keep everything in one place.

Here we go, folks!

Preface

R.G. Price’s first sentence is ‘By conventional standards, I am not qualified to write this book.’ This amused me; by the same conventional standards, I’m not qualified to debate it, so we’ll just bumble along together in happy amateurism. (If anyone out there who does have relevant qualifications spots any howling errors in anything I write or anything I quote from R.G. Price, do feel free to step in and set us straight.)

R.G. Price goes on to give us a quick outline of his background:

  • He’s a software engineer/data analysis, with a BSc in biology. (That’s interesting; I’m curious as to how he got from the latter to the former? Not that it’s relevant; I’m just interested.)
  • He grew up in a ‘nominally Christian’ family but was skeptical about Christianity from an early age. However, he was always fascinated by religion in general, and read the Bible several times while he was growing up. (He’s got more sticking power than me. I tried to read it several times, but invariably bogged down somewhere around the Chronicles. Although the part I did read was certainly… informative.) When he read the Bible’s accounts of supernatural phenomena, he would try to think of possible natural causes for the things described.
  • He first found out about Jesus mythicism in the late ’90s, because Internet. (Yes, me too.) He was very skeptical about it at first, and in fact spent quite a bit of time over the next few years debunking some of the more improbable mythicist theories. However, in the process of researching these claims, he found some of the things he was coming across were starting to change his mind on the subject.

At this point, R.G. Price gives us an example; He often saw mythicists claiming that the twelve disciples were actually symbolic of the twelve signs of the zodiac. (Good grief; people were claiming this often? The internet is a worrying place.) R.G. Price pointed out that a much more likely source of the story was a Jewish tradition of heroes or prophets appointing helpers from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. However, having come up with this explanation, he found himself believing that this was indeed the source of the story; that the disciples were ‘a symbolic literary intervention’.

Now, this is interesting. If I understand this correctly, R.G. Price seems to have moved from ‘This is a possible explanation for this part of the story’ to ‘This is a likely explanation for this part of the story’. And I can’t quite see how he got there. I mean, certainly the story of twelve disciples could have been invented for that reason, but it’s also perfectly plausible that a real-life Jewish preacher of that era would deliberately choose a group of that size for that reason. So, as far as I can see, that particular part of the story could fit with either a historical or a mythical Jesus.

(In fact, once you take into account that two out of the three leaders of the original Jerusalem church supposedly started out as part of Jesus’s group, the probability seems to swing at least a little more towards the historical. It’s plausible that an author writing a symbolic story about a mythical Jesus might decide to include all the existing church leaders as members of his inner circle, or, even more likely, none of them… but it seems a bit odd that they’d include two out of three and have a different backstory for the third. Not impossible, but odd enough to seem on the unlikely side.)

Anyway, by now R.G. Price had read about how some scenes in the gospels seem to be literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures (for example, many details in the crucifixion scene seem to be based on Psalm 22) and he formed a hypothesis; that this was true of almost all the gospel stories. Or at least, almost all the stories in Mark, the earliest gospel. So he set out to test this by – and I love this – spending a year going through gMark line by line, searching the OT in various translations to find related passages on which each story could have been based. A year. R.G. Price, my man, you may proudly take your place amongst the Fellowship of Obsessive Geeks, which I totally just invented but absolutely should exist. Welcome to our ranks. <extends hand>

His conclusion, at the end of all this, was that all of the stories in gMark could be attributed either to literary allusions to OT stories, or to points that ‘Mark’ had found in Paul’s epistles. From this, and other parts of the Jesus story that he’d been looking into, he found himself coming round to the mythicism side of the argument.

At this point, he still felt he needed a theory explaining how the Jesus story originated. He feels he’s managed to come up with such a theory, and is writing this book in order to present it. He concludes ‘The case I am putting forward essentially shows that belief in a real human Jesus arose out of confusion and a misunderstanding of how the Gospels were written.’

Introduction

In the introduction, R.G. Price outlines his theory. Put together chronologically, it goes like this:

  1. Christianity originated as a small apocalyptic Jewish cult that believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and thus the kingdom of God would need to be established in heaven rather than, as was more traditionally believed, on earth. As such, they developed the belief that the Messiah – eagerly awaited by Jews – would be an immaterial heavenly being rather than an earthly human.
  2. Paul became an apostle of this cult. He preached reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, believing that the expected kingdom of God would be open to anyone who had faith in God.
  3. Along came the First Jewish-Roman War, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple. One of the members of the Pauline-founded sects came to the belief that these events were God’s punishment on the Jews for not having heeded the message of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. He expressed this belief in a fictional, allegorical account, in which he made Jesus the protagonist. This story was the one we now call the Gospel of Mark.
  4. The other gospel writers, misunderstanding Mark’s gospel and believing it to be a real story of a real person, wrote more detailed stories based on it. (At least, that seems to be what R.G. Price thinks happened here; his theory seems a little vague at this point.)

Some of this, of course, gets discussed in more detail through the book, and I’ll discuss it then. The last part, however, doesn’t really seem to get addressed further (unless I’ve missed something) so I’m going to take a minute to look at it here; how is this supposed to have happened? We’re talking here not just about people mistaking a fictional story for a true one (which I can well believe someone, somewhere, would manage to do) but about multiple people getting so caught up in this that they write more detailed versions of the fictional story, adding in new points!

How likely would this be to happen? Why should we consider it a more likely explanation for the existence of the gospels than the more usual explanation that they’re based on stories about a real person that were passed down (albeit in embroidered form) over the years?

Anyway, that’s about it for the introduction. In the next chapter, we’re going to get more detail about the theory of Mark’s gospel as an allegory.

Comments

  1. rationalrevolution says

    Hi Dr. Sarah,

    I’ll leave most of the discussion up to others, but just wanted to comment on the following:

    “We’re talking here not just about people mistaking a fictional story for a true one (which I can well believe someone, somewhere, would manage to do) but about multiple people getting so caught up in this that they write more detailed versions of the fictional story, adding in new points!

    How likely would this be to happen?”

    I’ll be addressing this much more thoroughly in my next book, but in fact this was very common in this period. The concept of factual history and reporting that we have today simply didn’t exist at this time. In addition, even the most highly educated people were very gullible.

    There are hundreds of examples of stories about miracle workers and prophecies that were thoroughly believed by the most highly educated and high-power people in the Roman empire. There are also dozens of examples of accounts of people that almost certainly didn’t exist that were believed to be real people among Roman scholars.

    The idea that people would mistakenly believe that a story is true when it really wasn’t isn’t challenging at all. This is something which is observed in the literature of this period literally over and over again.

    Again, I’ll be going into this in much more detail in my upcoming book, but at this time there was actually a whole genre of anonymous prophetic stories that were frequently produced in Rome. There were oracles who made a living of writing and selling these sort of false prophetic stories to high class merchants who would sell them to people like senators and emperors and wealthy businessmen. These stories would then be studied for evidence of “authentic prophecies”. The Gospel of Mark actually uses all of the tropes of this genre of prophetic story writing. The typical way these stories were written was they were written after some major event, often a war or death of an emperor, and the story would be set prior to the major event, with a prophet who would “predict” the major events that would unfold, like a war. The prophet would also predict things that would happen in the story, and one of the tropes was for the prophet to predict the means of his own death, which would then play out in the story. The prophet would also make some other major prediction that was something that truly hadn’t happened yet, and some of the most common predictions were the end of the world or the destruction of the Roman empire.

    So basically the story would establish the credibility of the prophet by having the prophet predict things that could be confirmed as having already come true, and this would establish the credibility of the future prediction. This is exactly the pattern that Mark follows. And all of these other stories were widely believed as well. There are many examples in ancient literature of people who likely never existed being codified into history as if they were real people.

    But what’s clear is that in the ancient world, belief in fantastical fabricated stories was widespread and common even among the highest levels of society. But yeah, my next book is about how prophecies and prophetic stories were used in the Mediterranean cultures of the period, among Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. Prophetic stories and the use of literary references to present prophecies was actually a very common practice.

  2. says

    R.G. “rationalrevolution” Price, above, makes a good point — that we tend to read these 2,000-year-old stories without understanding the cultural and literary milieux in which they were created. [How many other ancient tales are read and taken to heart by laypeople? Aesop’s Fables — charming and instructive stories, but not literally true. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Euripedes, even Herodotus — you get the idea. Why do the gospels get a pass?]

    But we don’t have to inform ourselves about ancient literature to see what’s going on with the gospels — just read the gospels! My go-to example is what you can plainly see when you line up the stories about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the order in which they were written:

    1.In the letters of Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection all occurred before any person had any knowledge of him.

    2. In Mark (if you disregard the various contradictory supplemental verses added decades after it was written), after Jesus was buried his tomb was found empty, but he was never seen again in any form.

    3. The author of Matthew copy-pasted 90% of Mark, but added that after the empty tomb was found, Jesus appeared to the disciples just long enough to utter three sentences.

    4. Then in Luke, Jesus spends hours with the disciples on at least two occasions.

    5. In Acts, Jesus teaches the disciples over a period of 40 days and finally is swept up to heaven in full view of them.

    6. Finally in John, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, then to the disciples minus Doubting Thomas, then a week later to the disciples including Doubting Thomas, then on another day to help them catch some fish, and presumably many more times after that, since he reportedly imparted libraries’-worth of teachings.

    And that’s not even getting into the non-canonical gospels, like the Gospel of Peter, where Jesus is followed out of his tomb by a gigantic, talking cross!

    The gospel authors clearly were perfectly comfortable contradicting earlier writings and adding any new material they felt like — i.e., making stuff up. So if they were trying to pass these stories off as history, they were consciously lying. Or at least they clearly were engaged in continually adapting earlier traditions to suit new sets of beliefs. But either way, we cannot treat the gospels as historically reliable. At best, we can tentatively accept as factual those parts of the gospels that can be confirmed by independent evidence. And when it comes to the historicity of Jesus, that evidence is nowhere to be found.

  3. KG says

    R.G. “rationalrevolution” Price, above, makes a good point — that we tend to read these 2,000-year-old stories without understanding the cultural and literary milieux in which they were created.

    And how far can anyone do this without being able to read them in the original languages? (Which I take it R.G. Price can’t, or he wouldn’t have been relying on translations.)

    1.In the letters of Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection all occurred before any person had any knowledge of him.

    Where in the letters of Paul is this asserted or implied? As for steps 2-6, meh. This process of elaboration is pretty much the scholarly consensus.

    • Peter N says

      We can let R.G. tell us if he can read the ancient languages, but I’ll bet you the average Bible-believing Christian can’t, and yet they seem to take the gospels as, um, gospel.

      As for chapter and verse on whether Paul directly asserted that he had gotten The Word via eyewitnesses or supernatural means:

      But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.
      ― Galatians 1:11-12

      • says

        Peter N,

        Your original claim was, “In the letters of Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection all occurred before any person had any knowledge of him.”

        However, you then shifted the goalposts to, “Paul directly asserted that he had gotten The Word via eyewitnesses or supernatural means”, which is a different statement entirely.

        Even then, in the very next verse after your quote (Galations 1:13, ESV), Paul says, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”, which means Paul knew something of the Christian church and its teaching before his revelations.

        • MrHorse says

          re Galations 1:13 (ESV), “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”

          That is vague. What church of God? Who was it aligned with? What proof is there that Paul persecuted it?

      • KG says

        We can let R.G. tell us if he can read the ancient languages, but I’ll bet you the average Bible-believing Christian can’t, and yet they seem to take the gospels as, um, gospel. – Peter N.

        Which is of course completely irrelevant to the question of whether there was a historical Jesus, and to R.G.’s qualifications to investigate this question. Since he nowhere asserts below that he can read the ancient languages, I conclude that he can’t.

  4. KG says

    There are many examples in ancient literature of people who likely never existed being codified into history as if they were real people. – rationalrevolution*@2

    Such as? For such a claim to be convincing, we need specific examples with appropriate similarities – e.g. they would need to be people located in a specific, recent time and specific, nearby place, linked to specific historical characters (such as Pilate).

    *Incidentally, it’s my experience that anyone who gives themself a nym incorporating “rational” or “sceptic” or “truth” etc., almost invariably fails to live up to its implications.

    • rationalrevolution says

      A classic example is the collection of Phlegon of Tralles’, Book of Marvels, from the 2nd century. This contains a number of stories similar in nature to the Gospels.

      Of particular note is the story of Naupactus and Publius. In the story Publius is a Roman officer who falls into a fit of prophecy. He prophecies that the Roman army would meet with disaster on their return of Asia, and he then “predicts” the details of the war. (These are descriptions of things that really happened) He then predicted the fall of Rome as the hands in foreign invaders. After that he predicts that he himself will be be killed by a large red wolf. Then a large red wolf comes and devours him, leaving his head, which then gives another prophecy than Asian hordes would destroy Rome and enslave it’s people.

      There is also this whole genre of stories about Sibyls, who were prophetic women. I’ll have give more detail on this later as I’m heading out the door…

  5. db says

    • Per a previous question from Dr Sarah to R. G. Price.

    “Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price”. Freethought Blogs (FtB). Geeky Humanist.

    What precedent is there for anyone writing allegorical stories about a heavenly figure that are so detailed they mention fictitious family members and a place where he allegedly grew up? How often, in that culture, is that known to have happened? Based on that answer, what are the estimated chances that multiple different people in a relatively small sect would choose to do this about the same figure?

    IMO, Gospel According to Mark was written as a cultus “handbook” and should not be directly compared to other works written for popular distribution. The probability of similar kinds of cultus handbooks surviving is low. Cultus handbooks hide the truth from the uninitiated and at the same time reveal it by allegory.

    • db says

      Severa, Jiri (2012) [now formatted]. “This Parable Do You Not Understand This Parable ? : Mark’s Recursive Paradoxes as Key to His Gospel”. academia.edu. p. 2.

      In terms of social psychology, Mark was writing a classical cultic material, dense, close to impenetrable, full of mysterious allusions purposely to mislead outsiders.

      The gospel addresses two groups of outsiders separately:

      • one is a group of a different Jesus tradition
           to whom he offers the salvation through Pauline Christ on condition of their converting to the cross.

      • He savages and ridicules the pharisaic Jews of his time
           by having Jesus defy the law and giving either himself or through Jesus, misleading references to the Torah (1:1-3, 2:26, 9:12-13, 10:19, 14:21, 14:49).

  6. ionopachys says

    The issue of “false” histories is complicated. The folks of that time and place were more concerned about the Truth than the truth. That is, they wanted to understand why a thing happened, not every little detail of how it happened. So Herodotus made up speeches and meetings, but only to allow the historical actors to lay out their motivations. Maybe they didn’t actually say those precise words at that time in that company, but they would have if the meeting had actually happened, and they probably did say similar things at other times. Ideally, if the historian was correct, the reader would come away with an accurate understanding of why people did the things they did, even if he didn’t know how all the mundane little events transpired. So the writer of Mark could very well have believed he was accurately depicting a historical Jesus and his apostles and enemies, even as he was making up all the details. Then later writers thought Mark had it wrong, so they rewrote the history to better depict Jesus’ life and message. None of them thought they were fabricating stories, just illustrating what was going on.

  7. bjbjornson says

    We’re talking here not just about people mistaking a fictional story for a true one (which I can well believe someone, somewhere, would manage to do) but about multiple people getting so caught up in this that they write more detailed versions of the fictional story, adding in new points!

    On this at least, I have no issues with considering it not only possible, but plausible. Go outside of religion and look into the history of the tales of King Arthur or Robin Hood and you’ll see much the same thing, including the addition of new characters and storylines, some of which existed in their own versions prior to being consumed by the more popular tale. And even today, people debate whether or not there was actually someone real around both individuals as a starting point for the tales, even if they acknowledge the current version has little to do with whoever might have started it. As to a totally fictional character that was (and in Switzerland, still legally is) considered real, look no further than William Tell, who comes from a time much closer to us than the gospels. Historians are now convinced he never actually existed, but he’s still a founding hero for the Swiss.

    Also, as a few others have mentioned or alluded to above, history as we think of it didn’t really exist in ancient times. It’s kind of like Hollywood movies “based on a true story” kind of thing. The story takes precedence over accuracy or truthfulness. You adjust the details to fit the story you want to tell, and don’t sweat about what actually happened, or if it happened at all.

    For the rest, there does appear to be some leaps in logic, though at least some of them may be addressed in your follow-up reviews. Even the above point I expanded on doesn’t, as you say, make it any more likely an explanation than if there was an actual Jesus to start the story balls rolling. Much as I was at least tempted by the idea that Jesus may be a total myth, I have decided that, much like other areas where my actual knowledge is far less than that of the experts in the field, I have to go with the consensus opinion of those experts, though I do still love to follow the debate.

  8. db says

    OP: “R.G. Price goes on to give us a quick outline of his background: He’s a software engineer/data analysis, with a BSc in biology. (That’s interesting; I’m curious as to how he got from the latter to the former? Not that it’s relevant; I’m just interested.)”

    • Also not relevant, but perhaps another interesting “fish out of water” story:

    “Aubrey de Grey”. Wikipedia.

    [Aubrey de Grey] is editor-in-chief of the academic journal Rejuvenation Research, author of The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging (1999) and co-author of Ending Aging (2007). He is known for his view that medical technology may enable human beings alive today not to die from age-related causes.
    […]
    After graduation in 1985, de Grey joined Sinclair Research Ltd as an artificial intelligence and software engineer. . . . He educated himself in biology by reading journals and textbooks, attending conferences, and being tutored by his wife.

  9. rationalrevolution says

    To follow-up on my prior post. There are dozens and dozens of examples of stories about people from the period of about the 4th century BCE through the 4th century CE that were widely believed by Romans, but which are highly implausible and the only record of these suppose people are these written stories. And we know that it was the written stories that led people to believe these people were real because commentors on these people essentially say so.

    We see things like all of the sudden in the 2nd century BCE a story about some prophet who supposedly lived in the 4th century BCE, but for which there is no mention of that person prior to the story, and the story is wholly unbelievable, but yet even the most educated Romans completely believed it. Now whether the story is based on the life of a real person is impossible to tell in most of these cases, but what we do know is that the reason later Romans believed the accounts has nothing to do with any outside confirmation, they simply believed these written stories.

    It seems that one of the main “tricks” that was used in writing these stories was writing stories about prophets who predicted things after the fact. So a main patterns in such stories is giving detailed “predicts” of things in the past as if the prediction was made before the event. There are hundreds of stories like this, this was a major theme of Greek and Roman story telling and it occurs even among the works of so-called “reputable historians” as well. But Romans believed these accounts. The Roman senate even had special bodies that investigated many of these stories because they used the prophecies in these stories as real guides to policy and action.

    Now the way they investigated these stories wasn’t by going out and trying to confirm if these things really happened among witnesses, instead what they did was simply study the story itself to see if it was internally consistent and if the things that the prophet predicted in the story really came true or not.

    A whole genre of these stories are known as the Sibylline Oracles, named after a supposed prophet named Sibylla from the 5th century BCE. But what we know of the accounts of Sibylla is that the name Sibylla was inserted into previously existing oracles. So various works of prophecy that existed in the 7th-5th century BCE were collected together and attributed to someone named Sibylla, and following that there were many tales of various incarnations of Sibylla from different places and times, all with accounts of wondrous and accurate “predictions”, all which modern historians now understand were stories written after the fact. There is even a story about a supposed Jewish Sibyl. There were Persian Sibyls , Greeks Sibyls, Italian Sibyls, French Sibyls, etc. etc. Most likely they ere all fabricated.

    Nevertheless, the Sibylline Oracles were taken very seriously. They were studied by senators and emperors. Roman policy was guided by these writings. They were consulted by powerful people for making important decisions. And like the Gospels, they were anonymously written.

    And lest you think that surely these people couldn’t be so gullible, the fact is that the senate employed professional soothsayers who “predicted the future” by doing things like throwing dice, reading the entrails of sacrificed animals, and studying patterns in flocks of birds. This is the thing. The Romans were completely consumed with this idea of prophecy. It was a daily and intrinsic part of life, widely believed even by the most educated people.

    Stories about prophets viewed, ironically, as among the most reliable and trustworthy of stories. One of the surest ways to convince people that your story was true was to have the character in your story predict something that people knew really happened, i.e. to predict someone’s death or predict a war or predict a calamity that had already occurred. So what we see in writing of this period are many stories written shortly after some major event occurred, but set shortly prior to the event, in which the main character predicts the details of the event. This was a common trope, and a widely believed one.

    To get an idea of the scope of such stories, the emperor Augustus, fearing improper use of prophetic stories for political purposes, had over 2,000 works of prophecy rounded up and burned in the year in the beginning of the 1st century. But we know that the 2,000 works would have been but a small portion of the total of such works in existence at the time because Augustus’ focus was on works with political implications and also because this act did little to stem the tide of the production of such works and many works from prior to this time survived and still came down to us.

    One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is “Prophets & Emperors: Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius”. I recommend this for anyone interested in the topic. Some others are “Omens and Oracles: Divination in Ancient Greece”, “Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World”.

    What set the Gospels apart from other such works was the fact that multiple versions of the story were written that were simultaneously different enough from each other that they appeared to be independent accounts, yet they were similar enough to each other that they appeared to confirm each other’s accounts. One thing to understand about this is that it’s really pretty obvious that at least the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are not independent of each other, yet this fact wasn’t even noticed until the 5th century and then only barely. But it was the fact that Roman scholars believed that the Gospels were four independent corroborating accounts that led them to conclude that the Gospel narratives were more credible and “more true” than other such accounts of prophets and prophecies, and this is what ultimately led to the adoption of Christianity as the one true religion, having been “proven to be true” by the accounts of the Gospels and their confirmation of divine prophecy.

    • KG says

      There are dozens and dozens of examples of stories about people from the period of about the 4th century BCE through the 4th century CE that were widely believed by Romans, but which are highly implausible and the only record of these suppose people are these written stories. And we know that it was the written stories that led people to believe these people were real because commentors on these people essentially say so.

      Where are the commentors saying the same about Jesus? Why did none of the anti-Christian polemicists claim that Jesus was not a real person? Why are none of the sects of proto-Christianity recorded as having had this belief (while we do have knowledge of a very wide range of proto-Christian beliefs).

      But it was the fact that Roman scholars believed that the Gospels were four independent corroborating accounts that led them to conclude that the Gospel narratives were more credible and “more true” than other such accounts of prophets and prophecies, and this is what ultimately led to the adoption of Christianity as the one true religion

      This is such a bizarre claim that it’s hard to know what to say about it, except that it’s completely inconsistent with everything you’ve said about Roman attitudes to history.

  10. says

    rationalrevolution@10,

    We see things like all of the sudden in the 2nd century BCE a story about some prophet who supposedly lived in the 4th century BCE, but for which there is no mention of that person prior to the story, and the story is wholly unbelievable, but yet even the most educated Romans completely believed it.

    That’s something like 150-250 years after the life of the prophet. It’s a poor parallel to writings that occurred within the lifespan of some who would have been adults at the time of the Jesus’ death, and would have been able to meet such people.

    • rationalrevolution says

      That’s not the point. The point is the way that Romans viewed and understood the truth of stories. And secondly, regardless of when exactly the Gospels were written, we have no commentaries on the Gospels until the late 2nd century, so when we talk about people believing that the Gospels were true, what we are really talking about are people from the late 2nd century and after.

      The point is that many Roman scholars and high-class figures believed tons of nonsense and believed in lots of false stories and in the existence of people and creatures that clearly never existed. Believing that Jesus was a real person even though he wasn’t based on the Gospels wouldn’t be some unique case, it’s a totally common case.

      • says

        I thought the central point was whether the 1st century writers believed that Jesus was a historical person.

        James, the brother of Jesus, died in the 60s. The men who wrote the first gospels would have been his contemporaries. That’s not the case for the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.

        • rationalrevolution says

          So far Dr. Sarah has just discussed the introduction of the book. We haven’t even gotten into the first chapter yet. The case made in the book is that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story, with all other accounts of the life of Jesus being based on the Gospel of Mark.

          There was no brother of Jesus, that’s a 2nd century confusion.

          All of the evidence for these points is laid out in the book, but none of that evidence has been reviewed yet y Dr Sarah because so far she’s just covered the intro.

          • says

            rationalrevolution,

            I look forward to the rest of the review. In particular, I look forward to how it tries to do away with 1st century descriptions of James as Jesus’ brother.

  11. db says

    Per Carrier [now bolded], “How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus?“. Richard Carrier Blogs. 9 November 2017.

    The Jewish War of 66–70 destroyed the original church in Jerusalem, leaving us with no evidence that any of the original apostles lived beyond it. Before that, persecutions from Jewish authorities and famines throughout the empire . . . further exacerbated the effect, which was to leave a thirty-year dark age in the history of the church (from the 60s to the 90s), a whole generation in which we have no idea what happened or who was in charge (Element 22). In fact this ecclesial dark age probably spans fifty years (from the 60s to 110s), if 1 Clement was written in the 60s and not the 90s (see Chapter 8, §5), as then we have no record of anything going on until either Ignatius or Papias, both of whom could have written well later than the 110s (Chapter 8, §§6 and 7).
    […]
    almost all evidence of the original Christian sects and what they believed has been lost or doctored out of the record; even evidence of what happened during the latter half of the first century to transition from Paul’s Christianity to second-century ‘orthodoxy’ is completely lost and now almost wholly inaccessible to us (Elements 21-22 and 44).
    […]
    even if we granted historicity, then we do not know how some sects transitioned to a cosmically born Jesus in the Christianities Irenaeus attacks as heresies (Chapter 11, §9) or a cosmically killed Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah (Chapter 3, §1), or to a Jesus who lived and died a hundred years earlier (Chapter 8, §1). Thus, our ignorance in the matter of how the cult transitioned is not solved by positing historicity. Either way, we’re equally in the dark on how these changes happened.

    Per Neil Godfrey (1 January 2012). “Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels”. Vridar.

    The first time we have secure and verifiable confidence of the existence of the Gospels is in the latter half of the second century with the writings of Irenaeus.

    Working back from that position we come to Justin in the mid second century and find some indirect hints that he may have known of the Gospels in a form not far removed from how we know them. Justin certainly speaks of quite a few things we find in the Synoptic Gospels. We sometimes find a phrase here and there in other works that we find likewise appear in the Gospels.

  12. rationalrevolution says

    Just FYI, the issue of James brother of Jesus is addressed in Chapter 9, so if she goes about this one chapter at a time it may be a while before that question get’s answered.

    But to summarize that topic, basically, there is the statement in Galatians where Paul say she met with “James, the Lord’s brother”. This can be interpreted in multiple ways given that Paul and other early Christians use the term “brother”, “Lord’s brother”, “bothers of the Lord”, etc. typically to mean fellow worshipers of Jesus, not actual biological brothers.

    What I show in Chapter 9 is that when we look at all of the evidence outside of the this one quote, we don’t find anything to corroborate the idea that the James who was a leader of the cult in Jerusalem was a literal brother of Jesus, and in fact we find a lot of evidence to the contrary. It isn’t until the late 2nd century that the early Christian chronicler Hegesippus makes the claim that James was actually Jesus’ literal brother.

    Of note, a brother named James plays no important role in any of the Gospels, yet if Jesus’ brother James became the leader of the movement surely he would have. Of particular note are the works of Luke and Acts. The whole point of Luke/Acts was to try and codify the “real history” of the movement. The person who wrote those works was trying to consolidate all of the most reliable information he was able to gather and put it into a real historical format. A brother of Jesus named James isn’t even mentioned at all in the works of Luke/Acts, much less said to be a leader of the movement. That the author of Luke/Acts would leave out the fact that Jesus had a literal brother named James, who was the leader of the movement after he died, is not credible. Acts does say that James was a leader of the movement, but he never says that James was a brother of Jesus.

    Furthermore, the Letter of James, while attributed to “Jesus’ brother”, doesn’t say that the writer is Jesus’ brother and in fact looks nothing like a letter from someone’s brother as it doesn’t even describe Jesus as a person. In addition, the Letter of Jude says that it is from “Jude, brother of James”. But if James was a brother of Jesus then Jude would also be a brother of Jesus, and this is what Christians claim, but if Jude were using his relationship to a more well-known person to identify himself then why wouldn’t he introduce himself as “Jude, brother of Jesus”?

    And that’s not the full extent of it. But basically, all of the evidence shows that no one considered James to be a brother of Jesus until the late 2nd or early 3rd century. There is a lot of discussion of James from prior to that time and none of it indicates that James was a literal brother of Jesus.

  13. says

    rationalrevolution@13,

    Paul only uses “brothers of the Lord” in contexts that treat these “brothers of the Lord” separately from other believers, not as a description of all believers. I’m not aware of any other writings that are contemporaneous with Paul and use that phrase differently. In fact, I went to http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ and looked for any potentially first century document that had this phrase. It only appears in Paul.

    Josephus, writing in the early 90s, identifies James as the brother of Jesus in Chapter XX of Antiquities (note this is a different section that the Testimonium Flavium). So, we do have a non-Paul reference to James as being Jesus’ brother from the first century.

    • rationalrevolution says

      The passage in Josephus is also addressed in the book. It’s an obvious interpolation. Many scholars agree that its an interpolation. I’d rather address it in more detail the appropriate post however.

          • says

            rationalrevolution,

            Your link is internally inconsistent.

            The information that he is passing on would have been common knowledge by 109 CE, and this is an insignificant point amidst the larger subject of this work, which is Nero himself.

            Christians argue that this was done because “Jesus Christ” was so well known that it makes the passage make sense, but as we have seen, no one prior to Josephus had even written about Jesus Christ aside from some Christians, so it certainly does not seem that he was well known.

            In a span of 16 years, you have Christians going from being almost unknown to being so well to being so well-know that the details of their religion are common knowledge. This seems fairly arbitrary.

            A much more likely case here is that the Jesus mentioned as the brother of James is the same Jesus who is the son of Damneus.

            You would have Josephus talk about the same person in the same passage using completely different identifying features, with no attempt made in the text to show they are the same person. Can you point to one other example of Josephus writing this way?

            The real question, however, is if this is James “the brother of Jesus Christ” of the Gospels, and Christians claim that the Gospels are true, then that would mean that this James would have to be in the line of David as well, and thus if anything it would have made more sense to qualify James by his father Joseph, who would had to have been in the line of David, and thus would have been seen as prestigious name worth mentioning.

            Why would Josephus think James the Just was in the line of David any more than any other person of that time?

            In your list of early Christian doctrines, every single one has some sort of human being, avatar, or appearance as a human to other human being for the purpose of teaching. None of them talk of a Jesus who never came to earth. Even Theophilus, while not explicitly associating Jesus and the Word, does explicitly talk about some sort of embodiment.

  14. rationalrevolution says

    Prior to the writing of the Gospels “Jesus Christ” and Christianity were virtually unknown. After the writing and dissemination of the Gospels, the Gospel account of Jesus became well known. 109 is after the writing of at least some Gospels. And again, even conservative biblical scholars acknowledge that Tacitus is merely passing on things he heard from Christians, he’s not an independent witness to anything.

    “You would have Josephus talk about the same person in the same passage using completely different identifying features, with no attempt made in the text to show they are the same person. Can you point to one other example of Josephus writing this way?”

    Perhaps later, can’t right now. He’s explaining that Jesus son of Damneus was granted the priesthood because his brother James was killed, that’s why. His relationship to James is relevant to the explanation.

    “None of them talk of a Jesus who never came to earth.”

    I’m talking about the doctrines of modern Christians, who believe that Jesus was a person (as did the 2nd century Catholics from whom modern Christianity descends).

    It is clear that by the 2nd century many people, Christians and non-Christians, thought that Jesus was a real person, because of the Gospel stories. No one is disputing that people as early as the late 1st century thought that Jesus was a person. The case presented is that this perception came entirely from the Gospel stories, not from any knowledge of a real person outside of the Gospel stories. But the Gospel stories are “fictional”, entirely fabricated narratives, which is what chapters 1-3 are about.

    • says

      Prior to the writing of the Gospels “Jesus Christ” and Christianity were virtually unknown.

      Josephus’ writing circa 93 is after the writing of gMark in the 70s. 25+ years before that, in the 40s, the Christians are well-known enough among Jews in Judea that Paul (according to his own testimony) was persecuting them, and Josephus visited Jerusalem (and was a member of the priestly caste) in the 60s. There is no reasonble way to interpret that the Christians would have been so insignificant in the 90s that Josephus would not have know of them, and that 16 years later so wide-spread and well-known that a Roman like Tacitus could think of their doctrines as “common knowledge”.

      Perhaps later, can’t right now.

      I promise to not hold my breath.

      The case presented is that this perception came entirely from the Gospel stories, not from any knowledge of a real person outside of the Gospel stories.

      I also read Tim O’Neill’s blog, and as he pointed out 14 separate passages of Paul referring to Jesus as a human. So, the notion of Jesus as a human clearly predates Mark.

  15. CJO says

    In fact, once you take into account that two out of the three leaders of the original Jerusalem church supposedly started out as part of Jesus’s group, the probability seems to swing at least a little more towards the historical.

    Except that nowhere in the first century epistolatory literature are these figures referred to as disciples or followers of any earthly teacher: they are apostles (lit. “one who is sent”), messengers charged with delivering a message from the risen savior. Nor are they differentiated from other apostles in terms that would indicate that their standing derived from a personal relationship.

    • rationalrevolution says

      @CJO: correct.

      The whole issue comes down to clearly identifying pre-Gospel and post-Gospel content and beliefs.

      That’s what transnational Christian scholars have done so poorly. They have conflated Gospel and pre-Gospel data, treating it as if this distinction is not important. This is in part because they assume that the Gospels reflect the earliest accounts of Jesus, i.e. that even if the Gospels were not written until 70 or 80 or 90 CE, they pass on information that comes from 20-36 CE.

      That’s not only a completely unjustified assumption, every bit of data that we have leads to the opposite conclusion.

      Once we clearly delineate between pre-Gospel and post-Gospel accounts, we see stark difference in how Jesus and the early Christian community is described. I address that some here: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/beyond.html

      Yes, we do find a lot of material that agrees with the Gospel accounts of who Jesus was. The problem is that all of that material was produced after the Gospels were written. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the Gospels are actually the source of these claims. Late 1st and 2nd century materials that say the same things as the Gospels don’t confirm what the Gospels say, they merely reflect what the Gospels say.

      That’s a large point of my book, determining what events in the Gospels we can confirm with certainty DIDN’T happen, and aren’t historical, and then using that knowledge to assess the independence of later sources. If later sources tell us things that we have already establish didn’t really happen, then we know that the source of information for those source is just the Gospel story, not any independent knowledge of said events.

      When we do that, I argue, we find that every single account of Jesus the person in existence shows evidence that it is ultimately based on the story called the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Mark is shown to be entirely “made up.” So every account of Jesus is based on this single fabricated story.

      Not only that, but there are major signs in the pre-Gospel materials that indicate the Jesus those people were talking about was a divine being that they believed prophets had “discovered” through mystic interpretations of the Jewish scriptures. We know that these types of scriptural interpretations are something that Jews at this time were doing, as we have ample example of this from the writings from Qumran. We know that some sects of Jews were combing through the “OT” scriptures thinking that those scriptures were encoded messages from God that could reveal hidden knowledge of the future, things going on in the heavens, and unknown things from the past. All that Doherty, Carrier, and myself are saying is that Jesus one such example of this type of scriptural interpretation.

      • MrHorse says

        rationalrevolution wrote “we have ample example of [portrayals of Jesus as a divine being discovered through mystical interpretations] from the writings from Qumran”.
        And from the Nag Hammadi codices(?)

    • db says

      Agnew, Francis H. (March 1986). “The Origin of the NT Apostle-Concept: A Review of Research”. Journal of Biblical Literature. 105 (1): 75–96. doi:10.2307/3261112.

      [The term apostolos] is found in most of the NT books and across the time span that they represent, with concentration in Paul (35x) and Luke (34x), near the beginning and end of the period. [Moulton-Geden (excluding variants) shows incidence as follows: Paul: 35 times, including 1 Thessalonians: 1, 1 Corinthians: 10, 2 Corinthians: 7, Galatians: 3, Romans: 3, Philippians: 1, Colossians: 1, Ephesians: 4, Pastorals: 5; Luke: 34 times, including Luke: 6, Acts: 28, otherwise 11 times, including once each in Mark, Matthew, John, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Jude; twice in 2 Peter; and 3 times in Revelation.] —(p. 75)

    • says

      CJO,

      Except that nowhere in the first century epistolatory literature are these figures referred to as disciples or followers of any earthly teacher

      Paul refers to himself that way, as a follower of Jesus.

      rationalrevolution,

      From your link: The letters of Paul contain many teachings, though Paul dos not attribute any of them to Jesus.

      O’Neill listed 3 of them to you directly, one of which was apparently in past tense.

      Galatians 4:4-5 The woman described is an allegorical woman, as Paul himself states in Gal 4:24. This actually describes an allegorical heavenly birth.

      I laughed when you took Gal. 4:24, referring to the allegory of Abraham’s first two sons, and tried to pry that back into Gal. 4:4. That’s quite a twisted pretzel.

      • CJO says

        Paul refers to himself that way, as a follower of Jesus.

        No he doesn’t, not even once.

        The distinction I’m making is between the gospels’ term mathētḗs (pupil, disciple) and the term Paul and the other 1st century epistles use, apóstolos (lit. one who is sent away, messenger).

        • says

          Sorry, he calls himself a servant, not a disciple. I suppose “follower” is a little indistinct. It seems you want to use language very precisely, possibly more so than most native speakers tend to (possibly not).

          So, to be precise, at the time the early epistles are written, Jesus is already dead, and any disciple he might have had are no longer disciples, but indeed apostles. For Paul or any other writer to have used “disciple” at that point would have been improper, if we are expecting precise language.

  16. Sam Hoff says

    Jesus is the same fictional Jesus from the LXX version of Zechariah.

    Paul only ever indicates 2 sources of Jesus info, Scripture (the LXX) and dream teachings.

    Paul never indicates Cephas or anyone else was a disciple of Jesus. Apostle doesn’t mean disciple.

    Philo independently confirms Jesus is the same Jesus from the LXX version of Zechariah:

    https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/13541

    • says

      Sam Hoff,

      Paul only ever indicates 2 sources of Jesus info, Scripture (the LXX) and dream teachings.

      Paul does refer to Jesus teaching things on earth, at least once in past tense.

      Paul never indicates Cephas or anyone else was a disciple of Jesus. Apostle doesn’t mean disciple.

      Why would he? Also, why would Philo’s opinion matter?

  17. db says

    OP: “The other gospel writers, misunderstanding Mark’s gospel and believing it to be a real story of a real person, wrote more detailed stories based on it. (At least, that seems to be what R.G. Price thinks happened here; his theory seems a little vague at this point.)”

    As I understand, R. G. Price asserts that the Gospel of Mark is the first story of Jesus’ life that was written. And that all other accounts of Jesus’ life are derived from Mark (in agreement with Michael Goulder’s thesis). Per Price, the author of Mark knew that Jesus was not a real person and knew that the story he was putting forward was “fictional” (now diverging from Goulder’s thesis, who believed that Mark was the only “true” historical account of the canonical gospels ). Price does not specifically address or answer how and why the other gospels were derived—after the Gospel of Mark. He does propose that it seems that the author of Luke believed in the literal truth of the Markan narrative and thought he was writing a real biography of a real person. As for Matthew and John, Price offers no conclusion, saying that its not clear if whoever wrote those accounts believed that Jesus was a real person or understood that the story was “fictional”.

    • rationalrevolution says

      That’s correct db.

      Also, in terms of “vagueness”, we have to keep alternative and mainstream views in mind as well.

      Certainty I can’t explain the motivations for why whoever wrote the other Gospels did what they did, and neither can anyone else. I think what we’ve learned in the past 15 or so years of advanced intertextual analysis is that virtually everything everyone though they understood about the Gospels is wrong.

      The idea that the Gospels are a record of some oral tradition is completely indefensible at this point with all of the recent evidence from textual studies. And much of what anyone thought they knew about “why” the Gospels were written had a lot to do with how they thought they were written, and clearly how everyone thought the Gospels were written is wrong.

      20 years ago every mainstream scholar would have told you that there was no relationship at all between Mark and the epistles of Paul. Now it turns out that Paul is the driving force behind Mark. This turns everything everyone thought they knew about Mark on its head. This is a huge deal, that most people have still barely even begun to comprehend.

      Mainstream scholars will tell you that they know why the Gospels were written. They will say simply, “To record the life of teachings of Jesus of course.” But that’s not an explanation, that’s nothing more than a faith-based assumption.

      So yes, I’m saying, “It’s not clear why the person who wrote Matthew did what he did.” That’s an honest and true answer as opposed to, “The writer of Matthew wanted to record the life of Jesus, duh!”

      What I’m working from is the position of “how”. How were these works constructed? We can see that they were constructed on a literary basis. We can see the details of how Matthew re-worked Mark and also referred back to Paul and also expanded his narrative by using the “Old Testament”. If Matthew invented scenes, which the evidence shows that he did, then why did he do that and what was he thinking when he did so? We can’t know. Assuming that Matthew was simply writing down a story that someone else told him makes it easy to assume why he wrote what he did – because he was told to. But the evidence indicates that the Gospels are conscious constructs of the authors. And everything we know about how works were written at that time reinforces the view that writers of works were themselves largely the inventors of the narratives they recorded – this is true even of “history”. Even the “historians” of the time are known to have been very creative and to have personally embellished and invented many aspects of their narratives.

      We can’t presume to know “why” these people did such things, and many mainstream “explanations” are nothing more than simplistic assumptions.

    • says

      The idea that the Gospels are a record of some oral tradition is completely indefensible at this point with all of the recent evidence from textual studies. And much of what anyone thought they knew about “why” the Gospels were written had a lot to do with how they thought they were written, and clearly how everyone thought the Gospels were written is wrong.

      To be clear, that discussion is orthogonal to the notion that there was no historical Jesus. A historical Jesus might still have had little oral traditions about his personal life to provide details for Mark to work with. A non-historical Jesus could have had personal details built into his traditions long before Mark set pen to paper.

  18. CJO says

    Matthew should really be regarded as an expansion of Mark rather than a new original composition. It seems to me the assembly of Matthew had a couple of aims, leaving aside the author’s beliefs regarding the historicity of the protagonist. First, it needed some more generic biographical elements like a genealogy and a birth narrative. The author was also very keen to cast Jesus as a new Moses. And it seems to me that the ending of Mark was especially puzzling to its earliest audiences. The author of Matthew had in his possession traditions about visions of the risen one, and he incorporated them into a longer ending that made more sense of the story (from a certain literal point of view). Overall, he corrects a lot of Mark’s Greek, and smooths out narratives that were used in Mark as literary structures like chiasms that the author of Matthew and probably a lot of early readers/hearers of Mark didn’t understand.

    Mark remains a profoundly misunderstood text.

    • rationalrevolution says

      Right, but traditional and mainstream scholars have always skirted the issue of motive and intent when it comes to how the Gospels were written by simply assuming that all the writers were doing was faithfully recording “what they had been told” about such things. And then the idea of where these narratives came from is something simply left as an unknowable thing – a product of typical urban legend.

      But when we understand that the writers of the Gospels themselves consciously developed these narratives, then we have to consider why exactly they wrote what they did. What was their intention? Etc.

    • MrHorse says

      CJO said “The author [of Matthew] was…very keen to cast Jesus as a new Moses …[and] had in his possession traditions about visions of the risen one”
      That’s interesting, as Philo revered Moses, and Philo has an interesting reference to a Rising one in On the Confusion of Tongues.

      • MrHorse says

        addendum: I’m not saying Philo was the author of Matthew, but that the author of Matthew may have been influenced by Philo.

  19. Dr Sarah says

    @R.G. Price: Hi, and thanks for coming to reply to this! I won’t answer all the points since, as you said, I will be going over these points in the rest of the book. (Also, I apologise in advance to you and others for the time that’s going to take. I will get there, but it won’t be quick as there’s also other stuff I want to write.)

    What I wanted to discuss was the point you replied to in comments 2 and 10, regarding the origin of gMatthew, gLuke and gJohn. My query was not over whether there would have been people who believed gMark, even if it were meant as an allegory – I can easily accept that there would have been – but over whether there would have been people who would take that to the point of writing accounts expanding on gMark.

    This is explicable if we hypothesise that Jesus did exist. If the early church communities were aware of a time when Jesus had some sort of existence on earth, and had stories (whether true, embroidered, or invented) about this time, then it would be plausible that more of the church followers would want to write down accounts of this life as time went by. (Of course, it would also still be extremely likely that these accounts would contain things that the writers had embroidered for dramatic effect and stories that other people had embroidered or invented over the years, and that they’d be slanted a particular way to illustrate the points the writers wanted to make, so I quite agree that they shouldn’t be treated as impartial stories in which the authors were striving for historical accuracy above all. My point is that, in this case, we have a plausible motive for the authors writing them.)

    However… if your thesis is correct and the early church communities believed only in a divine being who’d lived and died in heaven, how do we get from that plus one allegory, to multiple people embroidering the story over the next few decades?

    If ‘Matthew’, ‘Mark’ and ‘John’ were part of the early church group at that time, wouldn’t they have known their own group’s beliefs? Wouldn’t they know that their Yeshua was actually a heavenly saviour, not an earthly one? (After all, according to your theory, this would have been a foundational part of their beliefs; the belief that the earth was too sinful for their Messiah to come from here.) Why would not just one person, but three people from such a group read an account of a real-life Jesus and decide that they had to embroider it? (This becomes even more unlikely when you consider what a small percentage of the population were capable of not only reading and writing, which were already uncommon skills in those days, but composing complex works in Koine Greek. So, there wouldn’t have been many such people in the first place.)

    If they weren’t part of the early church group, then how did this work? Let’s say ‘Matthew’ somehow gets hold of a copy of gMark and is so moved by what he believes to be a story of a real person that he wants to write the story himself. The most likely course of action in that case is that he’d join the early church to find out more. Of course, there’s a chance this wouldn’t be the way it would go; after all, we know that Paul, on becoming a follower of Jesus, took pretty much the opposite route (both metaphorically and literally) and went off to come up with his own belief system about Jesus’s meaning and purpose, which so enamoured him that he then taught it to others. So, yes, I can see it would be possible that ‘Matthew’ would do the same. But this would also have to include him not only adapting and embroidering the story, but adding huge amounts to it out of what, in this hypothesis, would be pretty much nowhere (because he wouldn’t be either building on existing traditions or trying to explain away existing traditions). So we’re already looking at something that, while not impossible, would be extremely unlikely to happen.

    And then, on top of that, we’d have to believe that ‘Luke’ would rewrite gMatthew out of the blue in a similar way… all right, at this point we could hypothesise that ‘Matthew’ had started his own group separately from the rest of the church and that ‘Luke’ was a part of this group, so maybe it wouldn’t be out of the blue. Except that in that case ‘Luke’ would be rewriting the writings of his group’s founder and leader, which, again, would be an odd and unusual thing to do. And then ‘John’ would have to do something similar.

    Do you see the problem? It’s extremely hard to picture a realistic scenario in which all of this happens. And, without such a scenario, you’ve got a giant hole in your theory.

  20. neilgodfrey says

    I haven’t read the bulk of the post or any of the comments but I probably will soon enough. I read as far as this line in the post, though:

    rather than being a completely mythical figure as many non-Christians believe.

    I stopped at that point because such a line immediately removes the discussion, as far as I believe, from the realm of serious intellectual and historical inquiry and dumps it in to an ideological battlefield where I can see no room for genuine intellectual discussion.

    We see enough of people tossing ad homina mud in this topic: the Tim O’Neill’s and the James McGraths, the Bart Ehrmans and the Richard Carriers and those who once belonged to the Acharya S and now the Joe Atwill group — all spitting out accusations of self-willed ideological bias and stupidity etc.

    The fact is that several of the leading exponents of the Jesus myth theory are (that is, they remain) in fact devout Christians. Others in past that I have read about may not have been Christians but were certainly highly respectful and admiring of the Christian religion. Their “mythicism” came with no anti-religious angst at all. Others have been Christians in the past but remain very much appreciate and respectful towards the Christian faith.

    When I see anyone begin a discussion of the question by reducing it to “Christians vs Non-Christians” or “Christian sympathizers vs anti-theists” or such, I really lose interest almost immediately — so much so that I am not at all likely to read any further but will instead just leap to the comments and write something like this as I am doing now.

    The real historical question is to ask how Christianity originated and emerged. By all the normal standards of serious historical inquiry, by the normal methods of historians whether of modern, medieval or ancient history, there is every reason to question the conventional, gospel-based narrative basis from which some core explanation for Christianity is said by most theologians to make sense.

    I have not yet read a single argument in favour of the conventional explanation that coheres with the bare basics of standard historical research methods. All their accounts — even by their own admission in some notable cases — are circular.

    As I said, I will probably return here some time in a few days or a week or so, but I do want to just leave this comment here for now: how many people arguing for either side of the question, but especially for the conventional wisdom, will point to the serious standards of historical inquiry as practiced by mainstream historians of any time period: modern, medieval or ancient?

    There are Old Testament scholars who have begun to follow the normative methods of historical inquiry in mainstream history departments and have overturned many major models and concepts of the history of “biblical Israel” in the process. One of those scholars who died recently had asked publically what might be the result if the same methods were applied to the question of the historicity of Jesus. He even said that until biblical scholars took those methods on board their field would never gain the respectability of other history departments, or words to that effect.

    My most recent post on these questions is at Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition.

    Meanwhile, let’s please stop seeing this as a Christian versus non-christian debate. That gets us nowhere.

    • Dr Sarah says

      Neil, you have managed to misinterpret and misrepresent my words to a degree that is truly staggering. You have read a sentence in which I, a non-Christian, refer to other non-Christians holding a different belief from myself on a particular point, and have somehow interpreted this as ‘reducing [the question] to Christians vs. Non-Christians’ and leapt from there to an implication that this framing equates to ‘Christian sympathizers vs. anti-theists’. Oh, and to me turning this debate into an ‘ideological battlefield’ and ‘tossing ad homina mud’. I have simply no idea how you got from Point A to Point Z on this one.

      I’m happy that you wish to join in the discussion, and you are extremely welcome to do so in the civil, respectful way that I’ve previously enjoyed in your writings. However, please make this not only the first but also the last time that you leap to such breathtakingly unwarranted and frankly quite insulting conclusions about what you believe I meant. Thank you.

    • db says

      • I am not speaking for Neil Godfrey, just FYI:

      Godfrey, Neil (4 July 2019). “Religion Prof Watch (Quote Mining a Review on Nazareth)”. Vridar.

      One interesting detail in McGrath’s post — he writes of “mythicists”:

      All of them have an anti-religious bent, whether it be Communist or modern online atheist opposition to religion in general . . .

      Now that is simply not true. Thomas Brodie? Timothy Freke? Peter Gandy? Herman Detering? Paul-Louis Couchoud? Arthur Drews? Tom Harpur? Robert M. Price? Edward van der Kaaij? Francesco Carotta? Even René Salm . . . .  from what I see they have all sought to promote what they consider to be a higher form of spirituality or religiosity than anything that relies upon literalist dogmatism.

  21. rationalrevolution says

    @Dr Sarah: Hi Sarah, and thanks again for covering this topic.

    “whether there would have been people who would take that to the point of writing accounts expanding on gMark.”

    First we have to take a step back and not come at this material with assumptions. That’s what I’ll be doing in my next book – breaking down the material and timeline bit by bit. The biggest traditional assumption made regarding Jesus and the origins of Christianity is that the goal of the Gospel writers was to found or support the development of what Christianity became in the 3rd-4th centuries.

    This is certainly the assumption and perspective of the 3rd-4th century Church fathers, and those assumptions have colored biblical scholarship and our view of the Gospels ever since.

    But what I’m studying right now is ancient Mediterranean (Jewish, Greek, Roman, Egyptian) prophecy, oracles, cult and the literature associated with such. There was a lot going on in those cultures that is very foreign to us today, with many motives and beliefs that most people, certainly Christian biblical scholars, have no real comprehension of. And indeed the early 2nd-3rd century Christian apologists did everything they could to try and set Christian literature and beliefs apart from all of the other “pagan” beliefs and literature, but when you really get down to it, you see that its all the same.

    And what we know of Greek and Roman prophetic literature at that time, which the Gospels certainly fall into that genre, is that much of it was simply produced for profit. Oracles and prophecies were quite simply a business at that time, a huge industry in fact. There were thousands of stories of prophecy that were anonymously produced, many very similar to the Gospels. Anonymous writers would produce the stories and sell them to middle-men who would then sell them to wealthy individuals like senators, governors, generals and emperors. Those people would then have scholars study them to see if they could be used to predict the future. The Romans believed absolutely in the ability of prophets to predict the future and the whole business of prophecy was very serious indeed. One of the most highly regarded forms of prophecy at this time was prophetic stories like the Gospel stories, that features characters who predicted the events of the story, predict events that had already happened but the audience would know were true (destruction of the temple in this case) and then often to predict some future event, like who a future emperor would be, the end of the world, who would destroy Rome, that some group would be destroyed, that some group would gain the favor of the gods, etc.

    And when such stories came out, there was often competition among the oracle writers. When a story would become popular other writers would write similar stories to cash in on the craze. Does this explain the other Gospels? I can’t say for sure, but it is certainly an observed phenomenon of that time.

    Talking about Matthew, Luke, John writing for some community it itself an assumption. There is no evidence of that. Indeed gLuke says that his account was written for one person. This corresponds exactly to what we know about how prophetic stories were interpreted and studied. Luke is writing for Theophilus, who was likely a wealthy patron. Luke was likely a student of prophecies or prophetic literature. He was clearly working from multiple sources, likely Mark, Matthew, Paul’s letters, Josephus, and likely some others.

    We don’t know why the Gospels of Matthew and John were written. They could have been written by someone looking to get rich from selling a story. They could have been written by someone who believed deeply in Jesus who was trying to create a narrative for a church. They could have been written by someone who knew that Jesus was a made up character. We have no idea. But we can’t assume that such accounts were written for the purpose of supporting a religious community, we really have no idea.

    What we do know, however, is that essentially practically everything that biblical scholars thought about the Gospel of Mark as little as 15 years ago is totally wrong and that should give any serious person pause when it comes to thinking that traditional views of what these stories are and why they were written have any merit.

    “This is explicable if we hypothesise that Jesus did exist. If the early church communities were aware of a time when Jesus had some sort of existence on earth, and had stories (whether true, embroidered, or invented) about this time, then it would be plausible that more of the church followers would want to write down accounts of this life as time went by. ”

    But what I show, and also the works of many others is showing, is that whoever wrote Matthew, Luke and John actually had no idea of what they were talking about. That’s the point of my book. I show that Matthew, Luke, and John are expanding upon a clearly made-up narrative.

    If Jesus did exist and was a real person, and there was some community who did have knowledge of the real Jesus person, then how could the obviously false stories of Matthew, John, and Luke, have gained acceptance among them? The Markan narrative is totally made up. Everyone else copied it. Clearly nothing in the Markan narrative ever happened. Any real Jesus wouldn’t resemble the person described in Mark. So if Jesus were real and there was a community who knew the real Jesus, then how could all of these obviously false narrative about him have gained acceptance in such communities? That’s the point.

    If Matthew, Luke, and John are writing between 90 and 120 CE, as most scholars believe, then whether Jesus existed or not would have been irrelevant to them. They themselves would have had no idea or way to know. People at this time believe all kinds of nonsense. People at this time believed literally in the existence of angles and demons living in the air above them, in hundreds of mythical figures who never existed, in dragons, griffins, and cyclopes, etc. Virtually everyone in these cultures believed literally in thousands of begins and people who didn’t exist. Even the Epicureans, the most skeptical of the bunch, believed in many of these things.

    • Dr Sarah says

      That’s really interesting info about the prophecies, and I tried re-reading gMark with this in mind. The problem I found, though, is that gMark doesn’t have much prophecy in it and what it does have doesn’t look like the kind of thing that would attract a prophecy-hunting Roman. It starts out with a vague prophecy, but then we get almost halfway through the story before getting another prophecy, which, again, is pretty vague. Then we get nearly to the end before getting more prophecies. It might well have grabbed someone’s attention, but how likely is it that three different people would have wanted to rewrite it? You said you didn’t know of any other cases where that had happened… so, while it’s not impossible for that to have happened, it would have to be very unlikely. Yet this can be explained much more easily if we’re hypothesising a historical Jesus, because the communities that had been founded in his name would have a number of stories (however embroidered and inaccurate they were by that many decades after his death) still circulating about him.

      Also, you say that the patrons buying these narratives would have been wealthy, powerful people like ‘senators, governors, generals and emperors’ – powerful Romans, in other words. But gMatthew is clearly written for a Jewish audience (all the ‘prophecies’ he adds are aimed at showing that Jesus was really the prophesied Messiah, which wouldn’t have been anything a powerful Roman wanted to hear), so, again, I’m not sure this fits. Do we have records of Jewish people wanting to buy these volumes of prophecy in the same way? Obviously, if we don’t it doesn’t prove it couldn’t have happened; it does seem less likely, though.

      The Markan narrative is totally made up. Everyone else copied it. Clearly nothing in the Markan narrative ever happened.

      I don’t think that’s clear in the slightest; far from it. I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of it didn’t happen, or didn’t happen as written… but that’s not at all the same as saying that none of it happened. There’s a difference between inventing stories about a real person who lived and has become a legend in your community, and inventing stories about someone whom you don’t believe to have ever lived on earth at all.

      So if Jesus were real and there was a community who knew the real Jesus, then how could all of these obviously false narrative about him have gained acceptance in such communities?

      I don’t think they did. The gospels weren’t written until decades later, by which time Paul had set up multiple communities based on his own rather peculiar beliefs about Jesus, and his odd version of the faith was spreading and thriving. Also, life expectancy in those days wasn’t great anyway (especially if you were followers of someone who’d been executed by the ruling state for sedition…) and, on top of that, there’d just been a major war. Put all that together, and there would have been many Christian groups at that point that didn’t contain anyone who’d known the real Jesus; just people who’d heard stories that had been passed on about him. So, yes, by that point the stories could have been massively inaccurate and the writers wouldn’t have been called out on it, as long as they could tell their stories well. But, in the absence of some sort of historical figure – however misrepresented he was in the stories – we’d still have to account for how those stories got started, and for how four different people wanted to write accounts presenting him as a person who lived on earth and did things there.

      If Matthew, Luke, and John are writing between 90 and 120 CE, as most scholars believe

      Quick factual note; actually, practically all scholars would set Matthew earlier than that, and I think most would see that as a late cut-off date for Luke as well. (Of course, they were still writing late enough to allow for a lot of inaccuracy, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that ‘most scholars’ believe this to have been as late as 90 – 120 CE for all three of them.)

      • rationalrevolution says

        To add one more thing. What my book is largely about is demonstrating that the Gospel of Mark is an entirely fabricated story, crafted by a single individual, without any basis in any prior narratives about Jesus. That’s what chapters 1 & 2 focus on. This is done by showing the complexity of the story and how all of the scenes are based on literary references and how the character and teachings of Jesus are all based on the letters of Paul.

        And actually I really only scratch the surface in my book. Here is a recent post of mine that discusses some other resources that further support the case made in chapters 1 & 2:

        http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2019/04/the-state-of-scholarly-mythicism.html

        http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2019/04/jesus-his-life-crucifixion.html

        But basically in my book what I do is first make the case that Mark is an entirely made up story, fabricated by a single individual. Then, I show that once we realize that it is clear that the other Canonical Gospels are all just derived from Mark. Then I show that everything all the early Christian scholars knew about Jesus comes from the Gospels. Then I show that even the non-canonical Gospels are dependent on the Gospel of Mark. So what this shows is that there is no information about Jesus the person that comes from any source other than the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mark is entirely fabricated from the mind of one person who was basing his story on the letters of Paul. That’s the point.

        Then I show that Paul’s beliefs about Jesus are entirely from revelation and not based on the life any real person either.

        So I look forward your reviews of the following chapters and think that a lot of what is covered in the book addresses your questions.

  22. db says

    • Given that R. G. Price does not address Hebrews in the book:

    Comment by rationalrevolution—30 November 2018—per “Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price”. FreeThoughtBlogs. Geeky Humanist. 25 November 2018.

    I don’t want to get into the weeds on Hebrews, as obviously it’s not central to my thesis as I didn’t even address it in my book.

    • There are still various points beyond R. G. Price′s book in favor of an ahistorical Jesus theory.

    Comment by Richard Carrier—9 March 2019—per “The New Gathercole Article on Jesus Certainly Existing”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 28 February 2019.

    Hebrews 8:4

    Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest, since there are already priests who offer the gifts which the Law prescribes. (NEB)

    If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. (NIV)

    It’s the latter. Which is not as helpful as the pluperfect would have been. The other is not actually the Greek subjunctive, it just renders that way in English, but for our purposes is unclear—it fits both minimal mythicism and minimal historicity. Although even with the grammar in that ambiguous condition the argument implies he had not been on earth, as otherwise one would have expected the author to write “even when he was on earth he was not a priest, because…” (or “even though he was a priest when on earth, he isn’t now, because…”). In short, the author does not seem to be aware that Jesus had in fact been on earth. Moreover, he seems to believe Jesus died in the celestial realm, as the entire argument appears to maintain that Jesus was, because he had to be, a celestial priest upon his death, not an earthly one (cf. Heb. 9).

    On the grammar specifically, the sentence in Heb. 8:4 is a Greek conditional, and the verb is the same in both the protasis and apodosis: ên, which is the imperfect indicative (“was,” continuous past condition; the subjunctive, “were,” would be ê; the pluperfect, “had been,” would be a compound verb just like in English). Conditional sentences in Greek have a complex grammar, though, and the mood of verbs translates differently in English. In this case, the particle an is used with the imperfect indicative, making this a present contrafactual (“if he were on earth [now], he would not be a priest [now]”), which we express in English with the subjunctive. But this can be inclusive of all time, so it does not imply he had been on earth at some time, but neither does it rule it out. As a matter of grammar. But as a matter of the logic of the argument, we can infer as I noted above.

    • db says

      • Also:

      Strand, Narve (27 April 2019). “Why Jesus Most Probably Never Existed: Ehrman’s Double Standards”. Academia.edu.

      Many people seem to think it’s crazy to doubt Jesus existed, but it’s actually the belief he did that’s unreasonable. The claim, made by Ehrman in his book “Did JesusExist?”, that he was “a purely human being” who died around 30 CE (e.g. pp. 37, 46 (epub)) simply isn’t borne out by an open-minded weighing of the evidence.
      […]
      A consistent ahistorical stance here is like atheism: The only thing we really need to show is that the historicist doesn’t have real evidence that would make his purely human Jesus existing more probable than not.

      Cf. Godfrey, Neil (30 April 2019). “Another Name to Add to the Who’s Who Page of Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics”. Vridar.

    • db says

      • Also:

      Nanine Charbonnel (2017). “Les Évangiles comme midrash” (in French). APPROCHES – Les promesses du commencement. n°172.

      No sooner is the issue of the historical Jesus’ existence considered than, amazingly, it is immediately rejected as off-topic. . . . yet this fascinating question cannot be overlooked or left aside.
      […]
      In my book I draw a parallel between all that is said about Jesus’ actions, attitudes or feelings and ancient Jewish texts. Divided in two columns covering 43 pages I point out clear evidence that the authors of the texts always had those Jewish sources on their minds when they wrote their narratives. This Jewish material is used like playing bricks [Lego bricks] and they should not be read as historical references. And yet, unlike what was claimed on a catholic website, the edition of the Gospels was not a mere cut and paste process, it was developed in a sophisticated way by outstanding human minds. I give a specific and in-depth account of the devices to be found in the narratives and which became later like stumbling blocks in further interpretation. They usually result from a shortcoming in the handling of complex proper and figurative meanings.

      Cf. Charbonnel, Nanine (2017). Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier (in French). Berg International. ISBN 9782370201096.

  23. db says

    “Gospel of Matthew § Setting and date”. Wikipedia. 25 March 2019.

    The majority view among scholars is that Matthew was a product of the last quarter of the 1st century.

    Hagner, Donald A. (2011). “Determining the Date of Matthew”. In Gurtner, Daniel M.; Willitts, Joel; Burridge, Richard A. (ed.). Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel and Early Christianity: Studies in Memory of Graham N. Stanton. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-567-47754-5.

    Given the virtual non-cxistence of hard data, the confidence of many scholars concerning the dating of the Gospels is nothing short of amazing. Most of the supposed certainty depends ultimately upon an uncritical acceptance of traditional conclusions held by the scholarly mainstream.
    […]
    Those who have the temerity to challenge the status quo tend more often to be conservative scholars, who can be accused of having an axe to grind, or else established and respected scholars who can afford to think independently, like a Gundry or a Hengel, or the advocates of Matthean priority.

    Two remarkable proposals concerning the date of Matthew — remarkable in themselves and also remarkable because of the great difference between them — have been set forward in the past few decades, one putting Matthew extremely early and one extremely late.

  24. db says

    • R. G. Price reviews the following books:

    Price, R. G. (11 April 2019). “The State of Scholarly Mythicism”. debunkingchristianity.blogspot. John W. Loftus.

    The Case Against Q by Mark Goodacre (2002)
    Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul by David Oliver Smith (2011)
    Mark Canonizer of Paul by Tom Dykstra (2012)
    Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case For A Mythical Jesus by Earl Doherty (2009)
    On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier (2014)

    • Perhaps also germane, are some books noted in Blomberg’s chapter: “Is Paul the True Founder of Christianity?”.

    Blomberg, Craig L. (2016). The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs. B&H Publishing Group. p. 414, n. 4–5. ISBN 978-1-4336-9170-6.

    Friedrich Nietzsche, called Paul “the first Christian” and “the Jewish dysangelist” (i.e., a bearer of bad rather than good news)! Much more recently, atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann has dubbed Paul the true founder of Christianity, [^4] and Michael Goulder has resurrected F. C. Baur’s mid-nineteenth-century hypothesis that pits Paul against Peter as the two main streams of early Christian thought, with Peter preserving much more of the true nature of the historical Jesus. [^5]

    [note:4] Gerd Lüdemann, Paul: The Founder of Christianity (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2002). Only slightly less sweeping in his similar claims is James D. Tabor, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).

    [note:5] Michael D. Goulder, Paul and the Competing Mission in Corinth (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001).

    • db says

      Carrier (1 July 2019). “Spencer Alexander McDaniel on the Historicity of Jesus”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

      [M]any scholars have observed, Mark is allegorizing the teachings of Paul (e.g. Tom Dykstra, Mark: Canonizer of Paul; Joel Marcus, “Mark the Interpreter of Paul,” New Testament Studies 46.4 (2000): 473-87; Oda Wischmeyer & David Sim, eds., Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays; and David Oliver Smith, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul: The Influence of the Epistles on the Synoptic Gospels).

  25. rationalrevolution says

    Hi Sarah,
    “The problem I found, though, is that gMark doesn’t have much prophecy in it and what it does have doesn’t look like the kind of thing that would attract a prophecy-hunting Roman.”

    I’m not sure if you’ve read chapter 1 of my book yet, but it should help with some of this as well. Mark contains a mix of overt prophecies about the future, overt prophecies about the story, “hidden prophecies”, numerology and miracle working. Clearly much of this was recognized by Roman scholars as that is exactly what they focused on in relation to the Gospels – these aspects of the story. That is what chapter 4 of Deciphering the Gospels addresses.

    “You said you didn’t know of any other cases where that had happened”

    I’m not sure what this is referring to.

    “Yet this can be explained much more easily if we’re hypothesising a historical Jesus, because the communities that had been founded in his name would have a number of stories (however embroidered and inaccurate they were by that many decades after his death) still circulating about him.”

    Again. I’m not sure how much of my book you’ve read, but the book goes extensively into the evidence against this proposition. It would be better to directly address the material in the book.

    “Also, you say that the patrons buying these narratives would have been wealthy, powerful people like ‘senators, governors, generals and emperors’ – powerful Romans, in other words. But gMatthew is clearly written for a Jewish audience (all the ‘prophecies’ he adds are aimed at showing that Jesus was really the prophesied Messiah, which wouldn’t have been anything a powerful Roman wanted to hear), so, again, I’m not sure this fits.”

    I make no claims about Matthew. I don’t know the motivation behind the writing of Matthew. It’s just a derivative work. And certainly there were wealthy Jews as well, but it’s not clear who exactly the intended audience of Matthew is. No one knows, but what is clear is that it was just copied from Mark with relatively minor changes and additions that were done in a style trying to emulate Mark in terms of using scriptural references to concoct the story-line.

    “I don’t think that’s clear in the slightest; far from it. I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of it didn’t happen, or didn’t happen as written… but that’s not at all the same as saying that none of it happened. There’s a difference between inventing stories about a real person who lived and has become a legend in your community, and inventing stories about someone whom you don’t believe to have ever lived on earth at all.”

    Again, this is all addressed in my book. When/if you review those chapters we can address that there in light of the evidence.

    “But, in the absence of some sort of historical figure – however misrepresented he was in the stories – we’d still have to account for how those stories got started, and for how four different people wanted to write accounts presenting him as a person who lived on earth and did things there.”

    That is exactly what my book is about.

    “I don’t think it’s accurate to say that ‘most scholars’ believe this to have been as late as 90 – 120 CE for all three of them”

    Just some quick wikipedia turns up dates for Matthew between 80 and 110: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Matthew

    The same for Luke: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Luke

    And between 90 and 110 for John: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_John

    So those are pretty general dates.

    My Study Bible says:
    Matthew: Between 80 and 90
    Luke: Between 85 and “the early second century” for Luke
    John: Between the last decade of the first century and the first decades of the second century

    So in term of what “most scholars believe”, it may be slightly earlier than the dates I laid out, that’s true.

    Keep in mind that there is no record of anyone being aware of any Gospels until the middle of the second century.

    But overall I think we’ll be better served by addressing the content of the book, so hopefully we can adders that in upcoming posts. It’s certainly a complicated issue and there aren’t necessarily any definitive answers to some issues.

    Thanks again

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