I have a hard time believing I’ve now been on FTB for an entire five years, but… the calendar doesn’t lie. It’s once again Pi Day (1), my blogoversary, and on looking back I see it was five whole years today since I got the e-mail from PZ telling me my application was successful, frantically tried to think up an OK-sounding blog name, and made my first post.

I do not wish to dwell overly on all that has happened in those five years, as a depressing proportion of it has been negative (for the world and for me personally). I extend a very cautious optimism regarding the next five, but we’ll have to wait and see. However, being a member of FTB has definitely been a major positive for me during those years. Happy anniversary to all those who joined on the same day as me, and may we all have much happy blogging yet ahead.


(1) I am pleased to report that I did, in fact, eat pie. This had nothing to do with it being Pi Day – it was just that our Sunday dinner currently consists of pie – but it was a serendipitous happening and I am glad about it.

Book reviews: children’s/YA series

This is a post I was initially inspired to make by World Book Day, an international day of celebration of books/reading founded by UNESCO for the purpose of encouraging children to love books. Just before the day, I realised I could mark it on my blog; why not write reviews of series that my 13-year-old daughter and I have loved sharing? I didn’t get the post finished in time for the day itself, but I wanted to go ahead with writing it anyway. So, here are reviews of two multi-series that we’ve both loved… and that also carry some great messages for children.

Rick Riordan: the Percy Jackson world

Currently stands at: three sequential five-book series, two spin-off series of three books each dealing with different pantheons, one crossover series of novellas, and so many spin-off novels and novellas I’ve completely lost count.

This infamous multiseries starts with a simple premise: What if all of Greek mythology were actually true… including the part about gods having affairs with humans and conceiving demigod children? What would life be like for those children, growing up with powers and quests and monsters to fight? Riordan’s explorations of this are the kind of wonderful, readable books that combine great plots, humour, (just skim through the chapter titles in a Percy Jackson or Magnus Chase book to see what you’re in for) and warmth and poignancy. They look at what it’s like to grow up thinking of yourself as a loser and then find out you’re anything but, and at what heroism and bravery mean. All with superpowers and snark.

I have a caveat here; The first five-book series is not only (as you would probably expect) not quite as well written as the later books, it’s also for the most part pretty much structured as ‘White male hero solves everything and repeatedly saves the day, white female love interest gets to be Hermione Granger so that somebody can provide all the useful info, most other people get minor supporting roles’. I still loved the series, but be aware of that problem. (Ana Mardoll’s post on The Curse Of The Smart Girl is well worth a read.)

(Oh, and I just looked back at the beginning; there’s an ablist term on about the second page. Forgot that one.)

However… I don’t know whether Riordan realised this for himself or whether someone else pointed it out to him and he listened, but, either way, it’s something he improves on enormously in subsequent series. In the next five-book story arc, he brings in five new protagonists, two of whom are girls and four of whom are from ethnic minorities on their human side (Hispanic, Native American, Black and Chinese). Annabeth (the Hermione Granger character from the first book) gets a much bigger role as well. Percy’s still one of the protagonists, but his role has been scaled back a lot; in fact, he’s not in the first book at all (other than being the ‘Lost Hero’ of the title), and one of the themes from the later books in the series is that he has to learn to step back and let other people do things sometimes. Oh, and there’s a character from the first series who turns out to be gay and who has a happy relationship on the horizon by the time the series ends, with more gay/bi characters in the next series (including the third series’ protagonist). On top of that, we also get the Kane Chronicles in which the co-protagonists are a biracial brother and sister, and the Magnus Chase books in which we get a Moslem Valkyrie, a biracial einherji, a genderfluid einherji, and a disabled elf (who’s deaf and has had to deal with his family’s ablism). So, on top of all the other great things about these books, they’ve also ended up showing good diversity.


Tui Sutherland: Wings of Fire series

Currently stands at: two complete sequential five-book series, four out of five published books in a third series, a prequel, a spin-off novel, and four novellas looking at the backstories of some of the minor characters.

The ‘Wings of Fire’ series is set in a fantasy world where the characters are dragons. (Humans exist; the dragons call them ‘scavengers’ and think of them pretty much the way we think of mice, although they do come into the plotline in some key ways. The spin-off novel I mentioned above tells the parallel stories of the humans encountered during the first series, and the most recent book has linked up the two.) There is some adorable worldbuilding, with multiple different dragon tribes who have different abilities. In some places this leads to a trope known as Fantastic Racism (‘fantastic’, for those who don’t know the trope, referring here to the fantasy setting rather than being a compliment); overall, the message is about overcoming differences and working together.

Each of the main books tells the story through the eyes of a different character (with the prologue and epilogue in each case being from the viewpoint of yet other characters, used to flesh out the plot further), and thus each book has an individual character development arc as well as contributing to the overall plot arc. This makes it a great series on multiple levels; not only hugely readable with gripping plots, but with some good character development and great messages as well. It also means we get multiple female as well as male protagonists; in fact, there’s a slight preponderance of female protagonists overall. There’s also one protagonist in a gay relationship and we see a couple of same-gender crushes, all treated as completely normal by the characters. And, again, we get bucketloads of humour and snark and warmth.

I have one reservation to mention. In both of the last two books, we’ve seen a relationship (a romance in one, a friendship in the other) in which the protagonist is regularly angry and quite verbally aggressive towards the other person, who reacts by laughing it off and not being bothered by it. In the second case in particular, the other person sticks around for quite a lot of this, and the tactic eventually works; the protagonist softens. That’s… kind of problematic, given how often emotional abuse in relationships can start out like this, and I’d rather this kind of dynamic wasn’t painted as NBD. I did have a chat with my daughter about it and she does recognise that it’s not a good idea to put up with this kind of behaviour in practice, or to feel obliged to manage it. So, if you have or know children who are reading this series, it’s worth being aware of.

Other than the reservations I’ve raised, both these multiseries are majorly awesome. If you know tweens or teens with a possible interest in fantasy, these make perfect presents; and if you like YA fantasy yourself, absolutely give these a go.

‘Walking Disaster’ review, Chapter 14

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here. ‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which was being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout until she rage-quit over McGuire’s behaviour.

Content warnings

  • Homophobic slur
  • Violence
  • Animal neglect

Chapter 14: Oz (wait, didn’t we already have a chapter called ‘Oz’? With a better author I’d assume this was innovativeness; after all, there’s no compelling reason why we should be hidebound by unnecessary traditions of having one chapter title per chapter. With McGuire, I’m fairly sure it’s just that she didn’t bother to keep track.)

[Read more…]

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Two, Part Two

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

In the previous post, I discussed the examples Price gives of teachings or approaches he believes Mark to have derived from Paul. In this one, I’ll discuss some of Price’s other statements in the chapter, followed by a general look at the story so far.

While we have seen that many of the scenes in the Gospel called Mark are based on literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures, the Jesus character himself is based on Paul. It is clear from analysis of the Gospel called Mark that the writer of that story had read the letters of Paul and used them as inspiration for the character and teachings of Jesus.

My first thought when I read that was ‘Well, why not just write the allegory about Paul?’ According to Price’s theory, Mark was trying to write an entirely fictional account purely for allegorical purposes. If he wanted to fictionalise a person based on Paul’s life, seems like the obvious thing would be to write a fictional version of Paul, rather than of Jesus. Price has stated in a comment on here that it was to give Mark’s message the greater authority of coming from Jesus; but in that case, why portray Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person at all? According to Price’s theory, Mark and the audience for whom he was writing believed Jesus to be a spiritual heavenly being, who would surely have had more authority than an ordinary flesh-and-blood being; why this whole business of rewriting him as a human, rather than just portraying him as visiting Earth to make his announcements? I still can’t see how Mark’s motives, under Price’s theory, add up in a plausible or coherent way.

On further consideration, I realised there was a bigger problem; how would Mark have read this many of Paul’s letters in the first place? We’re used to having them collected handily together as part of the New Testament, but that wouldn’t happen until long after the time Mark wrote his gospel. At the time Mark was writing, the individual letters would have been in the possession of the widely scattered communities to which Paul had sent them. The passages that Price identifies as those on which Mark supposedly based parts of his gospel include extracts from letters originally sent to Rome, Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia. I’ve checked a map of Paul’s journeys to get an idea of how far apart these places actually were; my rough estimate is that a journey taking in all of them would be upwards of a thousand miles. In those days, that would have been a massive undertaking, complicated further by the difficulties of locating each community. It’s not impossible that someone could have made that mammoth journey in order to read each of Paul’s letters, but it does seem pretty unlikely. So, while I’m quite happy with the idea that Mark was influenced by Pauline teaching and by some of his writing, I don’t think Price’s argument about the extent to which Mark had supposedly read Paul’s writing really holds up.

By the way, I didn’t realise this until I’d already made notes on which of Price’s examples I did or didn’t agree with. When I did realise the problem with Price’s claim here, I thought I’d better go back and look at the four examples for which I agreed that Price was probably correct about Pauline derivation; after all, if it turned out that they were from letters sent to different communities then I’d have some contradictory conclusions and I’d have to rethink. What I actually found, however, was that all four examples were based on passages from 1 Corinthians. So, there we go; we do have evidence (hardly watertight, but fairly good) that, whoever Mark actually was, he read at least that letter, and thus was associated at some point with the Corinthians community. I’m guessing that probably at least someone in the field of biblical scholarship has noticed this before, but it was new information for me and I found it interesting.

Thus, if Mark’s Jesus is based on the writings of Paul, then Mark’s Jesus has no relationship to any real person whatsoever, because according to Paul himself, Paul’s “knowledge” of Jesus came from no one. [quote of Galatians 1:11 – 17]

That doesn’t logically follow. It’s perfectly possible that Mark could have used Paul as one of multiple sources for information, basing parts of his gospel on Paul’s letters and part on other sources. (In fact, this is what Price is also claiming happened, as he believes Mark also drew on the Jewish scriptures.) If Mark’s Jesus could be shown to be based entirely on Paul’s letters then that would be a different matter, but that isn’t what Price is trying to claim. Since Paul and his followers believed that Paul had also seen Jesus and received direct communication from him (they believed this had happened via supernatural apparition post-resurrection, but this was completely real from their viewpoint), I see no reason why Mark wouldn’t have drawn on information from both Paul and people who knew Jesus during his lifetime.

By the way, that Galatians passage always strikes me as a pretty ironic one for mythicists to quote. The mythical arguments that I’ve read (including Price’s) all put huge emphasis on Paul’s lack of interest in Jesus’s earthly life and his belief that Jesus was some kind of pre-existent heavenly being. But, since we know from Paul’s own words that he was not preaching the theology of the previously-existing group of Jesus-followers, why should his beliefs about whether or not Jesus led an earthly life be relevant evidence as to whether Jesus actually did lead an earthly life? Paul’s beliefs about Jesus seem to have been highly tangential to reality.

Most of the rest of the chapter is devoted to Price’s examples, so I’ll now skip ahead to the last paragraph of the chapter. Here, Price speculates on Mark’s motive for writing his gospel. Now, this is quite an important point for any mythicist theory, since mythicism has to explain how, within less than a century, we could plausibly get from ‘Jesus was a purely spiritual heavenly being’ to ‘Jesus was born on Earth; here are multiple detailed stories about his earthly life’. Here’s what Price gives us:

Paul’s message was one of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. This message was apparently in conflict with the message of James and other members of the Jesus cult, and with the Jewish leadership. I think the writer of Mark was a follower of Paul, who saw in the outcome of the war proof that Paul had been right. I think the writer’s view was, “See, if they had listened to Paul none of this would have happened”, or perhaps, “This was destined to happen, in accordance with Paul’s gospel.” It was the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the temple that precipitated the need to defend Paul’s vision.

Now, Price might be able to make this work as a plausible theory, but he’s got some problems to overcome.

Firstly, it’s based on some unsubstantiated premises: that ‘harmony between Jews and Gentiles’ was a major message of Paul’s, that this was an issue on which he clashed significantly with the Jerusalem church, and that Mark’s gospel also clearly presents this point. Unfortunately, Price doesn’t make the case for any of these premises. (I have a niggling feeling that the problem might be Price having interpreted the initial disagreement over whether Gentiles joining the movement had to follow Jewish law as a ‘harmony’ issue. If so, then in the first place that’s not actually what ‘harmony’ means, and in the second it seems to be a moot point, since Paul was assuring his followers that that little disagreement had been sorted out in his favour.)

Secondly, there’s the question of why an author whose primary motive was defending Paul’s message against the church would fall short of giving us any kind of clearcut message on the one subject on which Paul certainly did have a significant, and as far as we know unresolved, clash with the church; the question of whether Jewish law had been rendered obsolete. While a discussion of Mark’s approach to this question would take too long to go into in detail here, he at no point shows Jesus making a clear statement on the issue (even though he could quite easily have put Paul’s views into Jesus’s mouth), and, in the many arguments Jesus is portrayed as having with Pharisees, Jesus is in fact in each case taking a position completely in line with established Jewish law. All this makes sense if Mark wanted to gloss over the differences between Paul’s views and the church’s, but is at least somewhat odd if his purpose was to tell the church how wrong they’d been to disagree with Paul; in that case it would seem more likely that the differences would be highlighted rather than glossed over, with gMark’s Jesus making clear statements on the matter.

All of these might well be surmountable problems; I don’t think they’re fundamental flaws in the theory, and there might well be good answers I haven’t thought of. However, this is an area of his theory that Price definitely needs to develop a bit further.


Conclusion: The theory so far

This completes the second chapter, which means we’ve also completed the part of the book that deals with Price’s views on the gospel of Mark. By this point, according to Price, we’re supposed to have been provided with ‘overwhelming concrete evidence that the Gospel of Mark is an entirely fictional work’, which in turn is the cornerstone for his whole theory. So, I’ll pause for just a moment here to take stock.

I agree with Price on some points (something that I think is worth mentioning here, because it gets rather lost in the disagreements). I agree with Price that there is a lot more going on in Mark’s writing than just some sort of simple record of what he’d heard about Jesus; I agree that multiple parts of his gospel allude to/are based on the Jewish scriptures; and I agree that his theology was in large part Pauline in nature and that this comes through in the way he presents Jesus’s story and teachings. I think that a convincing argument can be made for all of these points.

The problem I find with Price’s theories is that he takes these ideas much too far; he is, as the saying has it, making too much stew from one oyster. Firstly, his criteria for what he’ll categorise as an example of derivation from a scriptural or Pauline source are so vague that he’s categorising far too many scenes as being ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ due to derivation on Mark’s part, even where the arguments for this being the case are in fact extremely weak. Secondly, he’s concluding that, because Mark is using Jesus’s story as a symbolic way of getting his messages across, this must make the entire story fictional.

In fact, even if Price’s arguments about the extent of Mark’s derivation from other sources did stand up, it still wouldn’t follow that Mark had invented the earthly life of Jesus in its entirety. For one thing, there’s no logic to that claim; it is perfectly possible for an author to use a story based on a real person as a device for symbolically making a particular point (for example, ‘L’Alouette’, one of the plays I studied for French A-level, does exactly this with regard to Joan of Arc). And, for another thing, we actually see that Mark was prepared to do this with a historical character, because he does this with John the Baptist. He writes about him in ways that, as Price pointed out in Chapter 1, are fairly clearly symbolic (presenting him as an Elijah-figure), yet we know that John the Baptist existed, because there’s a long passage about him in Josephus’s work. So there’s not even a question over whether Mark would write about a real figure with a real earthly life in a symbolised way; we know he would, because he did. And so we can’t conclude that Mark’s use of Jesus’s story as a vehicle for symbolic messages means that Mark had no knowledge of an earthly Jesus.

It’s fair to say that gMark is too mythologised and slanted to give us particularly reliable information about the details of Jesus’s life, and also fair to say that, if we only had gMark and no other evidence, then we simply wouldn’t be able to tell whether Mark was writing about a real character or a fictional one. But Price has unfortunately fallen far short of his claim to have given us ‘overwhelming concrete evidence’ that the book is entirely fictional.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Two, Part One

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

[Read more…]

Darwintine: Romance reviews. (And a little fundraising.)

Well, hello, all; it’s that time of the month again. Yup, the time when we wow you with the talents of assorted FTBers, partly just because we can but also partly because we’re hoping some of you might be persuaded to donate to our ongoing (and, thanks to you, reasonably successful) efforts to pay off the SLAPP lawsuit from a few years ago, which you can read all about here (long version; previous link is the short version).

This month, as you might have noticed, the theme is ‘Darwintine’.

(Picture courtesy of Iris.) We’re blending Darwin’s birthday with Valentine’s Day and providing contributions related to evolution, love, or both. Thus, several of the bloggers are collaborating on a story chain with the title ‘Natural Selection‘, several are writing fiction for the prompt ‘The Descent of Man’, and I believe that our very own published poet, Megan Rahm, is going to be providing a reading of some of her erotic poetry. I don’t have that level of talent myself, but please do go and enjoy the work of those who do!

However, I have thought of one appropriate contribution that I can make to the spirit of the day and the blogging platform. You know I’ve been putting all this time into picking apart a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad romance novel? Well, today, just for once, I’m going to do the exact opposite. I’m going to review a couple of romance series that I really love, and that promote healthy views of relationships and progressive views on social justice issues. And, if you have your own recommendations, please chime in in the comments; I would love to make this a yearly thing and have more to review by next year.

First up: the ‘By The Numbers‘ series (serieses?) by Abigail Barnette, who is none other than Jenny Trout writing under a pen name. (Yup; that’s the Jenny Trout whose partial snarkreview of ‘Beautiful Disaster’ is what got me into snarkreviewing ‘Walking Disaster’.) ‘By The Numbers’, which most of the readers probably think of as ‘the Ian-and-Penny series’ (or is that just me?), is a spin-off double-series from Jenny’s Sophie Scaife series.

Quick bit of backstory for anyone interested: This all started as Jenny’s reaction to her snarkreviewing of the notoriously appalling ‘Fifty Shades’ series; a couple of books into the nightmare of dysfunction and abuse that is the three book series, she realised that, if she set out to write a romance in the exact oppositeway, she’d end up with a feminist romance. She gave it a shot, and ended up with first a novel and then with what ended up being a six-book series about a woman who falls into a BDSM relationship with a billionaire and ends up marrying him; all from a feminist, sex-positive, pro-LGB viewpoint, with lots of issues being explored. It’s a good series but it’s not actually the one I’m talking about here, although by all means check it out.

The one I’m actually talking about, ‘By The Numbers’, is a spin-off about two minor characters in the initial series, who start a relationship after Sophie matchmakes them. There are some problems from the start, of course: Ian’s a cynical recent divorcé not sure he’s ready to get back into dating again, Penny’s had some rough experiences that have left her confidence badly shaken, and, on top of all that, there is the smaaaaalllll matter of an age gap of over thirty years. But… despite all of that, it quickly turns out that Ian’s respect and thoughtfulness are just what Penny needs, Penny’s bubbly enthusiasm is just what Ian needs, and, when you add in that they’re mad attracted to each other and love being together, well, this might not be the most obvious relationship but it’s one with a real future. And, because they’re both willing to talk and to listen and (with some hiccups) to deal with the problems that arise, they manage to make it together.

Here’s what I love most about it, although I realise this isn’t for everyone: it’s one of those series written from both points of view. Each book is written twice, once from each viewpoint. (Jenny deliberately wrote them this way from the start and published each pair together, rather than one being a spin-off from the other.) Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I love reading stories from both viewpoints like this. And Jenny does it beautifully; the contrast between the two sets of reactions is sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, sometimes enlightening, and always worth reading.

A bonus is that they’re also trans-positive books (not a major theme, but there’s this thread running through of ‘trans people exist and that’s cool’, which I think was nicely done).

I love the characters and these books; they’re one of the series I keep coming back to and reading over and over when I want something to relax with. I don’t know whether Jenny still has fourth books planned in the series, and she might not – although that was what she originally planned, the third books do have a pretty clear happy ending – but I do hope so.

Aaaaand now for something completely different… C. L. Lynch’s Stella Blunt series. (‘Chemistry’ and ‘History’ with ‘Biology’ still upcoming. Spoilers in the descriptions at that link, by the way, especially for the second book.)

This, again, is a series that got written as a result of the author looking at a terrible problematic romance series and deciding to write the exact opposite. Clearly that’s a winning formula. In this case, the particular romance series that inspired this author to write a romance as different as inhumanly possible was ‘Twilight’. This series also starts out with a teenage girl having to move across the country and hating it even before she meets the guy in her science class who’s acting weirdly, adores her, and happens to have a really unusual secret. Oh, and with a brief initial flash-forward in which our heroine is facing imminent death. And that, dear readers, is where the similarities end… well, except for when they occasionally get brought in again for the deliberate purpose of snarking ‘Twilight’. For one thing, when Stella faces imminent death she starts wielding a chainsaw.

On the slight off-chance that I’m not the only person in the world who doesn’t realise the plot twist in ‘Chemistry’ in advance, I won’t spoil it for you; read the books and find out for yourselves. What I will tell you is that these books have snark, interesting comments about other books, a fat heroine with a fat-positive approach, the most adorkable cinnamon-roll love interest, incredibly cool parents, a call-out of ablism (though that’s not till the second book), a really positive gay/interracial relationship, scenes that quite literally had me laughing out loud (which is not something I do easily), suspense, and some brilliant plotting. What more can anyone ask for (other than, of course, the third book in the series to get published already, HINT HINT C.L. Lynch)?

And there you go. My recommendations for this Valentine’s Day. If you’ve read them already or if you read them on my recommendation, please let me know what you think; and if you have others you want to recommend, as I said, please do so! I’m well aware that both of the series(es?) I just recommended do feature white cishet couples, so if anyone knows of great romances involving more diversity, or great romances by more diverse authors, I would definitely appreciate that. Meanwhile, I wish a happy and love-filled day to you all.

Meet some FreeThoughtBloggers! Including me!

I’m late getting this post up (this all happened a week or more ago), but, as part of our Winterfest celebrations, PZ Myers did video interviews with some of us about the kind of things we blog about, to give readers a chance to see the bloggers behind the writing. I’m one of them, which might or might not be of interest to you. (Mostly I just ramble.)

The interviews, and the Winterfest details, can currently be found here. I think that page will probably be archived when we get the next fundraiser up, so here are the links to the individual YouTube videos:

Megan Rahm (From The Ashes Of Faith)

Me (this blog, obviously)

Giliell (one of the bloggers on Affinity)

William Brinkman (The Bolingbrook Babbler)

Tammy Walker (Freethinking Ahead)

This has actually been interesting for me as well; we don’t often see one another’s faces, so that was the first time I’d been able to put a face to a name for Megan, Giliell, or Tammy (William shows up on our weekly online get-together now and again). Anyway, feel free to check them out; and, as always, we’d be very happy if anyone can spare a bit of cash for our ongoing efforts to pay off the mountain of legal fees accumulated during our experience of a SLAPP lawsuit. Thank you to all you good people who have contributed, are contributing, or will contribute!

Another Jesus Mythicism discussion

A little while back, I got into a discussion in a Reddit subthread with a poster by the name of MisanthropicScott. It started when MisanthropicScott claimed Jesus was a liar and I disputed the examples he gave (I make no claims for the overall honesty of Jesus, who might have been a liar for all any of us knows, but I found this particular argument wanting and the accusations unwarranted), and wandered rapidly into ‘Did Jesus exist at all?’ territory. So, we ended up with a long and rambling exchange of views, as you do, and, because I was drafting out my answers in bits and scraps of spare time, I eventually arrived at the point where I had a long and as yet unposted answer written to posts of his that had been written a couple of months previously in a long-dead thread.

(Yes, paragraphs like that do indeed make me wonder about my life choices. To which all I can say is: sometimes we all need a break from the serious stuff.)

Anyway… I don’t want to either waste what I’ve written or reawaken a Reddit thread no-one else cares about any more, so I went for Door Number Three; posting my answer on this blog. If MisanthropicScott still has any remote interest in the discussion, he can read it here and respond as he chooses. If not… well, it’s a discussion about Jesus mythicism. Experience tells me that, most likely, someone‘s going to be interested in responding.

Speaking of which, ground rules for any ensuing discussion:

  1. Stay polite. That includes starting with the assumption that the person disagreeing with you is not actually stupid or ignorant just because they hold a different viewpoint.
  2. Keep your comments directed at points actually raised in the post. Given how many points we’ve raised between us, that should give you plenty of scope.
  3. The historicist vs. mythicist discussion is a discussion between two different non-Christian views of Jesus (the belief that he was a human being with a following who was later mythologised, and the belief that he was entirely a mythical figure, like Hercules). If what you want is to have the somewhat different discussion as to whether Christian views of Jesus are actually the correct ones, then by all means do so, but you’re in the wrong thread for it; here is the post for people who want to have religious debates. If that’s what you’re after, read the rules in that post and jump on in.

Quoted portions are usually from MisanthropicScott; on a few occasions I had to include a bit of the preceding exchange for context, so in those cases I’ve indicated which bits are from me and which from MisanthropicScott. If there’s no attribution, that means it’s from Misanthropic Scott. I’ve also thrown in subheadings for the different portions to try to break things up a bit; these weren’t part of the original discussion, and are there purely as my attempt to break walls of text and show where one section of our discussion stops and another starts. OK; let’s go.

(Edited: I’ve realised that two of the points I made (fortunately both minor) are inaccurate, and it’s been pointed out to me that a third is based on insufficient evidence. I’ve therefore put in footnotes amending all of these. My apologies.)


The NT; does it give us any useable information?

What corroborative evidence do we have of anything in the New Testament?

Not much. Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ (the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’ and the word we’ve transliterated into ‘Christ’), who had a brother called James who was executed, and that there was a John the Baptist who went round preaching and baptising others and who was put to death by Herod, though not in the way described in the NT. Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate. We also have evidence of the veracity of some of the things mentioned in the background setting (the existence of various places and famous people; basically, just what you’d expect if people who live in that place and time are writing about it, regardless of whether they’re writing truth or fiction). Can’t think of any others.


[me] Sometimes a particular story or statement seems to be flat-out against the author’s interests, in which case it’s probably not made up.

I disagree. We don’t know the authors’ (plural) interests.

By ‘interests’, I mean the various messages the authors were trying to get across with their writing. Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seem to be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up a complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all? They both changed what Mark had to say on other points, so, if they were making up the story from scratch all they had to do was change that point as well, leave Nazareth out of it altogether, and just say that he came from Bethlehem as per the prophecy yadda yadda yadda. Why do we get all this ‘well, he was born in Bethlehem but then they had to flee this mass infanticide I just invented and an angel told them to go to Nazareth’ and ‘his parents came from Nazareth but here is a completely unconvincing reason why they had to go to Bethlehem right at that time’?

If they were making their stories up from scratch, about a totally mythical person, it’s very hard to see why they’d do that instead of just leaving out Nazareth and saying he came from Bethlehem. However, if they were making up stories about an actual founder of their movement who was known to have come from Nazareth, it makes total sense; they had to leave in the bit about him coming from Nazareth and then explain it away, because they couldn’t just ignore something about him that was that widely known.

There are other examples. Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include the embarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Sure, you can think of explanations for those, or speculate that maybe there’s some reason we just don’t know. But that does leave us with a lot of points that are really hard to explain away if Jesus was invented, but easy to explain if the authors were working from stories about an actual Jesus and couldn’t completely disregard things that were common knowledge about him among his followers.


Problems with a mythical crucifixion story

So, to say that having Jesus die a horrific death is inconsistent with a story line that works really well to sell the religion does not make sense to me.

The ‘humiliating execution’ story line didn’t work well at all to sell the religion. Paul comments in one of his letters on how it’s a problem. The ‘Alexamenos’ graffiti mocks the idea of a crucified god, and that seems to have been the general overall attitude of the culture. Christianity grew very slowly in the first few hundred years, prior to Constantine getting involved and making it the state religion(1). The fact that it did grow – and eventually struck it lucky with Constantine and took off – was in spite of the crucifixion story, not because of it.

[The founders] had the evidence of the Old Testament having caused people to believe deeply in Judaism. Maybe they figured this would work even better, especially if the stopped telling people not to eat yummy pigs and stopped telling men they needed the tips of their dicks cut off.

Firstly, the original church weren’t telling people that. Paul did, and we know from Galatians and from Acts 21:18 – 24 that this was actually something on which the original group disagreed with him. (They agreed with having Gentiles as part of their group on those terms, because Judaism never expected non-Jews to follow those rules anyway; however, they certainly don’t seem happy to have gone along with saying that Jews could abandon those rules as well.)

Secondly, Judaism has always been much more about action than about belief. Circumcision and dietary rules were key parts of the religion. What you’re essentially describing here is a situation where some Jews decide that the best way to get other Jews to become more Jewish is for them to throw some really key parts of Judaism out of the window; it’s the equivalent of Christians saying “I really want more people to become Christian, so I’m going to start a church in which you don’t have to believe in Jesus so that I can persuade more people to come to it”. I’m not saying that’s impossible, because people do come up with really bizarre justifications sometimes; but it’s certainly improbable.

And thirdly, above all; there is absolutely no way anyone of that time would have thought that inventing a character who was supposed to be the Messiah but had been executed by the Romans would have worked well to sell their religion. A Messiah who died before bringing about the end times was a hard sell for Jews, and an executed criminal as leader was a really hard sell for Gentiles. Yes, we know from hindsight it eventually worked spectacularly; but we also know that was due to factors completely other than the fact that it was based on asking people to follow someone executed as a criminal. If someone at that time was deliberately setting out to figure out what would win over as many people as possible, the answer would not have been ‘Hey, a Jewish Messiah who gets arrested and executed with zero signs of having actually done anything to overthrow the Romans! That’ll definitely do it!’


Messianic prophecies and ‘I come to bring not peace but a sword’

(MisanthropicScott) [Messianic prophecies] sure as hell don’t say anything about him starting wars! Please correct me if I’m wrong.

(Me) As I recall, they actually say surprisingly little about the messiah at all, when you read them.

People will beat their swords into plowshares. Nation shall not rise up against nation. Neither shall they know war anymore. (from memory)

Exactly! That’s not describing the Messiah himself or his backstory. It’s talking about what the world is going to be like when that time comes. The prophecies hardly say anything about the actual Messiah. He’s going to be a king of David’s line who rules over Israel in this marvellous future time, and… that’s about it.

Here’s a site for Judaism that explains quite well why Jesus completely and utterly fails to meet the messianic prophesies. There are specifics in there.

No argument from me on that point. Hell, it’s possible to sum up in one sentence why Jesus wasn’t the Messiah: We don’t have the global situation that the prophecies foretold. That’s it. But I find it interesting that that site doesn’t say anything about the ‘come to bring not peace but a sword’ line as a disqualification, so I’m not sure why you think it supports your point here.

(me) They leave a lot of scope for individual interpretation of the details.

(MisanthropicScott) Not enough for the messiah to be a warmonger.

What, you think no-one throughout history has ever believed that the best way to end up with peace is to violently crush all your enemies first? I mean, there are good reasons to disagree with that as a strategy, but your specific claim was that claiming to be the Messiah yet bring a sword makes Jesus (if he really claimed that) a liar. The holding of beliefs with which you disagree, or even of beliefs which are actually incorrect, is not the same as being a liar.

By the way, as far as Messianic expectations in particular are concerned, the belief that the Messiah will take up arms against Israel’s enemies as part of his job description is very common. If you want to read more about that, this page is about military expectations of the Messiah around Jesus’s time, this is an extremely famous rabbi’s list of Messianic expectations, still considered the main go-to list to this day, which clearly includes the expectation that the Messiah will be a military leader, and this page is about one failed Messiah who had a substantial following amongst Jews who were quite happy with his military approach (2).

And, it is absolutely certain that there must be peace before the messiah’s death.

Actually… no. There is nothing whatsoever in any of the Messianic prophecies saying he can’t be killed and miraculously resurrected prior to bringing peace.

I know, I know. The reason no-one put that in the prophecies was not because anyone actually expected this to happen, but the reverse; because ‘And this will happen within one lifetime, not after a death and resurrection’ is so far off expectations that it doesn’t ever occur to anyone to add that subclause. However, fact remains that there’s nothing at all in the Messianic prophecies saying that this can’t happen. So that left a loophole via which Jesus’s followers could not only keep believing in him after his execution but actually gain new adherents; they’d found a way to give him, as you rather nicely put it in one of your previous statements, a mulligan.

(It also had the probably unplanned side-effect of making Jesus’s messianic claims effectively unfalsifiable. Once you allow for the idea that someone can miraculously come back to get things done after their death, you can go on forever saying that they just haven’t come back yet but are totally going to do it any day now. I mean, here the Christians still are with that line, two thousand years later.)

There was talk recently of Schneerson being the messiah. There may be a small contingent who still think so. But, when he died in a world that still did not have world peace, almost everyone who thought so accepted that he wasn’t the messiah.

‘Almost’ everyone. Exactly. Some people still haven’t accepted that, in spite of his death. There is a small group of people who don’t accept that his death disqualifies him from being the Messiah. Two thousand years ago, that was how Christianity got started.

No peace. No messiah.

Agreed (apart from the get-out clause the early Christians came up with about how he was coming back to do it all after his death). So, since your claim is that Jesus probably never existed, I have a question for you here:

If Jesus was an entirely mythical character invented by his followers, how does that fit with ‘no peace, no Messiah’? Did someone come up with the idea ‘Hey, let’s pretend the Messiah did come to Earth but then got crucified without fulfilling any of the prophecies; we’ll just tell people he was miraculously resurrected and that’ll be fine’? How? Why? What do you think anyone was hoping to gain by that?

I can totally see a situation where a bunch of people had put their faith so much in a real person they thought was the Messiah that they just could not shift gears when he died and accept that he wasn’t. That’s how cognitive dissonance works; people get so sold on believing what they believe that, when evidence comes along disproving it, they find weird ways of explaining that evidence away rather than taking a step back and realising they were wrong in the first place. And, as you pointed out, that’s exactly what happened with Schneerson in modern-day times; a few people could not accept his death and went on thinking he was the Messiah. So it’s totally plausible that that could have happened with a first-century rabbi as well. But, if the movement that would eventually become Christianity didn’t start with a real rabbi but with an invented one, how and why do you think that happened?


Reasons to believe in a historical Jesus

If neither of us believes the Bible is accurate, neither of us has any reason to think that a person named Jesus ever existed. […] So, as soon as we say the Bible is unreliable, I fail to see why you say Jesus ever existed.

Because otherwise we need to explain why anyone thought it was a good idea to invent a story about a failed, crucified Messiah when such a story would be highly unlikely to gain followers, why they went to the lengths of naming the person who supposedly crucified him and spreading that story about as public knowledge when it was about the worst advertising you could imagine, why one person mentioned meeting this supposedly imaginary man’s brother and argued about a privilege given to his other brothers, why a historian remembered this imaginary man as having a real brother who was executed, why some of the things he’s claimed to have said are now known to be Pharisean arguments even though the authors were trying to claim he was anti-Pharisee, and why, even though two of the people writing about him clearly really wanted to portray him as coming from Bethlehem, they somehow seemed unable to break free from the idea that he was actually known as coming from Nazareth.

That’s quite a lot of stuff to find explanations for. If you can find explanations for all those things that are better, simpler, and more obvious than ‘the movement actually was started by a real Yeshua and the above stuff about him/his brothers all actually happened’, then be my guest. But they’re going to have to be a lot better then ‘well, maybe they just made it all up’. People make a lot of things up, but it doesn’t make sense that they’d make those particular things up. Occam’s razor -> most likely a real Jesus existed.

Have you considered that it was embroidered from stories that had nothing to do with anyone named Jesus? Maybe a bit of Horus and other myths were all thrown together.

I’m sure other myths did get incorporated into the central story as time went by; but how would it have started out that way? Jesus’s original followers are described as a bunch of poor, rural, Jewish illiterates. That means, in practice, that they wouldn’t have known Egyptian myths, or other non-Jewish myths. It’s not as though they could hear these things on television or pop into the local library for a browse on their way home. (Conversely, if the followers weren’t actually poor illiterates, that raises the question of why the authors consistently present them that way when that, again, only made this new group less attractive to most potential followers.)


Lack of extrabiblical documentation

This is one of the big inconsistencies in the story. Was Jesus extremely famous or virtually unknown?

You do realise that those extremes aren’t the only two options? Someone could easily be well-known amongst Jews in Judea/Galilee and insignificant to the kinds of people who were writing things that would survive the next two thousand years.

But, why did the Romans care about some unknown nobody?

Being a nobody in the eyes of the more elite social classes isn’t the same as being unknown, or as not being a problem. Jesus had crowds of Jews calling him Messiah, which meant they thought of him as the king who’d kick out their oppressors (i.e. the Romans) and become their new ruler. That’s the kind of situation that existing rulers are not too happy about and like to get nipped in the bud before it develops into an actual rebellion.

[me] [T]he priestly families were more of a pro-Roman party and might well have collaborated in turning over a Messianic claimant if they thought that might avoid bringing down retribution on the heads of ordinary Jews.

[MisanthropicScott] Why would there be retribution?

If the Jesus-led movement got as far as actually attempting a rebellion against the Romans, then the Romans wouldn’t be too happy about it. At the very least, they’d end up killing off the people who were actively involved in the rebellion, and there was also the risk that they’d then respond by clamping down harder or otherwise making the Jews’ lives more difficult.

And, then it gets harder and harder to explain why no one wrote a thing about him.

Whom would you expect to be writing about a Jewish troublemaker who was arrested and executed for insurrection? Of those writings, which would you expect to have lasted two thousand years?

Jesus’s followers were from a strata of society where literacy levels were very low; even if you were one of the few who could write, not many people around you would be able to read what you wrote. Plus, ink and papyrus were expensive luxuries. If you wanted to get your message out to a lot of people in your part of society, open-air preaching was a much better way to do it than spending time and money on a hand-written manuscript that most other people wouldn’t be able to read. So, little or nothing was going to get written down by his followers. As for the people who weren’t following him… well, if you had to handwrite everything on expensive papyrus, would you spend time doing that just to write about some peasant who was creating a stir among a bunch of other superstitious peasants?

Of course, even with those problems there likely would have been a few things written about him at the time. If we could wave a magic wand and get back every single thing that was written in the early decades of the first century, then somewhere in there there probably would be some mentions of Jesus. But, of course, we actually only have a tiny fraction of everything that was written at the time, because this was two thousand years ago. Even those letters and records that get saved don’t last for that long; the papyrus they’re written on eventually crumbles. For example, we have no remaining copies of the one newspaper that was published in that time.

We do, of course, still have books that were written around that time, but that isn’t because we have the original copies – we don’t – but because scribes copied them over the years. So, if something was considered to be important literature, it was preserved and hand-copied. However, people were hardly going to do that for, say, newspaper reports about some troublemaker from Nazareth getting executed. Having no surviving contemporary writings about you two thousand years later is completely normal, and was the case for people far more important in their own time than Jesus of Nazareth actually was in his. (For comparison, here’s one historian blogger(3) pointing out that the only existing reference to Hannibal that dates back to his own time is one passing mention in an inscription. Not because people didn’t write about Hannibal at the time – they did – but because the writings just didn’t survive. If that was the case for a highly famous and influential general, how much more would it be the case for a rabbi from the backwaters who made a brief stir as a would-be Messiah but was then ignominiously executed?)

So… having a couple of passing mentions from historians several decades later, plus writing preserved by your followers, is actually excellent going for someone from that day and age. Having that amount of writing still preserved two thousand years later isn’t ‘harder and harder to explain’; it’s better than we’d expect.

So, you’re shoe-horning in sort of a Goldilocks theory that Jesus was just annoying enough to get the attention of the Romans but not annoying enough for anyone to write anything about him.

Theudas. First-century Jewish rebel, executed for his attempts. Total surviving contemporary mentions (i.e., dating from the time he lived): zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one short paragraph in Josephus.

Athronges. Rebel from the end of the first century BCE, led a rebellion that took the Romans two years to defeat. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: several paragraphs from Josephus.

Unnamed Samaritan. Rebel from the first century, led a mob that required armed Roman warriors to defeat them. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one paragraph in Josephus.

Simon of Peraea. Rebel from the end of the first century BCE, burned down the king’s palace and many of his other houses, had a mob of followers who had to be defeated by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: two paragraphs in Josephus, one line in Tacitus.

Unnamed Egyptian. Rebel from the first century, had a group of followers who were defeated rather rapidly by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: two different paragraphs in Josephus.

Jesus of Nazareth. Rebel from the first century, had a group of followers, kicked up some sort of fuss in the Temple, arrested and executed by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one passing mention of his brother’s execution by Josephus, possibly one other short paragraph in Josephus, one line in Tacitus.

Notice a pattern? There’s usually very little surviving information about the people who, two thousand years ago, kicked up enough of a problem at the time to get executed. That’s not ‘Goldilocks’ and doesn’t have to be shoehorned. That’s the normal result of us being two thousand years on from a time that had very poor literacy levels and no printing presses. Lots of things didn’t get written down in the first place, and most of what was written down at the time didn’t survive for two thousand years. Having little in the way of independent information about Jesus isn’t strange; it’s exactly what we’d expect.

What we do have is a mention of a James’s execution from Josephus that identifies the executed person as ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’, and a mention from Tacitus that Jesus was executed under Pilate (and, yes, the latter might just have been what Christians were saying at the time… but why on earth would they be making it such widespread public knowledge that the leader they followed was an executed, humiliated criminal, when that fact was so awkward and counter-productive for them?) While those are very brief and passing mentions, they’re still mentions that are very difficult to explain satisfactorily if Jesus was entirely an imaginary character, but easy to explain if he was a real preacher about whom some factual details were retained alongside the legends that grew up around him.

Added footnotes

(1) ‘Christianity grew very slowly in the first few hundred years, prior to Constantine getting involved and making it the state religion.’

Sorry; the last six words of this sentence are actually a myth, and one I really should have known better than to repeat. I stand by the rest of the sentence; the evidence is that Christianity did grow very slowly in the first centuries, and I’m sure that having the most powerful person in the Empire become a Christian must have been of at least some help to them. However, it is incorrect to say that Constantine made Christianity the state religion. My apologies.

(2) ‘…and this page is about one failed Messiah…’

Neil Godfrey has pointed out to me that we don’t know for sure that Bar Kokhba was considered by followers to be the Messiah. That’s fair; although it’s a good assumption that some people would have assumed this, we don’t have definite confirmation that this is so. However, I don’t believe that affects my main point in that section, which was that the belief that Messiahship included bringing war against Israel’s enemies was a widespread one that doesn’t make someone dishonest.

(3) ‘For comparison, here’s one historian blogger…’

The blogger in question, Tim O’Neill, states explicitly on his ‘About’ page that he is not a historian. He does, however, have training and experience in history; his undergraduate degree was in History and English combined, and his Master’s specialism was in historical analysis of medieval literature. I meant to indicate that he was someone with good knowledge and qualifications in the area of history and historical analysis, and used the word ‘historian’ too loosely. (If anyone does have an appropriately succinct way of putting forward that concept in case I cite O’Neill in future, I’d be grateful!)

And, for this Hallowe’en…


…it is, once again, time for the monthly fundraiser and general showtime, when you get to see the gifts of FTB’s amazingly talented members!

Unfortunately, this time around, you also get to see me. That’s right; I seem to have signed up to do the FreeThoughtBlogs Hallowe’en QI show tomorrow. (Have you ever had those moments of looking back on the conversation you just had and thinking ‘How… how did that just happen…?’? It was like that.) So… if you guys were hoping for the chance to see me make a total prat of myself, well, I guess this is your lucky weekend. Enjoy! And, y’know, if you wanted to throw a bit of money the way of our fundraiser, so that I get to feel my hideous embarrassment is at least in a good cause, then that’d be great.

A Very Poetic Response To Time Limits

It’s a frequent problem for today’s adolescents: If you’re nearing the limit of the time your parents have put on your electronic device and you want to persuade them to give you more, what’s the best way to go about it? Cajole? Beg? Make a reasoned argument? Throw a tantrum?

Well, if you’re my daughter, you use the medium of verse.

Three minutes before her phone time was up, a few nights ago, I was texted this stanza:

Time is running slowly down,

The hourglass fallen, never found,

I cry for help, yet no-one hears,

‘No time!’ I say, but to deaf ears.


Pretty good for a completely impromptu poem, isn’t it? And, yes, I did give her more time. I’m soft-hearted anyway, but, really, who could resist that foray into poetry?