The Death Squirrel (Not?) From Bethlehem

Great Gods of Garlic Gumbo, the derangement is worse than I thought. I am now forced to bring you another episode of Unclear on the Concept.

A couple days ago I created a post expressing my annoyance with particular problematic practices that I have observed frequently to occur in discussions about the so-called Historic Jesus. I was even quite clear that I wasn’t talking about actual historians writing in actual journals:

I won’t contest how this [methodology] is used in the work of peer reviewed historians. Perhaps that is even the best method, certainly it must be among the better methods or professional historians wouldn’t use it. However in the work of professional historians, I think they better understand exactly how limited is the claim that HJ existed.

Outside of arguments in journals, however, I think that this argument ill suits these less professional audiences.


Instead, I’m discussing problems with the carelessness commonly found in lay discussions. For that reason you don’t read me saying what HJ was really (or wasn’t really) like. Instead, you read me saying

My first and biggest problem with everything Sarah has said is that we don’t have a good definition of Historical Jesus anywhere in her post.

And lo! And behold! It is true!

Sarah, whom I love & respect despite this one single blog post of hers falling directly on a sore spot of mine, provided a long introduction to her post about arguing from good faith, no name calling, etc. It was a fine introduction as these things go. But that would have also been a perfect place to clarify, “What is it we are even arguing about?” Unfortunately you cannot find any definition of HJ in Sarah’s preface. Nor can you find it anywhere else in her post.

The risk here is that should one person with a very limited, very minimalist definition announce that HJ has been proven to some degree of satisfaction, then another person in the same thread who holds a different, more expansive and detailed definition can then take that minimalist announcement as support for a maximalist HJ. To wit:

when we’re not careful in saying exactly what qualities we’re assigning to HJ, and we’re not arguing within the carefully constrained environment of academic journals, we’re inevitably participating in the creation of a public environment where it’s considered reasonable to assert that divine healing and water walking and matter creation have all been rationally demonstrated.

I trust I don’t have to cite sources to prove that there really are people who assert that faith healing is possible, that Jesus literally walked on water and it’s only rational to believe that it is so? Because yes, Virginia, there really are naive & credulous Christians.

And even when we’re not talking about the N&CCs, failing to put up a definition when arguing about the existence (or non-) of any HJ is just begging for a confused conversation where some people think determining the existence of HJ’s quality X is vital while other people think it’s entirely irrelevant as it is unnecessary to proving HJ.

I made myself utterly clear that arguing about HJ isn’t the point. I mean fuck it all, the name of the god damned post is “Historical Jesus Is A Squirrel”. Yet people immediately started arguing in the comments about the qualities of HJ – again, without even presenting a definition of HJ first. Indeed we ended up with no less than four different definitions of HJ in the comments, but none appeared until #15.

I suppose the delay in the appearance of the first definition wouldn’t have been so bad, since the majority of early comments did seem to understand the point of the post, but it’s not as if argumentation about (some version of an) actual HJ didn’t start early. One Brow begins things explicitly in comment #3, but even Bruce Fuentes hints a bit at arguing for mythicism in the very first comment.

I prefer to interpret Fuentes as merely continuing the critique of Historicists methodologies, and not arguing for a specific conclusion (which would presumably be mythicism, if you are someone who thinks Fuentes comments went beyond statements on mere methodology), but I can see how others reading later might interpret Fuentes differently than I.

And so we have discussion of HJ no later than comment number 3, with no definition appearing until 15, and a second, competing definition appearing in Marja Erwin’s 17 (which would also have been a highly respectable comment trying to resolve the issues identified in my original post, save that it left unaddressed the existence of another definition already present in the comment thread for 12 hours). KG’s definition appears in comment 21. And, oh, whoops, not done yet! We get another definition of HJ in cubist’s comment 23. (Lower case “c” in cubist is as it appears in the original.)

This is all well enough, I suppose. People are, in fact, arguing about HJ by then and the efforts of these commenters to propose a definition are well taken, but none of the people who are actually invested in arguing mythicism vs. historicism save KG actually adopts one as their own. This would, of course, seem to make KG the best and most rigorous of the commenters, truly making the most valuable contribution of any to the discussion.

But remember, the discussion isn’t about any particular quality of HJ. The discussion is about whether the sloppy methodologies of arguments for  HJ create epistemic problems in the context of an internet full of N&CCs and others who can’t (or won’t) read carefully. Unfortunately, KG did not address the actual topic of conversation at all. Just read what KG wrote and you would think that I was actually making an argument for or against HJ having some specific quality or other, like being born in Bethlehem:

I’m afraid this alone shows that on this issue, you simply don’t know what you are talking about. No historian interested in the “histrorical Jesus question” other than evangelical Christians supposes Jesus to have been born in Bethlehem,

I don’t apparently know what I’m talking about because in an article that explicitly excludes talking about professional historians, I did not privilege the perspective of historians.

Well caught, KG!

The bit about “except evangelicals” is a particularly ironic touch as well, because evangelical Christians who assert that bread creation & water walking are historical events are a significant contingent of exactly those people to whom carelessness in conversations about HJ lend unearned epistemic confidence. Let me make it absolutely clear: while FtB might not be a hotbed of evangelical, Catholic, and other Christians who believe in a maximalist HJ, the believers in maximalist HJ who also spend time talking about HJ on the internet far exceed the number of persons who disbelieve the maximalist HJ, believe the minimalist HJ, and talk about HJ on the internet. This means that definitions of HJ that include such details as, “actually walked on water” and “actually born in Bethlehem” are, in fact, details relevant to discussing HJ. They may not be relevant to discussing your preferred HJ, but that only stresses the point that I’ve already made: with so many different versions of HJ out there, you better make sure you’ve been clear about which HJ you want to discuss before you go about having the discussion. To do otherwise is folly.

Ultimately, then, KG is insisting we privilege the people who are specifically mentioned as irrelevant to the discussion (historians), while dismissing exactly the people who create the problem that is the entire point of the discussion (Christians who believe in an HJ). For KG to so entirely misunderstand what was explicitly stated would be embarrassing enough, but KG’s comment 21 treats me as the careless one:

Really, please don’t say any more about this issue at least until you’ve read the posts here. It’s so fucking embarrassing how many atheists trot out mythicist garbage

It should go without saying that KG’s link is so utterly devoid of discussion about how methodological problems in lay discussions of HJ lend unearned epistemic confidence to theists generally and Christians specifically that one’s mind boggles at the milli-squirrel rating it must earn.

It is bad enough, of course, that KG doesn’t have any idea what discussion is being had, but it is with deep regret that I must further observe that even when making what might be a substantive addition to the discussion – a proposed definition of HJ – KG exhibits entirely unwarranted confidence:

The “minimal historical Jesus” is something like: a guy named Yeshua, born and raised in Galilee around the start of the Christian era, went around preaching and faith-healing, was baptised by John the Baptist, gathered some followers, came to Jerusalem, caused some sort of disturbance, was arrested by the Roman authorities and crucified for sedition while Pontius Pilate was the local.bigwig.

Except, no. One minimal historical Jesus might be said to be that, but there were already two other definitions in the same thread. How is it possible to not notice that one’s definition is idiosyncratic when Marja Erwin’s excellent definition is only a few comments above and differs in significant respects.

It is, frankly, disheartening to identify a problem – the willingness of people to argue over the existence of HJ before even establishing which HJ is being debated – only to have the problem immediately repeated in the comments of the post devoted to rooting it out.

If nothing else, this proves that the mind control powers of the Death Squirrel of Bethlehem are potent indeed.




  1. says

    I apologize for not reading carefully enough on your post to discern the exact direction you were aiming for. I hope I am doing better this time.

    HJ is a person, and people are not defined, they are described. When four people give four different descriptions of what they understand about person X, that is not the same as four different definitions. While I appreciate mythicists are eager to remove the person and leave only a construct, that’s not how we treat historical people in casual conversations. I mean, when was the last time you heard “historical Joseph Smith” to refer to the founder of the Mormon groups? That siad, I agree we should be clear, in casual conversation, to distinguish between the Jesus we understand from history and the Jesus we understand from religious teaching.

    Over a series of posts, Dr. Sarah has made the distinction more than once. I do not think Dr. Sarah should be expected to put this disclaimer in every single post on the topic.

  2. db says

    “One Brow said:” “[I]f there were multiple Jesuses of sufficient significance that Tacitus and Suetonius could be talking about different men, then there would be evidence of this in Josephus, and there is not.”

    Words fail me, thus I can not properly respond, just WOW!

  3. says

    I hadn’t really been following this discussion (thought you were talking about HJ Hornbeck for some reason LOL), but now that I’m looking at it, I feel compelled to point to the causal theory of reference, an idea popularized by philosopher Saul Kripke. The idea is that when you refer to something, such as the historical Jesus, there is a causal chain between the thing, and your reference to the thing.

    So if I meet a squirrel from Bethlehem, and mistakenly believe that it is a man from Nazareth, and I later tell you about this man from Nazareth, then what I am referring to is the squirrel, even though the squirrel has none of the properties I claim. In one sense, the man from Nazareth “exists” as a squirrel from Bethlehem, but in another sense he does not exist insofar as my reference departs significantly from the referent. It is irrelevant whether there are any real men from Nazareth.

    I think the causal theory of reference is fairly intuitive to most people, and they often follow the theory without realizing it. People intuitively understand that it is possible to refer to someone while making mistakes in one’s description. People intuitively understand that if I make up a story about a redhead in New York, that redhead does not exist, even if there are indeed redheads living in New York.

    So I think the way you discuss historical Jesus is naive, in that you assume the definition must consist of a collection of properties, where Jesus exists only if there was a person with that collection of properties. On the other hand, it’s a common naivety, so it’s not wrong to discuss how it affects people’s understanding of what it means for Jesus to be historical.

  4. says

    I think that even using the causal theory of reference, there are a lot of ways you could delineate between Jesus historicism and Jesus mythicism. I’m not really interested in drawing any line at all, personally. I am curious where historians draw the line though. One time I saw Richard Carrier speak (before his downfall) and we were asking this very question. I never got a satisfactory answer, and it turns out I don’t care enough to investigate further.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    According to my dictionary, Late Middle English saw the pronunciation and meaning of “Bethlehem” transformed to “bedlam”.

    How prescient.

  6. says

    (*furiously taking notes*) … must… investigate… milli-squirrels (!)… also… (*flips to new post-it-note*) Death… Squirrel… of… Bethlehem… with… mind… control… powers (!!!)…

    Of course one must first establish at minimum the likely existence of creatures that can accurately be deemed “milli-squirrels” (are they interbreeding with the tardigrades?! OMG…). Similarly, one must first establish the likely existence of at least one creature that can accurately be described as a “Death Squirrel,” hailing from a place called Bethlehem. And here’s the important part: this would in no way be evidence of said creature’s possession of any alleged mind control powers.

  7. Kreator says

    How about actually giving Sarah a chance to defend herself before rambling on this topic again? It’s utterly disrespectful.

  8. says


    This isn’t an attack on Sarah. And there’s nothing to defend. To the extent that I said anything about Sarah, as opposed to what Sarah wrote, what I said is this:

    Sarah, whom I love & respect despite this one single blog post of hers falling directly on a sore spot of mine

    As for my “attack” on Sarah, what I said was that her OP doesn’t include a definition of what she means when she mentions HJ.

    I’ve read the piece. It does not, in fact, contain such a definition. So I’ve made a factual claim about her writing, and said laudatory things about Sarah herself – which are deserved. I like Sarah and though I don’t know her well I have every reason to believe that she’s a good person.

    As far as I’m concerned, Sarah has nothing to defend unless she disagrees with my argument that using the words “Historical Jesus” (or some similar phrase) without being careful to define what it does and does not mean in her writing can create the appearance of support for claims she is not making about an HJ where such support is not present and would be undeserved.

    She’s welcome to do so – either here or at her own blog – but this isn’t about Sarah. Sarah just happened to open the most recent thread on the topic. Even if I’m wrong and Sarah has a previous post where she says, “Whenever I mention an historical Jesus I mean nothing more nor less than someone who possesses the following X characteristics (and then lists characteristics 1 through X)” that was linked in her current post in a way that I failed to notice, I’m critiquing the behavior, and the behavior clearly exists even if Sarah hasn’t ever engaged in it.

    In any case, chasing after any particular HJ is not a moral wrong. So even if Sarah’s writing does exhibit the methodological carelessness I critique I’m not alleging Sarah has done anything bad in any moral sense.

    I don’t see how anything I’ve done requires me to voluntarily give up writing about my pet peeves on my blog until Sarah chimes in.

  9. Jazzlet says

    I don’t understand why so many are having such a problem with what Crip Dyke is saying, as I understand it she is merely asking for people to start by clearly defining what they are discussing. If someone has already told you that they like some cheese but not all cheese there is no point in persisting on asking for a yes or no answer with supporting evidence; you move on to asking whether they like particular types of cheese – soft, hard blue etc – and from there to specific types, in other words you define the parameters of the discussion. It’s not productive to have discussion without doing so, though from a lot of the responses to CD’s last post on the subject I doubt that most of the responders were actually interested in a productive discussion, rather than in point scoring attempts to demonstrate their great understanding.

  10. says

    Sarah doesn’t own this subject and since this post only addresses the discussion in the comments of the last post, I don’t really see what you’re complaining about.
    Defining terms is a basic part of any serious discussion anyway, so it’s not as if that’s unreasonable or disrespectful, either.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *