Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment


And it’s a long treatment, so brace yourself.

I’m not going to disagree with his major points, but am just going to say that I think our background disciplines also tend to color our interpretation of the data. As a biologist, this summary resonates perfectly with me.

As already noted in relation to Myers’ rather different form of “agnosticism” on the question, historical analysis of pre-modern evidence simply cannot arrive at definitive answers and can only make structured, evidence-based but subjective assessments of what is most likely.

Evolutionary biology does the same thing: we gather all the evidence we can, sieve through it, and try to make a best assessment that accounts for all of the data with as little subjectivity as possible…but since we’re human, we can’t eliminate it all. We also try to conform our explanations to existing models of how the world works, and I think that’s where we often get conflicts. When I say there’s a question of parsimony here, I’m really saying is that I have a model in my head, and what’s the simplest way to fit these data to it? And as a biologist I have one model that involves thinking about populations and downplaying individuals (individuals make a transient contribution that is then broken up and blended with all the other individuals in the population), while a historian might focus more on specific instances and place greater weight on an individual’s role. So that’s where this bit doesn’t fit as well into my head.

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.

This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.

OK, I agree with the point that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect”. If you’re just going to accept the sources as your sole objective data (a fair decision!), then sure, an argument between informed historians is going to converge on a single answer, as he does.

Unfortunately, that collides with my biases as a non-historian evolutionary biologist who tries to answer historical questions about organisms. When we try to identify the last common ancestor of all tetrapods, for instance, we don’t have any doubt that such a thing existed, but the “thing” is not a single individual (it ain’t Tiktaalik!), but a population, or a group of populations, or even a few loosely interbreeding species, and we’re averse to holding up a fossil and declaring, “here is the mother of all four-legged vertebrates!”, because we know it’s not true.

So I look at the Middle East of a few thousand years ago (or even today), and I see a fermenting chaos that is throwing up preachers and prophets all over the place, and to point to one guy and say he’s the one seems to avoid the bigger question of what was going on in that particular environment. Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge the cross-fertilization and interbreeding of ideas that had to have been going on? This Jesus fellow is just one focus, and given how little we know about him, not even a particularly interesting focus.

I also have to question the reliability of the sources that all say there was one man. Writing that Christianity was produced by a committee, or the complicated interplay of a gang of scholars living in one little town, isn’t as compelling a story as saying it was this one enlightened individual. It’s like how in evolution the popular press seems to be locked into the idea of a “missing link”, looking for that one bone that ties a convoluted history into a pretty package, even as all the biologists try to tell them there wasn’t one link, and it’s not all missing, but parts of it will always be lost to us.

But all right, I can accept that historians have reached a practical consensus based on available evidence that there was a guy named Jesus who triggered a major religious movement 2000 years ago, and that denying his existence is a pointless exercise in pedantry that is often misused by lazy denialists. After all, if some revisionist came along and tried to claim that Devonian sarcopterygians were a fantasy and illusion cobbled up by Carboniferous limb apologists to justify the righteousness of tetrapody I’d also find them annoyingly obtuse.

Another thing: if you’re an atheist already, this is an argument that is totally irrelevant. If we had definitive evidence that Jesus existed — a time machine goes back, snaps a photo and takes a DNA sample — it wouldn’t change my mind at all, nor would it persuade Christians to abandon their faith. If the time machine goes back, and the time travelers flounder about, unable to identify which of the multitude of preachers is “the one”, that similarly is not going to change the mind of anyone about the truth of Christianity. It’s a kind of peculiarly bad pattern of argument that doesn’t resolve anything that matters at all.

I guess if you’re the kind of atheist who wants to say, “Hur hur, Christians are wrong about something, therefore there is no god,” maybe it would appeal. But this is like picking the most fuzzy, vaguely definable claim with known deficiencies of data that you can find and then splitting hairs to find a way to say the other guy is wrong, and doing it in the face of a whole mob of scholars who are telling you that your interpretation is non-standard. Tactically, it doesn’t sound smart.

We might as well be arguing that Jesus was an alien. The whole debate just puts us in a looney-tunes cartoon.

Comments

  1. Owlmirror says

    The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation.

    One of the links posted the last time this came up was this one about several early Christian writers who wrote apologetics for Christianity without mentioning Jesus, as well as problematic statements in the NT that certainly seem to imply a lack of belief in a historical Jesus.

    As I wrote elsewhere, it’s odd no matter how you consider it; that a cult that began around a real person somehow dropped it along the way, or a cult that had no human at its center suddenly getting one that supposedly had a brief career and died in Judea in ~30 CE. The essay linked above suggests that it started with the gospel of Mark being written as an allegory, but that still seems a bit tenuous.

  2. petern says

    But the very earliest written sources about Jesus are the letters of Paul (the ones that aren’t later forgeries), and they show quite plainly that Paul and all the established Christian congregations to which he was writing didn’t believe in and hadn’t ever even considered a Jesus who was a living, breathing, walking, talking human being. Their Jesus was some kind of celestial demigod whom no one had ever seen except in dreams and visions, and only after he had died and been resurrected. If you just read the letters, it’s plain as day.

    The earliest “biography” of a living, breathing Jesus is the gospel of Mark, which comes from a whole generation later and was obviously written by someone who was familiar with Paul’s letters, but only had a hazy idea of the customs, geography, and historical facts. It is a work of allegorical fiction — and all the later gospels, the Book of Acts, and all the noncanonical Christian writings that describe a corporeal Jesus are derived from that.

    Jesus began as a myth but quickly became a lie, and I think that a wider understanding of this really would erode the faith of Christians.

  3. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    The problem is Tim is lying. I’m not a mythicist, more of an agnostic now after reading mythicist arguments, but he’s flat out wrong that there’s no epistemic basis.

    First of all, the “We’re historians, so we do things differently” schtick is just nonsense. You can’t get special exemption from the null hypothesis. If the data sucks, it sucks. The fact is that Jesus, a priori, is at the least like people like Socrates, the Buddha, John Frum, Tom Navy, Lao Tzu, Confucius, etc., if not actual god-men like Osiris et al. And a lot of those people aren’t real. John Henry Irons is a lot more plausible than any of the Gospels and he almost certainly didn’t exist. Sorry, but a group of religious texts and motivated mythological hagiographies aren’t close to enough to establish that any character in them is real. This isn’t an unreasonable standard, either. The reason why we’re fairly sure Socrates existed was because we have more than Plato’s testimony, and even with that the way that Diogenes, Aristophanes and the historians who describe his trials discuss the character is vastly different from Plato so we know that it’s hard to reconstruct what the actual guy taught. It’s possible the Buddha didn’t exist. And people like Caesar, Hammurabi, Sargon, Xerxes, etc. we have evidence that goes beyond writing, such as neutral histories, coinage, tablets and inscriptions. The entire mythicist position would become bankrupt overnight if tomorrow we found an inscription that could be plausibly dated to the right time that said “I, Joseph of Arimathea, have given my tomb to Yeshua of Nazareth” or something of the sort.

    Second, Tim is just lying about the argument. You can find mythicist arguments uncompelling, but the idea that they have an explanation that is extra cruft is a straight up lie. The mythicists look at the Pauline letters, texts that even Bart Ehrman agrees seem to discuss a pre-existing celestial being, and point out that Paul only ever talks about a heavenly or ghost Jesus. Then suddenly we have Christologies appear in later texts in the Gospels that instead have a lower Christology. How the hell did that happen? Paul was one of the earliest leaders of the faith. How did a clear understanding of Jesus as an archangel get spread to become an understanding of Jesus as a minor preacher who became ascended to godhood after the fact? That’s bizarre, and it contradicts Ehrman’s history of a gradually ascending Christology. But it matches a mystery faith perfectly: insiders talking about a celestial being, texts targeting outsiders discussing a person put onto Earth. Historicist theories, of which there are literally dozens, typically don’t have a good explanation for that. If the zealot hypothesis is true, for example, why did Paul suddenly become pacifist and relatively reformist or accommodationist and start succeeding immediately, and why are all the accounts we have of the early disciples of faith healers who don’t get the attention of the Romans?

    Tim is disingenuous on mythicism.

  4. says

    At this point, I’m just throwing up my hands and rejecting the whole mess, for pragmatic reasons I mention in the last couple of paragraphs. Who cares? I’m about as interested in Jesus’ life as I am in the story of Joseph Smith — and no matter what the correct answer is, it makes no difference to the assertion that he was or was not the son of a god, or a prophet, or whatever other syncretic chaos the myth or the man emerged from.

  5. Cynical Skeptic says

    We might as well be arguing that Jesus was an alien. The whole debate just puts us in a looney-tunes cartoon.

    It’s entirely possible that the people on both sides of this find the topic interesting and worthy of their time just as an intellectual pursuit. Not everything has to have some big consequence. That doesn’t make them a looney-tunes cartoon. That is a perfectly fine use of their time if they so choose. Things like cephalopods don’t appeal to everyone either.

    You say you don’t care but you keep posting about it.

  6. KG says

    How very predictable – every post PZ makes on this issue immediately garners a clutch of mythicists making idiots of themselves.

  7. KG says

    no matter what the correct answer is, it makes no difference to the assertion that he was or was not the son of a god, or a prophet, or whatever other syncretic chaos the myth or the man emerged from. – PZM@4

    True. What does make a difference is a large proportion of atheists – at least, those encountered online – making gobsmackingly stupid “arguments” that so closely parallel, in form and validity, those of creationists, climate change deniers, etc.

  8. monad says

    a time machine goes back, snaps a photo and takes a DNA sample — it wouldn’t change my mind at all

    Even if that DNA turned out to be haploid? ;)

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    As a history buff who hadn’t seen O’Neill’s blog before, I just spent a couple of intrigued hours hopping around at “History for Atheists: New Atheists Getting History Wrong”. Conclusion: very interesting, well informed, a bit of a tendency to beat up on strawmen, needs a little more citation of references & further reading.

    He scathes the Sam Harris/Ben Shapiro interview as a mutually-supporting dialog of the ignorant quite masterfully.

  10. says

    As a person with a BA in History, I may be able to offer a bit of explanation.

    The problem is that when you go back 2,000 years records get REALLY thin. There’s a couple of Roman emperors we think exist only because they get mentioned in passing once in a single surviving text and they are otherwise not recorded anywhere.
    We’d like to think that history is pretty solid, but the truth is go back far enough and a lot of the details get really fuzzy really quickly. The existence of any particular individual 2,000 years ago is so hard to find evidence for that basically we tend to work on the assumption that if they’re mentioned they probably existed.

    It’s total BS that there’s more evidence for Jesus than there is for Alexander the Great, or [insert your favorite figure from antiquity here], but what is true is that by the standards historians use for people 2,000 years ago Jesus falls into the “unless there’s evidence to the contrary we’ll assume he existed” category.
    And really there’s nothing particularly weird about assuming that there was some rabble rousing rabbi named Yoshua Bin Yoseff or something similar back then. There were a lot of rabble rousing rabbis, why not one more? Obviously that doesn’t mean any of the miraculous claims are valid, but there’s no more reason to doubt that there was a historic Jesus than to doubt that there was a historic Pontius Pilate (who has exactly one stone with his name on it attesting to his actual existence).

    It’d be nice if history was able to be more firm and certain on things like the existence of individuals way back when, but it isn’t. We’re limited to what archaeology finds (which tends mostly to help with big regional stuff, not individuals except in rare cases) or the claims made in the tiny handful of surviving texts.
    This is why history gives a BA degree rather than a BS. It is not a science. It is one of the humanities, and while historians do their best to be fact based and use what science can tell us, ultimately it just isn’t a science.

    But by the standards used for evaluating whether or not to think a person from that long ago was real rather than fictional, Jesus counts as real. To reject him we’d have to reject a lot of other people we tend to assume were real.

  11. favog says

    I’m not a mythicist. I’m an ahistorisist. Have been since the eighties, before I ever heard of the mythicists. This is why I have an issue with historicists, if I may quote Tim: “It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect”.

    The sources? Plural? That aren’t forgeries? That aren’t re-writes of Mark? That aren’t someone citing the existence of Christianity, which are not claims that the character that the Christians believe in was real? Only one source qualifies, and that’s Mark (because it’s not a rewrite of a lost original of itself … so far as we know, though it could be). So you get credit for one source, but even then it’s a source that has an unknown author, date, and location for it’s origins, and even internally has material that is taken by some as a hint that it’s nothing but allegory in it’s original intention. So you’ve got one really bad source. Big deal. I’m not impressed.

  12. jacques says

    I think the interest is understanding how Christianity started. It may or may not be an interesting question to one personally. I tend to think that historicists like O’Neill here tend to overstate their case, with no clear reason as to why. It does not matter if “all” or even “most” of the extant evidence points to a historical figure when “all” or “most” of the evidence is as bad as the evidence they are talking about. It does not help their case either that the legitimate letters of Paul, the earliest Christian documents, mention very little about a human Jesus. As far as I can tell, there are only two passages that, under a particular literal interpretation, could be pointed as evidence for Paul knowing about a human Jesus: one mention of Jesus as being “of the seed of David” (https://biblehub.com/romans/1-3.htm) and one of Paul having met “James, the brother of the Lord” (https://biblehub.com/galatians/1-19.htm). If that is true, the question settled: Jesus clearly existed as a person. But if not, then the historicists have very little actually working for them other than tradition: the gospels are clearly mythical, and the couple of passages in Josephus that supposedly mention Jesus are argued by many (believers and non-believers alike) to be either partially or entirely made up. It is strange to me that historicists ascribe so much certainty to a question where there is so little convincing evidence either way. And yea, mythicists make some assumptions too, and some of them rest of thin evidence as well. But like historicists like to say when it suits them, why would you expect to find anything but thin evidence to begin with, especially after two thousand years of religious figures mucking up the historical record?

  13. says

    A few years ago I started looking into this matter to try and figure out if there was anything to this ‘Mythical Jesus’ thing. My bias was actually toward there actually being an ‘historical Jesus’ because that is all I ever heard about from religion, from Bible scholars, and from the arts. I came to consider the likelihood of the Jesus represented in the Bible being wholly literary in origin a live possibility.

    As I continued to consider the various arguments on all sides I encountered the sort of invective indulged in by defenders of the ‘Historical Jesus’ hypothesis (for example KG in posts #6 and #7) to be overblown. For something which it must be admitted the evidence is very thin at best, they seem to have invested too much of themselves on an emotional level. I suppose the idea is to poison the well by invoking images of climate disruption deniers, creationists, et al. Me, I’m not tone to be put off by such hysterical name-calling.

  14. says

    @sotonohito #10

    I understand the dictum “unless there’s evidence to the contrary we’ll assume he existed” perfectly well. However, that does seem to be a reversal of the burden of proof as is generally used. Of course, ‘proving a negative’ would seem to set the bar rather too high.

    There may or may not have been person upon whom christianity’s Jesus was based. But that case is a unique one, and I don’t accept the notion that “[t]o reject him [Jesus] we’d have to reject a lot of other people we tend to assume were real.” I’d suggest that the case for Pilate is a case that stands or falls on its own merits, as does the case for Socrates, or William Tell, King Arthur, or any figure from history. If it turns out Jesus was a literary character rather than a real person, that does not affect the historicity of Alexander, or Boudicca, or any other individual. You can’t (in my opinion) try to hold other figures hostage in that way.

  15. craigmacdonald says

    Tim O’Neill misrepresents ‘sources’. The sources he is referring to are mere narratives, and theological narratives at that. Narratives about a man-god: a man-god that may not be based on a deified man as is commonly thought or perceived.

    Rather, the Jesus of the NT could well be the reverse: an abstract concept that was humanised – ie. an anthropomorphised being (perhaps initially a concept of a celestial being, such as an angel).

    Such a conceptualised fictive, mythological character is as parsimonious as a deified man. Especially in the messianic age that the narratives were developed in, and particularly given the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the effect that would have had on the Jewish people.

    We have been conditioned to believe the stories in the letters of Paul – which really only allude to abstracts of a man – were first and were written before the destruction of the Temple: but they might not have been. Likewise the gospels, different versions of the same basic story, where Jesus is ‘fleshed out’, might not be as early as we have been led to believe.

  16. says

    That there was at least one human deeply involved in the founding of a human religion seems to me to be a claim that needs no evidence: it’s part of the definition of “human religion”.

    That one human gets more credit than any other seems to be a claim so unexceptional that I’m willing to default to that absent evidence to the contrary. In many circumstances the works of groups get credited to a single person in hugely disproportionate ways. Mohandas Gandhi didn’t liberate India from British rule by himself. Lenin didn’t single-handedly create a communist Russia. It’s even unlikely that Lenin spent more total hours working toward that outcome than any other person in Russia at the time. There were enough people working on it that Lenin putting in the most hours is simply not to be believed absent evidence. And yet he’s credited with the creation of a communist Russia.

    So the idea that there was some guy involved in the creation of a new human religion 2kya who got more credit than any other guy seems … a nothing claim. A claim without consequence. It’s parsimonious to assume that his name was Jesus, sure. I don’t see any evidence his name was something else. But we don’t even know if this was a Jim Jones figure who preached his personal special divinity, a Joseph Smith figure who preached special knowledge of divinity, but claimed no personal divinity, or a beloved brother in a new religion who was subordinate to the actual founder but was euhemerized after his death for the cause. There are other plausible scenarios for the involvement of a human Jesus associated with the birth of Christianity I’m sure, but even these three are enough to show that we simply don’t know squat about Jesus the human.

    Tim O’Neill teaches us that “Historical Jesus” simply means a historical model of who Jesus might have been. Thus once anyone throws up a hypothesis about Jesus the human, Historical Jesus exists. Historical Jesus, after all, is simply a collection of beliefs [about Jesus the human]. With the massive worldwide interest in Jesus, it’s inevitable that some people have beliefs about Jesus the human. It’s inevitable that – as bad as the support may be – some beliefs are still better justified than other beliefs.

    Tim O’Neill probably has good methods at his disposal for determining which beliefs are better justified than others. He’s certainly done more research into which beliefs are better justified than I have or ever will. So, fine, Tim O’Neill can tell us that there’s a Historical Jesus.

    But since the sources for these beliefs are still bible books, what you end up with is merely the claim that some assertions about Jesus found in the bible are non-miraculous and not obviously invented or mythological. If we’re going to believe anything about Jesus the human, since we don’t have good sources about Jesus that aren’t in the bible, it’s most reasonable to make our beliefs about Jesus the human conform to the limits imposed by the non-miraculous, not-obviously-invented assertions about Jesus found in the Bible.

    Okay. If we’re going to believe anything about Jesus the human, then sure that’s true. But with the contradictions and vague statements and obviously ahistorical elements in the bible removed, there’s so little left that there seems nothing interesting remains.

    I don’t believe anything about Jesus the human. It’s not a weird idea that there was one, but there are at least 3 plausible theories for his relationship to the early church that occur to me off the top of my head, and to my knowledge none of them have been disproved. So why believe any of them? Why believe anything else about Jesus the human?

    Historical Jesus exists, but I’m not a historian and have no dog in the fight about which scholar correctly or incorrectly used which methodologies and therefore concluded which things that are actually 5% more or less likely to be true.

    Jesus the human may very well have existed. I mean, it’s inevitable that there was a Judean preacher close to the right time frame named Yeshua since there were a lot of Yeshuas and a lot of preachers in that area at that time, but we can’t be certain enough for my liking that such a person was directly involved in founding what became the Christian church. I’m perfectly happy to concede that it’s more plausible than any other scenario that there was a Yeshua deeply involved in the founding of the early Christian church, but that fact along just isn’t interesting. It doesn’t lead directly to any other conclusions. There’s no reason arguendo to adopt the belief on reasonable but not conclusive evidence. So why bother?

    Likewise the crucifixion isn’t implausible. Given that the bible says that he was crucified, Historical Jesus should probably be considered to have been crucified. But should I, personally, believe that Jesus the human was crucified? Nope. If there’s no conclusive evidence for Jesus the human, then the odds of a Jesus the human that was crucified by Romans cannot possible have conclusive evidence for him. After all this is just a more qualified Jesus the human, a subset of possible Jesus the humans. And there are reasons to believe the execution either may not have happened or may have happened somewhat differently. Are the crucified possible Jesus the humans 80% of all possible Jesus the humans? 95%? 50%? I’m sure professional historians could help narrow that down, but all I need to know for my purposes is that there was reasonable but not conclusive evidence for a Jesus the human, there’s reasonable but not conclusive evidence for a crucified Jesus the human, and there’s not even reasonable evidence to pin down the exact relationship of Jesus the human to the early church.

    I’m not going to say that people are stupid or unreasonable for adopting the belief that there was a crucified Jesus the human, but the evidence isn’t there for me to believe in such a person – and, yes, this has something to do with my opinions about the reliability of the biblical source material which got wrong many of the details that are available to historical accuracy checks.

    So, for me, saying “Jesus the human is a myth” is entirely reasonable, since there simply aren’t any facts about this person that we know with (to my mind) sufficient certainty. Anything we think we know about Jesus the human is, at this point, merely a subset of the biblical Jesus. We can call that “Historical Jesus” if we want, since it meets the definition of a historical model of who that person is more likely to have been. And professional historians speaking to each other should absolutely call that the “Historical Jesus” since that’s the product of professional history.

    But all the rest of us should be deeply skeptical of the use of “Historical Jesus” as it creeps into the popular media and the popular mind lest if be taken for an assumption that the existence of a Jesus the human who founded Christianity is as certain as the fact that human historians have beliefs about who the founder of Christianity is more likely to have been.

  17. zoniedude says

    There is a simple explanation for the historical Jesus. As I explain in an essay titled The Economics of Jesus at http://zoniedude.com/essays/Jesus.htm we have strong historical evidence for the existence of Jewish colonies in the Roman era and we have strong historical evidence for the development of Christianity among those colonies rather than in Jerusalem. The most likely explanation is that the world in the Mediterranean and elsewhere needed a form of economic integration that allowed the polyglot communities to coalesce. Jesus was the ambassador to Jerusalem from the Jewish colonies to allow non-Jews to be baptized into their communities. The Temple authorities had Jesus killed and thus Jesus became a martyr for the Jewish colonies and they formed Christianity to implement the concept of baptism that resolved their economic problems. Ironically, a similar situation occurred when Mohammad married a widow who had a widespread caravan business with the same economic problem and a similar resolution.

  18. says

    proudfootz, it isn’t that anyone is holding anyone else hostage, it’s simply that by the standard historic methods various people, including Jesus, are generally accepted by historians as being real. Standards that exist because basically if they didn’t we’d be operating on the assumption that everyone except for a handful of extremely well sourced figures wasn’t real.

    To argue for a mythic Jesus requires either providing specific evidence that Jesus wasn’t real, or altering the overall standard in such a way that it would put a great many other characters into the not real category as well.
    Again, I think the problem is that many/most people who haven’t gotten deeply into history have the false assumption that most “historic” figures from antiquity are backed up by a great deal of evidence. And for recent figures they are. There’s plenty of evidence for the existence of George Washington or Shaka kaSenzangakhona from lots of different sources.
    But as we go back further and further the evidence gets thinner and thinner and thus historians are stuck either deciding to accept much less evidence for people further back in the past, or deciding to categorize pretty much everyone we think existed way back when as fictional.

    Historians collectively decided to err on the side of acceptance. Part of that, without any real intention on the part of historians, was that it meant the standards they used for everyone else also happened to include that Yoshua bin Yoseff guy. Not the miracles, they’re clearly BS, but the guy himself.
    This may well be wrong. I’m certainly willing to entertain the idea that Jesus is an amalgam of various rabble rousing rabbis from the period.
    But to say that he didn’t exist on the grounds that the evidence is too thin would require us to change the general methods and definitions of historians in such a way that it rejects a lot of others too.

    If you want to argue that historians are too generous in accepting the reality of people from antiquity, that’s fine. But if so we need to apply that standard evenly.

  19. says

    I think the real problem is that non-historians need to understand just how shaky it is when a historian says that someone existed or was mythic. The answer is: very, very, shaky indeed.
    We simply don’t know in most cases. And that’s compounded by the fact that the idea of history as a recording of actual mundane events unedited and not decorated is a relatively new thing. Most of the “histories” recorded by ancient Greek authors include gods, monsters, and all manner of other stuff we know didn’t actually happen or exist. And not added in as obvious extras, but often integral to what they’re presenting as history. Do we discount the existence of a king because the only mention of him is in a sort of extraneous passage of Herodotus where that king is talked about in relation to Zeus?

    Yet what most people see in their history books is “king whoever did this stuff and ruled Athens from 560 BCE to 520BCE.” But all that is just from one passage in Herodotus that also talked about river gods, with the dates extrapolated.

    It’s tempting to simply throw up our hands and say “we don’t really know anything except the broadest outlines until around 500 years ago”. And in a sense that is true. I do think it would be better if history classes directed at non-historians spent a bit more time emphasizing just how tenuous most of what we think we know about the really ancient world really is.
    The broad outlines we can get good backing with archaeology to help at least categorize some things as either BS or not. For example, we’ve known for about 80 years that the “history” presented in the Torah is a total fabrication. The ancient Israelites were never held as a big group of slaves in Egypt, there was no Exodus, there was no conquest of Canaan, the Yahweh worshiping monotheistic Israelites were a subset of the Canaanite people and assimilated the others in a fairly peaceful process. This much we know from archaeology and a tiny handful of contemporaneous records.
    Good broad outline stuff.
    More specific and the answers are a lot less pleasingly certain.

  20. says

    @sotonohito:
    First, I realize you’re not talking to me, but I had a couple things to riff on in your comment, so if you don’t mind? You don’t have to reply if you do not wish to do so, of course.

    Historians collectively decided to err on the side of acceptance.

    And that’s fine. My problem was never with how historians use the phrase “historical jesus” or whatever in their own literature, and it certainly wasn’t with the underpinnings of the field (which I don’t know, not being a historian), but it sure as hell seems to me that when historians speak to the general public, the use of the phrase “Historical Jesus” is confused with something that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “Jesus the human”.

    The lay audience of historians discussing this stuff assumes that since the accepted standards of professional historians renders Jesus a “real, historical person” whose existence cannot be challenged without challenging the underpinnings of the entire field, it is inevitably true that withholding belief in a Jesus the human is unreasonable unless you can prove that the entire basis of historical research should be thrown out.

    I really don’t like the way that the lay public and professional historians interact on this issue. I think that the way that historians have spoken on this issue has probably contributed to the general cultural confusion of much of the lay public. I might be wrong. Maybe I’m blaming the history world’s equivalent of research physicists for misunderstandings propagated by the Bill Nyes of the history world. Not being a hip, connected cat all down with the coolest froods of the history world, I can’t say for sure I’m interpreting the dynamics (and their sources) correctly. But I sure as hell know that there are many lawyers responsible for propagating misunderstandings of the law, and I wish that all of us in the legal community would be more careful. Based on my experience in one community with people who are genuine experts but who speak carelessly when they shouldn’t, it doesn’t seem an exceptional claim that historians are doing this too.

    If you want to argue that historians are too generous in accepting the reality of people from antiquity, that’s fine. But if so we need to apply that standard evenly.

    The problem is that your standard isn’t communicated to the lay public. If they knew how tentative things can be, and how tentative, qualified, abstract, or field-specific a statement historians are making when they say that a “Historical Jesus”, then everything would be fine. The public means something different, and expects that historians are using a different standard.

    Use whatever standard you like. I just think much more care needs to be taken to communicate exactly what terms removed from the context of a specialized, professional field of study actually mean.

  21. says

    WHOOOPS!

    While I was writing that last comment, Sotonohito added a new comment saying,

    I think the real problem is that non-historians need to understand just how shaky it is when a historian says that someone existed or was mythic. The answer is: very, very, shaky indeed.

    [bolding mine]

    It sounds like we’re on exactly the same page then. I want no more than what you want: that when a field-of-study specific term escapes into the wild, the people encountering it running around know exactly what it means.

  22. zetopan says

    “Even if that DNA turned out to be haploid?”

    Ignoring the “minor” fact that haploid humans are unviable, if Jesus was haploid[*] he would have to be a she since no Y chromosome would be present. All vertebrates capable of parthenogenesis can only produce females and Jesus would have to be an invertebrate to be a parthenogenetic male. For those sufficiently credulous to actually believe in magic, this is not a problem since for them rationality simply does not apply.

    *The standard biologist joke is that the H in Jesus H. Christ stands for haploid.

  23. bachfiend says

    I think it’s entirely possible that there could have been an itinerant preacher with some form of the name ‘Jesus’ in early first century Palestine, in the same way that it’s certain that there periods of Roman history in which there was a very rapid succession of emperors and claimants to emperor of whom we know nothing beyond their name and a very sketchy account of how they came to very transient power.

    But no historian constructs an elaborate account of their biography. They just admit that they don’t know, and just list their names.

    There are composers whose music is still being played of whom we know nothing. No birth date. No date of death. Nothing beyond, say, ‘Italy, early 17th century.’ But we have the music and (hopefully) early scores, unless later forged as with ‘Albinoni’s’ adagio, which was actually composed in the early 20th century (not that Albinoni wasn’t historical and we do know a fair bit about him).

  24. monad says

    @22: Well, sure, if you assume gender is determined by chromosomes. But even diploid people aren’t always like that. (I feel like I should reference Wonderella here.)

  25. nomdeplume says

    “sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect” – this is simply untrue if he means modern sources. And if he means ancient sources they all represent problems, as anyone who has read anything about mythicism knows. The burden of proof for religious apologists is demonstrating the existence of a god, not on atheists to prove the negative. The same applies to an “historical” Jesus – prove it. But PZ is right – even if there was someone who was the source of one or two of the accounts, and even if he did claim the existence of a god, this still leaves us in the same position, he had to prove it. And wonky tales about divine births, and “miracles”, and “resurrection” don’t cut it I’m afraid. In the same way that none of the claims made by founders of new religions in the last 2000 years cut it.

  26. says

    @ sotonohito #18

    As I have looked at arguments from either perspective, it is apparent to me that there’s more to this than the lack of strong evidence for the ‘Historical Jesus’ hypothesis. It also includes the evidence (also sparse) which seems to indicate the ‘Mythic Jesus’ perspective. For instance, the Pauline literature which explicitly states that his knowledge of his Jesus comes from a mix of scripture interpretation and revelations. Again, the case for or against the positive claim of an Historic Jesus is something that has to be taken on its own merits (or lack of merit).

    But I don’t see that we will ‘lose’ many other figures in history if we consider Jesus, whose first appearance in the texts is as an avatar of a god (or perhaps even a god) revealed in scripture and mystical visions, as more likely myth than man. I’m not aware of many others who fit this circumstance. I’m fine with applying this standard equally to all characters found in ancient texts.

    As for the ‘standard historic methods’ it seems that Bible scholars have some tools in their practice which are non-standard in secular history. The Embarrassment Criterion (that if modern scholars think a story element might have been embarrassing to the supposed authors it is likely to have been a known fact that could not be avoided) is an example of this. Perhaps the need for novel methodology is an outgrowth of the fact that many people writing about The Historical Jesus are not themselves trained historians.

  27. chrislawson says

    monad and zetopan:

    The fact that it makes no sense is further evidence of his miraculous nature!

  28. neilgodfrey says

    I have posted my own sideline comment on the post above at PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods

    I copy here the main points though without the citation links and bibliographical references and personal background ….

    . . . . [Tim’s paragraph beginning ‘This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question…’], however, is indeed problematic and points to some confusion about the nature of many mythicist arguments and methods.

    No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works.

    Even most of the letters of Paul posit a Jesus and crucifixion as theological (not historical) constructs. Paul never attempts to “prove historically” that Jesus existed or was crucified. There is a passage (said to be partly inauthentic by some researchers) where he attempts to prove the resurrection by naming persons the readers are supposed to recognize as eyewitnesses. But only apologists would take his testimony as serious historical evidence for the resurrection. Others have argued that there is some kernel of truth behind Paul’s claims about the witnesses to the resurrection in that disciples had visions or became inwardly convicted, etc. But you see the problem for the historian here — we are moving away from the evidence and changing it to say something it doesn’t actually say so that it fits our preconceived model of Christian origins.

    So we are reminded of a point that several ancient historians have made when addressing sound methods and that I narrowed down to just one quotation in a post a few months ago. Philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker was addressing the question of whether or not something (in this case a miracle) in the gospels really happened. He explains:

    But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

    And that hits the nail squarely on the head.

    Tim O’Neill appears to be repeating the argument for the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars that is based on a naive reading of the sources: that we should assume they are just as they appear — “biographies”, however exaggerated, of a historical figure. But Tucker is saying that this approach begs the questions. The historian’s first task is to understand why the gospel narratives were written. It is a mistake to simply assume that though they are about a mythical or theological figure and persons who behave most unlike real persons we know from history (even Pilate is depicted as very unlike his portrayal elsewhere) they must nonetheless have originated in history and transmitted through oral retellings until set down by the evangelists. To make that assumption is to sweep aside much scholarship that has indeed suggested other sources for many of the narratives in those gospels, and to sweep aside critical scholarship that has indeed questioned the biographical nature of the gospels. (And there remains the question of how ancient biographies worked anyway since not all of them, despite appearances, are really about historical figures.)

    One prominent Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, Philip R. Davies, who was a pioneer of what became known derogatorily as “minimalism” in Old Testament studies — a movement that has continued to gain momentum since the 1990s and many of whose views are now mainstream — wrote the following in one of his last publications:

    I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .

    I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.

    The ‘minimalist’ approach he was referring to is nothing other than the way ancient historians (at least the scholarly reputable ones such as Moses I. Finley) work with evidence in fields other than biblical studies. I outlined his starting assumptions and questions on a webpage, In Search of Ancient Israel. I copied the main points of his discussion about faulty assumptions we bring to our reading of the biblical narratives in a blog post, too. Essentially, Davies and those who approached the history of “biblical Israel” in the same way argued that the biblical narratives must not be assumed to be based on historical events, but that such an assumption needs to be tested against other independent data. Archaeological data is not going to help us settle the question of the historicity of Jesus but one can compare other independent texts. Such a comparison will not exclude a comparison with other Greco-Roman literature in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the nature and potential purposes of the gospels. Some biblical scholars have ventured into such comparisons but some have also done so tendentiously. That’s another question that biblical scholars themselves are debating and that needs another post for a thorough treatment.

    Here’s how another scholar put it:

    Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

    That’s just another way of saying what Aviezer Tucker said:

    But this [did this story happen?] is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

    And when a scholar sees that the evidence points to the gospels not being more widely known until well into the second century, and that by that time they had been heavily redacted, and that their narratives are clearly influenced by comparable stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and that at key points in their narratives they even appear to be deliberately targeting pre-existing beliefs that their narrative is not grounded in historical memory at all, then that scholar has a challenge ahead.

    One more point. I have been attempting to get some handle on the nature of religion itself according to current anthropological and related studies. It has been a fascinating study. One point that has stood out for me is that models of how new religions start or how sects break off from mainstream religions to promote their own rituals and identities is just how infrequently such developments can be attributed simply to the appearance of a charismatic stand-alone figure who becomes the object of worship and co-creator of the universe, and how unreliable mythical explanations for the origins of their rituals and practices ever are.

    As PZ Myers rightly points out, it means nothing to an atheist whether or not Jesus existed historically. Unless the atheist is one of those idiots who likes to just pose nonsense criticisms for the sake of mocking alone.) But grappling with the evidence itself and attempting to assess it with clear-eyed and sound methods is a fascinating exploration.

    (Bibliography and citations omitted)

  29. Rich Woods says

    @zoniedude #17:

    Thank you for your fascinating explanation of the historical Jesus using the drive of basic economics. Is there any chance you might make a similar assessment for the existence of Robin Hood, please? And not wishing to pile your plate too high, would you also have time to consider General Ludd and Captain Swing?

  30. Owlmirror says

    All vertebrates capable of parthenogenesis can only produce females

    Some ZW female reptiles can parthenogenetically produce ZZ male offspring (and ZW female offspring).

    I’m not saying that Jesus was a lizard person, but I’m not saying he wasn’t, either.

  31. craigmacdonald says

    sotonohito #18 says “To argue for a mythic Jesus requires either providing specific evidence that Jesus wasn’t real, or altering the overall standard”

    Sure, arguing for a mythical Jesus requires an argument, but being agnostic doesn’t. Besides, the burden of proof is on those who aver a human, historical Jesus; and so far no-one has come up with definitive evidence (narratives are not).

    There are presently arguments by biblical scholars that the main synoptic gospel stories were written in the 2nd century, and there are arguments that the stories were backdated to the early first century (read Lena Einhorn’s ‘A Shift in Time’), so it would now be feasible to mount a cogent argument that the NT Jesus is a literary invention (particularly as second century church fathers show scant evidence of having known much about a real Jesus).

  32. chrislawson says

    I gave up on Tim O’Neill when I read his take on Galileo, where he insists that Galileo was never shown the instruments of torture by the Inquisition and would have known somehow that they would not really torture him. He says this despite (1) that showing people the instruments of torture was standard operating procedure for the Roman Inquisition, (2) the recantation that Galileo signed specifically lists torture as punishment should he go back on his recantation, and (3) the man in charge of his first trial, Cardinal Bellarmine, was among the Inquisitors who condemned Giordano Bruno and Fulgenzio Mafredi to be burnt to death.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I find it very hard to reconcile this cavalier dismissal of historical record with O’Neill’s fervid insistence that we must accept the historical Jesus despite a lack of contemporaneous evidence.

  33. says

    @Crip Dyke, yeah we’re basically on the same page.

    One of the things that really blew me away when I first started really getting into history beyond the intro level stuff was just how little we really do know with much certainty and how much we just have to accept from a single text because that’s literally all we have to go on.
    The average lay person is interested mainly in more recent history where we do generally have a wide variety of sources and a fair degree of confidence about a great many things. The nearer to the present day the better the sources and the more certainty we can speak with.

    But yeah, even 500 or so years ago it starts getting really iffy on specific people. Again, we’ve got a pretty good idea of the broad strokes of history. But when we get much more in depth than that, it gets a lot less certain.

  34. neilgodfrey says

    @sotonohito #10

    Obviously that doesn’t mean any of the miraculous claims are valid, but there’s no more reason to doubt that there was a historic Jesus than to doubt that there was a historic Pontius Pilate (who has exactly one stone with his name on it attesting to his actual existence).

    The inference here misunderstands both the nature and extent of evidence for ancient persons. If we have just one coin or statue naming a political figure and the provenance of that coin or statue can be established at a certain time and place then we have very strong prima facie evidence for the existence of that person even if we have absolutely no other testimony about the person. It’s quality, not quantity, that counts.

    Secondly, we do have other literary references to Pilate that are placed in works in which the author identifies himself, explains how he knows his stuff, etc. That again is a source that is qualitatively different and independent from Pilate’s appearance in the gospels.

    In the gospels Pilate appears as a fictional character (acting contrary to what we know about him from independent sources and strictly according to the logic of the narrative plot) in a narrative that tells us nothing about its author or sources (Luke’s prologue notwithstanding). The Pilate in the gospels is as fictional as any of the Persian royalty or Greek generals appearing in Greek “erotic fiction” — fictional romance stories. Fiction incorporated real characters from history then as it does today.

    Again, the point is to assess the nature and provenance of the evidence, not simply do counts of artefacts. If all we had about Pilate were the gospels then we would have no legitimate grounds for believing him to be historical, either.

  35. neilgodfrey says

    @ chrislawson #32

    I gave up on Tim O’Neill when I read his take on Galileo….

    I don’t understand where Tim O’Neill is coming from (and he says I’m too insignificant or pettifogging to engage with :-( ) but I have noticed that he fails to demonstrate having read much of anything about the philosophy of history and methodologies (reading which does help us put what we ready by historians in intellectual context), and his reading of historical texts certainly seems to be quite uncritical when he addresses certain topics (e.g. his posts that rely — uncritically — on James Hannam’s “God’s Philosophers”.)

    Some people suspect he’s a closet fundamentalist and is playing word games when he says he’s an atheist because he does seem to drop critical standards when addressing themes that put the church in a good light. And then we have the fallacies, both formal and informal, in his critiques of mythicism, not to mention what appears to be a narrow range of reading of the topic. It’s a bizarre combination, but not unlike the work put out by many biblical scholars themselves.

    I wish he would drop his bullying and insulting approach and just talk and discuss.

  36. wsierichs says

    The core problem remains. There is no verifiable evidence a historical Jesus existed. All of the documents about a figure named Jesus have such serious problems that they’re worthless as historical sources. What the four official gospels say (out of a dozen or so gospels floating around that bishops in the late 2nd century rejected) tells us what Christians believed when the gospels were written, not what a historical Jesus might have done or said. Same for the authentic letters of Paul; the forgeries tell us what Christians believed at the time of the forgeries.

    An additional problem with the four official gospels is that no one knows who wrote them, when they were written or whether we have the original versions or edited, revised versions from a later period. What we have are 4 gospels that were accepted as authentic in the late 2nd century, which is when they were assigned their current names.

    Also, we really only have 2 official gospels, Mark and John, which are quite different from each other. Matthew and Luke were written by people, identity unknown, who added to their copies of Mark and in varying degrees reinterpreted some of his ideas about theology. Scholars have given detailed analyses of how Matthew and Luke differed from the theology in Mark; that’s one clue that Mark is older than Matthew and Luke and represents a more-primitive stage of belief, when some of Mark’s ideas are more crude and conflict with later Christian beliefs.

    If any one wants to argue that there had to be a historical figure for such a religion come into existence, they’re also saying that Mithra, Serapis, Isis and other figures at the center of Christianity’s cultic rivals had to be real. Mithra was worshiped across the empire, so he had to have existed, right? An alternate to the “Jesus existed” school is that the early groups worshiped a mythical savior entity they called Christ. As these groups intermingled and merged, they brought their separate “Christs” with them, and over time a biography was created; which explains why Mark had no birth narrative and why Luke and Matthew give such massively contradictory birth narratives – they came out of different groups with different traditions. This explanation is parsimonious and at least as valid as “Jesus was real.”

    A useful analogy I used before is King Arthur. We have no evidence he existed, only arguments that such a figure might have, even likely existed, but no one knows his name for certainty or how much weight to put on the earliest stories, such as lists of his battles. Once a belief in a common Arthur existed, copious myths were added to his original, primitive story. (For the record I’m an agnostic on Arthur and Jesus both. Finding proof of either of them won’t make me think Arthur ruled because of a magic sword given by a “watery tart” or that Jesus was anything other than an ordinary human.)

  37. wsierichs says

    One more thought: I’ve been reading a history of the Union cavalry in the U.S. Civil War. On a number of occasions the author – who is clearly deeply versed in the sources – notes highly conflicting accounts in the records between what the Union forces did in engagement X and what the Confederates did. Some conflicts are obviously from the writer’s bias: U.S. General XYZ wants to put the best face on a defeat, so he heroically led his men in a bloody battle and had to withdraw in good formation under heavy enemy pressure. The enemy general says he whipped the Yanks good and hard, driving them back in great confusion. The book’s author sometimes can reconcile the conflicting accounts, reading in between the lines as to who was gilding the lily or bragging after a hard-fought victory, but other times he just throws up his hands and says he does not have enough evidence to cut through the propaganda.

    If we can’t determine what happened in conflicting documented accounts of an event in relatively modern history – some soldiers survived well into the 20th century – then reconciling the contradictory accounts in 2,000 year old documents is impossible. For example, there are 6 contradictory versions of the resurrection of Jesus in the official Christian scriptures – if one is true the other 5 must be false.. Only the discovery of an independent, non-Christian source that tells Jesus’ tale and helps identify what’s authentic in the scriptures and what’s false will ever resolve the “Did Jesus exist?” question.

  38. cartomancer says

    A lot of the posts on this thread seem to assume that this whole piddling little smear of irrelevancy is an issue of burning importance to historians. It really, really isn’t. It might interest a few vaguely honest theologians perhaps, but we ancient historians have plenty of actual historical debates, issues and problems to consider without wasting ink on such things.

    It’s rather like pinning down the precise date of the eruption of Vesuvius. That’s not incontrovertibly settled either. We usually assume the 24th of August 79AD, but that precise date comes from a letter of Pliny the Younger, to the historian Tacitus, which survives in a single late-medieval manuscript copy that may well have been corrupted. There are various finds from the sites of the Vesuvian cities that suggest a date further in the Autumn would be just as plausible – some usually Autumnal fruits present in houses, and coins of the newly crowned Emperor Titus in concealed hoards of money that would have had to have circulated very rapidly indeed from their minting to have been present in the pockets of ordinary citizens of a medium-small provincial town at the end of August. Vulcanological and climatic evidence is also suggestive of wind patterns that usually, but not always, occur later in the year (or, at least, do now – the Vesuvian cities are considerably further inland today, which would alter things a bit in ways not easy to reconstruct).

    And yet even dedicated specialists who have made Pompeii and Herculaneum their life’s work don’t tend to bother rehearsing the minutiae of such arguments. Because for all practical purposes it is entirely irrelevant whether the sodding volcano erupted in late August or well into October. We’re sitting on a treasure trove of information about ancient Roman life, so it would be utterly obtuse to fixate on something so minor and unimportant. We tend to just say that either is possible and get on with investigating the actual puzzles the evidence throws up for us, like how Roman banking and moneylending worked (we have a cache of surviving accounts documents from a small-time Pompeian banker, some of the names on which can be traced to other sources too), or what relations were like between the various ethnic groups in the towns (there were still Oscan speaking natives even among the Latin-speaking majority if Oscan-language graffiti is any guide, and what are we to make of the Kosher garum for local Jewish residents, sold by the Umbricii Scauri as one of the many profitable product lines in their local condiment empire?). We can get a real insight into the styles and themes of Roman painting from wall art, and even match up some names of great masterpieces from Pliny the Elder’s art-historical writings with actual surviving images (albeit most likely copies).

    Likewise, there are so many real, relevant and interesting questions to ask about early Christianity – how it absorbed Greek philosophical themes, how it colonised space within Roman cities for its first churches, how Jesus imagery changed through the first two hundred years to reflect changing emphases of doctrine, how the blood-spectacle of the gladiatorial games was co-opted into Christian identity – that spending time on something so trite and irrelevant as whether there was an actual human Jesus would be an utter dereliction of the historian’s business.

  39. neilgodfrey says

    A lot of the posts on this thread seem to assume that this whole piddling little smear of irrelevancy is an issue of burning importance to historians. It really, really isn’t.

    Oh you provocateur you!. The reasons historians in ancient history and classics departments don’t touch the question are surely obvious. It is the preserve of biblical scholars, again for obvious reasons.

    To suggest that Christian origins is a question that itself is of “piddling irrelevance” . . . . “???

    Recall Philip R. Davies:

    I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .

    I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.

  40. John Morales says

    neilgodfrey:

    To suggest that Christian origins is a question that itself is of “piddling irrelevance” . . . . “???

    In what manner are you so confused that it requires three question marks?

    (It was not a suggestion, it was an assertion. Not the same thing)

    Also, heh. “piddling irrelevance” only makes sense in relation to relevance, so if its irrelevance is piddling, it’s relevance is the converse of piddling. And, therefore, since you’re so bemused about the claim that its irrelevance is piddling, the inference regarding your own opinion is ineluctable. Though why you imagine it’s a big deal is left unsaid.

    (Wondering minds might wonder as to how it is purportedly so, but you sagely leave that as an open question, only hinting with your non-committal allusion to someone else’s opinion, the which boils down to a vague appeal to uncertainty)

  41. craigmacdonald says

    #40, cartomancer: “how Jesus imagery changed through the first two hundred years to reflect changing emphases of doctrine” would seem to reflect the importance of “whether there was an actual human Jesus”, as would many other aspects of early Christianity (including “how it absorbed Greek philosophical themes”, and when).

  42. John Morales says

    craigmacdonald, would it? I notice you carefully didn’t write it does, instead you write that it would.

    In short, you resile from actually claiming it is so, in favour of claiming it would be so, presumably were certain criteria met. What those criteria might be, you don’t specify.

  43. consciousness razor says

    John Morales, #42:

    (Wondering minds might wonder as to how it is purportedly so, but you sagely leave that as an open question, only hinting with your non-committal allusion to someone else’s opinion, the which boils down to a vague appeal to uncertainty)

    I read “nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability” as part of an appeal to academic respectability. Developing a reasonable sense of uncertainty about their claims is just a means to that end, while the end itself is to be understood as “the big deal” (for some at least, if not me or you).

    Speaking for myself, I’m just curious about what’s true. I like ancient history. I’ve read a lot about it, learned a lot of church history in Catholic school, and so forth. I’d prefer to correct any parts of the mis-education I received in my youth. But if anybody really expected some kind of justification for my relatively small interest in the subject, I don’t think I owe them anything like that in the first place. Fuck you, and take the boring shit you care slightly about with you — that’s what I say.

    And to imply that it must be, for me as an atheist, in order to concoct a flimsy argument against Christians, when it’s hard to walk two feet without tripping over a much better one? I suspect people saying such things are just giving disingenuous excuses for their lack of engagement, because I doubt they’re really that stupid. “Why does PZ study boring stuff like evolution? To kill God, obviously.” And it’s not just saying it once: these people find it so highly significant that they repeat the talking point every time the damned subject comes up. I think that says a lot more about them than they realize.

    But I digress. If Biblical scholars want to claim the same degree of respectability as historians (or present themselves as such, when that isn’t actually their academic background), then it comes with the territory that they should rise to the same standards. It seems like it ought to be a big deal to them at least, no?

  44. favog says

    I have more documentation for Batman in my apartment than historians have for Jesus in all the libraries of the world.

  45. John Morales says

    cr,

    I read “nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability” as part of an appeal to academic respectability. Developing a reasonable sense of uncertainty about their claims is just a means to that end, while the end itself is to be understood as “the big deal” (for some at least, if not me or you).

    An extention to epistemic uncertainty, then? Fair enough.

    And sure, fair enough that ‘big deal’ is a subjective apprehension.

    Thing is, does that concept of what constitutes ‘academic respectability’ objectively apply to everyone, or is it merely intersubjective at best?

    I think that, given your parenthetical, you also believe it to be a subjective concept.

    (So, an appeal to subjectivity, no?)

    Speaking for myself, I’m just curious about what’s true.

    Perhaps curiously, I am not incurious, though I am also not curious.

    But if its relevance boils down to personal curiosity, then its non-personal importance is therefore duly diminished, no?

    I like ancient history. I’ve read a lot about it, learned a lot of church history in Catholic school, and so forth. I’d prefer to correct any parts of the mis-education I received in my youth.

    Yeah, nice. Though I would take you more seriously were you not to also indulge in the subjunctive pompousness, which I do not yet tire of mocking.

    But if anybody really expected some kind of justification for my relatively small interest in the subject, I don’t think I owe them anything like that in the first place. Fuck you, and take the boring shit you care slightly about with you — that’s what I say.

    Hey, no prob. Indisputable justification.
    After all, were you to similarly justify coprophagy, I could not more dispute you.

    (You go do your thing, if it harm others not)

    (Hey, you want part 2?)

  46. John Morales says

    favog @46, weak. Where is Gotham City, in your documentation?

    Co-ordinates will do.

    (Google Earth will show me it, right? As it does Jerusalem)

  47. craigmacdonald says

    #44, John Morales. Yes, I think so. And not just visual imagery or drawings, or other artistic depictions: how Jesus (or concepts of Jesus, or Christ, or both) was/were depicted in narratives, and how those literary depictions changed in early patristic accounts.
    Paul makes a few abstract assertions about Jesus, yet one would think that Paul would have been able to record what Peter or James said about Jesus if they had had interactions with him, as was (and is) proposed.
    In the fifth chapter of his First Apology and in Dialogue Justin Martyr refers to the Logos as one who is ‘to come’ – to ‘make appearance’ – indicating that Jesus is still to come (and not as a second coming). Justin also employs a Greek term meaning ‘took-‘ or ‘became- flesh’ to designate Jesus’ appearance. Within Christian literature Justin alone uses this term and, when using it as a verb, does so in its participle form. Moreover, he often used ‘took’ or ‘became flesh’ in association with the phrase ‘became man’ (which he uses over 20 times). Some scholars have concluded from this that the terms belonged to a creedal formulation or that it was part of a liturgical text, rather than being part of historical accounts.

  48. John Morales says

    craigmacdonald, gotcha. When you wrote “would seem”, you meant to express I “I see it thus”.

    (Thank you)

  49. consciousness razor says

    Yeah, nice. Though I would take you more seriously were you not to also indulge in the subjunctive pompousness, which I do not yet tire of mocking.

    Were you not engaging in mockery, I may take you more seriously then as well. I assume you want your mockery to be taken non-seriously, and I’m happy to oblige.

    Thing is, does that concept of what constitutes ‘academic respectability’ objectively apply to everyone, or is it merely intersubjective at best?
    I think that, given your parenthetical, you also believe it to be a subjective concept.
    (So, an appeal to subjectivity, no?)

    I think academic standards should be independent of a single individual’s mind. So, no, not subjective in that sense. That we have minds and use them to formulate standards for ourselves is obvious. But it does not mean the same thing as depending on as a single person’s subjective mental states, such as what’s part of my visual experience now or what I can remember about last Tuesday.
    The legitimacy of Biblical Studies as an academic field has no significant effect on my life or personal affairs. In that sense, its status is not a big deal to me. (Others are clearly not in that situation.) But I don’t consider my own personal concerns important in that respect, and I don’t think academic standards should depend on such things.

  50. says

    … extention [sic] to epistemic uncertainty … subjective apprehension …

    Um, okay then.

    Perhaps curiously, I am not incurious, though I am also not curious

    Clever!

    Though I would take you more seriously were you not to also indulge in the subjunctive pompousness, which I do not yet tire of mocking.

    Subjunctive.
    Pompousness.
    Seriously?

    Pot, kettle, black. dude… Or glass houses.
    Whatever…

  51. John Morales says

    cr:

    Were you not engaging in mockery, I may take you more seriously then as well.

    Are you suggesting mockery is incompatible with seriousness?

    (Seriously?!)

    I assume you want your mockery to be taken non-seriously, and I’m happy to oblige.

    Alas, your assumption is utterly wrong; I am deadly serious. And, apparently apparent, also mocking.

    (Interesting you felt that you had to assume, rather than merely infer)

    The legitimacy of Biblical Studies as an academic field has no significant effect on my life or personal affairs. In that sense, its status is not a big deal to me.

    Ditto.

    But I don’t consider my own personal concerns important in that respect, and I don’t think academic standards should depend on such things.

    Um. You do know that adduced premises are conjunctive, right?

    (If your personal concerns are not to be considered important, why should anyone elses? And your whole appeal was to the interest it purportedly holds for some, not excluding you)

    Your entire appeal was to peole’s personal interest ;) )

  52. consciousness razor says

    Are you suggesting mockery is incompatible with seriousness?

    I said how I may respond when you’re not mocking. But I may do otherwise. It’s compatible with you not mocking something that I won’t take you seriously then either.

    (Interesting you felt that you had to assume, rather than merely infer)

    I didn’t feel like I had to. I merely did. If I have to feel what I feel or do what I do, then I won’t hold it against you for finding that interesting.

    Given your ostentatious wordplay — some might say “pompous” — my inference is that it will not be a bad idea to continue with my stated policy, as long as it suits me.

    Um. You do know that adduced premises are conjunctive, right?

    (If your personal concerns are not to be considered important, why should anyone elses? And your whole appeal was to the interest it purportedly holds for some, not excluding you)

    No. I don’t doubt that a Bible scholar’s personal interests are at stake. There’s no trouble in acknowledging that. But the appeal wasn’t to that. There is, in addition to this, the interests of academia at large, which should form its standards without regard to what a particular Biblical scholar wants.

  53. John Morales says

    cr, relax, I’m being kinder on you than the physicists were.

    Are you suggesting mockery is incompatible with seriousness?

    I said how I may respond when you’re not mocking. But I may do otherwise. It’s compatible with you not mocking something that I won’t take you seriously then either.

    Weak evasion, neither affirmative nor negative; but, sure. :) You wrote as to how you might respond, no argument there.

    (Yet, I note you did respond, and how you did so, which is to what I referred)

    I didn’t feel like I had to. I merely did.

    Duly chastened I stand; you didn’t feel like you had to, you merely did so.

    (I apologise for imputed unwarranted agency and deliberation to your response, now knowing it was just a mood)

    Given your ostentatious wordplay — some might say “pompous” — my inference is that it will not be a bad idea to continue with my stated policy, as long as it suits me.

    Pompous my ordinary verbiage might seem to you (and I am not unaware it also seems so to others (hi, wrog!)). But I’m not exactly straining, either.

    (I endeavour to tailor my responses to the capacity of my subjects)

    No. I don’t doubt that a Bible scholar’s personal interests are at stake. There’s no trouble in acknowledging that.

    Would there be any trouble in naming names, so that I might know to which Biblical scholar you refer?

    There is, in addition to this, the interests of academia at large, which should form its standards without regard to what a particular Biblical scholar wants.

    Huh. I elicited a hitherto-unstated basis.

    But fine, now I know you appeal to the interests of academia at large no less than to some unspecified Bible scholar’s personal interests, whereas you dismiss your own for what they’re worth.

    Now, should you care to elucidate what you imagine the justification of that appeal might be, I shall be more informed than if you were not to do so.

    (I have little expectation, but you may yet surprise me)

  54. cartomancer says

    craigmacdonald, #43

    Whether early Christians thought of their Jesus character as a real person or an allegorical myth is not the same thing as whether there was, in fact, a real human individual at some point fitting this description. The former is a question for which there is substantial evidence and from which a considerable body of interesting research emerges, casting light on many aspects of ancient religious history. The latter is a question that cannot really be answered with more than vague speculation and the answer to which doesn’t matter in the slightest. A real person about whom we know nothing and to whom a confabulation of myths has attached and a free-standing confabulation of those same myths are of precisely the same importance in furthering our knowledge of the ancient world.

    neilgodfrey, #41,

    Two things. First of all, I don’t actually think it is at all helpful for there to be such things as Theology departments or Biblical Studies departments at universities. The study of ancient literature belongs together, and one strand of it ought not be singled out as a separate discipline. Ancient Christian literature no more deserves to be separated off from the mainstream of ancient literature than Greek Old Comedy does – it is the methods and insights of historians and literary scholars that are our road to understanding this matter, not some other methods entirely. The fact that the piddling little smear of irrelevancy in question here has been allowed to absorb so much ink over the years is entirely a result of doing this frankly illogical and unnecessary bit of academic division.

    Secondly, even if they do think of themselves as something other than ancient historians, these biblical scholars shouldn’t be interested in the question either, for exactly the same reasons – it is impossible to resolve or make progress on and the answer doesn’t matter anyway. No new insights will emerge from it. Except to doctrinaire Christians of course, but their personal religious concerns aren’t a valid influence on academia anyway, any more than my desire to sleep with all the members of One Direction should have conferences of physiologists producing papers on why Harry Styles is the hottest and which order I should do it in.

    Secondly,

  55. says

    these biblical scholars shouldn’t be interested in the question either, for exactly the same reasons – it is impossible to resolve or make progress on and the answer doesn’t matter anyway. No new insights will emerge from it. Except to doctrinaire Christians of course, but their personal religious concerns aren’t a valid influence on academia anyway, any more than my desire to sleep with all the members of One Direction should have conferences of physiologists producing papers on why Harry Styles is the hottest and which order I should do it in.

    Best argument by analogy EVER.

  56. consciousness razor says

    cr, relax, I’m being kinder on you than the physicists were.

    No worries. You’re not being a petulant jackass. That’s not high enough praise, but you didn’t set the bar very high here. ;)

    But I’m not exactly straining, either.

    “Flagrant” was perhaps a fairer choice, but “ostentatious” seemed to carry some irony with it, so I went with that. I think you offered a rather frivolous reason, for taking my own reports of my personal motivations less seriously than you otherwise would have, and I don’t see the harm in a bit of capriciousness on my part in return.
    There would be no trouble in naming a specific Bible scholar, although it has nothing to do with a specific one. Bart Ehrman is a name, if you want a name. Any Bible scholar of your choice would suffice.

    But fine, now I know you appeal to the interests of academia at large no less than to some unspecified Bible scholar’s personal interests, whereas you dismiss your own for what they’re worth.

    You misunderstand. I’m not appealing to the personal interests of a Bible scholar (not any of them). It is simply an additional type of interest that exists, which I happened to mention and which no doubt carries some weight for some people, not one to which I appealed. They might do so, for their own sakes perhaps, but I didn’t. Nor do I care much how they reason to themselves about it.

    Now, should you care to elucidate what you imagine the justification of that appeal might be, I shall be more informed than if you were not to do so.
    (I have little expectation, but you may yet surprise me)

    It’s not all that easy to give a justification for academic respectability in the abstract (or academic standards of whatever description). I take it that the talk of “respectability” is a way of expressing the value we place in academic pursuits. They do things of benefit to people and society (however indirectly) which provoke a type of respect. This kind of benefit would be lost (and the respect with it), if academics do not approach their subjects rigorously, logically, honestly, critically, and so on. (I don’t think I could spell it all out for you here, nor do I think you actually want me to do so.)
    There’s no reason to think any valid academic field should be exempt from this. And it would serve no good purpose (and likely undermine the integrity of academia as a whole) if we arbitrarily let others join in the club and be regarded in the same way, while using up resources, which are better spent elsewhere in order to properly educate students and benefit society in that way.

    So, those are some of the basic reasons why they should meet the kind of generic standards I mentioned above. Is that the kind of thing you were asking for? Surprise or no?

  57. KG says

    As I continued to consider the various arguments on all sides I encountered the sort of invective indulged in by defenders of the ‘Historical Jesus’ hypothesis (for example KG in posts #6 and #7) to be overblown. For something which it must be admitted the evidence is very thin at best, they seem to have invested too much of themselves on an emotional level. – proudfootz@10

    Hilarious. When numerous atheists are making total fools of themselves by adopting what can only be described, objectively, as a classic denialist position – rejecting the consensus of relevant experts on the spurious grounds that they are all part of a conspiracy or victims of groupthink, coming up with absurdly ad hoc explanations of the key evidence (e.g. Carrier’s “explanations” of Paul of Tarsus describing Jesus as a descendant of David, born of a woman, and referring to a meeting with his (Jesus’s) brother), spinning elaborate structures of supposition on supposition just so they can say “Neener, neener, Christians, there was no Jesus!” sure, it fucking well annoys me – and upsets me, because it shows that on this topic at least, a lot of my fellow-atheists are idiots. But are you seriously claiming that mythicists are making a coolly rational assessment of the evidence, with no motivation other than arriving at the truth?

  58. craigmacdonald says

    #58, cartomancer

    “whether there was, in fact, a real human individual at some point fitting this description … is a question that cannot really be answered with more than vague speculation, and the answer to which doesn’t matter in the slightest.”

    I agree it doesn’t matter for many people: for the practice of and aspirations from Christianity for many, for example. But it clearly matters for some, especially for those who assert or argue for a historical Jesus, or are interested in aspects or the outcome of the quest for one (even if only from an academic point of view).

    But I think it can be somewhat answered by researching the way Christianity evolved, and how.

    See #50^. There are scholars arguing that the gospels were not developed until the mid 2nd century, and that the stories were shifted back in time to set them in the early 1st century, using aspects of accounts of people and events from Josephus’s Antiquities and War, among other things (perhaps also using Philo’s accounts of Pilate).

  59. John Morales says

    cr, wow, you are redolent of olden times. Thanks!
    So, pro-forma, and with due diligence towards Wittgenstein and his language games,

    No worries. You’re not being a petulant jackass.

    Um, I already knew that. Thanks.

    There would be no trouble in naming a specific Bible scholar, although it has nothing to do with a specific one. Bart Ehrman is a name, if you want a name.

    OK. Under some unspecified conditions, there would not be any trouble, though in your current mood you don’t care to state something like “there is no trouble” which might be considered applicable to the present.

    But hey, when you wrote “I don’t doubt that a Bible scholar’s personal interests are at stake. There’s no trouble in acknowledging that.” I now understand that you meant Bart Ehrman, at least.

    So, I get it. You are actually appealing to Bart Ehrman’s ego as a basis for your contention.

    (Thanks for the clarification)

    “Flagrant” was perhaps a fairer choice, but “ostentatious” seemed to carry some irony with it, so I went with that.

    <snicker>

    I call it ordinary, but hey. What do I know!

  60. craigmacdonald says

    #62 KG, the few statements about Jesus in the Pauline texts that suggest he was human are not “key evidence”.

    Key evidence would be Paul having recorded what Peter or James said about interactions they would have had with Jesus, as was (and is) proposed. Or, better still, first person accounts from Peter, James, and John, at least (even if via Mark in the case of Peter).

  61. John Morales says

    CR:

    So, those are some of the basic reasons why they should meet the kind of generic standards I mentioned above. Is that the kind of thing you were asking for? Surprise or no?

    No surprise, I get you.
    Generic standards based upon the subjective opinions and neediness of at least one biblical scholar are what matters. You have been perfectly clear, though arguably less than compelling.

    (Nor are the lack of consequences to which PZ alludes relevant, in your apparent estimation. I really do get you)

  62. consciousness razor says

    John, I know you can read and are not that obtuse. Your response is just perplexing, but this is a good time for a bit of quietude for me, so I’ll leave it there.

  63. Zmidponk says

    Viewing this as someone with no real knowledge or expertise in this area, I’m going to see if I am getting what the deal is with this.

    It seems that there is no real disagreement that, in terms of any real, solid evidence that there was an actual individual flesh-and-blood person around 2000 years ago who founded a Jewish cult that grew into the religion of Christianity, it’s basically the case there is next to none. The debate appears to be that some people point out that this is normal for any given individual from that period, so we should follow the common practice in historical circles, which is to assume that this particular Jesus figure did exist if we have any evidence he did at all, even if it is weak and thin, and this proposition is backed up by a certain amount of indirect evidence, and this is why it is the general consensus amongst historians that he did actually exist. Others point out that, if you’re trying to definitively answer the question, you should start with the null hypothesis, that he didn’t exist, unless and until you come up with solid evidence that he did, and also point out that there is also a certain amount of indirect evidence that this ‘Jesus’ or ‘Yeshua’ figure is purely an abstract spiritual figure (probably a yet to come Messiah figure, or something similar), and not an actual flesh-and-blood person that already exists or had existed. Either way, though, definitively proving that there was or was not an actual historical Jesus won’t actually change much, so it’s purely a question that is of academic interest.

    As a sort of potted summary of the debate, is any of that wrong? If it’s not, it occurs to me (and, yes, I am aware that this is pure conjecture on my part) that it is possible that there was both a spiritual figure and a flesh-and-blood one, and, as this early Christian cult got talked about at the time, the two figures got confused, conflated, and blended into one.

  64. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    John Morales @ 47,

    But if its relevance boils down to personal curiosity, then its non-personal importance is therefore duly diminished, no?

    I like ancient history. I’ve read a lot about it, learned a lot of church history in Catholic school, and so forth. I’d prefer to correct any parts of the mis-education I received in my youth.

    Yeah, nice. Though I would take you more seriously were you not to also indulge in the subjunctive pompousness, which I do not yet tire of mocking.

    (Emphasis added.)

    ????

    Is there a meaning for subjunctive outside of grammar?

  65. favog says

    John Morales, @49
    “Gotham” is just an old nickname for New York City, so the original chroniclers were obviously just trying to be poetic and create an atmosphere, a mystique around the tale. So according to wikipedia, those coordinates would be 40.7127_N_74.0059_W.

    And before you ask, it’s been the accepted wisdom for decades now that Metropolis is in Delaware. Far be it for me to challenge the consensus, seeing as I’ve never been to the east coast, right? After all, Lois Lane is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist according to the accounts I have, just like it says in Luke that Luke is an excellent historian.

    (Okay, I knew when I made the earlier post that using “Captain America” instead of “Batman” would’ve been a stronger point since he supposedly actually lives in NYC, but I figured if somebody called me on it I’d have the opportunity to make the cheesy jokes I’m making in this post. Thanks!)

  66. Pierce R. Butler says

    favog @ # 73: … it’s been the accepted wisdom for decades now that Metropolis is in Delaware.

    On the verge of posting a “correction” (in favor of Cleveland, of course), I decided to look it up. Great Caesar’s ghost!

    Metropolis has become a city inspired by New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. … Superman co-creator Joe Shuster moved to Cleveland by age ten, where he met co-creator and Ohio native Jerry Siegel. Originally intending to sell the Superman strips to a Cleveland newspaper, they set the stories there as well… Frank Miller has said that “Metropolis is New York in the daytime; Gotham City is New York at night.” …

  67. favog says

    Thanks, Pierce — I couldn’t remember where I first head that, but I knew it dated back to the seventies.

  68. craigmacdonald says

    #71 Zmidponk,

    It is debatable whether there is consensus in historical circles that the Jesus figure of the New Testament existed; whether historical societies or the like (or groups of their members) have collectively addressed this issue, rather than it having been addressed in the wider ‘biblically interested’ community.

    Whether lack of ‘solid’ evidence for figures of antiquity -particularly embellished theological figures- is acceptable is debatable.

    Whether there was or was not an actual historical Jesus shouldn’t actually change much, as you and others have said, other than the fact this topic has, over a century or more now, and via two or three ‘quests’, become an increasingly contentious issue. There is even a journal now called the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus which “provides an international forum for the academic discussion of Jesus within his various contexts (sociological, historical, imperial, ideological, etc.)” – http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/17455197

    It has become a contentious issue because it is largely one of interpretation of literature: interpretation of a body of theological literature, including early Christian literature outside the gospels and epistles, that has not provided definitive answers using conventional historical methodology.A recently published book that has addressed the issue from a first principles literary viewpoint is Decipheriing the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed

  69. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    John Morales @77, well, then, enlighten me, because Google won’t, and neither you nor CR used the subjunctive mood. (Though far be it from me to demand that another poster explain themself.)

  70. says

    Hilarious. When numerous atheists are making total fools of themselves by adopting what can only be described, objectively, as a classic denialist position – rejecting the consensus of relevant experts on the spurious grounds that they are all part of a conspiracy or victims of groupthink, coming up with absurdly ad hoc explanations of the key evidence (e.g. Carrier’s “explanations” of Paul of Tarsus describing Jesus as a descendant of David, born of a woman, and referring to a meeting with his (Jesus’s) brother), spinning elaborate structures of supposition on supposition just so they can say “Neener, neener, Christians, there was no Jesus!” sure, it fucking well annoys me – and upsets me, because it shows that on this topic at least, a lot of my fellow-atheists are idiots. But are you seriously claiming that mythicists are making a coolly rational assessment of the evidence, with no motivation other than arriving at the truth?

    Atheists and theists make fools of themselves on either side of the ‘debate’.

    For instance, you cherry picked several statements attributed to ‘Paul’ and strung them together into a sentence as if Paul was actually making a coherent argument. You conveniently leave out the bits where Paul’s Jesus is a figure who is only accessed through visions and creative interpretation of scriptures. You forget that the phrase ‘Jesus’s brother’ does not occur in anything attributed to Paul. You forget to mention the ‘born of a woman’ occurs in the midst of an explicit allegory ion Galatians about being born of one of two mothers – one free (born of Sarah) and one a slave (born of Hagar).

    I myself am making a cool assessment of the evidence (thin as it is) with no motivation other than arriving at what is most likely the truth. Anyone suggesting otherwise is badly mistaken, or garden variety trolling.

    As I noted, when I started looking into this I accepted the ‘conventional wisdom’ that there was an Historical Jesus. It makes no difference to me one way r the other as to the status of my non-adherence to religion, nor does it make any difference to me whether christians and muslims honor a myth about someone who existed or a myth about someone who didn’t exist. Again, your annoyance over this leads you to write things which may assuage the part of you that hates, but has nothing to do with me.

    It’s too bad if the existence of honest persons questioning your position upsets you. Because when you jump into a debate on a controversial issue where the evidence is dubious at best you will likely find not everyone will agree with you. Perhaps you should re-think your emotional investment for the sake of your sang froid?

  71. says

    @ craigmacdonald # 66

    Your assessment seems very well founded. Had Paul made some explicit mention of Jesus’s brother, or some mention of meeting disciples of Jesus we might have something to hang onto. What we have instead is Paul mentioning that his knowledge about Jesus, his acts, and his commands coming from interpreting scriptures and the occasional mystical vision.

    @ Zmidponk #71

    I am in sympathy with your summary of the ‘debate’.

    In the end it is pretty much of academic interest only insofar as the truth of the matter goes. Believers will find a way to believe what they want to believe whatever the academics assert one way or the other.

    It seems fairly obvious to me that, if there was in fact some actual person upon whom the Jesus of scripture was based, that person has been so obscured by myth very little can be positively said of him. Possibly the least influential person in the development of the whole shebang.

  72. John Morales says

    What a Maroon @78, the whole joke is that to write “I would say yes” does not mean “yes”.

    (Also, I know PZ frowns on this sort of thing, but I did clarify to the extent that you can infer my answer was “no”, not just indeterminate. There’s a tag on the full stop)

  73. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    John Morales @81,

    I’ll cop to missing the point of your joke, but I think you also missed the point of mine. (Hint: “would” does not mark the subjunctive mood in English.)

  74. consciousness razor says

    Somehow it was pompous for me to say “I’d prefer” instead of “I prefer.”

    It was an abbreviated version of “I would prefer to do X (rather than not to do X),” which isn’t indeterminate. There’s no ambiguity about what my stated preference is. The phrase in parentheses is superfluous, which is why I didn’t bother to write it. That’s a normal, efficient use of English, with not a hint of pomposity.

    But throw two words together, like “subjunctive pompousness,” and it sounds like it might have some sophisticated meaning or other. Who knows? Time to solve the riddle. It’s sort of like a Mad Libs game, but as a bonus, there’s little or no potential for humor.

  75. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    John Morales,

    Wikipedia, really? I mean, yes, in certain restrictive cases the modal verb “would” could be used in a subjunctive sense (“I wish you would call”) but (a)most linguists would argue that that’s use, not form.

    In any case, neither you nor CR used “would” in the subjunctive.

  76. John Morales says

    What a Maroon,

    Wikipedia, really?

    Nope, Wiktionary, really. I guess you could fix that entry, if you wanted to.

    To make it perfectly clear, I am not a linguist, nor do I have any formal language training. I just read a lot. But, still, when I see a phrase such as “I would X” where the clear intent is to communicate “I X”, I’ll generally find it orotund if I see it as unironic.

  77. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    I am a linguist, and also spent many years as an ESL teacher. And what I’m telling you is that “I would X” is a modal verb used with a conditional meaning. It is not the subjunctive mood. (Think Romance languages: in Spanish, for example, “Yo iria (conditional) a la playa si no tuviera (subjunctive) que trabajar.”)

  78. John Morales says

    What a Maroon, fair enough. Thank you. I shall endeavour to henceforth express it differently.

    (I’ve often used the direct “You would, would you? So why don’t you?”, but a lot of those people don’t actually get what I mean, and I also like to vary things)

  79. DanDare says

    Problem as I see it us the argument is actually two arguments in different universes that look like the same argument.

    Universe 1.
    Historian a) evidence is reasonable that jesus was an actual dude.
    Historian b) perhaps but it doesn’t meet criteria x y z

    Universe 2.
    Theist) the bible is foundational and an account of jesus, you can’t deny that.
    Atheist) yes I can.

  80. consciousness razor says

    John Morales, #89:
    Here’s an answer to that, in this particular case: I am not correcting it, here and now, because it’s an issue which involves a considerable amount uncertainty, complexity, and so forth. My preference is not merely to change my views to the correct ones, but to do so while rationally evaluating all of the evidence I can gather. There are a huge number of things that I may be wrong about, meaning that another factor is the amount of time I’m able to spend on any one item.

    So, I was only dimly aware of it while writing, honestly, but the condition is something like this: “if it’s possible to correct what I was taught, in rational and responsible way, with the evidence that is available to me.” I was speaking about myself generally. It’s hard to know whether I’m in such a position with regard to the specific question of Jesus’ historicity, but learning stuff about it is the first step. If that condition holds, correcting it is my preference. That is what I would prefer to do, given all of those niceties I just mentioned. It doesn’t capture my preferences well to say I would “correct” my views anyway, even if such criteria are not met. I think that goes without saying (almost?), and of course I didn’t actually spell it out explicitly at the time.

  81. Owlmirror says

    All vertebrates capable of parthenogenesis can only produce females

    Some ZW female reptiles can parthenogenetically produce ZZ male offspring (and ZW female offspring).

    Following up with two more unusual reproductive phenomena in vertebrates:

      • Androgenesis in fish (the son proceeds from the father!).

      • Amami spiny rats have only X chromosomes yet somehow produce males and females. So do Transcaucasian mole voles.

    Just pointing out that biology is weird, and we should be careful about making absolute statements about reproduction.

  82. says

    zmidponk @71

    The debate appears to be that some people point out that [this almost-complete lack of evidence] is normal …, so we should follow the common practice in historical circles, which is to assume that [he] did exist if we have any evidence he did at all,
    … Others point out that, if you’re trying to definitively answer the question, you should start with the null hypothesis, that he didn’t exist, unless and until you come up with solid evidence that he did

    I think this is missing the mark a bit. Ultimately, there is a question of what the starting point should be. (And I would not use “null hypothesis” for this, since that’s statistics terminology that really means something slightly different, a hypothesis that random chance accounts for the data, a hypothesis that one is deliberately setting out to disprove and that’s not really what the historians are doing).

    … and as I understand it [*], the mythicists are not arguing that you should always start off assuming someone does not exist, but rather, while common practice in historical circles is to assume existence, there are certain situations where you have big red flags appearing up front, that once sufficiently many of these mythological markers are present (“born of a virgin”, and all of the other stuff on the Rank-Raglan list…) you need to be wary and the burden of proof arguably shifts. Which is how you can, e.g., not have a problem assuming historicity of Paul or Pliny the Younger on not much evidence beyond the existence of a set of letters, whereas historicity of Hercules or Oedipus is going to be doubted up front, and for somebody like Alexander the Great, who has accumulated some amount of mythological baggage, there’s at least a bit of work to do to offset that and conclude that he was indeed real.

    They also argue that the application of this to Jesus of Nazareth would normally have been obvious long ago if not for the field of New Testament studies being infested by Christian apologists with a vested interest in historicity (… cue discussion of what happened with Thomas Thompson and the Old Testament minimalists back in the 1970s and how that’s all mainstream now).

    And then there’s the question of actual counter-evidence (e.g., the Talmud account of Jesus that puts him a century earlier, the argument that the authentic letters of Paul, 1 Peter, Hebrews, 1 Clement, etc., are actually more difficult to explain in a historicist context, and so on…)

    …[] I’m neither a historian nor a New Testament scholar, nor do I play one on TV; I’m getting most of this from Carrier’s book and I’ll readily admit I’m not qualified to critique it. I *would like to see a genuine response that actually addresses his arguments and explain where he’s actually going wrong, and it annoys the shit out of me that folks like James McGrath, Bart Ehrman, and Tim O’Neil assume that attacks on strawman versions of his arguments and general expressions of withering contempt are sufficient response…

    … mind you, I get what it must be like from their point of view, i.e., here’s this crackpot spouting random shit; why should we be having to waste time on this?

    And I’m guessing the folks at Caltech who did the paper that utterly eviscerated Pons and Fleischman’s cold fusion “results” probably felt the same way. But it needed to be done, they needed to take the time to do it right, and we’re better off for their having done so.

  83. craigmacdonald says

    #93 Wrog wrote

    (… I would not use “null hypothesis” for this, since that’s statistics terminology that really means something slightly different, a hypothesis that random chance accounts for the data, a hypothesis that one is deliberately setting out to disprove and that’s not really what the historians are doing).

    A hypothesis is just a statement about something as yet unknown. A null hypothesis is used where data will be gathered and analysed statistically (a normal distribution is usually expected, and means or variances from the mean are often analysed). An alternative hypothesis is usually also stated, but it does not have to be fully opposite to the null hypothesis (it depends on the situation). Sometimes it’s better to test the alternative hypothesis; it can be complicated, especially with regard to ‘accepting’, ‘rejecting’, or ‘not accepting’ the null hypothesis depending on which is tested.

    Statistics won’t, however, apply to the question of whether there was a human Jesus as the basis of the NT Jesus or whether He is a literary construct, unless one uses a scoring system like but different to the Rank-Raglan list (ie without the supernatural categories). Bayes Theorem is probably better. But one can still propose or use two ‘alternative’ hypotheses.

    Yes the authentic letters of Paul, 1 Peter, Hebrews, 1 Clement, etc., are difficult to explain in a historicist context. As are other texts and various intertextual differences.

    A significant factor in the historical Jesus mix is that the Paul’s letters fail to give eyewitness accounts by James and Peter about interactions they would have had with Jesus if those letters are themselves fact-based; and the gospel of Mark, supposedly written by a hearer of Peter, also fails to provide first-person accounts one might expect, too.

  84. says

    A hypothesis is just a statement about something as yet unknown. A null hypothesis is used where data will be gathered and analysed statistically

    I was not objecting to the use of “hypothesis” and the general notion of testing such. It was the “null …” part which implies a rather specific statistical meaning, which, as you appear to agree, really isn’t applicable here.

  85. craigmacdonald says

    Aviezer Tucker, Harvard Univ., said in A Companion to the Philosophy of History & Historiography

    ” .. reasoning about the past is entirely qualitative, it often involves judgments of comparative probability; and the norms governing such reasoning can often be modeled well using Bayesian resources.”

    and

    “Bayesian analysis can explain most of what historians do and how they reach a consensus on determined historiography.”

    Whether the Jesus of the NT was or is based on a real human, or whether the NT Jesus is a literary character (developed as early Christian theologies were refined & written in the gospels and other NT books), is a matter of probability; somewhere between 0 – 1 (100%).

    Those two positions are alternative hypotheses of each other and are also inversely related, so the issue of Jesus’ historicity or ‘ahistoricity’ would seem to be amendable to Bayesian analysis.

    Bayes’ Theorem/Rule is based on a simple mathematical formula used for calculating conditional probabilities. In its basic form it relates the ‘direct’ probability of a hypothesis H that is conditional on a given body of data E. It is a ratio of P(H and E) / P(E) and is represented symbolically as P(E|H) [the E may be subscripted – I can’t do that here – and the H alone in parentheses thus (H)].

    That ‘direct probability’ is, in turn, related to an ‘inverse probability’ – represented P(H|E) – which expresses the degree to which the hypothesis predicts the data given the background information. This inverse probability describes the “likelihood” of H on E, and is referred to as such.

    Bayes’ Analysis can even be applied to belief –

    3. The Role of Bayes’ Theorem in Subjectivist Accounts of Evidence
    Subjectivists maintain that beliefs come in varying gradations of strength, and that an ideally rational person’s graded beliefs can be represented by a subjective probability function P. For each hypothesis H about which the person has a firm opinion, P(H) measures [their] level of confidence (or “degree of belief”) in H’s truth. Conditional beliefs are represented by conditional probabilities, so that P(E|H) measures the person’s confidence in H on the supposition that E is a fact. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bayes-theorem/

  86. John Morales says

    craigmacdonald, GIGO.

    Whether the Jesus of the NT was or is based on a real human, or whether the NT Jesus is a literary character (developed as early Christian theologies were refined & written in the gospels and other NT books), is a matter of probability; somewhere between 0 – 1 (100%).

    Actually, whether or not either is the case is has a probability of either 0 or 1, but excludes the interval in between.

  87. craigmacdonald says

    John Morales,

    Yes, the point is that, given the current lack of definitive information, there is a probability ‘in between’. As I said and as you quoted what I said –

    …a matter of probability; somewhere between 0 – 1

  88. John Morales says

    It’s a past event, craigmacdonald, so again, no. Either it was the case, or it was not.

    The probability interval to which you refer is not about whether the event occurred, but about the degree of certainty that, if the dataset you’ve crunched with that shiny bayesian machine is valid and if it’s sufficient, the inference you draw is correct.

  89. consciousness razor says

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Null_hypothesis

    Not the same thing as “hypothesis” nor “a value associated with my beliefs, formulated in terms of epistemic probabilities.”

    Let’s flip a coin. Heads: Jesus existed. Tails: he didn’t. How many times would we have to do it, before we should decide that it’s a fair coin?

  90. craigmacdonald says

    #99

    The probability interval to which you refer is not about whether the event occurred, but about the degree of certainty that

    Agreed. Use of Bayesian analysis allows others to see the dataset used and provides the opportunity for them to assess validity and sufficiency; and to do it differently to varying degrees if they want. And Bayes’ Theroem is useful in re-assessing probability when new information comes to light.

  91. Zmidponk says

    craigmacdonald #71:

    It is debatable whether there is consensus in historical circles that the Jesus figure of the New Testament existed; whether historical societies or the like (or groups of their members) have collectively addressed this issue, rather than it having been addressed in the wider ‘biblically interested’ community.

    Well, looking about in various places, it certainly seems to be that the majority of scholars seem to accept that Jesus probably did exist (though that does include scholars of all kinds, not just purely historical ones), but there does seem to be valid criticisms of how and why this consensus came about, and there does seem to be some solidly researched dissent, such as in the book you linked to, which looks intersting, so I may buy it and have a read, so thank you for that.

    proudfootz #80:

    It seems fairly obvious to me that, if there was in fact some actual person upon whom the Jesus of scripture was based, that person has been so obscured by myth very little can be positively said of him. Possibly the least influential person in the development of the whole shebang.

    That is certainly true, from what I can see. It is somewhat ironic that the Bible itself and the growth and popularity of Christianity seems to be the biggest factor in this muddying of the waters.

    wrog @93:

    Thank you for the expansion and critique of my summary. It seems that I didn’t quite get it right, as regards mythicist side, and they are actually saying there is positive evidence that Jesus is merely a myth, and you have to actively counteract and/or overcome that if you want to argue he did, and current evidence simply fails to do that.

    As for ‘null hypothesis’, it looks like my understanding of that term was faulty – I understood it to mean a logical and reasonable default position to start from, so, in this case, as a person simply living their life tends to leave some signs or records of them living, with the only question being whether such signs or records are noted or preserved in some manner, we should start from the position that this particular person did not actually exist and examine what signs or records of this person’s existence are available.

  92. craigmacdonald says

    PZ Myers wrote –

    But all right, I can accept that historians have reached a practical consensus based on available ”evidence that there was a guy named Jesus who triggered a major religious movement 2000 years ago

    It’s hard to know what ‘a practical consensus’ is other than being an appeal to both authority and tradition. Whether the ‘available evidence’ has veracity is why the ‘historicity’ of Jesus is an ongoing issue. The available evidence begs the question.

  93. craigmacdonald says

    Tim O writes in his addendum

    he (PZ) objects to my summary of why it is more parsimonious to accept a historical Jesus over any form of Mythicism, given that the latter is riddled with suppositions, by veering into an analogy with evolutionary biology which really does not work

    PZ did not say or acknowledge Mythicism is ‘riddled with supposition’, and Tim O denies that ‘historicity’ is also ‘riddled with supposition’.

    Tim O also wrote

    Yes, there were “preachers and prophets all over the place”, and the fact that the “apocalyptic preacher Jesus” of the earliest sources seems to fit what we know about them very well and that these elements get downplayed, adjusted and removed until we get the “divine Saviour Jesus” of the later sources indicates that he was one of these “preachers and prophets”. But there are elements in the source material that do indicate memories of an individual.

    None of that flows. It is a series of non-sequiturs, and seems to seek to conflate ‘the “divine Saviour Jesus” of the later sources’ with earlier “preachers and prophets”. But it’s not the ‘divine saviour Jesus’ we’re after (and Jesus means saviour so to say ‘Saviour Jesus’ is tautology).

    How :the “apocalyptic preacher Jesus” of the earliest sources seems to fit what we know about them very well” is hard to fathom. We should need more than indications of memories.

  94. craigmacdonald says

    Tim O also wrote in his addendum

    Writing to the Jesus Sect community in Corinth, Paul makes reference to Peter and James and Jesus’ other brothers and followers. And in his letter to the community in Galatia he mentions having met Peter, Jesus’ brother James and his other disciple John at some point in the mid-30s AD. He is referring to people who knew Jesus personally, including to Jesus’ siblings.

    But, surprisingly, Paul did not record what James, Peter, or John said about their interactions with Jesus as one might expect. ie. either these alleged eyewitnesses failed to give eyewitness accounts one might expect eyewitnesses would have given about such a revered prophet or “apocalyptic preacher”, or Paul was not an accurate witness to them and the supposed early movement.

    There is no even any mention by Paul that these three fellow apostles even met Jesus.

  95. says

    met Peter, Jesus’ brother James and his other disciple John

    except that Paul never once refers to Jesus having disciples, at least, not in any of the 7 epistles that are agreed to be authentic [which includes Galatians], There are only apostles (e.g., Peter) and “brothers of the Lord” (i.e., Christians, since they didn’t have that word yet, either).

  96. craigmacdonald says

    #107 Wrog wrote

    except that Paul never once refers to Jesus having disciples … There are only apostles (eg. Peter) and brothers of the Lord’ (ie. Christians, since they didn’t have that word yet, either).

    Yes, true. It was inaccurate to use ‘disciple’. Though, as they would previously have been disciples of Jesus, it’s noteworthy that is not recounted by Paul.

  97. says

    It’s not just “inaccurate”; it’s a symptom of a larger problem, that the epistles are traditionally read assuming the background of the gospels.

    But the gospels post-date the epistles by an entire generation, at least (20-60 years, depending, including an intervening war that probably killed most of the original movement in Judea), and are all dependent on Mark, which is widely recognized to be largely allegorical fiction (and the debate is what, if any, historical elements can be reliably extracted from it).

    The epistles read totally differently if you don’t do that.

    And this assumption is pervasive. 1 Peter is generally assumed to be a forgery solely because no illiterate Aramaic-speaking fisherman could have produced such a literate work in Greek. Except that, ultimately, the sole source we have for Peter being an illiterate fisherman is Mark.

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