Proving What?

The Revd Thomas Bayes

The Revd Thomas Bayes, 1701-1761

The current discussion among Jesus-deniers and mythicists over whether probability in the form of Bayes’s Rule can be used in historical research is more than a little amusing.

The current fad is largely the work of atheist blogger and debater Richard Carrier who despite having a PhD in ancient history likes to tout himself as a kind of natural science cum mathematics cum whachagot expert.

Carrier’s ingenuity is on full display in a recent book published by Prometheus (Buffalo, NY) in which he makes the claim that Bayes Theorem–a formula sometimes used by statisticians  when dealing with conditional probabilities– can be used to establish probability for events in the past.  That would make it useful for answering questions about whether x happened or did not happen, and for Carrier’s fans, the biggest x they would like to see answered (he claims ) is Did Jesus exist or not?  

The formula looks something like this:

Let A1, A2, … , An be a set of mutually exclusive events that together form the sample space S. Let B be any event from the same sample space, such that P(B) > 0. Then,

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ∩ B )

P( A1 ∩ B ) + P( A2 ∩ B ) + . . . + P( An ∩ B )

Invoking the fact that P( Ak ∩ B ) = P( Ak )P( B | Ak ), Baye’s theorem can also be expressed as

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ) P( B | Ak )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 ) + . . . + P( An ) P( B | An )

Clear?  Of course not. At least not for everybody. But that isn’t the issue because the less clear it is the more claims can be made for its utility.  Its called the Wow! Effect and is designed to cow you into comatose submission before its (actually pretty simple) formulation, using the standard symbols used in formal logic and mathematics.

What is known by people who use Bayes’s theorem to advantage  is that there are only certain conditions when it is appropriate to use it.  Even those conditions can sound a bit onerous: In general, its use is warranted when a problem warrants its use, e.g. when

  • The sample is partitioned into a set of mutually exclusive events { A1, A2, . . . , An }.
  • Within the sample space, there exists an event B, for which P(B) > 0.
  • The analytical goal is to compute a conditional probability of the form: P ( Ak | B ).
  • You know at least one of the two sets of probabilities described below.
    • P( Ak ∩ B ) for each Ak
    • P( Ak ) and P( B | Ak ) for each Ak  

The key to the right use of Bayes is that it can be useful in calculating conditional probabilities: that is, the probability that event A occurs given that event B has occurred.  Normally   such probabilities are used to forecast whether an event is likely to  occur, thus:

Marie is getting married tomorrow, at an outdoor ceremony in the desert. In recent years, it has rained only 5 days each year. Unfortunately, the weatherman has predicted rain for tomorrow. When it actually rains, the weatherman correctly forecasts rain 90% of the time. When it doesn’t rain, he incorrectly forecasts rain 10% of the time. What is the probability that it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding?
StaTTrek’s solution to Marie’s conundrum looks like this:

“The sample space is defined by two mutually-exclusive events – it rains or it does not rain. Additionally, a third event occurs when the weatherman predicts rain. Notation for these events appears below.

  • Event A1. It rains on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event A2. It does not rain on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event B. The weatherman predicts rain.

In terms of probabilities, we know the following:

  • P( A1 ) = 5/365 =0.0136985 [It rains 5 days out of the year.]
  • P( A2 ) = 360/365 = 0.9863014 [It does not rain 360 days out of the year.]
  • P( B | A1 ) = 0.9 [When it rains, the weatherman predicts rain 90% of the time.]
  • P( B | A2 ) = 0.1 [When it does not rain, the weatherman predicts rain 10% of the time.]

We want to know P( A1 | B ), the probability it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding, given a forecast for rain by the weatherman. The answer can be determined from Bayes’ theorem, as shown below.

P( A1 | B ) = P( A1 ) P( B | A1 )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 )

P( A1 | B ) = (0.014)(0.9) / [ (0.014)(0.9) + (0.986)(0.1) ]
P( A1 | B ) = 0.111

Note the somewhat unintuitive result. Even when the weatherman predicts rain, it only rains only about 11% of the time. Despite the weatherman’s gloomy prediction, there is a good chance that Marie will not get rained on at her wedding.

When dealing with conditional probabilities at the loading-end of the formula, we are able to formulate the sample  space easily because the “real world conditions” demanded by the formula can be identified,  and also have data–predictions– regarding Event B, which is a third event, A1 and A2 being (the required) mutually exclusive events.

So far, you are thinking, this is the kind of thing you would use for weather, rocket launches, roulette tables and divorces since we tend to think of conditional probability as an event that has not happened but can be predicted to happen, or not happen, based on existing, verifiable occurrences.  How can it be useful in determining whether events  “actually” transpired in the past, that is, when the sample field itself consists of what has already occurred (or not occurred) and when B is  the probability of it having happened? Or how it can be useful in dealing with events claimed to be sui generis since the real world conditions would lack both precedence and context?

To compensate for this, Carrier makes adjustments to the machinery: historical events are like any other events, only their exclusivity (A or not A) exists in the past rather than at the present time or in the future, like Marie’s wedding.  Carrier thinks he is justified in this by making historical uncertainty (i.e., whether an event of the past actually happened) the same species of uncertainty as a condition that applies to the future.  To put it crudely: Not knowing whether something will happen can be treated in the same way as not knowing whether something has happened by jiggering the formula. Managed properly, he is confident that Bayes will sort everything out in short order:

If you treat every probability you assign in the Bayesian equation as if it were a syllogism in an argument and defend each premise as sound (as you would for any other syllogism) Bayes’s theorem will solve all the problems that have left [Gerd] Theissen and others confounded when trying to assess questions of historicity.  There is really no other method on the table since all the historicity criteria so far have been shown to be flawed to the point of being in effect (or in fact) entirely useless. (Carrier, “Bayes Theorem for Beginners,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, 107).

What? This is a revolution in  thinking? Never mind the obvious problem:  If all the historicity criteria available have been shown to be “in fact” entirely useless and these are exactly the criteria we need to establish (“treat”)  the premises to feed into Bayes, then this condition would make Bayes compeletly useless as well–unless opposite, useful criteria could be shown to exist.  Bayes does not generate criteria and method; it depends on them, just as the solution to Marie’s dilemma depends on real world events, not on prophecy. Obversely, if Bayes is intended to record probability, the soundness of the premises is entirely vulnerable to improbable assumptions that can only poison the outcome–however “unarguable” it is by virtue of having been run through the Carrier version of the Bayes Machine.  Moreover, he either means something else when he talks about historicity criteria or is saying they exist in some other place.  In any event, the criteria must differ from premises they act upon and the conclusion Bayes delivers.

“Fundamentally flawed,” as I noted in a previous post, is the application of Bayes to data where no “real world data and conditions” can be said to apply.  It was this rather steep lapse in logic that led a former student of mine, who is now studying pure mathematics at Cambridge to remark,

Is this insistence [Carrier’s] of trying to invoke Bayes’ theorem in such contexts a manifestation of some sort of Math or Physics envy? Or is it due to the fact that forcing mathematics into one’s writings apparently confers on them some form of ‘scientific’ legitimacy?

The fact of the matter, as far as I know, and as I thought anyone would realize is that Bayes’ theorem is a theorem which follows from certain axioms. Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

Secondly, is it compulsory to try to impose some sort of mathematically based methodological uniformity on all fields of rational inquiry? Do there exist good reasons to suppose the the methods commonly used in different areas that have grown over time are somehow fatally flawed if they are not currently open to some form of mathematization?

If this kind of paradigm does somehow manage to gain ascendency, I assume history books will end up being much more full of equations and mathematical assumptions etc. While that will certainly make it harder to read for most (even for someone like me, who is more trained in Mathematics than the average person) I doubt that it would have any real consequence beyond that.”

In fairness to Carrier, however, the use of Bayes is probably not being dictated by logic, or a respect for the purity of mathematics, nor perhaps even because he thinks it can work.

It is simply being drawn (unacknowledged) from the debater’s handbook used by Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, who (especially through 2007) was active globally debating the question of God’s existence, under the title “Is there a God?” using Bayes’s Theorem as his mainstay.  Not only this, but Swinburne is the editor of the most distinguished collection of essays on Bayes’s Theorem (Oxford, 2002).  In case you are interested in outcomes, Swinburne formulates the likelihood of God in relation to one argument for his existence (the cosmological) this way:  P (e I h & k) ≥ .50  The “background knowledge” Swinburne needs to move this from speculation to a real world condition is “the existence [e] over time of a complex physical universe.”  In order to form a proposition for debate properly, Swinburne depends on the question “Is There a God,” which gives a clear modality:  A and A1.

Unlike Carrier, I believe, I have had the dubious pleasure of having debated Swinburne face to face at Florida State University in 2006. A relatively complete transcript of my opening remarks was posted online in 2010. In case it is not clear, I took the contra side, arguing against the proposition.

I knew enough of Swinburne’s work (and enough of his legendary style from graduate students he had mentored at Oxford) to be on guard for his use of Bayes.  Unlike Carrier, Swinburne is both a theologian and a specialist in formal logic, whose undergraduate degree was in philosophy, politics and economics.  He travels the two worlds with ease and finesse and his most prominent books—The Coherence of TheismThe Existence of God, and Faith and Reason--are heavy reads.

But he is quite uncomfortable with historical argumentation.  Historical argumentation is both non-intuitive and probabilistic (in the sense of following the “law of likelihood”); but tends to favor the view that Bayes’s excessive use of “prior possibilities”  are subjective and lack probative force.   So, when I suggested he could not leap into his Bayesian proofs for God’s existence until he told me what God he was talking about, he seemed confused.  When I scolded him that the God he kept referring to sounded suspiciously biblical and fully attributed, he defended himself with, “I mean what most people mean when they say God.” When I retorted that he must therefore mean what most atheists mean when they say there is not God, he replied that arguing the atheist point of view was my job, not his.   When I said that any God worth arguing about would have to be known through historical documents, the autheticity and epistemological value of which for a debate like this would have to be tested by competent historical research, he became  impatient to get back to his formula, which works slowly and cancerously from givens to premises–to the prize: the unarguable conclusion.  It seems Swinburne thought the fundamentalist yahoos (not my interpretation) would be so dazzled by the idea of an “unarguable argument” for God’s existence that he would win handily.

Except for those  pesky, untended, historical premises.   Not to let a proficient of Bayes get past his premises is the sure way to cause him apoplexy, since Bayes is a premise-eating machine.  Like any syllogistic process, it cannot burp out its unarguable conclusions otherwise.  The result was that in an an overwhelmingly Evangelical-friendly audience of about 500 Floridians, the debate was scored 2 to 1 in my favour: Swinburne lost chiefly because of The Revd. Thomas Bayes.

And this is the trouble Richard Carrier will also need to confront, sooner or later.  He will not solve the primary objections to the use of Bayes’s Law by telling people they don’t get it (many do), or that there are no other methods on the table (where did they go to?), or that all existing historicity criteria, to use a more familiar word in the lexicon he uses on his blog, are “fucked.”

It is rationally (still a higher term than logically)  impossible to use the existence of the world in which thinking about God takes place as the real-world condition that makes it possible to use cosmology as the real-world condition proving his existence.  As Kant complained of Anselm’s ontology, existence is not essence.  It is not argument either. The defeater in this case is history: God has one, in the sense that all ideas about God are historically generated and directly susceptible to historical description and analysis.

And he could learn a thing or two from Swinburne’s sad fate, which is adequately summarized in this blog review of the philosopher’s most extensive use of the Theorem in his 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate.

Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin’ mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that “it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead” (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

  1. The probability of God’s existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn’t exist).
  2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn’t).
  3. The evidence for God’s existence is an argument for the resurrection.
  4. The chance of Christ’s resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
  5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.

It’s almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn’t);

the probability that this cheese is Camembert is also one in two (since it’s either camembert or it isn’t); and so on.

At any rate, while Carrier loads his debating machine with still more improbable premises, I am going on the hunt for those missing historicity criteria.  They must be here someplace.  I do wish children would put things back where they found them.

The first contributions to The Jesus Process are Now Available

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The Jesus Process: A Consultation on the Historical Jesus

Controversy, Mythicism, and the Historical Jesus

© 2012 R. Joseph Hoffmann


While the New Testament offers the most extensive evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus, the writings are subject to a number of conditions that have dictated both the form and content of the traditions they have preserved.  These conditions did not disappear with the writing of the first gospel, nor even with the eventual formation of the New Testament canon.  They were expressly addressed by Christian writers in the second and third century who saw an incipient mythicism as a threat to the integrity of the message about Jesus.  The history of this controversy is long, complex, and decisive with respect to the “question” of Jesus.

The process through which the memory of Jesus was preserved was a reflexive attempt to relay what was known and what was believed about him, while at the same time separating the received traditions from the corrosive effects of a pervasive salvation myth.  The process cannot be established by analogy to the way in which historical traditions were preserved in contemporary histories such as Livy’s (or later, Tacitus’s) books, and it cannot be discounted by reference to antecedent and unrelated mythologies which have influenced the form of transmission.

This essay is in part an attempt to clarify procedural issues relevant to what is sometimes called the “Christ-myth” or “Non-historicity” thesis—an argumentative approach to the New Testament based on the theory that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. I have come to regard this thesis as fatally flawed and subject to a variety of objections that are not often highlighted in the academic writings of New Testament scholars.  The failure of scholars to take the “question of Jesus” seriously has resulted in a slight increase in the popularity of the non-historicity thesis, a popularity that—in my view—now threatens to distract biblical studies from the serious business of illuminating the causes,  context and development of early Christianity.

It is my view, simply stated, that while facts concerning the Jesus of history were jeopardized from the start by a variety of salvation myths, by the credulity of early believers, by the historiographical tendencies of the era, and by the editorial tendencies of early writers, the gospels retain a stubbornly historical view of Jesus, preserve reliable information about his life and teachings, and are not engulfed by any of the conditions under which they were composed.  Jesus “the Nazarene” did not originate as a myth or a story without historical coordinates, but as a teacher in first century Roman Palestine.  Like dozens of other Hellenistic teachers, but lacking sophisticated “biographers” to preserve his accomplishments, Jesus is distinct only because the cult that formed around him perpetuated his memory in ritual, worship, and text, while the memory of other attested personalities of antiquity, even those who enjoyed brief cultic popularity like Antigonus I, Ptolemy I and Demetrius of Macedon are known to us mainly through literary artifacts.

The attempt of “mythicists” to show that Jesus did not exist, on the other hand, has been largely incoherent, insufficiently scrupulous of historical detail, and based on improbable, bead-strung analogies.[1]   The failure of the myth theory is not the consequence merely of methodological sloppiness with respect to the sources and their religious contexts; that has been demonstrated again and again from as early as Shirley Jackson Case’s (now dated) study, The Historicity of  Jesus (1912). It is a problem incipient in the task itself, which Morton Smith aptly summarized in 1986:  The myth theory, he wrote, is almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the “silence” of Paul. “In order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, the mythicists are forced to manufacture unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified… [presenting us with] a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”[2]

The following remarks are designed as a kind of summary of what we know for certain about the conditions and the process through which historical tradition emerged. It is a preface of sorts to a more ambitious project on the myth theory itself and what we can reliably know–if anything—about the historical Jesus.[3]


The Literary Matrix:

We can acknowledge, first, that the gospels came from somewhere.  Scholars disagree widely about the when and where, but the textual tradition, based on when datable writers first use them and quote from them has settled many issues as well as establishing a controversial but adequate relative chronology of Paul’s (and the Pauline) letters.[4]  As Helmut Koester has shown[5], fragments based in oral tradition appear in the Apostolic Fathers (early second century), writers who do not seem to have possessed all four, do not use them authoritatively, and who do not quote from them extensively.[6] The heretic Marcion of Sinope (b. ca. 70 CE, d. 154)[7] was probably the first to attach a gospel to a collection of Paul’s letters.

At the same time, we cannot be sure that Marcion was not acting from a precedent that has been lost to history except through its effects.  The “gospel +” pattern is evidenced in the combination of Luke and Acts, and the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine letters.  It is not unreasonable to wonder if Marcion was using a pattern developed much earlier in the Pauline circle, in which the “gospel”—which traditionally in New Testament scholarship has been seen as a self-referring term used by Paul to mean his preaching or message—actually referred to a written source to which his letters were seen to be an indispensable addition.  That, at least, is how Marcion saw it.  The “contest of gospels” referred to by Paul in Galatians 1.11-13 appeals against private preaching, with Paul “boasting” that his gospel was given through divine revelation: Γνωρίζω γὰρ ὑμῖν, ἀδελφοί, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τὸ εὐαγγελισθὲν ὑπ’ ἐμοῦ ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν κατὰ ἄνθρωπον·

In refusing to assign title to his own gospel, Marcion does not seem to have challenged but rather preserved  Paul’s claim to its uniqueness; but the question of whether Paul’s “preaching” is coterminous with the content of that gospel (normally thought to be an assured conclusion of New Testament scholarship) must remain a live question. It seems clear that Marcion did not share the view of modern biblical scholarship that Paul possessed no physical record called “gospel,” a fact habitually overlooked in New Testament studies, as also is the heretic’s claim that his gospel was older than the ones being circulated in the churches of his day.[8]  I regard the reference to (RSV)  “perverting” (metastreyai means to alter or to change) the “gospel of Christ” a reference to an established, probably written tradition, as polluting a fluid oral tradition does not seem a sensible way to interpret the fractures in the Galatian community.

The African church writer Tertullian,[9] determined to see Marcion as an apostate, believed he had maliciously “mutilated” the gospel in such a way as to diminish the physical reality of Jesus.  We now are relatively certain that Marcion was working not from a canonical gospel but from a lost prototype akin to a synoptic source which lacked, among other things, a birth narrative and significant portions of the resurrection story. Careful and cautious analysis of Tertullian’s description suggests that this source:  (a) was an archetype or very early version of a written gospel, and (b) that it is antecedent to the synoptic tradition, judging by Tertullian’s unfamiliarity with the text and his preference for a later more expansive version—a “Lucan redaction.”  This lost gospel is significant in Jesus- studies because, unlike the “sayings source” [Q] which is necessarily hypothetical,[10] Marcion’s gospel is multiply attested, was composed very early, and despite Tertullian’s exertions to make it so, is not a Gnostic composition.[11]  It also brings Paul’s contribution to the development of early Christian literature into closer alignment with historical traditions, a fact which is often ignored in favor of the standard model of literary development.

Marcion was also an editor and perhaps the earliest collector of Paul’s letters, lacking a number of the “deuteropauline” compositions (some written in direct response to his activity) but possessing one to the Laodiceans[12] which seems to have been a model for a letter like Ephesians and sections of Colossians, now usually reckoned to be secondary to Paul as well.  As David Trobisch has suggested,[13] Marcion was challenged by his contemporary and arch-enemy Polycarp of Smyrna by a fuller edition of the gospels and letters (which Trobisch sees as the first “edition” of the New Testament) to prevent his short canon from becoming dominant. Based on linguistic analysis of his work, Polycarp is also the likeliest candidate to be the author of three anti-Marcionite epistles called the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).[14] The historicity of Jesus is not, as such, at stake in this literary warfare, but historical traditions are.

The primary point of reference in the study of the Jesus question is the controversial context in which a particular interest in the humanity of Jesus first becomes apparent—this against  the background of a number of salvation cults, with discrete saviours and myths, where no such historical interest can be documented.[15] As Walter Bauer demonstrated in relation to the development of early orthodoxy,[16] Roman historical interest as exhibited by Mark’s gospel rather than Anatolian eclecticism, as reflected in Paul, would be largely responsible for the shape of this controversy and decisive in preserving its historical components.

It is a major weakness in the argument of the mythicists to point to the Hellenistic mysteries, with their utter lack of historical orientation, as an explanation for the religious environment in which the gospels were formed.  Often, their litany of dying- and rising- god cults gives the impression of attempting to create a chain of direct influence through the simple duplication of unconnected traditions. In fact, we have no examples from classical antiquity[17] of a religion that insisted from the beginning on the historical existence of its founder in both explicit and implicit ways and no way of explaining why Christianity would differ so markedly from the cults in this respect.[18]


The Later Second Century

By the time we enter the late second century, Christian bishops like Irenaeus [19] (fl 176), and later Tertullian himself (fl 205), are working with a fixed set of four gospels and a collection of letters closely resembling what we possess today and which had become standard sources for refuting heretical opinion.[20] Knowing what we know of the controversies of the period, that in itself, combined with the evidence of the gospels having circulated from Gaul (Lyon) to Carthage as an ανθολογία, is an impressive early achievement. Irenaeus quotes from all four (and from 21 of the eventual 27 books), and also is the first to quote indubitably from the Book of Acts,[21] usually thought to originate from the same writer or school that produced Luke’s gospel, which in turn is the one Marcion is accused of mutilating.[22]

Irenaeus’ goal is not to argue that Jesus “really lived,” but to show that a “living voice of tradition,”[23] separate from heretical interference, survived down to his own day—the basis for the more elaborate doctrine called “apostolic succession.”[24] While almost no one ignores the apologetic intent of Irenaeus’ claims about apostolicity, it would be irresponsible to think that he systematically misrepresents the traditions of an earlier period.  In fact, the possession of large numbers of Gnostic writings has now vindicated much of what he had to say about the teaching and practices of the Gnostics, lending greater weight to what Irenaeus says about the traditions he claims to represent.[25]  While he quotes from written Gnostic sources, he regards the control against heresy not simply oral precedent but “delivered,” graphic tradition, largely because the Gnostics “normatively” appealed to secret oral traditions. [26]

It is true that the existence of the gospel traditions about Jesus and patristic appeals to them do not prove his existence. What they prove instead is a coordinated effort to prevent a deposit of historical tradition from being eviscerated by the religious mythicizers of the period.[27] The actuality of his existence was not the topic of discussion in the ancient period.[28]  It is taken for granted by all ancient commentators, including Paul, whose entire career pivots on the message of the crucified/historical Jesus and the glorified Christ (1 Cor. 1.23; 1 Cor. 15.3-14). [29]

But viewed against the background of first and second century Latin history-writing especially, the story of Jesus is not as unusual as has been thought, and its “uniqueness” has been more a function of the sacred status accorded to the books by the Church than any essential ingredients in their composition.  That is to say, the question of Jesus has been infected with the doctrine of the divine nature of the gospel’s protagonist as well as with the later belief in the inspired authority of the text–both essentially outcomes of patristic discussion–making the issue of “historicity” as the term is normally used, more compelling than it deserves to be.

Book I of Livy’s History[30] does not prove the story of Romulus, or the ruse used against the Sabines, even though he believes it to be factually solid; yet no one doubts the existence of Rome or Augustus, apart from anything credulous Livy might have thought, and got wrong, about Rome’s beginnings.  Moreover, we know the gospel writers weren’t writing that kind of history, even though Luke seems to have been challenged to produce something akin to it “from the sources available among us” (1.1-4)—but ends up telling essentially the same story as Mark, with ornamentation and flourishes, and a special tranche of tradition that seems to have been unique to his region.[31] Indeed, Hellenistic critics of early Christianity, beginning with Celsus (ca. 177) carp at the unoriginality of  the legendary elements of the gospel without calling into question Jesus’ existence, and this is so, presumably, because the historical literature of the time was fraught with such legends.  Take this for example from Livy’s account of the birth of Romulus and Remus:

But the Fates had, I believe, already decreed the origin of this great city and the foundation of the mightiest empire under heaven. The Vestal [virgin, Rea Sylvia] was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it, or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause of it. But neither gods nor men sheltered her or her babes from the king’s cruelty.[32]

Or this from Suetonius’ account of the return of Augustus to Rome subsequent to the events of the ides of March, 44 BCE—an episode which becomes the later basis for the Christian Aracoeli legends:

When [Augustus] returned to Rome from Apollonia at news of Julius Caesar’s assassination, the sky was clear of clouds, but a rainbow-like halo formed around the sun; and suddenly lightning struck the tomb of Caesar’s daughter, Julia …. [33]

Celsus presses his main objections against Christian teaching in propria persona as a “Jew” for the purpose of denigrating the novelty of the Christian faith, an objection grounded in the accusation that its founder had appeared “only recently.”[34]  He does not challenge the importance of prophecy and augurs, merely the idea that Jesus (as opposed to a hundred others) had fulfilled them.  In fact, his choice of persona is almost certainly dictated by the fact that neither Jews nor pagan critics doubted that Christianity had had an historical founder, this despite the muddled nature of so-called “external” sources like Josephus and Tacitus, and the “anti-gospel” Toledot Yeshu, dating from the sixth century CE, but incorporating Talmudic traditions from an earlier period.[35]

While it is fairly common for myth-theorists (as well as others) to point to the unreliability of the external notices, the absence of any suggestion among Jewish and pagan polemists that Jesus was the contrivance of a small clutch of believers—while explicable on other grounds—is as noteworthy as the absence of any tendency among the church fathers to defend against such a “slander.”  To explain this away, we would be obliged to say that the Jews and pagans “bought” the Christian story wholesale after it was fully formulated; but passages such as Matthew 28.11-15, elements of the Magdalene tradition, as well as of the controversy-stories render such an explanation implausible and point as well to an early date for competing accounts of the resurrection.[36] The controversies enshrined in the New Testament, as John Fenton recognized two generations ago, bring us very close to the live debates in which the history of Jesus was being compiled, but not created in the churches.[37]

We also know that the gospels, whatever they are, were not designed to convince people that Jesus existed. They were written (eventually) to recall key moments in a brief public life—narrative snapshots based on reminiscences, sayings, and hearsay “traditioned” by various communities, but fairly early in point of time compared, say, to the distance between Livy ( BCE 59-CE 17) and the Roman Republic of the sixth century BCE.  As old and inconvenient as this defense of the historicity of important elements of the gospels may be, it is still a detail to be reckoned with.

The tension between the purposes of the gospels—to “bring” the news of Jesus to the Jewish diaspora and the Roman provinces–and the worldview of the gospels is even more important because the (perhaps inflated) apocalyptic fervor of the earliest communities, which cannot have been the same voltage in all sectors of the Christian diaspora,[38] would not necessarily have been friendly to the more mundane aspects of tradition: thus, the delay of the end-time and its corollary—the fact that Jesus did not come again–seems to have set into motion an effort to recover historical elements of the life of Jesus that the passage of time was threatening to occlude[39]—not only the core story of his death and resurrection but information about his teaching and predictions.  One of those stories—that of his trial and death—is entirely probable if not a chronicle of events, like the story of the death of Hannibal[40]—and one of them—the resurrection, like the story of Alexander’s conception[41] or the apotheosis of Romulus[42]–is not historical, but does clearly refer to historical outcomes: the belief of Jesus’ followers. It is difficult if not impossible to point to equivalent outcomes in relation to the beliefs of ordinary Greeks and Romans being triggered by events close to their own time.[43] The legendary and the “factual” are comingled in all ancient history, from Thucydides onward. But as an axiom, the incredible in ancient literature does not nullify the credible, or if it did we would know almost nothing about anything before the dawn of modernity.[44]  For this reason among others, it is perilous to regard disaggregated analogies to the legendary matter in the gospels as proof against the totality of their assertions and “reports.”[45]  As Paul Veyne has shown, in the ancient world the miraculous, the legendary and the historical walked upon a single stage, and our judgments about “what really happened” are imperiled even as we try to view it.[46]


Is Paul’s ‘Silence’ Active or Passive?

Third in sketching the process, there is the “problem of Paul,” or rather Paul’s imputed silence concerning Jesus of Nazareth and his preaching of what Schweitzer called a “Christ-the-Lord mysticism.”[47] Myth theorists have often worked from the general postulate that as Paul’s writing is earlier than the written gospel (a simplistic assumption at best), it is remarkable that Paul seems to know nothing of the historical tradition concerning Jesus of Nazareth.[48]  I believe this assumption is grantable to the mythicists only if it is the case that there is no supervening reason in Paul’s career that makes ignorance a more compelling reason for his silence (or virtual silence) than some other explanation.  In my view, there is a clear reason for Paul’s unhelpfulness which has nothing to do with him not knowing the Jesus tradition but much to do with his not knowing Jesus of Nazareth.

We have Paul’s letters less because of their literary value and theological significance than because one unusually persistent  heretic roamed the provinces from Pontus Bithynia to Rome trying to convince people of the second century that Christianity could be boiled down to believing in  a heavenly redeemer who slipped past the archons and became a sacrifice for sin.[49]  It may seem surprising that anyone would be persuaded by Paul’s conglomerate of Jewish tradition and Hellenistic theosophy, but Paul was not wedded to a univocal view of Jesus.  A propagandist driven by success and a man of many messages,[50] Paul changes course and charts new argumentative paths when he needs to, and he needed to because a great many of his “churches” didn’t like him or what he said.[51]  Moreover, a great deal of the Pauline tradition and the need for additional letters in his name is simply graphic confirmation of his obscurity and incomprehensibility.

The battle for Paul’s name and “authority” has been over-stressed, however, and edges on the anachronistic.[52]  His reputation is para-canonical rather than original to the tradition. His prestige was not at all guaranteed in the first and second century: it was largely an accidental quarrel over interpretation, forced on church writers by a specific heresiological crisis. Historically, the mythicist view assigns him relevance on the basis of a significance that is contextually untenable—as though Paul and the Jesus-tradition are synonymous “equi-valent” terms: as Paul is an early witness to the tradition (the argument normally runs), where is the tradition in Paul? [53] In fact, it is a lamentable feature of the mythicists that no single study has emanated from their circle that deals in a mature way with the historical, constructive features of Paul’s thought, as their main interest has been to use his silence about Jesus forensically to “prove a lacuna” in tradition that more careful analysis shows does not exist.

Ernst Käsemann aptly observed more than fifty years ago that most writers of the second century found Paul’s theology unintelligible.[54] In general, Paul does not deliberately contribute anything to a discussion of the historical Jesus and the dating of his letters is work fraught with danger and despair.  This disjunction in early Christianity has been recognized since earliest times—first of all by the writer of the Book of Acts, which seems to have arisen, at least in part,  in the anti-Marcionite fervor of the mid- second century..[55]  The battle for “ownership” of Paul artificially magnified his importance; but in fact, there would have been no nettle for this quarrel if Marcion had not tried to make the Apostle authoritative to the detriment of the gospels.  His theology may very well have sunk without trace and stayed sunken.

It seems to me that this distinction between what early writers called the apostolikon (meaning, almost exclusively, Paul) and the euangelion needs to be reiterated in the appropriate historical context:  The survival of Paul’s letters and theology is largely accidental, stems from controversy, theological and political dispute, and is as much polemically charged as it is theologically spontaneous.  The existence of the gospels is purposeful, even when specific controversies arising later can be identified within the text.  To use the former as a criterion or standard for the historical memory preserved in the latter is to establish a relationship between the two that runs contrary to their separate development. The silence of Paul as a passive matter—based on his ignorance of any historical tradition or a very rudimentary one–is untenable.  The reasons for his active silence are considered in the following section.


Competing Christologies and Complicit Silence

And so we are thrown back to the gospels, chiefly but not exclusively on the synoptics.  Are they pristine, objective, verbatim accounts of the life of Jesus?  Hardly.  Are they infused with assumptions about who Jesus is and approximations of what he said?[56]  Yes.  Can we find “heresiological”, or more properly controversial material in them—material intended to defend a sketchy proto-orthodox teaching about Jesus against less acceptable beliefs? Of course—as John Fenton showed,[57] especially in relation to Matthew’s gospel.  These considerations, however, are the surest proof that Jesus really lived and that the preservers of the Jesus-tradition knew what they were defending: they were squeamish about the divine man Christology[58] that dominated in much of the church, and is at least “available” in the gospel of John.  The tenuousness of their task is already implied in the phrase “Jesus Christ”[59] though given different prior outcomes, they might have regarded the phrase “Christ the Lord” too extreme–a quiet reason for their general disuse—or rejection–of Paul’s theories in shaping their Christologies.[60]  It is remarkable that the gospels use the much earlier descriptions “son of man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου, with its clear rootage in Hebrew and Aramaic passages: cf. כבר אנש) and “(a)son of God” (with meanings ranging from goodness to royalty; cf. Ps. 2.7), in reference to Jesus.  Yet unless we can conclude that Paul was actively rejecting or was ignorant of terms he may have regarded as anachronistic, useless to his broader purposes, or pejorative, we are obliged to see these traditions as being in competition by the ’50’s of the the first century CE.  Christology is not metaphysics in the first century; it is part of the broader contest of ideas in which historicity is at stake.

When I say that Jesus “really lived,” I mean lived in history, like anyone else.  It has to be said this way because the idea of historicity is a construct of the Enlightenment and later, when scholars like Leopold von Ranke,[61] Theodor Mommsen[62] and others turned their gaze on the difference between legend and actual events, defining history, no more and no less, as “what really happened” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen“)[63].  In the mid- twentieth century, scholars thought they could answer this question by settling once and for all what “kind” of writings the gospels really were: short stories, encomium, chronicle, tall tale, Kleinliteratur,[64] Hellenistic novel,  narrative drama, a script for a mystery religion–Christos Soter?[65]  None of the analogies quite stuck, though everyone had a favourite one. In the end however, the safest solution was to say that a gospel grew organically out of the experiences of people who had heard Jesus, or had heard about him, and had come to believe that he was some sort of savior or redeemer, or prophet—or (unhelpfully) all three.

The theological matter of Christology is nothing more than recognition that the gospels are a stew of opinions consisting of what people believed, surmised, and reported–expressed with appropriate irony in the Markan “confession” scenario (8:27-33) where Jesus is given to inquire, Who do men say that I am? [66] Peter’s response, is not especially telling and Mark does not mean for it to be.[67] That is to say, the gospels are not coherent sources for the life of Jesus, and even when we are brought to the edge of knowing who Jesus really is (cf. Mark 15.2), the gospel writers offer impressions, often attributed to opponents, crowds, onlookers, or followers, rather than “data.”[68] Only in the jesuine discourses of the Fourth gospel is the natural reticence of the synoptics cast aside in favor of bold assertions and self-reference.  As they stand, they invite preaching and interpretation (Mark 16.15; Matthew 28.18f.; John 20.31) and that is just how Paul and his associates used them. That these sources also grew in scope as a result of their function is also probable; but the alleged linear development from “kerygma” to “written gospel” (the Dodd-Bultmann uniqueness-hypothesis) is a theologically loaded way to conceptualize the process and stems from over-attention to the intratextual domain of the canonical writings themselves.

Once purged of the mythical and the obviously legendary, the guessing about original tradition begins.  Indeed, it begins prior to that because plausible theories exist for belief in the resurrection that do not rely on a supernatural interpretation of an event following the death of Jesus.[69] Just as we have to account for the existence of the Jesus-tradition in the gospels, we have to account for belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  That has been the central task of academic New Testament criticism for more than a century while only a literalist fringe have been occupied with defending  (and attacking) its “historicity.”[70] Denying that the resurrection was a historical event,  using nothing more than textual variants that have been charted for two centuries, does not provide that explanation.[71]

Thus we are required to confront the intentions of the gospel compilers—what they are trying to do:  how does this intention reflect the context from which the gospels emerge?  Were they inventing a story, repeating one they thought to be true, or adapting such historical traditions as they possessed to a larger frame of reference that included both legendary embellishments and a myth or paragon of salvation?

Using premises that predate the contemporary understanding of myth, myth-theorists have normally held that the gospel writers (or as for Drews and Bauer, an individual, original writer) wrote fraudulent or consciously deceptive tales. [72] It is important to emphasize that myths do not arise from fraudulent intent; they arise as explanatory stories.  For the most part, the gospels (unlike the Book of Genesis) fail as myth because they fail to explain anything.  It is true that over time Christian theology educes consequences of enormous importance from the story—doctrines like atonement and salvation—but the stories do not arise as narrative subterfuges to explain how salvation happened. As William Henry Furness, following Renan,[73] observed in the nineteenth century, their authenticity and integrity lay in their artlessness and not artifice.

“Myths” as that term has been used in modern scholarship, especially in anthropology and phenomenology of religion, are typically etiologies of why something is as it is, or how it came about.  Genesis is an etiology of the world, the creation of humankind, languages, sacrificial customs, and finally (beginning with Abraham) of the formation of the Hebrew nation. Even when populated by ordinary people, places and names, this etiological function is not far from the surface.[74]  Are the gospels etiologies in this sense, and if so, what are they attempting to explain?

In my view, even the most esoteric of them, the Fourth Gospel, remains an unsuccessful hybridized attempt to relate a stubbornly historical tradition to a pre-existing mythological structure.  If there are etiological components, like the Prologue in heaven (1.1-16, a creation story), they are not consistently developed and demonstrably false to the historical traditions preserved by the authors in other sections of the work.  And the jesuine discourses, even at their most obscure and theologically charged, are “spiritualizations,” as Maurice Wiles has called them, rather than falsifications of these historical traditions.[75] That John was driven by a different agenda was widely acknowledged even among the church fathers—a spiritual gospel according to Clement of Alexandria[76]— and almost all critical church historians and biblical exegetes since the Reformation, not one to be read merely as a history of Jesus.[77]

People of the first and second century did not need to be persuaded that there were gods, omens, miraculous births, and returns from the jaws of death.  The stories of gods and heroes routinely used the motif because, after all, it was core to the idea that a god was immortal.  If you read the stories of Osiris, Persephone, Heracles, the deaths of gods, the sojourns to the underworld, and their triumphal return, you can be forgiven for saying that Jesus was a hero like that.  The fact that one gospel begins by declaring that God became man (ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν) shows the attractiveness of a mythical overlay of events that John (erratically) sees being played out on earth and in heaven at the same moment.  Likewise, Paul’s vision of a descent to a lower world followed by a triumphal ascent through the archontic hosts to a higher one (Philippians 2.5-11) encourages the thinking that we have on our hands a garden variety savior myth with historical trimmings.  That,  of course, is the hub of the mythicist argument.

But what is only partly true of the Fourth Gospel [78] is flatly wrong with respect to the synoptic traditions, something even a casual reader of the texts can discern by intuition without having to go deeply into questions of date, provenance, and composition.  These historical elements, as Harnack realized a century ago, were vulnerable from the beginning to an encompassing myth that threatened to (and in the case of the Gnostics did) overwhelm it.[79]

Rather than being constructed myths, the gospels were, among other things, attempts to bring an existing and unruly mythology under control.   I do not subscribe to the view that this process can be expressed in the formula “from Jesus to Christ,”[80]  as liberal theology tried to chart its development in the nineteenth and through most of the twentieth century.  The gospels reflect partisan struggles within individual communities corresponding to those Paul describes in 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians.  In some of those, from as early as the fifties, if not earlier, the historical particulars of the life of Jesus had been rendered insignificant by the totalizing attraction of a salvation myth. Paul attempts to take control of this myth with his strange concoction of Jewish and “Hellenistic” additives, but he does not attempt to confront it head on or to challenge it with historical information.  Judging from the outlook and practice of the Corinthian church at least,[81] to do so would have been to sacrifice the congregation there entirely.  The argument in 1 Cor. 15.45f. rejects a temporal history in favor of a typology (the first and second “Man”) that functions mainly as allegory, but comes as close as Paul ever comes to developing a fully fledged mythology of salvation, one briefly reiterated in Roman 5.12-17.

In its purest form, this encompassing myth is Gnostic and perhaps our closest approximation to it, outside Paul, is the so-called Hymn of the Pearl.[82] It is that mythology, in some form, that Paul knows from his vantage point in ancient Turkey where Anatolian myth blended with Greek mystery ideas to the detriment of all historical interest.[83]

Paul is able to exploit that mythology as a “non-follower” of Jesus (a non-apostle who insists on his right to be called one) because the story for him is not about “flesh and blood” which after all can “never inherit the kingdom of God.”[84]

On a few occasions, to nullify the “judaizing” fraternal claims of the superior apostles (hyperlian apostoloi) who are related to Jesus by blood (as brothers or cousins) or adoption, especially James the Lord’s brother,[85] Paul sometimes generalizes the concept of the brothers (adelphoi) to refer to Christian believers, converts or neophytes symbolized in the mystical body of Christ (the “man from heaven”) though Jesus himself does not become (and is never accounted  to be) one of these brothers; he is rather the spiritual sine qua non—The Lord–through which the community comes into being.[86]  No one can “boast” because all are one in Christ Jesus.  Without understanding Paul’s apologetic motive for this usage, the author of Acts maintains it as a synecdoche for the community (e.g., Acts 1.16; 11.1; 13.26; 20.26 [KJV only]), often associated with believers, listeners, aspirants or “children of Abraham” but also maintains the historical precedent that the apostles are distinguished from the brothers and the unique status of James.[87]

The elimination of James as a “prop” for the historical Jesus has been a priority of the myth theorizers from the beginning of the twentieth century, but has also simply exploited the confusion over the identity of James, or multiple James’s,  as an alternative structure of facts.  The most familiar example of this is Arthur Drews’s[88] insupportable contention in The Christ Myth (German, 1909) that the easiest way to dispense of the brother-tradition is to recognize that the term “brother” is used equivocally in the sources:

Certainly that James whose acquaintance Paul made in Jerusalem is designated by him Brother of the Lord and from this it seems to follows that Jesus must have been an historical person.  The expression Brother is possibly in this in this case as so often in the Gospels a general expression to designate a follower of Jesus, as the members of a religious society in antiquity often called themselves Brother and sister among themselves.  1 Cor. 9.5 runs “Have we not also the right to take about with us a wife that is a sister even as the other apostles and brothers of the Lord and Cephas.”  It is evident that the expression by no means necessarily refers to bodily relationship but that Brother serves only to designate the followers of the religion of Jesus.”[89]

Famous for his academic inexactness and sensationalism even in his own time, Drews begins his observation with the glaring mistake that the “followers” of Jesus may here “as is so often the case in the gospels” be referred to as brothers in an honorary or cultic sense.  In fact, followers and disciples of Jesus are never once addressed as brother(s) in the gospels in any of the instances where a clear biological relationship is asserted.[90] Then, into the tortured syntax of 1 Corinthians 9.5, he inserts a relative construction missing in the Greek, to justify his belief that “sister” is being used as a circumlocution for “believer.” μὴ οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν ἀδελφὴν γυναῖκα περιάγειν ὡς καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ ἀπόστολοι καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ τοῦ κυρίου καὶ Κηφᾶς;  The more obvious meaning of course is “a sister,” [or] “a wife” (i.e., a woman), which has, in fact, become the majority translation. As to the phrase “brothers of the Lord,” it either excludes the higher ranks of  “apostles and Peter” or must envisage them as biological brothers (cf. Mk 3.31, Matt. 12.46; K; Lk 8.19; Jn 2.12, 7.3, 5, 10), such as James, who is not mentioned here.  Without Drews’s conclusion that the language of the mysteries, absent in the gospels, can be invoked to explain a verse in the epistles, the most obvious translation would be that brothers of Jesus, along with apostles, were seen by Paul as having a right to female companionship or service.  The context of the passage, indeed, makes this the only coherent translation: Paul is here talking about the right of an apostle to be served, be paid, and have a share of the earnings (“the fruit’) of his labour, not about  “the Christian mystery.” The phrase “brothers in the Lord” in Philippians 1.14 suggests that the author could make a clear distinction between a relational genitive such as Galatians 1.19 (ἀδελφὸs τοῦ Κυρίου) and an instrumental dative (ἀδελφῶi ἐν Κυρίῳ) such as we find in Philippians 1.14.[91]

Yet to assume that Paul’s deliberate and defensive disuse of the tradition nullifies the tradition is abjectly nonsensical. The Christian story as we know it and celebrate it in the Church is basically Paul’s mythos, especially in its Eucharistic form.  It is missing in John, who uses Eucharistic images in a different, arguably a more physical and anti-gnostic way (“I am the bread that has come down from heaven”), and works from a slightly different variation on the core salvation story.  But it seems clear in both cases (Paul implicitly, the Fourth Gospel directly) that the writers are exploiting a prior tradition and that this tradition was centered on an historical figure named Jesus.[92]

But the Jesus tradition did not begin there.  It began simply enough in Roman Palestine with the teaching of a figure named Jesus and his teacher, John the Baptist.  The historical moorings are crystal clear and plausible; the prologue in heaven (John 1.1-15) is later.  It is manufactured: it is exegesis. Paul’s salvation story is not earlier than the historical elements of the gospel.  It is a highly speculative interpretation of the tradition, though not a rejection of it.  While Marcion seems to have singled out a pattern of corrupting the gospel, dating back to the apostles themselves,[93] Paul does not polemicize against tradition—just against those like Peter and James, who use it for self-aggrandizement.[94]  Both Marcion and Paul, however saw corruption of tradition as a program carried out by “historical” followers of the Lord, not by devils.[95]  In asserting this, Paul becomes the first interpreter to place his interpretation of the gospel ahead of its historical embodiment.

In broad outline, the message of Jesus concerning the coming kingdom of God—that is, his eschatological message– is completely plausible.  It is both historically credible and fits into most of what we know from other sources about Roman Palestine at the time of Roman occupation.  In that story, Jesus does not fall out of the sky or propel himself back into it[96] –he simply lives and teaches and dies, a victim of the raucous age.  The question of what he taught and the completely useless attempt of various Jesus seminars and quests to isolate authentic sayings will surely go down as one of the most regressive episodes in biblical-studies history.  It seems certain he said some of it and the fact that others said similar things (Nihil sub sole novum) is proof, not disproof, that he said some of it. I have never budged from the view that Jesus was an eschatologist, that he preached judgment and repentance, probably in fairly stark terms.  The gospels make no bones about it.  What they do in addition to repeating the kerygma in conventional language drawn from a variety of Jewish apocalypses is to make Jesus not only the agent of change but the focus of deliverance.[97]

What the gospels also do is to make Jesus the agent of judgment, the unexpected, unheralded, and finally unrecognized messiah.[98] This is an apologetic stance forced on believers and recorders by the discomfiting events of the later first century.  Yet even their rationalization of events is within the domain of the predictable: the belief that Jesus said something specific about dates and times trails off into uncertainty about dates and times (Mark 13.32) like a father’s rash promise to buy a daughter a diamond for her eighteenth birthday and his demurrers on the last day of her seventeenth year. Nothing is more ordinary, more explicable.

But even here, the synoptic gospels are notably sketchy, even circumspect, about the extraordinary or as critics in the post-Enlightenment era would call it, the “supernatural.” And in Mark even the extraordinary is related in matter-of-fact terms using both temporal and geographical markers, a trait of Hellenistic history but not of myth and legend.[99]  Mythicists have often pointed to the fact that the gospel writers sometimes get the geography and temporal markers wrong—a feature readily noted by most New Testament scholars[100]–without complaining about the same persistent tendency in secular historiography from roughly the same period.[101] It is difficult to know what historical standard they are invoking, or whether their naivete is simply a result of having a deficient knowledge of the ancient world.

Moreover, the “incredible” elements of the gospels do not form a coherent narrative scheme: the miracles, a dozen healings, a few unlikely wins in debates against “teachers of the law.” Collectively, these do not constitute a myth; they are the legendary bits, though the Jesus-deniers often conflate myth and legend–which in fact serve different literary purposes and have different origins.[102] But the historical Jesus undergirds—and is presupposed by–the legends, in a way distinct from purely legendary figures like  King Arthur and Robin Hood whose entire existence is predicated on adventure, feats and tests of stength, and romance.  In general, apart from the obviously miraculous and legendary elements of the gospels, such as the birth stories, the story of Jesus is mundane and possesses none of the primary characteristics of pure legend: it is the story of a teacher gone wrong who is killed for his teaching and probably also for some of his displays of magic and healing.  Only later, and under the watchful eye of canonists, do stories about Jesus like those contained in the apocryphal gospels achieve fully legendary proportions.[103]  Put a bit flatfootedly (though this is not a new argument), the gospels do not show sufficient consistency to be pure legend and are not abstract enough nor sufficiently symbolic to qualify as “myth.”


Saving Jesus from the Gnostics

Fifth and finally: it becomes the job of the early Church to protect the core reality of a flesh and blood Jesus against the second and third century mythicizers, the Gnostic covens. The early writers, known and unknown, do this partly by bringing Paul under control—Paul who virtually disappears from view in the early patristic period.[104] They do this by lambasting Marcion’s attempt to subordinate the gospel to the letters by giving the gospels precedence; they do it also by continuing to write tendentious letters in Paul’s name—especially the so called Pastoral epistles with their transparently anti-Marcion bias.  They do it by writing minor texts assigned to other apostles—James, Peter, Jude, and John—to diminish Paul’s standing at a period when his teaching had lost relevance.  That these are forgeries, or more politely pseudonymous works, is now widely accepted.  That the deuteropauline correspondence is radically different from the same technique in the hands of the heretics is equally obvious.[105] Just as the gospels reflect the real life context of first century Palestine, the canonical letters, authentic and inauthentic, reflect real life situations that have arisen in the later life of the Christian community.  In the long run, it is their contribution to the historical life of communities—a certain practical relevance lacking in Gnostic writings–rather than proof of authorship that guaranteed their survival.

This protective reflex is very early, and at least goes back to the time of Polycarp, Ignatius and the author of the pastorals who warns specifically of those who follow the elaborate myths.[106] This “protection” is called for by the worry of a teaching that Jesus Christ “did not come in the flesh.”[107]  In its most radical form, that is to say in Gnosticism, human nature is devalued and a doctrine of spiritual elitism more extravagant than anything we find in Paul is put forward. According to Irenaeus who spends years of his life gathering evidence about them and attempting to sort them out (“though they spring up like weeds”[108]) they were not a unified front but a congeries of sects, each with a slightly different salvation story.  In their more flagrant but milder form, they stretch back to Paul’s day and to the time of fourth gospel (which may in part have originated in their circles.)  Being a “docetist” or a Gnostic was a matter of emphasis, but all would have argued that Jesus was a kind of apparition, not a flesh and blood human being.  He was not historical though historical is not a term they would have comprehended.  As a revealer, he was preternal, might have come before, might appear again, but never in a time-bound, material sense.

The battle between orthodox writers and the Gnostics (and their forerunners) was foremost a battle over a theory of atonement or redemption: if Jesus did not possess flesh, it was thought, he could not have redeemed flesh.[109] For the Gnostics, flesh cannot be redeemed; thus a true savior could not possess it (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.50). [110] But the basis for this theory was the bedrock historical material of the gospel: the life and the crucifixion and death of Jesus as real events, not cosmic tokens of salvation available to the τελειότερες– the “perfect ones.”  It is an interesting but common feature of most mythicist narrative about the New Testament that they have a very poor grasp of the Gnostic literature, and rely extensively on earlier myth-theorists whose works were written two generations and more before the Nag Hammadi documents were available to illustrate the shape of a fully fledged Christian myth.  Perhaps the most odious example of polemic masquerading as scholarship is the work of a certain Richard Carrier, whose vanity published (Lulu, 2009) Not the Impossible Faith manages in over 400 error-strewn pages to ignore entirely the fundamental theological challenge of the New Testament era.

As all New Testament scholars know, or should know, the difference between a Gnostic gospel and a canonical gospel is not only a difference in “style” but in purpose.  Joseph Fitzmyer once famously called the Gnostics “the crazies of the second century.”[111] That may or may not be so, but their success is evidence of the general popularity of their cause and seems to have justified the concern of orthodox bishops.

The euphoria that greeted the Nag Hammadi discovery of 1945 and the first publication and translations between 1972 and 1984  encouraged extreme notions that the Gnostics were a liberal heterodox alternative to “male dominated” conservative orthodoxy.[112]  But we are in a better place today to judge the threat of Gnosticism as it was seen in its own terms— not by autocratic bishops ruling from their thrones by fiat–that is a Hollywood parody of the second century church–but by leaders of a young religious movement struggling against a tide of religious mythicism. The living tradition that Irenaeus defends is historical tradition; it extends from Jesus to John to Papias and the elders, and even includes references to teachers who had “gone astray” from tradition like Cerinthus and Marcion.[113]  Indeed, the standards of historicity were strict enough for Eusebius in the fourth century to call Papias’s judgment into question on account of his chiliasm.  It includes before the fourth century a critical element that rivals anything in secular historiography, both in Papias’s comments on the evangelists and Eusebius’ negative feelings (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.13) about Papias’s gifts as a reporter.[114] As to Papias’s dates, we have Irenaeus to thank for identifying him as “a man of old time” (Adversus Haereses V 33.4) and thus a contemporary of Marcion and Polycarp, and perhaps just as significantly an Anatolian from provincial Hierapolis

To challenge every speck of this tradition is certainly possible, but what possible motive would there be for doing so?  The simple insistence of the early writers is that the historical tradition about Jesus came first, the “myths,” according to the Pastor, later.  Indeed, cumulatively, that is just what the texts as we possess them suggest is the case. The church fathers would have been in a position to distinguish paradosis (what was delivered, and considered authentic) from the “myths and fables and old wives tales,”[115] and what was new from what was received.  To impugn their motives moves us away from a methodological suspicion of sources into the realm of master-theories, cynicism and baseless assumptions for which there is no textual support.

The core of Gnostic belief was not that there was no Jesus but a salvation myth that did not require him as a distinct personality.  By contrast, for all their legendary embellishments, the canonical gospels want to insist on the historical reality of Jesus, located in a specific corner of the Roman world at a particular moment in time.  That corner is Roman Palestine, and the basic details are true to life and credible.  In saying this it would be jejune to suggest that I am defending the miraculous; but I would want to defend the historicity of the healing stories.  It would be simplistic to say that critical New Testament scholars are still arguing for a physical resurrection; but many, including myself, regard the basic proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus as a historic and defining event  in the history of the church, though its form varies from source to source (cf. 1 Corinthians 15,6).

Modern scholarship has unearthed many figures from the period whose careers run roughly parallel to that of Jesus:  Judas the Galilean, Jesus Barabbas, Theudas, Shimeon bar Kochba  and John the Baptist himself have similar proportions and messages, and inhabited a social world of religious insurgencies, banditry, and political opposition to Rome in a countercultural Judaism that ends with a bang in 70CE.  The unveiling of that social world has further solidified our confidence in the portrait of Jesus in the gospels.[116]  It is a social context about which the mythicists are largely silent and, given their presuppositions and methods, embarrassingly deficient. The age was an age of radicals, revolutionaries, messianic claimants, and self-styled prophets of the end time. We have investigated targums, pseudepigrapha, ostraca, ossuaries, tombs, and remnants of village life that put us tantalizingly close to a village like Nazareth.[117]  The net result of these investigations has not been to push the gospels in the direction of fantasy and fabrication but to establish a probable landscape within which the events described in them plausibly occurred.  It does not take a great deal of historical or literary sophistication, for example, to see that the rudimentary nature of their contents places them squarely in the first and early second century, proximate to the events they describe, rather than at a perceptible distance from these events, as the apocryphal and Gnostic writings are.

If the Nazareth tradition embedded in the synoptics and John is more elaborately attested in the gospels than in other literature contemporary to it, the most efficient explanation is that the gospel writers knew about the place because Jesus, in the tradition they possessed,  was associated (even if mistakenly) with it, not that they invented it.  Matthew’s laborious attempt to find a prophecy to fit it (and various attempts to invent an alternative etymology for “Nazareth” and “Nazarene” based on Hebrew and Aramaic roots)[118] suggest that the village was an embarrassment to the followers, as it was already traditioned in Mark’s famous story of Jesus’ failed attempt to preach there and Luke’s finessing of the older tradition (Mark 9.1; 6.1-7; cf.  Luke 4 .16-30).  Recent excavations (2008, seq.) led by Yardena Alexandre[119] show that Nazareth (as Bagatti had conjectured) was small (±500), but (as Princeton archaeologist Jack Finnegan argued) a strongly Jewish settlement.[120]  The basic picture that has emerged is entirely compatible with what the gospels say about the area being inconspicuous, poor, and suspect (John 1.46; cf. 7.41). Nevertheless, even if the identification of Nazareth could be proved to be mistaken and the name educed from the phrase “Jesus the Nazarene,” there would hardly be a strong case for rejecting the Galilean provenance of Jesus or his actual existence; it would show only that the gospel writers were attempting to sort out a tradition that had come to them unsorted.[121]

Contextually, the gospels are about right, though they get things wrong.  Like your grandmother’s stories, they changed over time.  Details were lost and some geographical details were modified and forgotten—and others like Bethlehem, invented as a way of doing what every leader since Epirus and Augustus himself tried to do: improve a pedigree or establish a res gestae of their deeds .[122]  But the description of Pilate, of Herod Antipas (another casualty of pedigree), the muddled version of the trial, and the mechanism of punishment and death are completely plausible.  They were no more written by eyewitnesses than Livy’s descriptions of Republican Rome; nor is that the standard we normally require in ancient history. Once the peculiar nature of the history contained in the gospels is acknowledged, it is useless to try to hold them to a historiographical standard higher than that expected of their secular counterparts—unless the point of the inquiry is not to discover the facts within the sources but to discredit the sources.

Stripped of its theological and liturgical embellishments—which are as masterful in their way as Plato’s fictional mise en scène for the death of Socrates[123]— the crucifixion drama becomes the simple story of the death of a Galilean troublemaker and teacher.  Taken as it stands, it is the story of the death of the messiah, or of a son of god, replete with liturgical embellishment from the Psalms and the Wisdom of Solomon, among other sources.  Almost all New Testament scholars accept that pious accretions form a heavy emulsion over the bare bones.  But likewise, most realize that the simple factual recitation of these events unaccompanied by such interpretation would be false to the story as they rationalized it and understood its significance.  If modern literary criticism has taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as uninterpreted narrative. The gospels do not exist “propositionally”: they exist “hermeneutically.”  It has not been the task of New Testament scholarship since the time of Strauss and Feuerbach to answer the question “whether” Jesus rose from the dead, but rather how the early Christians understood this belief, and how it arose within the religiously and politically charged environment of the time.    Even if all questions of interpretation could be decided in favor of factual assertions, the gospels would still not exist propositionally.


The Mythicist Position – The Paul Cipher

The cumulative effect of these considerations drowns the mythicist position, which had its beginnings in the excitement of radical New Testament scholarship in Holland, Britain and America at the end of the nineteenth century, and in Germany before that.  As a connoisseur of these and later mythicist theories, I can safely say, almost no stone was left unturned in attempting to debunk the gospels.  Those stones have now been turned over and over, without much effect and nothing hiding under them.

Despite the energy of the myth school from Drews, Robinson, Couchoud and van Eysinga down to Wells, its last learned, reputable proponent,[124] its conclusions have been rendered wrong by the historical scholarship of the later twentieth century.[125]  It remains a quaint, curious, interesting but finally unimpressive assessment of the evidence—to quote James Robinson’s verdict, an agenda-driven “waste of time.”  Methodologically it disposes of anything contrary to its core premise—Jesus did not exist—in a quicksand of denial and half-cooked conspiracy theories that take skepticism and suspicion to a new low.   Like all failed hypotheses, it arrives at its premise by intuition, cherry picks its evidence in a way that wants to suggest that the ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity of texts and traditions are meaningless inconveniences invented by the discipline of New Testament studies, and defends its “conclusions” by force majeure.    The myth theory, in short, is a dogma in search of footnotes. Most of the ones it continues to exploit in the form of references, problems, and allusions are a century old.  While it is untrue to say that the theory is not taken seriously by responsible scholars, it happens to be true that its most ardent supporters, then and now, have been amateurs or dabblers in New Testament studies and those least equipped by training or inclination to assess an enormously complicated body of evidence.

History as a discipline has been in the business of exposing fraud at least since the time of Lorenzo Valla.[126] But the exposure of fraud is not the discovery of factuality or truth—of  “what really happened.” History requires a certain patience with ambiguity, sometimes surgical care with delicate sources that have an ounce of reliable data buried beneath the layers of additions and corrections. Harnack believed that the procedure was like peeling husks away from a nob of corn,[127] but it was an unfortunate image, as his critic, Alfred Loisy reminded him.[128] New Testament scholarship has learned more recently to distinguish between event and allegory which are unevenly blended in the story of Jesus.  However that may be, the outlines of an historical figure are clear.  As the hyperactive Tertullian argues in his treatise on the Flesh of Christ (De carne Christi, ca. 212), against the mythicizers of his day,

Why do you allege that that flesh is celestial which

you have no data for thinking celestial, why deny that that is

terrestrial which you have data for recognizing as terrestrial? It

hungers when with the devil, is athirst with the Samaritan

woman, weeps over Lazarus, trembles at the prospect of death–

The flesh, he says, is weak–and at last sheds its blood. You take

these, I suppose, for celestial signs. But, say I, how could he, as he

said would happen, be despised and suffer, if in that flesh there

had shone any radiance from his celestial nobility? By this means,

then, we prove our case that in that flesh there was nothing

brought down from the skies, and that that was so for the express

purpose that it should be capable of being despised and of


The language is odd to us, because Tertullian is arguing against a renegade disciple of Marcion named Apelles.  But the message is plain: Jesus was real.

When I began my work on Marcion at Oxford, I entertained the idea of the non-historicity of Jesus.  I was obligated to because Marcion also toyed with the idea–and rejected it.  His sole surviving gospel was his lonely concession to that reality, while his project—to give Paul’s theology pride of place over it—was dominant in his thought.  His followers like Apelles seem to have assumed the so-what attitude that can be traced back to Paul’s contempt for the hyperlian-apostoloi, the super-apostles, with their boast about knowing Jesus “after the flesh.”  “So what if we knew him that way,” Paul sneers, “since we know him that way no longer”(2 Cor. 5.16).

But Paul, writing in the fifties of the first century, says more in that irritated and offhanded comment than he does anywhere else in his letters about the historical Jesus: he tells us why, as a personal matter, he does not “preach” Jesus’ life story, but instead begins with the skandalon of his cross, a usage that means Paul knew at least one piece of information about Jesus, and also that preaching it came at a price among Jews and “Greeks.”

Unfortunately, a standard response to the “opponents” controversy between Paul and the Jerusalem church among the mythicists has been to ignore the controversy, or to deny the existence of the Jerusalem church, or (even) to deny the existence of Paul himself.[130] When Mark Twain felt the plot and character in a novel called Those Extraordinary Twins had become too cumbrous to drive the story forward he decided to drown the surplus in a “poison well.”   Loads of surplus information lay at the bottom of the mythicist well.[131]  Much of that material concerns our lengthening understanding of the world and context of Paul.

There is no reason at all to doubt the best attested schism in the earliest history of the church (if we discount the ones for which the evidence is less clear).  This schism was at least partly about the claim of “certain men from James” (Gal. 2.12) to be physically, perhaps familialy close to Jesus—while Paul “every bit as much an apostle as they are!”—grounds his message in a revelation of the risen Lord.  In the bitterest sections of 2 Corinthians, the New Testament’s most complex letter, one which seems to have had special relevance to Marcion judging from Tertullian’s long-winded handling of it in the Adversus Marcionem—we have some insight into the first corporate management crisis in the Christian religion.  Unsurprisingly it is a war between executives appointed by the founder and an upstart “idea man” who came on board after the founder’s death.  Even “Luke’s” conciliatory prose in the Acts of Apostles, written more than fifty years later, doesn’t succeed in erasing the damage created by the schism.  Yet the crisis itself points indubitably past the legend of the twelve to the historicity of Jesus, his disciples, and James.[132]

What mattered in the early church, however, was the significance of Jesus’ unexpected death—its projected meaning as the mysterious conquest of evil, and its consequences, by the powers of God’s grace—not the basic humanity of the sermon on the mount or the (unoriginal) piety of the Lord’s Prayer, or the choosing of preachers to carry on the cause. It was that significance variously construed that created the apostolic community, drove Paul’s missionary work, and the hostility towards it, inspired Marcion’s gospel of love, and Irenaeus’ defense of living tradition.  Or rather–what mattered more was the significance of his death, since there is no evidence that interest in the mundane and the super-mundane aspects of the life of Jesus did not arise at around the same time and in some sense as competitive motifs.

For all his speculativeness and infatuation with Paul’s theology as he knew it, Marcion was also something of a literalist, and very probably an Anatolian Jew, where Christianity developed early inroads and was fully fledged by the time of Pliny’s  governorship in 110-13—a period when Marcion would have been active as a teacher.  A core part of his teaching is that there is a greater and a lesser God, Jesus being the embodiment of the love and goodness of the higher, previously unknown power.  But the evolving church could not even accept this much.  It risked a kind of theological incoherence (which it seems to me remains long after Chalcedon) in insisting on the total humanity and divinity of Jesus rolled into one.

Further, Marcion detected no literary artifice in the gospel he possessed: he held that the followers of Jesus were poor pupils and finally false witnesses to his teaching.  He does not base this finding on a literary “motif” in the gospels (where at least in Luke the apostles are already caught up in a process of rehabilitation)[133] but on a skepticism towards the trustworthiness of the apostles that comes from Paul himself.  Was Paul its source, or simply a recipient of the “false apostle” theme? What were Paul’s criteria for his sneering dismissal of the pretense of superior apostles? Is a formerly historical, celestial Jesus, once known physically, who can continue to impart revelation and appoint apostles after his death more relevant for Paul’s odd message not more useful than an historical Jesus who appointed them all during his lifetime?  Or can we be myth theorists about it and say the entire conflict is manufactured by story tellers?


A Conclusion among Others

What I have just recited is a lesson plan for why I believe no serious and responsible scholar who makes a thorough study of the discussions of the early church would argue that Jesus never existed.

The gospels alone, even when the unusual circumstances of their composition and their interdependence and differences are taken into account, do not prove him.  But the complex of material that survives and tells us the story of Christian beginnings points to conclusion that Jesus existed, when and where the gospels say he did.  The core elements, many of the details, and especially the conflicts and controversies that form the stage for the life of Jesus, are still irreducibly clear.  They are not the work of a mastermind, or a master-forger, or a duplicitous tale-spinner.  They are the work of serious if culturally limited writers who are trying to do their best with collected traditions existing in a variety of what later scholarship would call “forms.” Whether Jesus gave the sermon on the mount in a field or on a hilltop, all at once or in bundles, does not negate the tradition that he gave it at all.  Too much has been claimed for the heuristic value of suspicion in probing a naïve literary tradition, not enough attention to the persistence of a consistent frame and the historical coherence of its central character.  In their own way, and at a time when Jesus might simply have been gobbled up by a dozen analogous myths and rituals, the gospel writers and their interpreters, the church fathers, insist on this frame.

As I remarked in the Sources of the Jesus Tradition, God- denying and Jesus-denying are different tasks.  I do not think the evidence of history is dispositive in deciding the existence of God in the most general sense of that term and apart from its cultural expressions. I think the Bible, both testaments, and all other sacred literature, is collectively unhelpful in settling the question.

But I think the basic factuality of Jesus is undeniable unless we (a) do not understand the complexity of the literature and its context, or impose false assumptions and poor methods on it; (b) are heavily influenced by conspiracy theories that–to use a Humean principle—are even more incredible than the story they are trying to debunk; or (c) are trying merely to be outrageous.  To  repeat Morton Smith’s verdict on Wells, the idea that Jesus never existed requires the concoction of a myth more incredible than anything to be found in the Bible.[134]

The use of any single “theorem” to deal with the values discussed here beggars the credible.  Yet there are self-appointed experts in this camp who lead equally gullible and unwary amateurs down a path of pseudo-mathematical probability based on the absurd notion that the gospels can be approached using  true or false modalities, without reference to the recipients who neither accepted nor understood the preaching about Jesus in modal terms. It invites the opposite of careful research because it relies on an anachronistic and “legal” approach to the gospels as a collection of truth claims that can be answered yes or no.  But that is not what the textual tradition gives us to decide.   The “Jesus Tradition” is so-called because it is less than a history of events as we’d want to know them.  Between Jesus and us, the community intervenes, not once but pervasively.  It is their voice we hear, not the voice of Jesus. That fact does not entail the conclusion that therefore Jesus had no voice, anymore than repeating a story your grandmother told you entails that you made it up and had no grandmother.

When the Ann Arbor conference Jesus in History and Myth convened twenty seven years ago, the then best-known advocate of the Jesus-Myth theory, George A. Wells, was aboard for the deliberations. I was then a fledgling assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

In my own presentation, “Other Gospels, Heretical Christs,” I commented on the possibility that we need to change our view of the gospels from corroborative to corrective, a fairly unexciting conclusion, I thought, considering what we know today about their interconnections. That is, we cannot use the synoptic writings as mutually corroborative testimony to a single event, as they were regarded once upon a time, in Tatian’s day. But we can regard them as serving independent corrective functions in relation to the traditions they incorporate and each other, a fairly common device among classical historians as well.  “What are they correcting?” Wells shot at me when I finished, “since there is no indisputable historical detail to serve as a standard.” At this, the late Morton Smith, who ‘required’ a historical Jesus to serve as the hero of his magician theory, said “Well, they might have flown off in all directions. They didn’t.  Their resemblance is pretty strong evidence that they were trying to preserve something and I believe it is historical memory.”

“And while we’re at it,” Smith went on, “what is an indisputable historical detail?”

And this brings me back to the starting point.  They preserve something, and I believe it is historical memory as well.  They might have gone off in all directions. The apocryphal Jesus story does just this, with tales of ascents into heaven, a divine brat who slays his playmates, and a revealer who descends to hell and puts demons in irons.[135] That is pure legend.  It “flies off in all directions.”  The Gnostic gospels do it too.  But the canonical gospels do not.  If a contrived mythology is the sufficient explanation of these literary artifacts, it is the job of the myth theorists to explain why they are such poor examples of the mythic tradition—not why they tell the tale of a man who ascends triumphantly into heaven, in some late accounts, like Romulus in the famous apotheosis of Livy–but why they begin with someone who bothered to touch the ground at all.

In short, the gospels stand as the best refutation of the myth theory of their origins.  So indirectly do the theological defenses of the reality and humanity of Jesus.  So finally does Paul’s self-confessed rejection of the historical Jesus in the context of his fight with “those who were apostles beforehand.” They are in essence and substance a refutation of a particularly seductive soteriology, the tale of a divine being sent from above to an elect few to whisper the gnosis of salvation.

We cannot say how successfully they domesticate this myth to the historical reality of one man’s life, death and limited teaching.  Gnosticism is our surest evidence of how it might have been if the historical contours had been sacrificed to a theory of salvation, and the gospel of John evidences an intermediate stage—a halfway compromise so to speak—between reality and myth. We know what a gospel is, in other words, because we know quite clearly today what failed gospels look like in the form of a prevenient mythology of redemption populated by abstract time-travelling revealers.  Yet the preoccupation of the gospels is not cosmic, it is worldly and the teaching of Jesus ranging from advice on divorce to his adumbrations of his impending death—which I take to be commonsensical and plausible rather than prophetic—are the normal concerns of a man whose time is running out.


[1] Perhaps one of the best examples of bead stringing and analogue-accumulation in lieu of argument is the work of Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? (Three Rivers Press, 2001), which takes its view of gnosticism (not a Hellenistic mystery as such) almost entirely from Elaine Pagels’s book on the topic, and is deficient in understanding the form, context, and workings of the Hellenistic mysteries in general.

[2] Morton Smith, “The Historical Jesus,” in R. Joseph Hoffmann, and Gerald Larue, eds., Jesus in History and Myth (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1986), pp. 47-8.

[3] The important studies, without prejudice to their quality and date are: S. J. Case, The Historicity of Jesus (Chicago, 1912), reflecting the state of the question at a relatively early date; F. C. Conybeare, The Historical Christ (London, 1914), a rational defense of the historical Jesus by a leading Oxford Orientalist; Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History (London 1928; rpt. Amherst, 2008), a clear refutation of the position by one of the leading French exegetes of his era; R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (London, 1986), a respectful but uneven indictment of the mythicism of G.A. Wells; and Morton Smith, “The Historical Jesus,” in Jesus in History and Myth, ed. R.J. Hoffman and G.A Larue (Amherst, 1986), who concluded that the myth theory is “almost entirely an argument from silence,” pp. 47-48)

[4] Issues variously summarized in Charles Horton, ed., Earliest Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels (Library Of New Testament Studies), (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004).  A useful general survey is G.B. Caird, “The Chronology of the New Testament,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1. pp.  599-60; Dennis Eric Nineham, Historicity and Chronology in the New Testament. Theological Collections, No. 6. (London: S.P.C.K, 1965); A.J.M. Wedderburn, “Paul’s Collection: Chronology and History,” New Testament Studies 48.1 (2002): 95-110; and Colin J. Hemer, “Observations on Pauline Chronology,” Donald A Hagner & Murray J Harris, eds., Pauline Studies: Essays Presented to F.F. Bruce (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1980),  pp.3-18.

[5]Helmut Koester, The Synoptic Tradition in the Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (Synoptschen Überlieferung bei den apostolischen Vätern (diss. Marburg, 1953); rpt. Texte und Untersuchungen, 65 (Berlin, 1957). Koester’s view is that there was a free oral tradition paralleling the synoptics until around 150CE.  Only 2 Clement and Didache 1.3-2.1 form an exception.  Koester’s argument pivots on the idea that orthodoxy and heresy “are not distinct categories before the time of Irenaeus,”  though much pivots on the definition of “category” in his assessment. See  also T.C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency: Variability and Stability in the Oral Tradition and in Q, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2 (2005).

[6] While there are questions concerning the date of the Ignatian correspondence, these have often been pursued most vigorously in the history of scholarship by evangelical and “non-episcopal” theologians who have taken exception to this relatively early endorsement of the authority of bishops. Andreas Lindemann noted, for instance, that Lechner takes for granted the notion that the Ignatian Epistles were a late second century forgery by someone using the antithetical confessions of Noetus of Smyrna. The matter is admirably sorted out in “Paul’s Influence on Clement and Ignatius,” in Trajectories through the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, ed. Andrew Gregory and Chris Tuckett (Oxford, 2007). An excellent summary of the connections between the controversies that link the earliest Antiochene church and that of Ignatius is Raymond Brown and John P. Meier, Antioch and Rome (Paulist, 1983). Following Lindemann’s statement of the difficulty of dating the correspondence, John-Paul Lotz has provided an interesting study of the controversy surrounding the how the concept of homonoia (concord) was understood in the churches of the second century; see his Ignatius and Concord (Vienna and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007).

[7] On Marcion, see generally A. von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. by John Steely (Wipf and Stock rpt. edition, 2007); and R. J. Hoffmann, Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity. An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century (American Academy of Religion/Scholars, 1984), p. 31 (on the biographical frame for Marcion’s activity),   and Joseph Tyson, Marcion and Luke Acts: A Defining Struggle (Columbia, SC: USC Press, 2006).

[8] Tert., Adv. Marc. 4.4.2: ‘Alioquin quam absurdum, ut, si nostrum antiquius probaverimus, Marcionis vero posterius, et nostrum ante videatur falsum quam habuerit de veritate materiam, et Marcionis ante credatur aemulationem a nostro expertum quam et editum.’ (‘Otherwise how preposterous it would be that when we have proved ours the older, and that Marcion’s has emerged later, ours should be taken to have been false before it had from the truth material <for falsehood to work on>, and Marcion’s be believed to have suffered hostility from ours before it was even published:’ [Evans trans.]) That is to say, Marcion directly made the claim that his gospel was the basis for later versions of the gospel. Cf. 4.4.1.

[9]Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem,  Latin with English trans. By Ernest Evans (Oxford: OECT,  1972), 1.1.

[10] The literature on “Q” is prolific; a popular general survey is Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (New York: Harper, 1994).  Mack’s thesis is speculative and on the fringe of New Testament scholarship. Also see:  David R. Catchpole, The Quest for Q. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993; Adelbert Denaux, “Criteria for identifying Q-passages : a critical review of recent work by T. Bergemann” Novum Testamentum 37 (1995), 105-29; and the still sober discussion of Werner Kelber, The Oral and the Written gospel : The hermeneutics of speaking and writing in the synoptic tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. (Indiana, 1997); John S.Kloppenborg, Excavating Q : the history and setting of the sayings gospel (Fortress, 2000).  Standard skeptical discussions are Austin Farrer, “On dispensing with Q,” Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955), pp. 55-88 (never superseded); Michael Goulder, “Is Q a Juggernaut?” Journal of Biblical Literature 115 (1996), pp. 667-81; and Mark Goodacre, The Case against Q (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2002).

[11] Cf. Hoffmann, Marcion (1984), xi.

[12] For a discussion of my argument concerning Laodiceans-Ephesians/Colossians within the broader context of the Pauline canon, see Stanley Porter, The Pauline Canon (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 132-134. Further, Hoffmann, Marcion, pp. 252-279.

[13] David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford, 2000); see also his Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the origins (Quiet Waters, 2001).  A credulous reconstruction of canonical  origins that greatly underestimates the influence of Marcion is Harry Gamble’s The New Testament Canon, Its Making and Meaning (Wipf and Stock, 2002).

[14] On the “heresy” behind the Pastoral letters see Hoffmann, Marcion (1984), pp. 281-305; and Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke Acts: A Defining Struggle, pp. 26-45. Among older works, Martin Dibelius, The Pastoral Epistles: Hermeneia (Augsburg, 1989) and more recently, Paul Hartog, Polycarp and the New Testament:  The Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and Its Allusions to New Testament Literature (Mohr, 2001). The study by Kenneth Berding,  Polycarp and Paul (Brill, 2002) suggesting that allusions in Polycarp to the Pastorals can be used to prove their early date is not persuasive.  The general conclusions of von Campenhausen (1963) and Harrison (1921) especially on linguistic evidence and hapax legomena in the epistles have not been persuasively challenged.

[15] See the still most reliable survey, Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), and Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (Princeton, 2010).

[16] See Bauer’s concise epitome of Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei in G. Strecker, ed., Aufsätze und Kleine Schriften (Tübingen, 1967), pp 229-33.

[17]The cult of the healer-god Asklepios is often referred to as analogous. Most descriptions date from the second century of the common era and beyond and are associated with precinct healings by animated statues.  See Callistratus, Descriptions 10 (trans. Fairbanks) as well as Plato, Phaedo 118a; Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 21. ; 2. 26. 1; Aelian, On Animals 7.13;  Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 3,4; etc.  Aside from its distinction from the cults,  there is the obvious fact that Christianity’s historical interest is as much a reflection of its Jewish and biblical beginnings as of its Hellenistic missionary environment. See Martin Hengel,  Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (Wipf and Stock, 2003): “It is not possible to say that Judaism maintained a straight course through the Hellenistic period…Still less can it be claimed that it was completely permeated by the Hellenistic spirit” (p. 310).

[18] Perhaps the most ambitious if also the most unsuccessful attempt to argue influence by accumulation is the work of Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle (self published by Age of Reason Publications, 2005). An older example of the genre is German controversialist Arthur Drews almost manically disorientated  The Christ Myth (Die Christusmyth, 1909; ET 1910), which argued a kind of proto-Nazi paganism based on the theory that the totality of the story of Jesus was drawn from Jewish and Hellenistic cults of the period (see especially pp., 310-315).  Drews is significant largely because he created the flashpoints to which many mythicists return again and again, and his conviction that the Christ myth was not an innocent process but a conspiracy perpetrated in the interest of finding support for their beliefs: “As early as the first few centuries of the present era pious Christians searched the Jewish and pagan writers for references to Jesus, convinced that such references ought to be found in them ; they regarded with great concern the undeniable defects of tradition, and, in the interest of their faith, endeavoured to supply the want by more or less astute ‘pious frauds,’ such as the Acts of Pilate, the letter of Jesus to King Abgar Ukkama of Edessa, 1 the letter of Pilate to Tiberius, and similar forgeries.” (Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus  [1912], p. 1, McCabe translation).  Without any attempt to discuss the criteria for establishing the spuriousness of these sources, he goes on to indict the gospels for perpetrating a fraud.

[19] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3.4; ET by Alexander Roberts (reprint edition, CreateSpace, 2012)

[20]This basic function is often overlooked; for example, the Pastor’s advice that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for reproof, correction and training in righteousness” (πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ (2 Tim. 3.16) suggests a provenance for the letter within a specific heresiological context that did not exist in Paul’s day. On the Pastorals and Marcion, see Hoffmann, Marcion, pp. 231-305.

[21] C.N. Mount, Pauline Christianity: Luke-Acts and the Legacy of Paul (Supplements to Novum Testamentum: Brill, 20001) , esp.  p, 23: “The obscurity from which Irenaeus rescued the text of Acts reflects the relative unimportance of Acts in the life of early Christian communities, and prevents ant firm conclusions about precursors to Irenaeus’s use of Acts for scholarly debate about the canon.”

[22] According to Williams, Marcion is accused on numerous occasions of omitting material from Luke’s gospel which does not appear in Luke at all; the most notable example is the accusation that he omits Matthew 5.17, which he charges three times over. Additionally, Marcion’s gospel underwent revision after the death of Marcion himself, though proposed ways of deciding the degree of change have not been persuasive.  See Tyson, Defining Struggle, pp. 42-44.

[23] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer, 3.2.1: “But when we refute these people [the heretics] out of the Scriptures, they turn and accuse the very Scriptures, on the ground that they are mistaken or not authoritative or not consistent in their narrative, and they say that the truth cannot be learned from them by persons who do not know the tradition, and that that was not transmitted in writing but by word of mouth.”

[24] See Hoffmann, “The Canonical Historical Jesus,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011), pp, 257-265.

[25] A good general study of Irenaeus is Denis Minss, Irenaeus (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994).  There is no outstanding scholarly treatment of Irenaeus’ life and thought. See also Eric Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyon (Cambridge, 2005), p. 180:  As Osborne mildly understates the case, “If Marcion first propounded a canon of scripture, then Irenaeus’ canon could be seen as a catholic response.”

[26] Ecclesiastical   Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries by Freiherr von Hans Campenhausen [Hans von Campenhausen] (1969), p. 170, regarding Adv.Haer, 3.2.1); D B Reynders, Paradosis, l’idée de tradition jusqu’a saint Irenée, RTA, 5 (1933), 155-191

[27] Especially Irenaeus’ arguments in Adv. Haer. 3.4.

[28] R. J. Hoffmann, “The Canonical Historical Jesus,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition (2011), pp. 157-165.

[29] Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene (1926), p. 109.  Ultimately the discussion is deadlocked between camps representing one of two views: one that claims Paul’s silence is ignorance and should therefore be construed as not knowing historical “information,” a view that Dunn describes, on the basis of what we know about the sociology if new religious movements, as highly implausible; and another view that sees Paul as essentially an interpreter and not a preserver and reciter of data.  As the first clear instance of the controversial context through which the Jesus tradition came into existence and was moderated, it is clear that Paul’s position cannot be interpreted as mere ignorance, and unlikely that it stems from the feeling that the history of Jesus is irrelevant.

[30] T. Livi, Ab Urbe Condita, Liber I. 1-11; Latin ed., M. Alford (Macmillan, 1941).

[31]See David L. Dungan, Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2007) and John Clabeaux’s review of Hoffmann, Marcion, Journal of Biblical Literature ( Vol. 105, No. 2, Jun., 1986), 343-346.  In fact I do not believe that Marcion’s gospel was UrLukas as that designation is conventionally understood, but a prototype existing within Marcion’s community, compiled by Marcion himself.  The association with Luke, arguably based on his fictional devotion to Paul (Col 4.1.4; 2 Tim. 4.1-11) gives us some hint of the process through which the third gospel was domesticated. Millar Burrows’s serviceable discussion of “Special Luke” (9.51-18.14) is still useful for the general description of the material: Jesus in the First Three Gospels (Nashville, 1977).  The provenance of this tradition is still a matter for speculation.  As a thematic concern, it has often been noted that the special section contains a number of stories emphasizing Jesus’ concern for women and the poor.  It is interesting circumstantially that Marcion’s gospel is attacked for emphasizing the benevolence of the “alien” God and the high status of women within the Marcionite churches. On the question of Marcion abbreviating Luke, see the discussion by Andrew Gregory, The Reception of Luke-Acts in the Period before Irenaeus (Tuebingen, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2, 2003), which suffers unfortunately from reliance on the hypothesis of Han Drijvers and Gerhard May.

[32]Livy, 1.4.

[33] (Aug. 95); see the discussion in Paul Burke, “Augustus and Christianity in Myth and Legend, “ New England Classical Journal, 32.3 (2005), 213-220.

[34] Celsus, On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, trans. R. Joseph Hoffmann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 116, quoted in E. Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and Dan Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel Publications, 2006), 313.

[35] On the last of these, see  Hugh J. Schonfield, According to the Hebrews (London: Duckworth, 1937); the Toledoth text (primarily from the Stassburg  MS) is on pages 35-61 and the still valuable discussion of Joseph Klausner Jesus of Nazareth: His life, times, and teaching (orig. 1922, Engl. transl. 1925, London, George Allen & Unwin) page 51; 1705 Hebrew version at;  a superb recent discussion is David Biale, “Counter-History and Jewish Polemics Against Christianity: The Sefer toldot yeshu and the Sefer zerubavel,” Jewish Social Studies 6.1 (1999) 130-145 (evaluated from the standpoint of Amos Funkenstein’s concept of the purposes of counter-history.) Some of the Jewish sources are summarized in R. J. Hoffmann, Jesus Outside the Gospels (Amherst, 1987; 1991), pp. 36-53.

[36] This was essentially Goguel’s argument against the myth theorists of his day.  On the absence of pagan and Jewish skepticism towards the historicity: “The importance of this fact is considerable, for it was on the morrow of His birth that Christianity was confronted with Jewish opposition. How is it possible to suppose that the first antagonists of the Church could have been ignorant of the fact that the entire story of Jesus, His teaching, and His death corresponded to no reality at all? That it might have been ignored in the Diaspora may be admitted, but it appears impossible at Jerusalem; and if such a thing had been known, how did the opponents of Christianity come to neglect the use of so terrible an argument, or how, supposing they made use of it, does it happen that the Christians succeeded in so completely refuting them that not a trace of the controversy has been preserved by the disputants of the second century?” (Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History, London, 1926, p 72).

[37] See the discussion of these tendencies in the essays edited by James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress; Wipf and Stock, 2006), and my own discussion of the question in “Other Gospels, Heretical Christs,” in Jesus in History and Myth, ed. Hoffmann and Gerald Larue (1986), pp. 143-155.

[38] The conversation since Ernst Käsemann first suggested eschatology as a problematical and defining issue has been largely centered on outcomes and inferences drawn from ideal situations, using Paul’s authentic letters and the synoptics as benchmarks in apocalyptic fervor.  See New Testament Questions of Today (London: SCM, 1974) and Perspectives on Paul ( London, SCM, 1969).   Several useful appraisals of the outflow of apocalyptic thought, which is especially relevant to the development of the canon, are found in Robert Daly’s edited volume, Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History; Baker, 2009); and Bengt Holmberg, Paul and Power: The Structure of Authority in the Primitive Church as Reflected in the Pauline Epistles (1978).

[39] The question of how social memory was structured is a matter of heated debate and is interestingly summarized in R. Rodriguez’s revised Sheffield doctoral dissertation: Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance and Text (Library of New Testament Studies; London: T&T Clark, 2010).  The study contends that oral performances installed the Jesus tradition in early Christian collective memory and “became vital parts of the traditional milieus in which Jesus’ earliest followers lived, and that Jesus in early Christian memory provides the thread of continuity that binds oral performances to each other and to the written Gospels.”

[40] Cornelius Nepos, Hannibal 12.5; Juvenal, Satires X.164

[41]Plutarch, Alexander, 3.2.

[42] Livy, 1.16; more elaborately, Plutarch, Numa, 2; Ovid, Fasti 2. 475-532.

[43] Paul Veyne, Les grecs ont-ils cru a leur mythes? (1983) trans. By Paul Wissing as Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).  Veyne’s conclusion is that the ancients regarded the myths as belonging to a different time scale and did not expect “historicity” from them—a concept he finds alien to the conceptual world they inhabited.  As the demarcation between “pagans” and “Christians” and to a certain extent “Jews” is highly artificial with respect to their historical predilections in the first and second century it is notable that early Christian literature appeals to the immediacy of the Christian experience and not to a historically uncertain long ago or “in the beginning”—with the deservedly famous exception of John 1-1-2.

[44] And even after:  Howard Zinn has pointed to the use of Columbus’ 1493 description of “Hispanolia” (the Bahamas) as a tissue of lies confected to convince the Spanish court to equip a second voyage. See A People’s History of the United States (Harper, 1980), p. 2, compared to the severe account (ca. 1515) of the treatment of the Indians by Columbus in Las Casas’s History of the Indies.

[45] The most energetic accumulator of “parallels” was the freethinker John M. Robertson (1856-1933) whose Christianity and Mythology (1900) was a model of indiscriminate piecework.  It was roundly rejected by F. C. Conybeare, who was a professor of theology, a member of the Oriental Institute at Oxford, and also a member of the Rationalist Press Association (The Historical Christ: or, An investigation of the views of Mr. J. M. Robertson, Dr. A. Drews, and Prof. W. B. Smith, 1914), accusing the mythologists of being “untrained explorers [who] discover on almost every page connections in their subject matter where there are and can be none, and as regularly miss connections where they do exist.” Conybeare’s final position was radically historical and akin to Schweitzer’s: “Thus the entire circle of ideas entertained by Christ and Paul are alien and strange to us to-day, and have lost all actuality and living interest. . . . Jesus Himself is seen to have lived and died for an illusion, which Paul and the apostles shared.” (Myth, Magic and Morals [1909], p. 357)

[46] Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? (Chicago, 1988), pp. 5-27.

[47] Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins, 1998), esp. pp, 3-36.  Schweitzer’s sober approach to both Jewish and pagan sources for Paul’s mysticism and the contemporary assessment of Bousset, Reitzenstein and Deissmann still sets the standard for a historical typology of Paul’s thought. Less convincing is Schweitzer’s discussion of the Gnostic turn in Paul’s thought, pp. 71-73.

[48] A useful summary of the myth argument concerning Paul is given in P. R. Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus (Baker, 2007), especially chapter 5; the book however suffers from a certain degree of methodological naivete and is best viewed as an apologetic response to the myth theory as an “attack” on traditional Christianity.

[49]Ephesians 2.1-12

[50]Three studies can be mentioned of the thousands that have been published: Alan Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (Yale, 1990)’; *John Ziesler, Pauline Christianity (1983; 1990\2 [1991]); and Jerome Murphy O’Connor Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford, 19966).  The opponent controversy was first extensively treated by Dieter Georgi, in 1964 and in The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians (Nashville, 1986).  The classic short study in English is C.K. Barrett, “Paul’s Opponents in 2 Corinthians,” NTS 17 (1971), 233-54; and cf. Stanley Porter, Paul and His Opponents (Leiden, 2009). Schweitzerm Nysticism, pp. 75-99.

[51]Discussed masterfully in James D.G. Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids/New York, 2006), pp. 60-67.  The defining study of Paul’s opponents remains The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians: A Study of Religious Propaganda in Late Antiquity (Studies in the New Testament & its World) (London: T&T Clark, 2000; original German, 1964.

[52] Dennis MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Westminster 1983).

[53] “The Epistles of Paul afford then precise testimony in support of the existence of the Gospel tradition before him. They presume a Jesus who lived, acted, taught, whose life was a model for believers, and who died on the cross. True it is that in Paul are only found fragmentary and sporadic indications concerning the life and teachings of Jesus, but this is explained on one hand by the fact that we possess no coherent and complete exposition of the apostle’s preaching, and on the other hand by the character of his interests. He had no special object in proving what no one in his time called in question—namely, that Jesus had existed. His unique aim was to prove (what the Jews refused to admit) that Jesus was the Christ.” (Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene, p, 109).  See the recent mythicist arguments of Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle (Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999) or for a typical version of the argument from silence.

[54] Ernest Kasemann, “Die AnfängechristlicherTheologie,” ZThK 57 (1960), pp. 162-85. Published in English in Journal for Theology and Church 6, Robert W. Funk, ed. (New York, 1969), pp. 17-46.

[55]I have argued this extensively in “The Reclamation of Paul: The Orthodox Critique of Marcion’s Paulinism,” in Marcion (1984), pp,  233-280 and “How Then Know This Troublous Teacher?” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.3 (Oxford: 1987-1988), 173-191. On the dating of Luke Acts:  I follow F. C. Baur’s placement of Acts and canonical Luke in the second century.  A solid and objective assessment is given in Tyson, “The Date of Acts” (2006, pp. 1-11).   The following stages of development seem clear:  The prototype of the text, already established, originating in Marcion’s circle as an anonymous composition ca. 100; (b) the intercalation of sayings- traditions (Q), independently of Matthew’s use of the same tradition; (c) a second century “Lukan” redaction, including the dedication, an infancy story, editorial additions (e.g., temple-finding) an expanded resurrection account, and ascension story carried over into a still later composition, the Acts.

[56] Thucydides’ disclaimer concerning the accuracy of the speech he attributed to others, such as Pericles, is apt: “In all cases it is difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions” (History of the Peloponnesian Wars, 1.22.1)

[57] John Fenton and E. A. Livingstone, Controversy in the New Testament.

Studia Biblica, 3 (1980) 97 – 110.

[58]On the divine man concept, see especially Aage Pilgaard, “The Hellenistic Theios aner: A Model for Early Christian Christology” in The New Testament and Hellenistic Judaism, ed. P. Borden (Aarhus, 1995), 101-112.

[59] The phrase “Jesus Christ” occurs only in the jesuine discourse at John 17.3 and at the conclusion of the prologue, John 1.17.

[60] Calvin J. Roetzel “Paul in the Second Century.” The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, ed. James D. G. Dunn (Cambridge University Press, 2003).Cambridge; less satisfactory, M. Bird and J. R. Dodson, eds., Paul and the Second Century (London: T& Clark, 2011).

[61] Van Ranke, Geschichte der romanischen und germanischenVölker von 1494 bis 1514 (History of the Roman and Germanic Peoples from 1494 to 1514, 1824) and Peter Gay  and Victor G. Wexler, eds. Historians at Work (1975) vol. 3, pp 27-29.

[62] Theodor Mommsen, A History of Rome (London: Routledge, 1996)

[63] Ranke, “Preface: Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494-1514“, in Stern, The Varieties of History (New York: Vintage, 1973), p.57

[64] John S Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections (Trinity Press, 2000), pp. 3-5.  This is not Koppenborg’s best performance but his assay of the reticence of New Testament scholars to take on the task of genre criticism is brief and precise.

[65] Charles Talbert, What is a Gospel?  (Atlanta, 1984), provides a general survey of speculation concerning the genre of the gospels; see especially “Compositional Procedure and Attitude in Ancient Biographies,” pp, 124-8.

[66]The Christological discussions within Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor (1969; rept, Wipf and Stock, 2003) are still instructive.  See also Gerald Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus (Oxford, 2009)

[67] The Messianic secret as describe by Wrede and his successors explains only a fraction of the ambiguity generated by Mark’s technique; the idea that it was a theologico-literary device was based largely on an examination of references within the gospel.  See also A. Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2001 [rpt. Of 1900 ET])  The Marcionite tradition on the other hand, perhaps driven by Marcion’s adulation of Paul and his conflict with the “twelve,” regarded the apostles as fundamentally ignorant, and explained the injunctions to silence as corrections of a “false witness.”Discussion in Hoffmann, Marcion (1984), pp. 75-83.

[68] The plummeting fortunes of the “messianic secret” since Wrede (1901) as an explanation for the secrecy  motif in Mark and the synoptics is reviewed by James L. Blevins, The Messianic Secret in Markan Research, 1901–1976. Washington, D. C.: University Press of America, 1981.  There is however nothing to be said for the idea that the theme is cognate to the secrets in the mystery cults since the central mimetic action of the gospels, the Lord’s last supper, is regarded as corporate, public and repeatable and no correlation exists or is asserted between the teaching of Jesus and this ritual act.  Moreover, the parables are formally pedagogical not esoteric: their meaning is only “hidden” from the blind (unrepentant, unbelievers) who are equated with the wise of the world.

[69] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, John Bowden, trans. (London: SCM, 1994). An interesting conservative position is outlined by N. T. Wright, using Bultmann’s view that crucifixion and resurrection were not understood separately in the early community; see “The Resurrection of Jesus as an Historical Problem,” Sewanee Theological Review 41.2, 1998.

[70] A favorite debating topic in free-thought circles, a typical view is set down in a lecture transcript by Richard Carrier at, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” retrieved 5 May 2012.

[71] An interesting attempt, though finally unsuccessful, to examine the resurrection against the presuppositions of modern critical historiography is Richard R. Niebuhr’s The Resurrection and Historical Reason (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957).  The penchant of some mythicizers to re-litigate the resurrection narratives is one of the most trying parts of their agenda. Both biblical scholarship and academic theology has long come to terms with the legendary components of the resurrection tradition; see especially Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, ii,: History and Literature of Early Christianity (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000) p. 64-65 and James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). Besides these careful studies there are a number of attempts to discredit the accounts in the form of counter apologetics: see especially Robert Price, The Empty Tomb (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005).

[72] The suggestion dates from the dispute between D. F. Strauss’s idea that the gospels were composed by the “half conscious mythic tendencies” of naïve religious writers to Bruno Bauer’s more radical view in Christus und die Cäsaren (1877) that “communities do not write literature”; hence Bauer eventually came to believe that the first gospel writer, Mark, invented Jesus as a complete fiction.  See on the evolution of his ideas, D. Moggach, The Philosophy and Politics of Bruno Bauer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[73] R. Joseph Hoffmann, “William Henry Furness and the Transcendentalist Defense of the Gospels,”  New England Quarterly, 56 (1983), 238-6

[74]Mircea Eliade, on the phenomenological side explores this level of meaning in Myth and Reality (Waveland, 1998); in anthropology, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth by Walter Burkert and Peter Bing (1986); and in cultural studies, René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford, 1987).

[75]Maurice Wiles, The Spiritual Gospel: The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel in the Early Church (Cambridge, 2006).

[76] Clement of Alexandria (ca. 215-6): “the tradition of the old presbyters”, that the Apostle John, the last of the Evangelists, “filled with the Holy Ghost, had written a spiritual Gospel” (Eusebius, HE 6.14.7)

[77]Kyle Keefer, Branches of the Gospel of John: The Reception of the Fourth Gospel in the Early Church (Library Of New Testament Studies: Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2009), drawing largely from Hans Robert Jauss’s theory of Rezeptionsaesthetik.

[78] As Henry Wansbrough says: “Gone are the days when it was scholarly orthodoxy to maintain that John was the least reliable of the gospels historically.” The Four Gospels in Synopsis, The Oxford Bible Commentary, pp. 1012-1013, Oxford University Press 2001; and see Douglas Estes, The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John, BIS 92 (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

[79]Harnack regarded this mutation, which he saw as the genesis of dogma, as the “acute Hellenization of Christianity,” (History of Dogma, vol. 1, trans. Neil Buchanan [Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1902], 48ff.) an opinion that while imperfect as stated expressed the vulnerability of history to increasingly esoteric formulations of the significance and identity of Jesus.  Karen King’s discussion of the morphology of Gnosticism is also relevant: “Adolph von Harnack and the Acute Hellenization of Christianity,” in What is Gnosticism? (Harvard, 2005), esp. 55-109.

[80] An example of the usage is Paula Frederiksen’s From Jesus to Christ (Yale, 2000); the model has been taken over almost uncritically from New Testament theology (Martin Kähler, 1900) and the attempt to separate the “Christ of faith” from the “Jesus of history,” is a separation not dictated by the sources but by a theological program arising from critical scholarship.  The fundamental flaw is the notion of a linear progression from data to corruption of data.  In fact, the traditions from the start were preserved within specific controversial and interpretative contexts reflecting struggles with communities, regional perspectives, ethical and practical conflicts (e.g., marriage and divorce) and social identity.  If Gnosticism was the greatest conceptual threat to historical tradition, it does not follow that historical tradition was unmarked by other challenges.

[81]Edward Adams and D.G. Horell,  Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church (Westminster, 2004) brings together some of the scholarship of the last fifty years; C. K. Barrett’s 1964 study, Christianity at Corinth, is still useful; and on social demarcations, Gerd Theissen’s pioneering studies gathered in The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Wipf and Stock, 2004), edited by John Schütz,  is indispensable.

[82] “Hymn of the Pearl,” from the Acts of Thomas in Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., translation by R. McL. Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha : Writings Relating to the Apostles, Apocalypses and Related Subjects (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), pp. 322-411. Trans. by R. J Hoffmann, The Secret Gospels: A Harmony of the Apocryphal Jesus Traditions (Amherst, 1996), pp, 191-194.

[83] The Anatolian matrix has not received the attention it deserves; it is surveyed in Marcion, pp, 1-28. Not only Paul comes from the region, but Marcion, Polycarp and Irenaeus (from Polycarp’s hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, (now İzmir, Turkey) where a variety of non-gnostic dualistic cults thrived.

[84]1 Cor. 15.50: Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ.

[85]A credible recent survey is the study by John Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (SPNT; Columbia, SC: Univ. of South Carolina, 2004), especially as it concerns his critique of Robert Eisenman’s ingenious but unconvincing identification of James with the Qumran teacher of Righteousness. Puzzlingly, Hegesippus (d. 180?) Comm. 5.1, “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem.” I consider the “James” and “Mary” traditions instances of doublets that were unsatisfactorily resolved by the compilers, both between the gospels and between the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts. (On the multiple-Mary problem, especially see Jesus outside the Gospels, pp. 41-50).  It seems clear that apologetic tendencies govern this confusion.  The external evidence is unhelpful and unreliable, causing the difficulty of determining which James is in view, as well as the possibility of pseudonymity and redactional stages, rendering any discussion of the name untidy: James the (obscure) father of Judas (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13); James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; 15:40 [here called James the Younger]; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13); James the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Matt. 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; Mark 1:19, 29; 3:17; 10:35; 13:3; Luke 9:28; Acts 1:13; 12:2); James the Lord’s brother (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19; called [?] simply James in Acts: 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; and in 1 Cor. 15:7), mentioned only twice by name in the Gospels (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3).  Hegessipus’ conclusions however must be read back into the tradition to secure the identity of James as head of the Jerusalem church as Luke asserts. See also my online comments on the topic, “Faccidents: Bad Assumptions and the Jesus Tomb Debacle,” Butterflies and Wheels 7 March 2007, at retrieved 7 May 2012.  Since 2007 I have come to see Galatians 1, 18-20 as more problematical.  While clearly reflecting a key element in the opponents tradition, it seems that 1.16 is in apposition to 1.18-19 as a list of the hyperlian apostoloi, though Paul does not use the language of 2 Corinthians 11.15//12.11; using instead phrases that imply historical priority (πρὸς τοὺς πρὸ ἐμοῦ ἀποστόλους); for that reason, it is entirely possible that the phrase  ton adelphos tou kyriou applied to James in Galatians 1.19 is meant to suggest biological relationship and as a term to distinguish James from the dishonesty (Gal 211-13) of Cephas. Rhetorically, in this section, Paul uses himself and Barnabas as a paradigm of faithful preaching of a gospel to the detriment of Peter, James and John (Gal 2.9), who merely “seem to be pillars”: Ἰάκωβος καὶ Κηφᾶς καὶ Ἰωάννης, οἱ δοκοῦντες στῦλοι εἶναι δεξιὰς ἔδωκαν (i.e., of significance).  Accordingly, the possibility that Paul is asserting biological relationship between James and “the Lord”  in this passage between James and Jesus cannot be ruled out, since he is ridiculing the pretensions of the “reputed pillars,” not affecting to be inclusive.

[86] 1 Cor. 12.27;  cf. 1.2; Rom. 12.5.

 [87]Acts 1.13-14; Acts 12:17; Acts 15:13–21; Acts 21:17–18; cf Gal 1.18-20; 2.9-10, 12; 15-3-7; 1 Corinthians 9,5): Usually disjunctive as in 12.17, Ἀπαγγείλατε Ἰακώβῳ καὶ τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς ταῦτα. (“Tell these things to James, and to the brothers…”) and at 21.17, adelphoi is inapposite to presbyteroi as being believers of different rank.

[88] Arthur Drews, The Christ Myth, trans. C.D. Burns (London, 1910), pp. 172-174.

[89] Drews gives the source of his assessment the work of Dutch radical theologians, followed by Schlaeger in his “Das Wort kurios (Herr) in Seiner Bezeichnung auf Gott oder Jesus Christus,” Theol. Tijdschrift 33 (1899) 1.  According to Schlaeger, cited by Drews, however, all passages including this one “which speak of Jesus as Lord” are interpolated!

[90] Mk 3.31, Matt. 12.46;  Lk 8.19; Jn 2.12, 7.3, 5, 10

[91] One mythicist confidently says after missing this simple grammatical point that “Brothers in the Lord” (ton adelphon en kurio) appears in Philippians 1:14 (the NEB translates it ‘our fellow-Christians’). Surely this is the clue to the meaning of the phrase applied to James.”  Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle website (retrieved 10 May 2012)

[92] I do not believe that Paul’s “cosmic” view of salvation presupposes any specific knowledge of the birth or life of Jesus; however, it is unwarranted to deprive Paul of those passages where a historic tradition may be implied based on the prior assumption that he did not now any! Gal 4.4; 1 Cor. 11.23-26; 1 Thess. 4.15 etc. The agreed conclusion that Paul did not write everything attributed to him does not translate into the principle that everything attributed to Paul was written by someone else.

[93]Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 5.4; see Tyson, Marcion and Luke-Acts, p. 38.

[94] Cf. 2 Cor. 11-12; Considerable work has been done on the question by S. J. Porter,detailed in Identifying Paul’s Opponents, The Question of Method in 2 Corinthians (JSNT Supp, 40; Sheffield, 1990), 15-67 and Paul and His Opponents (Leiden: Brill, 2005).  See my “The Pauline Background of Marcion’s Reform,”  in Marcion (1984), esp. pp. 75-97.

[95] But see John 8:37-39; 44-47

[96] The legend of the ascension appears in the two Lukan compositions and as an addition to Mark (16.19).  It is formally a legendary accretion, an apotheosis.  It does not reflect a prevenient myth in the way, for example, that John’s prologue does.  See on the topic generally Arthur E. R. Boak, “The Theoretical Basis of the Deification of Rulers in Antiquity”, in Classical Journal, 11 ( 1916), pp. 293–297.    It is interesting that since earliest times the ascension has been formally less compelling even as a matter of devotion than the core legend, that of the resurrection, suggesting that belief in the former was neither as widespread nor as devotionally central to the communities, and may have been entirely lacking in many regions.  The church tradition of The “Golden Legend” linked the ascension, even in terms of chronology (forty days according to Luke) to resurrection as a “certification.”

[97] The relevance of the Jewish apocalypses for the study of the gospels, especially Mark 13 and Matthew 24, has been settled for over a century; the classic study remains F C Burkitt’s 1913 Schweich Lectures, Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (London: British Academy, 1913).

[98] On the historical background of the arraignment and trial, see Gary Greenburg, The Judas Brief: Who Really Killed Jesus (Continuum, 2007), pp. 168-179.

[99]Generally speaking, as anthropologists and students of religion came to take a more impartial view of the world, it was recognized that certain Christian stories shared many of the features of myth, and could be called myths as long as the idea that a myth was necessarily false was shed.  This is the point d’appui for Bultmann’s program of demythologizing. While a myth gives a religious explanation for “how things began” or “why they are as they are,” a legend is a story which may or may not be an elaborated version of an historical event, but is told as if it were a historical event, usually without allegorical or symbolic intent. See Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903; rpt. University of Toronto Press, 2011).

[100] Raymond Brown, for example: “Mark 5:1, 13 betrays confusion about the distance of Gerasa from the sea of Galilee Mark. 7:31 describes a journey from Tyre through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the Decapolis. In fact one goes SE from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee; Sidon is north of Tyre, and the description of the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the Decapolis is awkward. That a boat headed for Bethsaida (NE side of the Sea of Galilee) arrives at Gennesaret (NW side: 6:45,53) may also signal confusion. No one has been able to locate the Dalmanutha of 8:10, and it may be a corruption of Magdala,” Christ in the Gospels (Liturgical Press, 2008), p. 369)

[101] See Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation, (Psychology Press, 1995), commenting that the ancient historians not only made mistakes but “rather too many of them. … Individual elements of the tradition were conflated, modified and sometimes invented.” (p. 83).

Jonas Grethlein, Time and Narrative in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge [scheduled],2012), on the use of the plupast as an historical technique; A.H. Merrils,  History and Geography in Late Antiquity (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, 2005) on the use of classical description and authority;  E T Merrill, “On certain ancient errors in geographical orientations,” Classical Journal (1966), 88-101.

[102] The view that myth serves a religious purpose has been challenged by a number of scholars; the most pertinent orientation for exploration of the use of myth comes from writers such as Alan Dundes; see “Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect,” Western Folklore 56 (Winter, 1997), 39–50; for the concept as employed by phenomenologists and religionists, M. Eliade, Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader, ed. Wendell C. Beane and William G. Doty, vol. 2. (New York: Harper & Row, 1976) and Myth and Reality, trans. Willard R. Trask (NY: Harper & Row, 1968); also see G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley: Cambridge UP, 1973, which makes the contemporary case that the category of myth extends beyond religion and sacred story.

[103] See my introduction to The Secret Gospels (1996), pp. 4-28.  Harnack wrote in 1900, “Sixty years ago David Friederich Strauss thought that he had destroyed the historical credibility not only of the fourth gospel but of the first three as well.  The historical criticism of two generations has succeeded in restoring that credibility in its main outlines… What especially marks them off from all subsequent literature is the way in which they state their facts.  This species of literary art, which took shape partly by analogy with the didactic narratives of the Jews and partly from catechetical necessities—this simple and impressive form of exposition was even a few decades later no longer capable of exact reproduction….When all is said and done, the Greek language lies upon these writings like a diaphanous veil and it requires hardly any effort to retranslate their contents into Hebrew or Aramaic.  That the tradition here presented to us is in the main first hand is obvious.”  (What is Christianity? (Gloucester, MA:  Peter Smith, rpt. ed, of the original English translation by T.N. Saunders, 1957), pp 20-21.

[104]Michael Bird and Joseph Dodson, eds., Paul and the Second century (London: T&T Clark, 2011); on the usefulness of apocryphal compositions such as the Acts of Paul, see especially Andrew Gregory’s essay, pp. 169-188.  On the other hand, a disappointing contribution from Todd Still, “Shadow and Light, Marcion’s (Mis)construal of the Apostle Paul,” shows none of the historiographical sophistication needed to cope with the patristic evidence.

[105]In general the comments of James D.G. Dunn distinguishing pseudonymity as a literary tradition with closer resemblance to classical imitation than to forgery are useful: See The Living Word (Philadelphia, 2009), pp. 53-56.

[106] References to “Jewish myths” (Titus 1:14), “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim 1:4, see 4:7), “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20), the necessity of ascetic practices (1 Tim 4:3) and the denial of the resurrection (2 Tim 2:18) are interpreted in light of second-century Gnostic beliefs and as evidence of it.

[107] Polycarp, Phil. 7.1; cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3.4

[108] On the origin of heresy, see Irenaeus Adv. Haer. 2.14.1 and Tertullian, Praescrptio, 7; 29-31.

[109] “The mighty Word and true Man reasonably redeeming us by His blood, gave Himself a ransom for those who had been brought into bondage. And since the Apostasy unjustly ruled over us, and, whereas we belonged by nature to God Almighty, alienated us against nature and made us his own disciples, the Word of God, being mighty in all things, and failing not in His justice, dealt justly even with the Apostasy itself, buying back from it the things which were His own” (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.1.1)

[110] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston” Beacon, 2001), pp. 189-199.

[111]“The Gnostic Gospels According to Pagels,” America, 16 Feb. 1980, 123.)

[112]Part of the confusion was propagated because of the belief that Marcion’s liberal church policies, castigated by Tertullian, were “Gnostic in character and that these policies therefore were typical of the heretical communities in general; see my critique, “De Statu Feminarum: The Correlation Between Gnostic Theory and Social Practice,” Église et Théologie 14 (1983), 293-304; and ‘The “Eucharist” of Markus Magus: A Test-Case in Gnostic Social Theory,” Patristic and Byzantine Review 3 (1984) 82-88; Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (Vintage, 1989), pp, 2-18.  This popular introduction performed the useful service of alerting ordinary readers to the existence of the Gnostic sources from Nag Hammadi.  In retrospect, however, the claims made on behalf of the gospels were extreme, especially as regards the “probative” value of  Gnostic Thomas (GnTh) for “Q” See Maurice Casey, An Aramaic Approach to Q  (Cambridge, 2005), p. 33.  In her discussions, moreover, Pagels seemed to regard the nascent orthodoxy of Irenaeus as an episcopal prerogative exercised against beleaguered and misunderstood heretics, which is at best a liberal description of the conflict between aggressive mythicizers and defenders of historical tradition. See “One God One Bishop,” pp, 28-47. Also, H. Koester, and Thomas Lambdin (translators),  (1996). “The Gospel of Thomas” in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Revised ed.) (Leiden, New York, Cologne: E. J. Brill 1996), p. 125; Hoffmann, Jesus Outside the Gospels (New York: Prometheus, 1987), p, 86-88.

[113] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.11.1; 3.3.4

[114]It is notable that Eusebius, in spite of his desire to discredit Papias, still places him as early as the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117).  See W. Schoedel, Anchor-Yale Bible, vol, 5 (Doubleday-Anchor, 1992), 140-143.

[115]1 Tim. 1.4

[116] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library, 1991-2001,  volume 3 (2001). The studies of the social matrix of radical opposition to Roman rule and such topics as banditry and religious radicalism are numerous; see among others J. Massyngbaerde Ford, My Enemy Is My Guest: Jesus and Violence in Luke (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984); Walter Grundmann, “Kakos, akakos, kakia, … .” TDNT 3:469–487; E J Hobsbawm, Bandits (New York: Dell, 1969) and Primitive Rebels (New York: Norton, 1965); William Horbury, “Ancient Jewish Banditry and the Revolt Against Rome, AD 66–70,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981), 409–432 and “Bandits, Messiahs and Longshoremen: Popular Unrest in Galilee Around the Time of Jesus.” Social World of Formative Christianity and Judaism. Edited by J. Neusner. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1988, 50–68; “Christ as Brigand in Anti–Christian Polemic.” Jesus and the Politics of His Day, ed. by Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 183–196;“The Zealots: Their Origin, Relationships and Importance in the Jewish Revolt.” Novum Testamentum 28, no. 2 (1986): 159–192; William Horbury, and John S. Hanson,  Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (New York: Winston Press, 1985); Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[117] The difficulty of establishing an archaeological record for “Nazareth” has been noted since the time of Guignebert (Jesus, 1933/ET 1956, p. 76f.).

[118] Shawn Carruth,  James M. Robinson,“Q 4:1-13,16: The Temptations of Jesus : Nazara,”  ed. Chris Heil (Peeters Publishers, 1966),  p. 415.

[119] Y. Alexandre,  “Archaeological Excavations at Mary’s Well, Nazareth,” Israel Antiquities Authority bulletin, May 1, 2006

[120] The Archaeology of the New Testament, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1992: pages 44-46. Attempts of controversialists like Rene Salm to suggest that Nazareth was not an occupied location in the time of Jesus have now been persuasively discredited by recent excavations of Israeli archaeologists led by Yardena Alexandre.  The dwellings and older discoveries of nearby tombs in burial caves suggest that Nazareth was an out-of-the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres. See further, Ken Dark, “Review of The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus“, STRATA: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, vol. 26 (2008), pp. 140–146; cf. Stephen J. Pfann & Yehudah Rapuano, “On the Nazareth Village Farm Report: A Reply to Salm”, STRATA: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, vol. 26 (2008), pp. 105–112.

[121] Ναζαρηνε (“Nazarene”) and its variants are at Mk. 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Lk 4:34 and 24:19. Ναζωραιοc (“Nazoraean”) and its permutations are at Mt 2:23; 26:71; Lk 18:37; Jn 18:5, 7; 19:19; and six times in the Acts of the Apostles. “Q certainly contained reference to Nazara,” cited in J. M. Robinson et al, The Critical Edition of Q. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000), pp. 42-43; F. C. Burkitt, “The Syriac forms of New Testament names,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, (Oxford, 1911), p. 392.

[122] See Thedor Mommsen’s edition, Res gestae Divi Augusti ex monumentis Ancyrano et Apolloniensi. Berlin: Weidmann, 1865)

[123] W.K.C. Guthrie’s survey History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 74-77.  The scene is properly a foundation myth for Plato’s academic cult and functions in approximately the same way as  the crucifixion scenario in the gospels; see J.  Barret “Plato’s Apology: Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the World of Myth,” The Classical World, 95:1 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 3-30

[124] See my discussion in the reprint of K. Jaspers and R. Bultmann, Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry into the Possibility of Religion without Myth (Amherst, 2005), 9-22, which also provides a summary of major trajectories in the myth theory.

[125] A still fascinating look at the early twentieth century reaction to mythicism is Maurice Goguel’s essay, “Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ,” Harvard Theological Review, 19.2 (1926), 115-142.

[126] Carlo Ginzberg, History, Rhetoric, and Proof (The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures; Brandeis, 1999), pp. 54-71.

[127]The image is Harnack’s favourite:  What is Christianity?  (rpt of 1901 edition; Martino, 2011), pp. 12, 15, 55, 179, 217.

[128]See the discussion by W. Wildmann,  Boston University Collaborative Encyclopedia, “Alfred Losiy and Adolph von Harnack” retrieved 15 April 2012.

[129] Tertullian de carne Christi (Trans. Evans, Oxford, 1956), 9.39.

[130] Hermann Detering, The Falsified Paul, Early Christianity in the Twilight (Journal of Higher Criticism, 2003); and see J. Murphy O’Connor, Paul, A Critical Life (Clarendon, 1996).

[131] “Book Editing: Killing Characters With Mark Twain’s Deadly Well”(12 January 2102); retrieved 5 May 2012.

[132] I do not deal in this essay with the conundrum of multiple Jameses and the redactional gymnastics that have brought them into existence.  Dealing only with Paul’s letter to Galatia, it is my view that the James referred to in Galatians 1.18 and the brother referred to in Mark 6.3 represent the earliest strand in the literary tradition. The allusion in 1 Corinthians 15.7 (cf. 5) is a doublet, perhaps representing two different versions of the letter, or two different resurrection traditions, one associated with Peter and the twelve, the other attached to James and the apostles.

[133] See my extensive discussion in Marcion, 101-133,

[134] See note 2, above.

[135] See J. K Elliott, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (Oxford 2005) and introduction to The Secret Gospels, ed. R. J. Hoffmann (Amherst, 1996).



The Jesus Process: Maurice Casey

Mythicism: A Story of Bias, Incompetence and Falsehood

Copyright (c) 2012, Maurice Casey

One of the most remarkable features of public discussion of Jesus of Nazareth in the twenty-first century has been a massive upsurge in the view that this important historical figure did not even exist. This view, unknown in the ancient world, became respectable during the formative period of critical scholarship in the nineteenth century, when it was no longer possible for recent Christian opinions to be taken for granted among educated European scholars. Because of its scholarly presentation, with as much evidence and argument as could reasonably be expected at that time, this view was much discussed by other learned people. In the later twentieth century, competent New Testament scholars believed that it had been decisively refuted in a small number of readily available books, supported in scholarly research by commentaries and many occasional comments in scholarly books.[1]

The presentation of this view has changed radically in recent years, led by hopelessly unlearned people. It has two major features. One is rebellion against traditional Christianity, especially in the form of fundamentalism. The second is the massive contribution of the internet. Unlike published scholarly work, the internet is uncontrolled and apparently uncontrollable. Two of the most influential writers of published work advocating the mythicist view, that is, the view that Jesus was not a historical figure, but rather a myth, appeal directly to an audience on the internet.

In Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, Earl Doherty, one of most influential of these mythicists, has commented:

The advent of the Internet has introduced an unprecedented “lay” element of scholarship to the field….the absence of peer pressure and constraints of academic tenure, has meant that the study of Christian origins is undergoing a quantum leap in the hands of a much wider constituency than traditional academia…

Commenting further on his website and his previous book, he added,

The primary purpose of both site and book was to reach the open-minded ‘lay’ audience…[2]

This is as inaccurate as possible. The internet audience is ‘lay’, but it is not open-minded. It has both ‘Christian apologists’, whom mythicists love to hate, and atheists who are determinedly anti-Christian. Both groups consist largely of people with closed minds who are impervious to evidence and argument, a quite different world from the critical scholars among whom I am happy to have spent most of my life, whether they were Christian, Jewish or irreligious. We were not concerned by ‘peer pressure’ or the ‘constraints of academic tenure’, except that we were united by an absolute determination to oppose any threat to the academic freedom of people in our universities, regardless of status, colour, race, religion or creed.

Doherty was born in Canada in 1941. He was brought up as a Catholic.  He comments, ‘I became an atheist at the age of 19…’. Doherty claims to hold a B.A. with distinction in Ancient History and Classical Languages, but he does not say at what institution he obtained it, and his ability to read texts accurately seems very limited. When he has read any critical scholarship, Doherty is hopelessly out of date. For example he announces that Mark contains ‘many anachronisms. It is generally agreed, for example, that there is no evidence for synagogues (in which Jesus is regularly said to preach) in Galilee forty years prior to the Jewish War….’[3] This relies on out of date scholarship, which Sanders saw straight through, and which critical scholars no longer believer in.[4] By 2009, Doherty should have known better, including the archaeological remains of synagogues at Gamla, Herodium and Masada, and the Theodotus inscription (CIJ ii, 1404) which records the building of a synagogue in Jerusalem.

Doherty nonetheless repeatedly depends on later Christian traditions. For example, he comments firstly on the epistles, ‘important fundamentals of doctrine and background, which almost two millennia of Christian tradition would lead us to expect, are entirely missing.’[5] This ‘finding’ is clearly contrary to the nature of historical research. The last thing we should expect to find in first century documents is the deposit of centuries of later Christian tradition.

Doherty discusses passages which he cannot imagine Luke omitting if he knew them. The appropriate setting for this is not critical, as is obvious when Doherty quotes R. H. Stein, Senior Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

Why would Luke have omitted such material as the coming of the wise men? Would not the presence of such Gentiles at the birth of Jesus have been meaningful for Luke’s Gentile-oriented Gospel? Why would he have omitted the flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth; the story of the guards at the tomb and their report; the unique Matthean material concerning the resurrection; and so on? Added to this is the observation that if Luke had before him Matthew’s birth account and genealogy, one wonders if he would not have sought in some way to ‘harmonize’ the one we have in his Gospel with the Matthean version.[6]

This is fundamentalism, or simply amateur forensics, not critical scholarship or historical research. Luke was a highly educated Greek Christian. He did not read about ‘wise men’ being ‘Gentiles’ at the birth of Jesus. He read about ‘magoi from the East’ (Mt. 2.1). From his point of view they were something like magicians or astrologers, and the notion that ‘we saw his star in the East’ (Mt. 2.2) probably seemed silly enough, before he got to ‘Behold, the star which they saw in the East, went before them, until it came and stood over the place where the child was’ (Mt. 2.9). Luke will have known perfectly well that not only did such things not happen, but magicians/astrologers told untrue stories in which such things did happen. He was writing for churches in the Greco-Roman world, and he will have known that starting like that would not have been attractive to the sort of people he knew well.

The most chronic comment is the last one. It is fundamentalists who ‘harmonize’ their sacred texts. Luke had good reason not to believe that an ‘angel of the Lord’ appeared to Joseph and not to Mary! What’s more, Joseph found out that she was pregnant and needed the vision to stop him divorcing her (Mt. 1.18-25).  Matthew’s gospel was not scripture in a canonical New Testament and lacking such authority, why would the need for harmonisation have arisen at all? It was a Gospel written by one of ‘many (people)’ who ‘set their hand to compiling an orderly account concerning the events which have been fulfilled among us’ (Lk. 1.1), and one which was too Jewish for Luke. Why ‘harmonize’ it with anything? Why not prefer a different story or write his own? The result is infinitely better for educated Greek Christian readers. There are no astrologers, and no doubt by Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, let alone a threat to divorce her. Instead, we have the birth of John the Baptist as well as Jesus, with the angel of the Lord appearing to John’s father as well as to Mary, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. Why harmonize that with Matthew when it is far better on its own!

Doherty uncritically follows Kloppenborg on what some scholars call ‘Q’. Some scholars now regard his view that this was a single Greek document as the dominant theory.[7] The mainstream version of this view has one general problem, namely that the disappearance of ‘Q’ is difficult to explain. Other scholars believe that the ‘Q’ material was not source material used independently by Matthew and Luke, but that Luke copied parts of Matthew, editing as he went along. This is the hypothesis of Goodacre and others which Doherty was so concerned to criticize, because it would leave him without a document from which major aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus were missing. A third view has been widespread among the very small proportion of New Testament scholars who can read Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke. I call this a ‘chaotic’ hypothesis, because it supposes that the synoptic Gospels had several different sources, some of which were in Aramaic not Greek, and I carried it further myself in a book published in 2002.[8] Doherty shows no sign of having grappled with this work, which issues in results he cannot even contemplate, especially that some traditions in the synoptic Gospels are perfectly accurate. He therefore omits everything of this kind.

Doherty’s ‘original’ work on Paul is equally frightful. In accordance with a regrettable lack of information about conventional scholarship, he shows no knowledge of the fundamental work of the anthropologist E.T. Hall, who introduced the terms ‘high context culture’ and ‘low context culture’ into scholarship.[9] Paul’s epistles were written in a high context culture, which was homogeneous enough for people not to have to repeat everything all the time, whereas American, European and many other scholars belong to a low context culture, which gives them quite unrealistic expectations of what the authors of the epistles ought to have written. This is one basic reason why Paul says so little about the life and teaching of Jesus. To some extent, his Gentile Christians had been taught about Jesus already, so he could take such knowledge for granted. He therefore had no reason to mention places such as Nazareth, or the site of the crucifixion, nor to remind his congregations that Jesus was crucified on earth recently.

Doherty’s examples are especially chronic. One is ‘Calvary’. He makes up a fictional conversation between Paul and his converts. It includes a comment from ‘Julia’ who says how Paul had been to Jerusalem and ‘could stand on the very spot where Jesus was crucified’. He has Paul reply, ‘My dear lady, I’ve never been to Calvary…it’s only a little hill after all.’ Again, on the text of Gal. 4.4f, which is important for establishing that Paul knew perfectly well that Jesus was a historical not a mythical figure, he suggests that Paul somehow should have said ‘God sent his son to die on Calvary and rise from the tomb’.[10]

The English term ‘Calvary’ is a translation, or rather virtually a transliteration, of the Latin calvaria, and would therefore not have been used by Paul either in conversation with his Greek-speaking converts or in a Greek epistle. The Latin calvaria means ‘skull’, so Doherty has Paul say in effect, partly in the wrong language, ‘I’ve never been to Skull’, and supposes that he should have written, again partly in the wrong language, ‘God sent his son to die on Skull and rise from the tomb’. This illustrates how ignorant Doherty is. The Latin calvaria is first recorded as used as a translation of Golgotha by the Latin father Tertullian (Against Marcion, III, 198). Our oldest source says that they, probably a whole cohort, ‘took Jesus to the Golgotha place, which is in translation, “place of skull”’ (Mk 15.22). An Aramaic word of the approximate form gōlgōlthā meant ‘skull’. The idea of it being ‘a little hill’ is not known until the Bordeaux pilgrim imagined it was the place she visited in 333 CE, so this would not be known to Paul either. It is likely to have been called ‘the gōlgōlthā place’ because it was strewn with the skulls of executed people.[11] Why should Paul want to visit such a revolting place? If he went at the wrong time, such as Passover, he might well find not only a site of previous executions, but people screaming in pain as they were crucified too. Pilgrimages to such sites, and the idea they were sacred, appear to date from the time of Constantine onwards, when people were no longer crucified there.

Another astonishing example is Doherty imagining that Paul should have behaved like much later Christians seeking relics. He asks ‘What about the relics? Jesus’ clothes, the things he used in his everyday life, the things he touched?….If the Gospel accounts have any basis we would expect to find mention of all sorts of relics, genuine or fake: cups from the Last Supper, nails bearing Jesus’ flesh, thorns from the bloody crown, the centurion’s spear, pieces of cloth from the garments gambled for by the soldiers at the foot of the cross―indeed, just as we find a host of relics all through the Middle Ages…’[12] This is an extraordinary muddle which has just one point right: relics were characteristic of Christian piety much later. Otherwise, it seeks to impose upon Pauline Christianity the mediaeval Catholic religion which Doherty is supposed to have left.

Furthermore, Doherty cannot understand why relics of Jesus, pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and shrines there did not begin until the fourth century, and he declares, ‘The total absence of such things in the first hundred years of Christian correspondence is perhaps the single strongest argument for regarding the entire Gospel account of Jesus’ life and death as nothing but literary fabrication.’[13] Firstly, Doherty does not understand early Christian piety, which had no need of shrines or relics. Secondly, Doherty ignores the political situation. Until the fourth century, Christians were members of a persecuted religion, and neither major pilgrimages nor the foundation of shrines and churches in Israel were practical. In the fourth century, however, the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then his mother, the empress Helena, made the first major Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she founded the first churches and shrines. It was she who guessed at what became the traditional sites of Golgotha and of Jesus’ tomb, and it was her son the emperor Constantine who ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over both of them.

Doherty’s attempts to understand what Paul did say are equally incompetent. Jesus’ death by crucifixion was historically straightforward, in the sense that crucifixion was a very common penalty inflicted by Roman authorities on slaves and provincials. It was well known as a very cruel form of death. It was a regrettably well known Roman penalty in Palestine. For example, after Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE, there were a lot of rebellious upsets in Israel, and Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, brought three legions down to Israel. After sacking Sepphoris, he went on to Jerusalem, where he crucified no less than 2,000 people (Jos. War. II, 75//Ant. XVII, 295). It was obvious to everyone that these events took place on earth.

Following his arrest, Jesus was handed over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilatus, who condemned him to death by this standard penalty of crucifixion. The titulus on his cross said he was ‘king of the Jews’, Pilate’s term for a bandit, and he was crucified between two other men whom Pilate also condemned to crucifixion as bandits.[14] This is the story which would be well known in the Pauline churches, and which Doherty is determined to omit when considering how to interpret Paul’s epistles. In its place, he has a story in which Jesus was mythically ‘crucified’ by evil powers in the sublunar realm.

For this story, Doherty draws on ideas some of which are found in some Neoplatonic texts, but not in the New Testament nor in the Judaism from which early Christianity emerged. For example, Xenocrates (ca. 396-314 B.C.) already divided the universe into the realm above the moon (the supra-lunar) and the realm below the moon (the sub-lunar), and he believed that the sub-lunar realm was occupied by daemons. Scholars generally consider the Middle Platonic period to have begun c. 90 BCE with the work of Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 125–68 BCE). Following Xenocrates, Antiochus also expressed a belief in daemons, which inhabit the sub-lunar realm (the supra-lunar realm being reserved for the divine celestial bodies). There is however no evidence that such ideas were known in Judaism in Israel, the main source of Paul’s ideas, or that they were widespread enough to be generally known to his Gentile converts. Accordingly, it is of central importance that at this point Doherty reverses one of his major points of method. Having argued up to this point that Paul did not believe anything that he does not mention, he imagines that he could take for granted this mythical realm and the quite unparalleled notion of a spiritual crucifixion up there, without mentioning anything of the kind.

Doherty tries to produce evidence which he imagines makes the crucifixion of Jesus in the sublunar realm plausible. The first document which he mentions in this context is The Hypostasis of the Archons, a Gnostic work of the third century CE, which survives only in one Coptic ms from Nag Hammadi, though it is often assumed to have been originally written in Greek.[15] This refers to Paul as ‘the father of truth, the great apostle’, and at 87, 24 it does refer to the rulers (archontes). Doherty uses it to claim that ‘considering that the roots of Gnosticism go back before the establishment of an historical Jesus in the Gospels, we are once again witnessing an understanding of archontic rulers as spirit demons unassociated with any earthly princes, and thus a pointer to the older understanding in the time of Paul.’[16] This predating of selected parts of a text from the third century CE shows a total lack of historical sense. This document also has Adam created by ‘the rulers (archontes)’ (87, 25ff), and in typical late Gnostic fashion, it has the being who declared himself the one God be a blind being who was sinful, and it does not present the death of Jesus at all. It should be obvious that this source is too late and unPauline to be used to interpret the historical Paul.

Doherty correctly notes that evil spirits come into their own in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. He correctly refers to 1 Enoch, which was written well before the time of Paul. Next he refers confidently to the ‘1st century Testament of Solomon’.[17] This is much too early a date. Schürer-Vermes-Millar, in a section primarily the responsibility of Vermes, note correctly that its ‘complex textual history naturally makes it difficult to date.’ There is however good reason to think that ‘it was current in some form around A. D. 400’; further, ‘the archetype of all the full versions (incorporating the demonology) cannot have been put together before the early third century A. D.’[18] This means that it is quite ludicrous of Doherty to conclude on the basis of this evidence that ‘by Paul’s time they [i.e. the demons] have become vast powers that infest the heavens.’[19] There is no such idea in 1 Enoch, and the Testament of Solomon shows only that such ideas were believed by some people some 200 years after Paul’s time.

In addition to the Testament of Solomon, Doherty turns to the Questions of Ezra (Recension B). This is an even later document. It survives only in Armenian. The earliest surviving ms is dated to 1208 CE. This has been labelled recension A, and Recension B is known only from the seventeenth century. Stone was unable to determine whether it was originally composed in Armenian, which would certainly mean a very late date, or translated into Armenian from another language.[20] It is not however known anywhere outside the Armenian church. It is evident that it was not written until centuries after Paul’s life and death, so once again this is the wrong cultural background for understanding anything that Paul wrote or might have believed.

The next document to which Doherty turns is the Ascension of Isaiah. This is a composite work. In its present form it is a Christian work, which appears to have been written in Greek, only fragments of which survive. It utilised an older Jewish work, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, which was still known to Origen and the Apostolic Constitutions, but which has not survived except as used in the Christian Ascension of Isaiah. The whole text of this composite work survives only in Ethiopic. This translation was probably made sometime in the 4th-6th centuries. The oldest ms is however from the 15th century. A similar textual tradition is found in the first Latin translation, which survives only in fragments. A different textual tradition is found in the second Latin translation and in the Slavonic version, which contain only chs 6–11, generally known as the Vision of Isaiah, so they attest to its independent existence. The second Latin translation was first published in 1522, on the basis of a ms which is no longer known. The Slavonic translation exists in two forms, of which the second is a shorter version of the first. The earliest ms of the first version dates from the 12th century, and the translation was apparently made in the tenth or eleventh century.

It should be obvious from this that the date of anything resembling the text of what we can now read is difficult to determine. Knibb makes the entirely reasonable suggestion that the Vision of Isaiah ‘comes from the second century CE’, and gives correct reasons for disputing attempts to date it any earlier. Schürer-Vermes-Millar, in a section primarily the responsibility of Vermes, likewise suggest that ‘the Vision of Isaiah belongs probably to the second century A.D.’, while Charlesworth puts it ‘around the end of the second century A.D.’.[21] This document too is therefore too late in date to form evidence of the cultural environment in which Paul wrote to his converts. Doherty, however, simply announces that a community wrote this ‘vision’ ‘probably towards the end of the 1st century CE’.[22] There is no excuse for dating it so early, and it would still be too late for Paul.

I hope it is clear from this brief account that Doherty, despite being thought of as one of the most important of the mythicists, is unqualified, incompetent and hopelessly biased.

Dorothy Murdock, who writes also under the name of Acharya Sanning, has a significant following too. As well as her books, she has a blog. This includes “Who is Acharya S?”.[23] Here, describing herself with typical mythicist modesty as ‘the coolest chick on the planet’, she claims to have a BA degree in Classics, Greek Civilization, from Franklin and Marshall College, after which she completed postgraduate studies at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Nonetheless, when she gets to dating the Gospels, Murdock declares that ‘all of the canonical gospels seem to emerge at the same time – first receiving their names and number by Irenaeus around 180 AD/CE….If the canonical texts as we have them existed anywhere previously, they were unknown, which makes it likely that they were not composed until that time or shortly before, based on earlier texts.’[24] The criterion of not being mentioned in other texts is an important mythicist weapon. It embodies the fundamentalist assumption that the Gospels should have become sacred texts immediately, and therefore quoted by all extant Christian authors as fundamentalists quote the New Testament.

Fundamentalist belief is expressed for example by someone who calls themselves Paul Timothy, ‘The Holy Spirit has given to us four witnesses to The Holy Spirit has given to us four witnesses to the Life and teachings of Jesus: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, the compilers and writers of the four Gospels. Each of the four Gospel writers lived while Jesus was on earth. Three of them knew him well, and Luke investigated the facts about Jesus (Luke 1:1-3). Thus, the four gospels are ‘eye-witness’ accounts, the strongest kind. All four writers included in their Gospel some of the same accounts about Jesus, and each one adds some accounts that the others left out.  Yet all agree; the four Gospels form a single true story.’[25]

This is fundamentalist falsehood from beginning to end. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Moreover, they are not quoted as such in the relatively few Christian documents surviving from before the time of Irenaeus, whereas the Old Testament is, from which mythicists draw their conclusion that the canonical Gospels were unknown. Justin Martyr, however, writing in the middle of the second century, refers not to the Gospel according to Mark, but to the apomnēmoneumata of Peter. The Greek word apomnēmoneumata is usually translated ‘memoirs’ in Justin, whether or not they are said to be ‘of Peter’, ‘of the apostles’, or ‘of his apostles and their followers’. It has however a somewhat wider range of meaning, and does not necessarily carry the connotation of the person having written the apomnēmoneumata himself. One reference to Peter’s ‘memoirs’ has the sons of Zebedee called ‘Boanerges, which is “sons of thunder”’ (Dial. 106). The word ‘Boanerges’ is otherwise known only from Mk 3.17, where Mark says that Jesus gave Jacob and John, the sons of Zebedee, ‘the name “Boanērges”, which is “sons of thunder”’. This reference is not merely unique. The term ‘Boanerges’ is a mistaken attempt to transliterate into Greek letters the Aramaic words benē re‘em, which mean ‘sons of thunder’.  The possibility that two independent sources made almost identical mistakes in the transliteration of these words is negligible. It follows that by ‘the memoirs of Peter’ Justin meant something at least very like what we call the Gospel of Mark.

Mythicists also presuppose that the attestation of the Gospels somehow ought to be similar to the attestation of modern documents written in cultures where writing is normal, and books are printed. This is why, as mythicists try to date the Gospels as late as possible, one of the reasons they use is the date of surviving manuscripts. In doing this, however, they show no understanding of the nature of ancient documents and their transmission, which was very different from the writing of books in the modern world.[26]

There are in fact far more copies of the Gospels surviving from relatively soon after they were written than is the case of most works from the Greco-Roman world, or ancient Judaism. The reasons why fewer survive than might have done in the stories which mythicists invent are twofold: relatively few copies were made of any writing before the invention of printing in the mediaeval period, and there were a number of disasters in the destruction of books when libraries were destroyed, and in the Christian case, in persecutions by the Roman state.

For example, Eusebius helped to build up an excellent library in Caesarea.[27] Eusebius had there a copy of the work of Papias, Bishop of  Hierapolis in the early second century, An Exposition of the Lord’s Oracles (Logia), and he quotes important information from it (Eus., H.E. III, 39, 1-7, 14-17). The library was however destroyed. The last reliable mention of it is by Jerome, though it may not have been destroyed until the Arab invasion in the seventh century. In a world where there were not many copies of old books, this destruction was a major disaster, and there should be no doubt that many Christian books were lost in this way. We should contrast the creative fiction of Acharya, who comments on the disappearance of Papias’ work: ‘It is inexplicable that such a monumental work by an early Christian father was “lost”, except that it had to be destroyed because it revealed the Savior as absolutely non-historical.’[28] This comment has no connection with the reality of the ancient world, and Acharya’s ‘reason’ for its destruction is nothing better than malicious invention.

Another mythicist is Canadian journalist Tom Harpur (1929- ), who says with more mythicist modesty that his ‘books, videos and columns have made him a compelling spiritual leader for every generation and all faiths.’[29] He was brought up as a fundamentalist Christian, and ordained priest in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1956, in accordance with his father’s wishes and demands. As a journalist on the Toronto Star (1954-84), he did not have to verify everything as scholars do, and he has ended up never offering evidence for what he chooses to believe. He does however pay tribute to his main sources: Gerald Massey (1828-1907), and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963). Massey was a second-rate English poet who also became an amateur Egyptologist. Kuhn was a theosophist who therefore held large-scale false beliefs about the modern value of supposedly ancient traditions, many of which were not ancient at all.

Among his many mistakes, Harpur comments, ‘Significantly, both Massey and Kuhn – and other authorities–testify that the surface of the coffin lid of the mummified Osiris (every deceased person was referred to as the Osiris) constituted the table of the Egyptian’s cult’s Last Supper or Eucharist. It was the board on which the mortuary meals were served. The coffin bore the hieroglyphic equivalent for KRST. Massey connects KRST with the Greek word Christos, messiah, or Christ.He says, “Say what you will or believe what you may, there is no other origin for Christ the anointed than ‘Horus the Karast’, or ‘anointed son of God the Father.’” Nonetheless, he notes correctly that ‘Modern Egyptologists dispute this’, which was already true when he wrote it, and instead of giving a good reason for following a scholar who was incompetent when he wrote before the advent of modern critical scholarship and is now hopelessly out of date as well, HarpurHhh quotes his authority as if it were decisive, just like a fundamentalist Christian quoting scripture.[30] Nor is there any excuse for describing Massey and Kuhn as ‘authorities’.

The American Christian scholar Ward Gasque consulted a number of modern Egyptologists, and discovered that the Egyptian KRST is the word for “burial”, so it is a very appropriate word to turn up on Egyptian coffins, and has no connection with the Jewish and Christian term ‘Christ’.[31] This is another illustration of the complete incompetence of both Massey and Kuhn, and of Harpur’s total lack of any sense of reality in what he has taken over from them.

Harpur gives some indication of what he felt he had found in these writers when he comments, ‘Massey’s books and Kuhn’s four chief works….held me spellbound….the more I read, the more I was convinced that what these men were saying had the ring of truth…[32] This appears to be part of Harpur’s conversion process, since he gives nothing approaching evidence supported with argument. When he does quote someone with expertise, he ignores the date of the relevant sources. For example, he quotes the Egyptologist Eric Hornung for the Egyptian fathers, followed in due course by other Christians, taking over imagery of Isis, Osiris and Horus.[33] They did, but this was a real fact centuries after the time of the historical Jesus, not evidence that he did not exist in the first century CE.

This is only one of myriad examples of mythicists creating havoc with supposed ‘parallels’. Murdock put the central point in a nutshell without realising that from a scholarly point of view, it is not merely sinful, but a mortal sin rather than a peccadillo. Commenting on the notion that Horus was ‘baptised’ by Anup/Inpu, she notes that the comparison ‘between Anup and John has been extrapolated for a variety of reasons’, and adds that ‘“Christian” terminology has been utilized to describe what was found in the ancient Egyptian texts and monuments, as well as elsewhere around the Roman empire during the era.’[34] This is central to the way in which most of the so-called parallels to the life and teaching of Jesus have been manufactured by mythicists. In actuality, Horus was not thought to have been baptised by Anup/Inpu, who was supposed to have been a jackal-headed Egyptian deity, not a Jewish man, and Inpu was not beheaded either.

Murdock also discusses pre-Christian use of the Greek words baptō and baptizō. They both meant ‘dip’, but not in any meaningful sense ‘baptise’, as Murdock alleges. She quotes a passage of Nicander, which is about pickling vegetables, and has nothing to do with baptism, to which it is accordingly irrelevant. She even discusses ‘the act of baptizing the vegetable’ which is as ridiculous as any ‘parallel’ I have come across.[35] Then, as now, people did not baptize vegetables, but they did wash, boil, and immerse them. Nicander was really discussing boiling vegetables and then immersing them in vinegar, to do what we call ‘pickle’ them. This is a striking example of the inappropriate use of Christian terminology to describe all sorts of things, in spurious attempts to make them sound more alike.

The internet, for which these pseudo-scholars write, has become a home of mendacity, including many outpourings of hatred for scholars. One example is blogger Neil Godfrey, an Australian who was a baptised member of the Worldwide Church of God for 22 years, so he belonged to a hopelessly fundamentalist organisation which holds critical scholarship in contempt.  He converted to ‘atheism’ later, so he has had two conversion experiences, and this means that his contempt for evidence and argument as means of reaching decisions about important matters is doubly central to his life.

Godfrey claims to have ‘a BA and post graduate Bachelor of Educational Studies, both at the University of Queensland, and a post graduate Diploma in Arts (Library and Information Science) from Charles Sturt University near Canberra, Australia’.[36] He has worked as a librarian. It is extraordinary, therefore, that he seems to be quite incapable of presenting information accurately. One of his statements followed on a shocking earthquake in New Zealand: ‘I’m a librarian, but I never see or touch a book’.[37] Perhaps this is why he seems incapable of gathering information available in books with any semblance of accuracy.

Godfrey condemns biblical scholars as no better than ‘silly detectives’. In a post headed ‘Biblical historians make detectives look silly’[38], he did not give proper references, and referred back later to his post like this: ‘Biblical historians who research the foundations of Christianity in the Gospels have sometimes compared their “historical research” work with that of detectives or criminal investigators….. Only by lazy assumptions about their sources can biblical “historians” declare Jesus’ crucifixion a “fact of history”….In other words, Paula Fredriksen is but one of a host of biblical “historians” who “do history” according to the analogy of the silly detectives in my earlier post’ [23rd November, 2010].

Godfrey’s earlier post said that Fredriksen ‘is one scholar who did “respond” to something Doherty had written, but her response demonstrated that she at no point attempted to read Doherty’s piece seriously. One might even compare her responses to those of a naughty schoolgirl who has no interest in the content of the lesson, believing the teacher to be a real dolt, and who accordingly seeks to impress her giggly “know-it-all” classmates by interjecting the teacher with smart alec rejoinders at any opportunity.’ Godfrey seems to have no idea that his gross personal rudeness is no substitute for a scholarly response, which is what anyone seriously interested in truth would have provided.

One blogger cited by both Doherty and Acharya is Steven Carr. Doherty cites him to dispose of the evidence that Josephus mentions Jesus at Ant. XX, 200, where he describes Jacob as ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ, Jacob his name’, which is as clear as could be. Mythicists, however, do not wish to believe this.[39] Similarly, Murdock noticed that the mss of the New Testament are not inerrant, as every critical scholar knows. Neither she nor Carr, however, offers a proper critical discussion.[40]

I am well known to some people for my work on Aramaic sources behind the synoptic Gospels, for careful scholarship, and for always telling the truth as I see it.[41] On the internet, however, I have been accused by Blogger Godfrey, Blogger Carr and others of total incompetence, omitting main points and telling lies. For example, Blogger Godfrey, in a blog entitled with his customary politesse, Roll over Maurice Casey: Latin, not Aramaic, explains Mark’s bad Greek, not only drew attention to a certain proportion of these ‘Latinisms’, which would have been reasonable, but also declared that they nullified the evidence of Aramaic influence on Mark.[42] This is quite incompetent, which is why, as far as I know, it had not previously been suggested. Nor is Greek which contains Latin loanwords for Roman objects ‘bad’ Greek, any more than we speak ‘bad’ English when we say we went to a restaurant. Mark’s Latinisms, including loanwords, in no way undermine the importance of Mark’s Aramaisms, which Blogger Godfrey is not learned enough to see, and determined to ignore.

Blogger Godfrey does not refer to any learned scholarship, but to an elementary piece from a second-rate and very conservative American Christian college, formerly Atlantic Baptist College, then (1996) Atlantic Baptist University, now named Crandall University.  It does not have any outstanding New Testament scholars on its staff. This is yet another piece of evidence that Blogger Godfrey is quite incapable of leaving his fundamentalist Christian background behind, in spite of his conversion to an equally dogmatic form of atheism. The list of Latinisms provided by Crandall ‘University’ includes loanwords, by which standard it is incomplete, but otherwise satisfactory. They are all included in the more extensive list provided by Gundry in his standard conservative commentary.[43]

Blogger Godfrey does not mention that the Introduction from which he quotes also argues that Mark’s first language was Aramaic. Blogger Carr commented,

‘Casey, of course, knows perfectly well that there are Latin loan words in ‘Mark’….Naturally, he is a True Biblical Scholar so does not inform his readers that there are any Latin loan words in ‘Mark’…As it would detract from the idea that there were Aramaic sources for Greek, detectable by the bad Greek, Casey does not even mention the prescence (sic!) of Latin loan words….A real scholar mentions facts which might seem to other scholars to put his work into question, and attempts to answer those questions…This is what I am used to when I see scientists writing. I naively took it for granted that all scholars in all fields had the same sorts of standards as the lowliest scientific researcher into the memory of mice…. I now have entered a world where True Bible Scholars simply ignore whatever does not fit their ideas.’[44]

Everything is wrong with this. It is not true that I did not even mention the presence of Latin loanwords. I discussed the ones which I thought were of genuine historical significance, and I gave a significant amount of Roman background to some of these, where I thought this was of historical significance. I therefore discussed legiōn and Hērōdianoi at some length, as well as, more briefly, denarius, and centurion.[45]

Blogger Carr’s comments on scholarly practice are irrelevant too, apart from his crude and misleading use of the term ‘bad’ Greek. The idea that Mark’s Latinisms, understood broadly to include his Latin loanwords, somehow negate the evidence of his use of Aramaic sources is not a theory put forward by reputable scholars: it is a mistake by blogger Godfrey. Learned articles on the memory of mice or anything else do not discuss the outpourings of incompetent bloggers. Nor can they discuss anything suggested after their articles were published: blogger Godfrey’s notion that ‘Latin, not Aramaic, explains Mark’s bad Greek’ was not available to me when I wrote, precisely because no-one else had been incompetent and foolish enough to suggest it.

I hope this is sufficient to indicate that the mythicist view is based on ineducable ignorance, prejudice and absolute contempt for anything like learned scholarship.

The only reasonably qualified scholar to become a mythicist is Robert M. Price. Price was born in Mississippi in 1954. After early involvement in a fundamentalist Baptist church, he went on to become a leader in the Montclair State College chapter of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. He was trained at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Its statement of faith includes the following: ‘The sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error….’ Its Mission Statement begins, ‘To encourage students to become knowledgeable of God’s inerrant Word, competent in its interpretation, proclamation and application in the contemporary world.’

It follows that after a fundamentalist upbringing, Price was also processed in a fundamentalist institution where critical scholarship was held in contempt. He went on to do a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. This was awarded in 1981. He also read Ph.D. in New Testament at Drew University, which was awarded in 1993. He was listed as professor of theology and scriptural studies at Coleman Theological Seminary and professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, as well as a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the Jesus Seminar.

Price is alone among mythicists in that there is no doubt that he was a qualified New Testament scholar. He therefore bears a most heavy responsibility for the falsehoods which he has promoted. Perhaps his most important book is The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.[46] What is important about it is that it lends an assumption of scholarship to outpourings of falsehood. These include hopelessly late dates for the Gospels, with Mark being pushed into the second century. Price first declares that it must have been written after 70 CE, on the false assumption that apocalypses, which most of it is not, are always written after the events which they are supposed to predict. Mark’s predictions are not however accurate enough to have been written after the event.[47] Price subsequently relied on Detering, who, continuing with the assumption that there cannot be any predictions in the Gospels, noticed that Mark 13 is not accurate enough to have been a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE after the event, and claimed that Hadrian setting up his statue in the Temple was the reason for the ‘prediction’ of the Abomination of Desolation (Matt. 24.15//Mk. 13.14).[48]

Price’s treatment of New Testament narratives has two other major features conventional among mythicists. One is to continue with conservative or even fundamentalist exegesis. For example, he discusses Mark 9.1: ‘Amen I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste of death until they have seen the kingdom of God come in power.’ Price declares that ‘all interpreters admit that this prediction must have the Parousia in mind.’ All interpreters have not adopted this incorrect exegesis for the very good reason that the saying mentions the kingdom of God, an important feature of the teaching of Jesus, whereas belief in the Parousia was created by the early church after Jesus’ death.[49]

Another major feature of mythicism is to make fun of New Testament stories which they used to believe in, and still take literally. For example, Price discusses the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. On that occasion, Jesus heard a voice which he believed came from God, ‘You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased’ (Mk 1.11). Price follows the received text, ‘in whom’, rather than ‘in you’, which assimilated to Matthew, but which is not, as he claims, the reading of Luke. He then declares that it is ‘cobbled together from three Old Testament passages’, as if a major prophet could not imagine a heavenly voice speaking in scriptural terms. Price’s scriptural passages, however, are firstly Ps. 2.7, which says ‘My son thou’, the form in which Jesus would have known the text, translated into Greek in the LXX as ‘My son art thou’, as the text would have been known to anyone writing creatively in Greek. Price’s second passage is Isa. 42.1, which says ‘Behold, my servant, I uphold him, my chosen, my soul delights in him’, for which the LXX has ‘Jacob my servant, I come to his aid, Israel my chosen, my soul received him’. Price’s third passage is Gen. 22.12, which has nothing more than God referring to Isaac as ‘your son, your beloved’. He therefore heads firstly for LXX, which is on the same lines, and simply has God say to Abraham about Isaac, ‘You did not spare your beloved son because of me’. Price therefore heads for what he incompetently calls ‘the Targums’, according to which, when Isaac looked up into an open heaven, a voice said ‘Behold, two chosen ones’. Price does not however quote any Targums, but only an essay in English by Stegner![50]

Price then concludes that Mark’s voice is ‘not historical, unless one wishes to imagine God sitting with his Hebrew Psalter, Greek Septuagint, and Aramaic Targum in front of him, deciding what to crib. Only then does it come to seem ridiculous’. Indeed, but as I commented before, ‘It is Price who has manipulated it to make it seem ridiculous.’ He has not written serious scholarship at all.[51]

It follows that Price has not made good or reasonable use of the New Testament qualifications which he once obtained. The results of his work are no better than those of more obviously ignorant mythicists.


The third and last essay in this series has been written by Stephanie Louise Fisher. Steph came here as an outstanding mature student from the University of Victoria, New Zealand, where she obtained exceptionally brilliant first class degrees including study in history, anthropology, sociology, classics as well as music and other things reflecting her eclectic interests and lateral mind.  She worked as a research fellow to Jim Veitch in the history of the Lloyd Geering heresy trial. While in my opinion there was never any question of her not obtaining one, she won the fiercely competitive overseas research scholarship and was offered the Commonwealth Scholarship twice.  While she could have chosen to go to any first class independent university on earth, she chose to come to England because of her specialist focus on the Double Tradition.  Thus James Crossley, Steph, and I have worked well together, and we have had many debates, while becoming genuine friends over the past few years.

While Steph has been here, she has effectively worked as my research assistant too, without being in any sense subordinate to me. She has been wonderful working both on my last book, Jesus of Nazareth, and on material about mythicists. She is, as the above comments indicate, a scholar with very broad interests, and she works on many projects simultaneously. We do have reputable publishers already interested in her work on the Double Tradition, so we look forward to this task being completed, because New Testament scholarship needs it so much, and she is the only person known to me who can complete it.

Maurice Casey, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Nottingham.

[1] The major generally available books were S. J. Case, The Historicity of Jesus: A Criticism of the Contention that Jesus Never Lived, a Statement of the Evidence for His Existence, an Estimate of His Relation to Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1912; 2nd edn, 1928); M. Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History? (1925. Trans. F. Stevens. London/New York: Unwin/Appleton, 1926. With a new introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann, Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2006).

[2] E. Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor ManThe Case for a Mythical Jesus (Ottawa: Age of Reason, 2009), pp. vii, viii, referring back to, which I can no longer access, and E. Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? (Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999).

[3] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, p. 413.

[4] For a summary of the debate, with bibliography, e.g. J. S. Kloppenborg, ‘The Theodotos Synagogue Inscription and the Problem of First-Century Synagogue Buildings’ in J. H. Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 236-82; and for his immediate reaction, Sanders, Jewish Law From Jesus to the Mishnah, pp. 341-3, nn. 28-9.

[5] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, p. 15.

[6] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, pp. 316-7, quoting R. H. Stein, The Synoptic Problem: an Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 102.  I have not otherwise noted a copy published before 1987: there was a second edn. in 2001.

[7] J. S. Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q. Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987); J. S. Kloppenborg Verbin, Excavating Q. The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel (Minneapolis/Edinburgh: Fortress/T&T Clark, 2000).

[8] P. M. Casey, An Aramaic Approach to Q: Sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (SNTSMS 122. Cambridge: CUP, 2002).

[9] Hall, E.T. Beyond Culture (New York: Doubleday 1976).

[10] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, pp. 664, 198: cf. further below.

[11] Cf. now Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 445–6.

[12] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, pp. 80, 82 (my italics).

[13] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, p. 82.

[14] For a historical account for the general reader, see Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 425-48.

[15] For an English Translation by Bentley Layton, with a very brief introduction by R. A. Bullard, see J. M. Robinson (general ed.) and Members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, California, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (4th edn. Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 161-9.

[16] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 109.

[17] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 109.

[18] Schürer-Vermes-Millar, vol. III.1, p. 373.

[19] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 109.

[20] M.E. Stone, in Charlesworth (ed.), Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol I, p. 592.

[21] M.A. Knibb, in Charlesworth (ed.), Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2, pp. 149–50; Schürer-Vermes-Millar, vol. III.1, p. 338 n.8; Charlesworth, Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research, p. 125.

[22] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 119.

[24] Murdock, Who was Jesus? p. 82.

[26] See especially H.Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale Univ., 1995); A. R. Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000).

[27] See Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, pp. 155-60.

[28] Acharya, Christ Conspiracy, (Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999) p. 227.

[30] Harpur, Pagan Christ, (Thomas Allen and Son Ltd, 2005) p. 101, with p. 224, n.6, again without any proper detailed reference to the work of Massey: see the regrettable comments of Massey, Ancient Egypt, pp. 186-248. The quotation is from p. 219.

[32] T. Harpur, Born Again: My Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2011), p. 214.

[33] Harpur, Born Again, p. 215.

[34] Murdock, Christ in Egypt, (Stellar House Publishing, 2009) p. 233.

[35] Murdock, Christ in Egypt, p. 245 n. 2.

[39] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man p. 571 with p. 771 n. 221, referring to Carr commenting on Josephus.

[40] D. M. Murdock, Who was Jesus?: Fingerprints of the Christ (Seattle: Stellar House Publishing, 2007), p. 224, with p. 268, referring to Carr, ‘Textual Reliability of the New Testament’, on Carr at

[41] Cf. James G. Crossley (ed.), Judaism, Jewish Identities and the Gospel Tradition: Essays in Honour of Maurice Casey, (London: Equinox, 2010).


[43] R.H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 1043-5.[1]


[45] Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 242-3, 341, 422-3, 450.

[46] R. M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition?

(Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2003).

[47] Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 69-71.

[48] H. Detering, ‘The Synoptic Apocalypse (Mark 13 par): A Document from the Time of Bar Kochba’, Journal of Higher Criticism 7 (2000), pp. 161-200: cf. Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 33-5.

[49] Price, Shrinking Son of Man, p. 32; see Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 34, 212-6, 219-21, 374-7, 384, 389, 484.

[50] Price, Shrinking Son of Man, p. 120-21; see Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 36-7.

[51] See further, Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 35-8.

The Jesus Process: Stephanie Louise Fisher


(c) 2012 by Stephanie Fisher, University of Nottingham


The purpose of this essay is to make a further contribution to refuting the methods of recent mythicists and drawing attention to their unprofessional attitudes and prejudices.  It also exposes their lack of discernment and inability to engage with critical scholarship. Scholarship is compromised by these evangelising, self-promoting pedlars of incompetence. I discuss especially the recent attempt of atheist blogger, Richard Carrier to replace historical method with Bayes’ theorem, followed by scholars of whom he makes use. I go on to refute some criticisms of my previous comments, and finally put Albert Schweitzer, some of whose comments are routinely misinterpreted, in his historical context.

 Carrier and Bayes’ Theorem.

Atheist blogger Richard Carrier, has now added to his passionate flushings of incompetence with another book, for which he has eventually found a publisher other than himself. See Richard C. Carrier, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2012).

Bayes’ theorem can be traced back to Thomas Bayes (1702-64), in whose name it was first published in 1764. It was generally used, however, only after it was reworked by the mathematician P-S. Laplace (1749-1827), who was not initially aware of Bayes’ work. It has been used much more in recent years, during which it has been applied to all kinds of things, though not without criticism. It was, for example, successfully used by Alan Turing in deciphering the German Enigma code. It is basically at home in aspects of Maths and the Natural Sciences, where abstract measures of probability are needed.

The centre of Bayes’ theorem is the following:

P(A|B) = \frac{P(B | A)\, P(A)}{P(B)}. \,

Here P stands for ‘Probability’, and A and B are two different sets being assessed. Carrier has this slightly more complex version necessitated by the consideration of the relative probability of different hypotheses:

P(h|b) x P(e|h.b)


[P(h|b) x P(e|h.b] + [P(~h|b) x P(e|~h.b]

Carrier explains briefly, ‘P = probability, = hypothesis, = evidence, and = background knowledge.’[1]

Carrier uses this in a discussion which he calls ‘A Bayesian Analysis of the Disappearing Sun.’[2] This is the story that ‘there was darkness all over the land from the sixth hour until the ninth hour’ (Mk 15.33//Matt. 27.45//Lk 23.44-5). Critical biblical scholars have known for a long time that this story is not literally true.[3] Carrier’s discussion adds nothing significant to this discussion. Carrier includes the completely irrelevant notion that there might have been similar three-hour darkness in 1983, which we all know is false too. Carrier concludes that ‘Instead of letting us get away with vague verbiage about how likely or unlikely things are, Bayes’ theorem forces us to identify exactly what we mean. It thus forces us to identify whether our reasoning is even sound.’[4] Carrier’s discussion shows that this is not what happens. He tries to make it seem plausible by ignoring all the best critical scholarship, and discussing methodologically inadequate, ideologically-motivated pseudo-scholarship instead.

Most analysts would say that Bayes’ theorem is not in the least amenable to complex and composite historical texts. Carrier has too much misplaced faith in the value of his own assumptions. He claims, “[Bayes’] conclusions are always necessarily true — if its premises are true. By ‘premises’ here I mean the probabilities we enter into the equation, which are essentially the premises in a logical argument.”[5]  Bayes theorem was devised to ascertain mathematical probability. It is completely inappropriate for, and unrelated to historical occurrence and therefore irrelevant for application to historical texts. Carrier doesn’t have a structured method of application, but worse, he is dealing with mixed material, some of which is primary, much of which is secondary, legendary, myth mixed accretion. He has no method, and offers none,  of distinguishing the difference and this renders his argument a complete muddle. Effectively in the end, he can conveniently dispose of inconvenient tradition, with a regrettable illusion that Bayes provides a veneer of scientific certainty to prior conclusions he is determined to ‘prove unarguable’.

The Quest of the Historical Jesus: Supercilious Pseudo-Scholars, and the Omission of Inconvenient Critical Scholars.

 Carrier begins his book by arguing that the Quest for a historical Jesus has been a failure because it has reached no consensus on criteria or results.[6] He does not seem to realise that this is partly because he has included under the general umbrella of ‘Jesus scholars’ virtually anyone who has written about him, regardless of competence or bias. If he had included only recognised academics in top tier universities with qualifications in ancient history and New Testament Studies, he would have got a different result. As it is, he includes ‘scholars’ such as Burton Mack, who left the Church of the Nazarene to became a methodologically incompetent radical, and Stanley Porter, who is an equally incompetent Christian fundamentalist. Of course they don’t end up with the same picture of Jesus, and this is partly because both of them are totally incompetent in method. It does not follow that we should all drop reasonable historical criteria and use Bayes’ theorem instead, as Carrier has unwittingly demonstrated by means of his own extensive incompetence.

Notably incompetent are his discussions the “Criterion of Embarrassment.”[7] Carrier begins with a blunt declaration of a typical mythicist view: ‘The assumption is that embarrassing material “would naturally be either suppressed or softened in the later stages of the tradition.” But all extant Gospels are already very late stages of the “Gospel tradition”, the Gospel having already been preached for nearly an entire lifetime across three continents before any Gospel was written’.[8] There are two serious things wrong with this. The first is the description of Meier’s view as an ‘assumption’. No-one reading this without checking Meier’s enormous book would imagine that Meier’s comment is the beginning of a coherent argument of some length, not an ‘assumption’ at all. The second problem is the very late date assumed for all the Gospels. As early as 1998, Casey proposed Aramaic reconstructions of a small number of passages of Mark’s Gospel, and on that basis he rather tentatively proposed a date c. 40 CE for this Gospel. This was worked through in detail and reinforced with considerable evidence and argument by James Crossley in a doctoral thesis published in 2004.[9] Carrier knows just what to do with such learned arguments leading to results which he does not wish to believe in: he leaves them all out. What defence does Bayes’ theorem offer against this? It cannot provide any defence against such professional incompetence and methodological bias.

Among many details which illustrate Carrier’s total inability to understand Jesus’ culture is the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and execution. He declares,

‘The authorities did not need Judas… to find or identify Jesus. Given what Mark has Jesus say in 14:49 (and what Jesus had been doing in Jerusalem only days before), the authorities knew what he looked like, and they could have seized him any time he appeared in public.’

It was fortunate for the Jewish people of the time that the Sagan, the chief priest in charge of security in the Temple, was wiser than Carrier. He will not have forgotten what happened in 4 BCE, when Herod Archelaus was faced with a serious protest in the Temple. Archelaus sent people to talk to the protesters, but when Passover came round and support for them increased, he sent in a cohort led by a tribune, so some 500 soldiers led by an officer: the crowd stoned them with such violence that most of the cohort were killed. Archelaus then sent in his army in force: the result was 3,000 dead Jews and the wreckage of a major festival (Jos. War II, 5-13: Ant XVII, 206-8). This is arguably what the chief priests were avoiding by not arresting Jesus in public in the Temple, yet Carrier shows not a glimmer of awareness of the event in the time of Archelaus ever happening..

Mark reports the possible mob scenario events with precision, but Carrier, despite presenting himself as a competent historian of the ancient world, seems to have depended on a traditional English translation. He announces that for the authorities to have arrested Jesus would not only be ‘politically suicidal’, but also that the idea that the ‘Jewish elite would be that stupid is vanishingly small (a fact fully admitted by Mark, cf. 14.1-2, who nevertheless has them stupidly contradict themselves in the very next chapter…’).[10] This supposed contradiction depends on a traditional translation of μὴ ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ, (Mk 14.2) as, e.g.,  ‘Not during the festival’ (NRSV). Jeremias long ago pointed out that the Greek heortē also means ‘festival crowd’, as standard secondary literature intermittently repeats.[11] Moreover, Mark’s Greek will represent the chief priests saying in Aramaic al behaggā, which also means ‘not in the festival crowd’.[12] This is why Judah of Kerioth led a party to arrest Jesus in a garden at night. They were then able to hand him over to Pilate, the Roman governor, early the following morning, so that he could be crucified outside the city walls at about 9 a.m., when his disciples had fled and there were no crowds about.

As support for not believing the story of the betrayal and arrest at all, Carrier calls on part of the work of the Jewish scholar Haim Cohn.[13] Cohn was a German Jew who emigrated to Israel, where he became Attorney General of Israel, and Minister of Justice, as well as a member of the Supreme Court of Israel and the International Court of Justice in the Hague. He was a member of the “T’hila” Movement for Israeli Jewish secularism. It is culturally ludicrous to expect anyone like Cohn to give a fair account of a New Testament narrative, especially one which has played such an appalling role in the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Cohn’s total ineptitude in historical research runs through his whole book. For example, at the beginning of his chapter on Jesus, he declares ‘Our purpose is to show that neither Pharisees nor Sadducees, neither priests nor elders, neither scribes nor any Jews, had any reasonable cause to seek the death of Jesus or his removal. Without such, it will be submitted, the reports that they sought to destroy him (Matt. 12:14; Luke 19:47) or that they counseled together “for to put him to death” (John 11:53; Luke 22:2; Mark 14:1) are stripped of all plausibility’.[14] This illustrates the way that Cohn ignores all historical evidence in favour of his own ideologically orientated fantasies, much as Carrier and other mythicists do.

Carrier follows the religious bias of amateurs as greedily as he does his own mistaken prejudices, rather than relying on competent Jewish scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Fredriksen and Geza Vermes, when he opines that ‘The fact that Jesus’ betrayer’s name means “Jew” should already make us suspicious’.[15] It should not. Juda(s) (יהודה:  Yehuda, God is praised) was believed to have been the fourth son of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, and hence regarded as the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Judah;  it is a well attested and popular Jewish name of the period. Famous examples included Judah ‘the hammer’, better known in English as Judas Maccabaeus, leader of the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE: and Rabbi Judah the Prince. Another example is one of Jesus’ brothers (Mk 6.3). Many real people have been called ‘Judah’ ever since: one of the most famous recent examples is the musician, Yehudi Menuhin.

Carrier then suggests that ‘Iscariot’ is ‘an Aramaicism for the Latin “Sicarius”’. This etymology however is barely coherent. The Latin ‘Sicarius’ is not otherwise used for Jewish insurgents until much later, and no-one had any good reason to put the Hebrew Ish and the Latin Sicarius into a single name at any time. The Hebrew Ish was however sometimes used in names, and the very varied forms of Iscariot, including for example Iskariōth (e.g. Mk 3.19) and apo Karyōtou (D at Jn 12.4) make perfect sense if his designation was originally ‘man of Kerioth’, a village right in the south of Judaea, and this also makes good sense of him.[16]

How much help is Bayes’ theorem in understanding all this? It is of no help whatever. It can do nothing to prevent Carrier from being totally incompetent in doing the meticulous business of historical research, torturing  false assumptions into premises, and using equally incompetent pseudo-scholars such as the hopelessly radical Mack, the Christian fundamentalist Porter, and the equally bigoted  Cohn as pillars in his argumentative travesty. Mack and Porter have in common with Carrier that they cannot read Aramaic, and consequently cannot understand any arguments based on features in the text of the synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, which have often been thought to reflect Aramaic sources. Cohn simply seems not to have done so, and wrote too early to have read recent work written in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Caeci caecos decentes: An ambitious blogger on New Testament subjects with no formal training in the field at all, Tom Verenna, who often makes unqualified pronouncements, has praised Richard Carrier’s piece on the ‘Bible and Interpretation’ on-line journal as an ‘Exceptional article’.[17] And it is indeed exceptional: an exceptionally flawed and overblown piece, Bayes’ Theorem and the Modern Historian: Proving History Requires Improving Methods,[18] in which he is typically misleading and characteristically over confident about his convictions. Especially in evidence in this article is his inability to provide sufficient or adequate references.

In an earlier blog post in which Carrier attempted to promote himself and his book Proving History, he made the most extraordinary and unqualified claim that ‘every expert who is a specialist in methodology has concluded, one and all, that the methods now used in Jesus studies are also totally fucked’.

Whom Carrier considers to be expert, and what criteria he assumes qualifies one as an expert are unclear, especially as Carrier considers himself to be an expert in fields in which he has no qualifications. All competent and critical New Testament scholars investigating the history of early Christianity, should be competent in methodology in order to pursue academic enquiry. Carrier’s claim is ludicrous. In this so-called ‘exceptional’ article, Carrier is still unclear and seems completely disconnected from the reality of the academic process of critical enquiry, debate and progress. He would like us to believe that a collection of essays will be featuring

‘such luminaries as Mark Goodacre and Morna Hooker, all coming to the same conclusion: the method of criteria is simply not logically viable. This leaves the field of Jesus studies with no valid method, and puts into question all consensus positions in the field, insofar as they have all been based, to one extent or another, on these logically invalid methods.’

We cannot assess essays which have not been published. Nevertheless Mark Goodacre has generously sent me his contribution prior to publication. Carrier then goes on to include several other people, including Tom Verenna who has no qualifications and Thomas Thompson who is not a New Testament scholar, suggesting they all reject historical method as leading to confusing results. This is a grotesque caricature of scholarship, and Carrier’s expectation that consensus should be reached by people of such different ideological perspectives is fantasy.

Premised on his assumption that methods in historical studies must be non-duplicative, non-competitive and homogenous, Carrier claims

‘When everyone picks up the same method, applies it to the same facts, and gets a different result, we can be certain that that method is invalid and should be abandoned. Yet historians in Jesus studies don’t abandon the demonstrably failed methods they purport to employ.’

He concludes after accepting his own verdict that ‘This has to end’.

It’s a shame Carrier has collected such a disparate group of people and selected helpful words out of context in order to argue his own conviction that New Testament studies is ‘fucked’. It’s also regrettable that Carrier avoids discussion of crucial historical Jesus scholars such as Roger Aus, Maurice Casey (whose work on Aramaic Carrier routinely omits because it is inconvenient and he cannot understand it) Martin Hengel, William Horbury, who discuss method, evaluate it and constantly seek to improve it.

Method evolves with advances in knowledge and technical expertise; it cannot be shortcut by bogus and inapplicable mathematical formulas. Indeed, the nature of critical scholarship is to provide a continuing critique of the historical methods of previous generations and their application; to evaluate and revise them, and to help them to evolve and to improve.  At no point in such a process does a critical scholar throw his or her hands in the air and pronounce a fatwah on all preceding efforts.  Discussing and debating application and constantly evaluating method, Mark Goodacre whom Carrier cites out of context, writes,

‘This is not to argue for the replacement of one criterion (multiple attestation) for another (accidental information), but to suggest, rather, that crude, ham-fisted application of criteria was never likely to yield reliable historical results in the quest of the historical Jesus.[19]

Goodacre’s incisive comments are entirely correct and illustrate the sort of academic discussion critical scholars are engaged in.

It is presently too early to expect a consensus, even on methods, among all critical scholars, in view of new evidence and new argument especially since the 1970s and in view of more recent developments in Aramaic scholarship. Consensus involving ideological extremes is impossible and this has a regrettable effect on the most critical scholarship because all critical scholars are human beings who necessarily begin and continue their lives within some kind of social framework.

Aramaic, Greek and Porter.

Carrier’s section on ‘Aramaic Context’ moves beyond the incompetent to the barely comprehensible.[20] Astonishingly he once again relies on the Christian fundamentalist Stanley Porter, forcing even an inattentive reader to ask whether he cannot read any reputable critical scholars? Porter needs to believe that Jesus taught in Greek. He put this clearly on the Website of McMaster Divinity College, the theological seminary where he works. Here Porter comments on New Testament Greek: ‘I love the challenge of developing students who are passionate about learning New Testament Greek, the language that God used when he wished to communicate with us directly about his Son, and in which the New Testament is written.’[21]

So that’s it, then. Jesus must have spoken Greek because it is God’s language. It follows that Porter’s scholarship is a sham, and this is why it contains so many predicable mistakes. One mistake is to downplay or even omit the evidence that Jesus spoke and consequently taught in Aramaic. Noting quotations in Aramaic in the synoptic Gospels, Porter comments, ‘By this reasoning it is more plausible to argue that Jesus did most of his teaching in Greek, since the Gospels are all Greek documents.’[22]

This misrepresents the nature of the Gospels themselves. They were written in Greek to communicate the ‘good news’ to Greek-speaking Christians. This mere fact does not tell us in which language Jesus taught, whereas the Aramaic words and idioms in the synoptic Gospels cannot be explained unless the Gospel writers could expect their audiences to know or be told that the ministry took place in an Aramaic-speaking environment, and this is part of the evidence that Jesus must have taught in Aramaic. This is supported by peculiarities such as ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, which is not normal monoglot Greek, and which makes excellent sense as a translation of br ’nash(a)’. Porter’s second major mistake is to exaggerate the use of Greek in Israel. For example, Porter has Galilee ‘completely surrounded by Hellenistic culture’.[23] This Hellenistic culture was however Gentile, and its presence in cities such as Tyre and Scythopolis is entirely consistent with its rejection by Aramaic-speaking Jews. Again, Porter refers to the Greek names of the musical instruments at Daniel 3.5.[24] These are however the instruments of Nebuchadnezzar, and represent in real life the favourite instruments of the Hellenistic persecutor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. They are the only Greek words in the text of Daniel precisely because they represent Hellenistic persecution, so they reveal very little knowledge of Greek and absolute rejection of it.

Moreover, it is notorious that this is the limit of Greek words in Biblical Aramaic. Qumran Aramaic has no Greek loanwords,[25] an there were very few Greek loanwords in Aramaic until after the time of Jesus. Fundamentalist Christians, however, believe in the traditions of their elders, according to which the book of Daniel, iconic in conservative circles for its providential significance to Christianity, is indisputable scriptural evidence of the use of Greek words in Aramaic in the sixth century BCE, a view which on scholarly grounds must be regarded as completely wrong.

Among genuine evidence of Jews using Greek, Porter cites the funerary inscriptions from Beth She‘arim, noting that they date from the first to the sixth centuries CE, and subsequently responding to criticism by continuing to maintain them as evidence that ‘some from that area, including possibly Jesus, used Greek’.[26] But ‘only a few of the village’s tombs date to the first century CE, and these do not contain inscriptions’.[27] Thus all the tomb inscriptions from Beth She‘arim are too late in date to affect the question of which language(s) Jesus is likely to have spoken in order to communicate with audiences in first century rural Galilee.

So much of Porter’s evidence is from a later time or the wrong place that it should not be used to support the notion of Jesus conducting a Greek-speaking ministry in the Galilean countryside or in relatively small towns such as Capernaum. Porter also drew on what was then recent research to support his view, including the blunt declaration that Sepphoris, where Jesus’ ministry conspicuously did not take place, was a ‘thoroughly Hellenized city.’ This has now been exposed as a temporary American trend, and the Jewishness of the area of the historic ministry has been recognised.[28]

Yet fundamentalist Christian Porter is a ‘scholar’ on whom Carrier relies.

Carrier also dismisses all proposed evidence of Aramaisms in the Gospels with ludicrous comments which show that he has not read relevant primary sources nor any significant secondary literature upon which it is based. He comments, ‘If every instance is a Semitism, then it is not evidence of an Aramaic source’,[29] and then assumes that every instance is a general Semitism (although he doesn’t distinguish the difference) and dismisses Casey’s evidence and entire argument of cumulative weight.[30]

Indeed Carrier has assumed it’s sufficient not to read Casey’s meticulous works because he can dismiss them on a prior assumption, but won’t read his academic arguments to see why Casey believes in written Aramaic sources underlying parts of the synoptic Gospels, not just ‘general Semitisms’. Casey does address the possibility of general Semitisms and has demonstrated in his arguments precisely why and where they are invalid. Carrier for his part repeatedly claims to have referred to ‘experts’, but he does not give proper references, and much scholarship precedes the discovery of Aramaic documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls and is consequently out of date. When he says that experts he knows reject Casey’s work on the ‘son of man’ he is oblivious to the difference between critical reviews and those clouded by hopeless bias.[31]  Needless to say, Casey’s work is rejected by all fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, who are determined to believe that ‘Son of man’ in the Gospels is derived from Daniel 7, a view which is still attractive to more liberal Christians because it derives what they think of as a Christological title from Scripture. The unfortunate fact is that most New Testament scholars are not competent Aramaists and Casey’s work has to be interpreted and interpreters trusted for critical interpretation. How many of these ‘scholars’ read more than 3,500 examples of the Aramaic term br ’nash(a)’ when they were deciding what it meant? Casey is the only such scholar known to me!

 The Family of the Historical Jesus

 Another significant point of contention is Jesus’ family, whose existence is one of the arguments in favour of his existence. Mythicists pour scorn on this, and especially on Gal. 1.19. At Gal. 1.18, Paul says that after his conversion he went to Arabia, then after three years he went up to Jerusalem to question Cephas, and stayed with him for 15 days: ‘but I did not see any other of the apostles except Jacob the brother of the Lord.’ Of course the Greek word ‘adelphos’ does not necessarily denote a sibling, because it is also used to denote members of a community. Doherty cites 1 Cor 15.6, according to which the risen Jesus appeared to ‘over 500 brethren at once’.[32] These were obviously members of the Christian community, not siblings of the historical Jesus. Noting however not very accurately Phil. 1.14, where members of the community are described by Paul in prison as ‘most of the brethren who have been made confident in the Lord because of my chains’, he declares that ‘James seems to have been head of a community in Jerusalem which bore witness to the spiritual Christ, a group apparently calling itself “brethren in/of the Lord”; the two versions were probably interchangeable.’[33] This is completely spurious: Jacob, and anyone else who might have been a sibling of Jesus, is never called ‘brother in the Lord’, and members of the community in general are never called ‘brethren of the Lord’.

Doherty then seeks to sidestep 1 Cor. 9.5, which has a long tradition of being misinterpreted, going back at least to Drews and others in the late nineteenth century. Here Paul clearly distinguishes a group and a person, ‘the brothers of the Lord and Cephas’. It is obvious that the term ‘brother(s) of the Lord’ is not applied to all members of the community, but Doherty suggests that this ‘may be due to a certain looseness of language’, and that Peter’s separate mention in this text ‘may be for emphasis and need not mean that he is not one of the “brothers”.[34] This suggestion is completely arbitrary. Paul’s language is mundanely precise. ‘The brothers of the Lord’ are Jesus’ brothers enumerated at Mark 6.3f., and Cephas was not one of them. Doherty then expounds his fantasy world to replace this;

‘…other explanations are possible. My own would be that the Jerusalem sect known to Paul began a number of years earlier as a monastic group calling itself “brothers of the Lord” (possibly meaning God) and after those initial visions revealing the existence of the dying and rising Son as recounted in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, this group expanded its “mandate” to encompass apostolic work and attracted satellite members who, while being referred to as “brothers,” were thought of as distinctive from the original core group.’[35]

This is creative fiction, not scholarship, assumptions supported by guesses and distortion, by Doherty alone, not historical research at all, and it is regrettable that anyone should take it seriously.

Doherty then makes the convenient suggestion that the word ‘the (ton)’ might not have been in the earliest mss., though there is no evidence of its omission. He then declares, ‘I once asked if Paul had the word ton written in big caps’, because Doherty is too ignorant to know that all mss at this date were written in large capital letters – small letters or miniscules having not yet come into use.[36] This illustrates very well that, years after fundamentalist treatment of the text of the New Testament as inerrant, mythicists treat it as something they can always alter when they feel like it, in accordance with their predilections and in total contempt for anything recognisable as principles of reasonable textual criticism.

Doherty includes a very confused and ignorant discussion of what was possible in Greek, and of what we should call the generic use of the Greek article. First of all he declares that ‘there was no way to specify “brother of the Lord” except by simply leaving out the definite article.[37] Paul could however have done this. Secondly, he could have written adelphos tis tou kuriou, ‘a brother of the Lord’. Thirdly, he could have written heis tōn adelphōn tou kuriou, ‘one of the brothers of the Lord’. Paul had however no reason to write any of these things. Jacob was a common name in a culture which had no equivalent of our surnames, and Paul had this very simple way of saying which Jacob he met, in a high context culture in which further explanation was not necessary.  After his inadequate discussion of the Greek article, which should have said simply that it is generic more often than e.g. the English definite article ‘the’, Doherty is left without a reason for Paul’s description of Jacob as ‘the brother of the Lord’. He ends up suggesting that it may have originated ‘as an interpolation or a marginal gloss’. All this is caused by anti-historical convictions that Paul could not have referred to Jesus’ brother Jacob, as he did. It is also based on an arbitrary view of New Testament textual criticism, which is hopelessly out of date.

The rest of Jesus’ family also had names drawn from major figures of Jewish history and culture. His father was called ‘Joseph’, after a major patriarch who ruled over Egypt under the Pharaoh. His mother was called ‘Miriam’, after Moses’ sister. ‘Jesus’ is derived from the Greek form of Yēshua‘¸ whom we usually call ‘Joshua’, the major figure of Jewish history who was believed to have succeeded Moses and led Israel across the Jordan into the promised land. At the time of Jesus this name was believed to mean YHWH saves, or the like, so in effect ‘God saves’ (cf. Matt. 1.21). His brother ‘Jacob’ was of course called after the eponymous patriarch of the whole nation, ‘Jacob’ who was also called ‘Israel’. The other brothers were called ‘Judah’, after the fourth son of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, who was regarded as the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Judah: ‘Joseph’ again: and ‘Simeon’, who was believed to have been the second son of Jacob and Leah, and thus the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Simeon.

This family background locates Jesus right inside traditional Judaism. Trying to explain this to contemporary English speaking readers, Fredriksen drew a regrettable analogy with famous Americans’ names, regrettable because the result is not what one expects. Atheist blogger Neil Godfrey, an Australian ‘meta-data’ librarian, thus plucked her brief comments completely out of context, and cited her in favour of the opposite interpretation. While she correctly said, ‘the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past’, Godfrey declared,

‘Add to this the fact that the names are introduced within a narrative that serves the purpose of likening Jesus’ family situation to that of other biblical heroes, like Joseph and David to name only the most prominent ones, and thus conforms to the biblical pattern of being rejected by his own family, and we are entitled to hold some reservations about the authenticity of the list.’[38]

This means nothing more significant than that Godfrey proposes not to believe what he does not fancy. As a member of the Worldwide Church of God he could not cope with the Jewishness of Jesus, and when he converted to atheism this did not change.  As N.T. Wrong astutely observed, ‘Once a fundie always a fundie. He’s just batting for the other side, now.’ [39]


Still More Incompetence.

The undergraduate student Tom Verenna has recently attempted to contribute a piece, ‘Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship’, in Bible and Interpretation May, 2012.[40] This is yet another scandalously ignorant outpouring written in the form of (yet another) attack on New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman. I do not wish to defend Ehrman’s book but Verenna’s ignorance of New Testament scholarship is indicated by his declaration that the whole idea that Jesus existed is contrary to recent scholarship. In particular, his reference to ‘credible scholars like Thomas Thompson, Bob Price or Carrier’ has two people (Thompson and Carrier) who have never been properly qualified in New Testament Studies, and one (Price) who was a fundamentalist and who was converted to atheism without ever progressing through the rites of academic passage that would make him a critical scholar as opposed to a populariser of radical and unsupportable ideas.[41] Verenna ought to learn more before he pronounces, but his enthusiastic outpourings show no signs of a desire to learn.

Carrier’s over-long blog post[42] reviewing a very very brief piece by Ehrman in the Huffington Post (whenever was a book review ten times longer than the thing reviewed?), misrepresents several things. For example, he cites Philo, De Prov. II, 64, to show that Philo ‘made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem’. This passage survives only in Armenian, which in general does not provide reliable tradition. Moreover, the passage does not say that he ‘made regular pilgrimages’ at all. It only says that he went via Ascalon, and it is perfectly consistent with the common view that he went only once.

Both Carrier and Verenna claim that Ehrman implies one’s career will be ruined if a scholars challenges the historical existence of Jesus. Ehrman, of course, does not, and Verenna and Carrier, who have never held academic positions, can point to no case since the nineteenth century in German protestant faculties where a career has been jeopardized by holding radical views, competently argued, vetted and defended. This is because there is no evidence and they assume a conspicuous falsehood.  The modern university in most parts of the developed world prizes academic freedom as an unalienable right to profess what you have learned without restriction:  that is why the convention called academic tenure exists. Indeed, even untenured lecturers, especially in the United Kingdom and the Antipodes, are appointed to permanent positions where they suffer no fear for voicing inconvenient positions.  One stands aghast not only that people like Carrier, Godfrey and Verenna subscribe to such opinions but that they feel free to broadcast their ignorance in writing.

Atheist blogger Neil Godfrey defends himself for his misleading comments on the work of Casey, Crossley and other scholars whom he has criticised for ‘circular reasoning, begging the question and special pleading’ after conveniently replacing their learned arguments (which he did not understand) with simplistic and misleading summaries which is all he can understand.  It is also apparent he does not read whole books, once claiming on his blog ‘I’m a librarian, but I never see or touch a book.’[43]

This is perhaps the one credible statement in Godfrey’s expanding dabble into the field of biblical studies: if one does not read entire books from beginning to end as a matter of habit before commenting on or attempting to critique them, what chance is there for scholarship to be fairly represented, and what confidence can a reader have in the validity of such critiques?  Much scholarship is incompletely available on line which could lead to the sort of hopeless misrepresentations, misinterpretations and muddles, by the likes of these atheist bloggers. A recent example of internet noise passing for information was a post by Godfrey  defending Steven Carr who had complained that Casey’s recent book Jesus of Nazareth was not given on a Nottingham university reading list. When I pointed out that there had not been time to put it there, given its recent publication date,   Godfrey announced that to list it  ‘needs nothing more than that the book is available and in print.’[44] This is completely untrue, and shows no grasp of what is involved in running a major university library. This illustrates as well the recurrent petulance of the comments by Godfrey and Carr, to which I have frequently drawn attention–and atheist blogger Neil Godfrey, who is a librarian, ought to know better.

Albert Schweitzer in his Historical Context 

Martin Luther, condemning the selection of words out of context and misrepresentation, says, ‘He does nothing more than latch on to a small word and smear over with his spittle as he pleases, but meanwhile he does not take into account other texts which overthrow he who smear and spits, so that he is up-ended with all four limbs in the air. So here, after he has raved and smeared for a long time … [he] is like the ostrich, the foolish bird which thinks it is wholly concealed when it gets its neck under a branch.’[45]

Mythicists also love to quote old scholarship out of its historical context. Schweitzer is one of their favourites for this. For example, atheist blogger Godfrey comments, apparently trying to demonstrate mythicists don’t use Schweitzer to support their claims, but his comment merely demonstrates that they do.  He is oblivious to the fact that nobody suggests that mythicists pretend Schweitzer was a mythicist.  This is further demonstration that Godfrey shows utter ignorance of what misrepresentation of scholarship is.  Mythicists misinterpret Schweitzer to claim there is no historically valid evidence for historicity of Jesus.  On his blog Godrey writes:[46]

‘Schweitzer understood the limitations of what generally passes for historical method far better than nearly every contemporary historical Jesus scholar I have read: In reality, however, these writers [those arguing for the historicity of Jesus against mythicists] are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.” (From page 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

Little wonder that Schweitzer called upon Christians to let go of their faith in an unknowable historical Jesus (whose very existence could not even pass the theoretical norms of positive probability) and ‘turn to a new metaphysic.’

This ignores the fact that, like von Ranke, whom Godfrey also loves to quote , Schweitzer was a committed German Christian and was not inveighing against the historicity of Jesus or advocating an end of the search to establish his actual historical coordinates. As such, Schweitzer believed that salvation was by faith, not by works, and historical research was merely a ‘work’. This is what he considered ‘uncertain’ about all historical research. It has nothing to do with what present-day historians or incompetent bloggers mean when they think that something is ‘historically uncertain’, which normally indicates that it may or may not have happened. It is well known that Schweitzer followed Weiss in supposing that Jesus expected the kingdom of God to come in his own time–and was mistaken. Schweitzer deserves to be quoted at length, since his memorable statement of the status quaestiones has dominated serious historical research for a century:

His [Weiss’s] Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, published in 1892, is in its own way as important as Strauss’s first Life of Jesus. He lays down the third great alternative which the study of the life of Jesus had to meet….either eschatological or non-eschatological!….The general conception of the kingdom was first grasped by Johannes Weiss. All modern ideas, he insists…must be eliminated from it; when this is done, we arrive at a kingdom of God which is wholly future….He exercises no ‘messianic functions’, but waits, like others, for God to bring about the coming of the kingdom by supernatural means…. But it was not as near as Jesus thought. The impenitence and hardness of heart of a great part of the people, and the implacable enmity of his opponents, at length convinced him that the establishment of the kingdom of God could not yet take place….It becomes clear to him that his own death must be the ransom price….

The setting up of the kingdom was to be preceded by the day of judgement. In describing the messianic glory Jesus makes use of the traditional picture, but he does so with modesty, restraint and sobriety. Therein consists his greatness….

The ministry of Jesus is therefore not in principle different from that of John the Baptist….What distinguishes the work of Jesus from that of the Baptist is only his consciousness of being the Messiah. He awoke to this consciousness at his baptism. But the messiahship which he claims is not a present office; its exercise belongs to the future….

…Reimarus…was the first, and indeed before Johannes Weiss, the only writer to recognise and point out that the teaching of Jesus was purely eschatological….But Weiss places the assertion on an unassailable scholarly basis.”[47]

Now where has all the supposedly historical uncertainty gone? It was never there! In this second passage, Schweitzer was discussing what really happened, and he had no doubts about that at all. His apparent doubts in the much quoted passage above are not historical doubts. They are entirely due to his conviction, which comes indirectly from his Lutheran beginnings, that salvation is by faith, not works, and historical research is a ‘work’ which does not bring salvation.

Genuine historical knowledge, however, restores to theology full freedom of movement! It presents to it the person of Jesus in an eschatological world-view, yet one which is modern through and through because His mighty spirit pervades it.

This Jesus is far greater than the one conceived in modern terms: he is really a superhuman personality. With his death he destroyed the form of his Weltanschauung, rendering his own eschatology impossible. Thereby he gives to all peoples and to all times the right to apprehend him in terms of their thoughts and conceptions, in order that his spirit may pervade their ‘Weltanschauung’ as it quickened and transfigured the Jewish eschatology.”[48]


Successus improborum plures allicit.[50] Carrier slanders scholars with spurious and unqualified accusations such as being ‘insane’ and a ‘liar’ which is merely a reflection of his own n0n-professionalism and inability to engage in critical academic debate.  He has no evidence that his claims are accurate. His attacks are entirely personal and usually conducted in the kind of language we would expect after a few rounds at the local.  They merely appear to be defensive emotional outursts.

Carrier  holds no academic post and the prospect for such is unlikely, a prophecy he would no doubt find preordained in the conspiracy of  ‘mainstream’ biblical scholarship against the truth of his conclusions.  In any case his field is not New Testament or the History of Religion.  To date, his doctoral thesis has not been published.  How does an author of self published books, which have never been peer reviewed, become renowned?   His atheist blog boasts “Richard Carrier is the renowned author of Sense and Goodness without God,  Proving History, and Not the Impossible Faith, as well as numerous articles online and in print. His avid fans span the world from Hong Kong to Poland. With a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University, he specializes in the modern philosophy of naturalism, the origins of Christianity, and the intellectual history of Greece and Rome, with particular expertise in ancient philosophy, science and technology. He has also become a noted defender of scientific and moral realism, Bayesian reasoning, and the epistemology of history.”  One does not generally assume to have ‘expertise’ in areas one is self taught.  Carrier does and his egotistical pretences of learning, compromise his claim to credibility further. As Frank Leahy apparently said ‘Egotism is the anaesthetic that dulls the pains of stupidity’.[51]

His self published books follow here:
self published: AuthorHouse
self published: CreateSpace
self published: Lulu
Doctoral Thesis?? not published.

‘Renowned’?  If Richard Carrier had been Jesus at least we’d know how the gospels got published.  He has claimed on facebook to have covered “the whole issue [of historical criteria, citing] all the relevant scholarship on why those criteria are all flawed.”  He has done neither of these things.  His forthcoming volume is called On the Historicity of Jesus Christ.  The title alone in fact demonstrates how out of touch with critical scholarship Carrier is.  “Christ”?

It was unfortunate that Carrier managed to be invited by Robert M Price onto the Jesus Project.  As Bruce Chilton wrote in January 2009

“the Project has focused on an incoherent set of some of the least important questions in scholarship. For example, it keeps asking “Did Jesus exist?” as if that issue had not been raised repeatedly during the past two centuries… the Project has attempted to address questions of critical approach without a thorough grounding in academic study since the eighteenth century. The result is that some of the assertions made by contributors to the Project are not well informed and invoke quests for “objectivity” that seem more at home in nineteenth-century Europe than in twenty-first century America. What is more worrying, actual knowledge of primary sources (and of their languages) does not seem as great among participants in the Project as among Fellows of the Seminar… Fundamentalists are not the only partisans who permit their wishes to cloud what they see and that it takes more than a declaration of “objectivity” to acquire the discipline of reasoning from evidence, both textual and archaeological”.[52]

Chilton accurately identifies flaws which are so deplorably typical of the mythicist approaches to religious texts today.

Delusion is defined according to Carrier by three criteria: certainty (held with absolute conviction), incorrigibilty (not changeable by compelling counter argument or proof to the contrary), and impossibility or falsity of content.   These criteria are as characteristic of fundamentalist belief, as they are of atheistic Jesus denial, and Carrier’s atheistic convictions, and self image.  It is slightly ironic therefore that he announces during this same talk on Christian Delusion, “I don’t think there’s a problem with being a dick”.[53] If that clownish attitude existed in critical scholarship, academia would be a circus.[54]

In order to continue to advance knowledge and make progress in historical enquiry, we need to extinguish the maladroit methods and bumbling amateurism from scholarship.  From the muddled and ignorant delusions of Richard Carrier to the ideological extremes which have lingered too long and still creep into scholarship through the theological seminary corridor.

To ensure the healthy future of critical historical enquiry and continue to inspire the process of constructive debate and analysis, the continued development of new argument and evidence, and encourage the evolution of improved methodological approaches and application through precision and fine tuning, we need to start taking responsibility for maintaining high standards in scholarship.

This will be ensured with expertise brought about by specific specialist training in all aspects of New Testament and religion, including ancient languages and history, accompanied with sophisticated interdisciplinary knowledge.

It seems fitting to return to Albert Schweitzer.  Although he is renowned as marking the end of the first Quest for a historical Jesus, it could be argued that he inspired future historians with his insight and attitude, and also with his passion for life, his empathy and dedication to clarity:  “What has been presented as Christianity during these nineteen centuries is only a beginning, full of mistakes, not full blown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus… To the question whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic.”[55]

[1] Richard C. Carrier, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2012) p.50, with p.301 n.10.

[2] Carrier, Proving History, pp.54-60.

[3] See especially R.D. Aus, Samuel, Saul and Jesus: Three Early Palestinian Jewish Christian Gospel Haggadoth, (Scholar’s Press, 1994) ch. 3, esp. pp. 134-57, with a summary for the general reader at Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching, (T&T Clarke, 2010) pp. 447-8.

[4] Carrier, Proving History, p. 60.

[5] Carrier, Proving History, p. 45.

[6] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 11-14.

[7] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 126-69.

[8] Carrier, Proving History, p. 126, quoting J.P. Meier, Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, ABRL), vol I p.168.

[9] Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 102; Cambridge: University Press, 1998);  J. G. Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity (JSNTSup 266. London: T&T Clark International, 2004).

[10] Carrier, Proving History, p. 317 n. 68.

[11] Joachim Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, translated by Norman Perrin, (S.C.M. Press, 1966) pp. 71-3, utilising older secondary literature in German.

[12] For a fully explanatory summary, see now Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teachings (T&T Clarke, 2010) pp. 415-7, 425-8, 438-47.

[13] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 153-5, with p. 317 n. 68, citing Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (NY: Harper & Row, 1971).

[14] Cohn, Trial, p. 38.

[15] Carrier, Proving History, p. 154.

[16] cf. Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching, (T&T Clark, 2010) pp. 191-2, 425-8, 439.



[19] Mark Goodacre, “Criticizing the Criterion of Multiple Attestation: The Historical Jesus and the Question of Sources” in Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne (eds), Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T & T Clark, 2012) forthcoming.

[20] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 185-6.

[22] Stanley Porter, “Jesus and the Use of Greek”, 125 n. 9, repeated in Porter, “EXCURSUS”, 171.

[23] Porter, ‘Jesus and the Use of Greek’, p. 135.

[24] Porter, ‘Jesus and the Use of Greek’, p. 139.

[25] F. García Martínez, ‘Greek Loanwords in the Copper Scroll’, in F. García Martínez & G.P. Luttikhuizen, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome: Studies in Ancient Cultural Interaction in Honour of A.Hilhorst (JSJSup 82. Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp. 119-45 (121), noting also the absence of Greek loanwords from Qumran Hebrew, other than in the Copper Scroll.

[26] Porter, ‘Jesus and the Use of Greek’, 146-7; ‘EXCURSUS’, 172-3, responding to Casey, ‘In Which Language’, p. 327, and Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 102; Cambridge: University Press, 1998) p. 66.

[27] M. Chancey, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (SNTSMS 118. Cambridge: CUP, 2002), 108-9, citing N. Avigad, Beth She‘arim. Report on the Excavations during 1953-1958. Vol. III: Catacombs 12-23 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1976): 260-1. Avigad (pp. 124-5, 261) has catacomb 21 as the earliest, dating perhaps from the Herodian period, but perhaps later, and with no inscriptions.

[28] Porter, ‘EXCURSUS’, p. 176: see now especially M. Chancey, ‘The Cultural Milieu of Ancient Sepphoris’, NTS 47 (2001): 127-45; id., Myth of a Gentile Galileeid., Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (SNTSMS 134. Cambridge: CUP, 2005).

[30] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 185-6.

[32] E. Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor ManThe Case for a Mythical Jesus (Ottawa: Age of Reason, 2009), pp. 60-61.

[33] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 60.

[34] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 61.

[35] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 61.

[36] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 62.

[37] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 62.

[38] P. Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 240; quoted out of context by atheist blogger Neil Godfrey:

[41] See Casey’s essay in this series: and further on Joel Watts’ blog, with comments by Casey and myself, Casey’s comments include a refutation of Verenna.

[45] Against the Heavenly Prophets: In the Matter of Images and Sacrament, (1525) Vol. 40, Martin Luther’s Works: Church and Ministry II (Translated by Conrad Bergendof) p. 185.

[47] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (First Complete Edition. Translated by W. Montgomery, J.R.Coates, Susan Cupitt and John Bowden from the German Geschichte der Leben-Jesus-Forschung, published 1913 by J.C.B.Mohr, Tübingen. Ed. John Bowden. London: SCM, 2000), pp. 198-201.

[48] Albert Schweitzer: The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, translated by Walter Lowrie (Dodd Mead and Co, New York, 1914) p. 251.

[49] Albert Schweitzer, Ehrfurcht vor den Tieren: Ein Lesebuch, (München, Beck, 2011) p. 22.

[50] The success of the wicked encourages more: Phaedrus, Fables, II. 3. 7.

[51] appropriately Wikipedia for stupid people.

[55] Albert Schweitzer: Out of my Life and Thought, (John Hopkins University Press, 1998) pp 241-2.


The Wanton Penis

Perhaps it is all the talk about gay marriage that has  me thinking about the sorry state of the  penis and how marriage is no surefire cure for it.

I know there will be disagreement, the same people who groaned when they heard Mel Gibson’s line in What Women Want:

Q: Do you know the difference between a wife and a job?

A: After ten years the job still sucks.

But if this is crass, turn to poetry, where penis power is often on display.

Sometimes it is disguised, as in the final volley of the Odyssey as Odysseus’s mighty arrows that dwarf those of the suitors and win Penelope’s flagging attention.  (Really?  You didn’t get that?).

Sometimes, it can be quite direct, not to say blunt or probing, as in this not at all flaccid offering from the mythographer Robert Graves:

Down, wanton, down! Have you no shame
That at the whisper of Love’s name,
Or Beauty’s, presto! up you raise
Your angry head and stand at gaze?

Poor bombard-captain, sworn to reach
The ravelin and effect a breach–
Indifferent what you storm or why,
So be that in the breach you die!

Love may be blind, but Love at least
Knows what is man and what mere beast;
Or Beauty wayward, but requires
More delicacy from her squires.

Tell me, my witless, whose one boast
Could be your staunchness at the post,
When were you made a man of parts
To think fine and profess the arts?

Will many-gifted Beauty come
Bowing to your bald rule of thumb,
Or Love swear loyalty to your crown?
Be gone, have done! Down, wanton, down!

And sometimes the fate of the penis can be a religious thing, in the right hands,  as in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy,

…yes when I lit the lamp because he must have come 3 or 4 times with that tremendous big red brute of a thing he has I thought the vein or whatever the dickens they call it was going to burst though his nose is not so big after I took off all my things with the blinds down after my hours dressing and perfuming and combing it like iron or some kind of a thick crowbar standing all the time he must have eaten oysters I think a few dozen he was in great singing voice no I never in all my life felt anyone had one the size of that to make you feel full up he must have eaten a whole sheep after whats the idea making us like that with a big hole in the middle of us or like a Stallion driving it up into you because thats all they want out of you with that determined vicious look in his eye I had to halfshut my eyes still he hasnt such a tremendous amount of spunk in him when I made him pull out and do it on me considering how big it is so much the better in case any of it wasnt washed out properly the last time I let him finish it in me nice invention they made for women for him to get all the pleasure but if someone gave them a touch of it themselves theyd know what I went through with Milly nobody would believe cutting her teeth too and Mina Purefoys husband give us a swing out of your whiskers filling her up with a child or twins once a year as regular as the clock always with a smell of children off her the one they called budgers or something like a nigger with a shock of hair on it Jesusjack the child is a black the last time I was there a squad of them falling over one another and bawling you couldnt hear your ears supposed to be healthy not satisfied till they have us swollen out like elephants or I dont know what supposing I risked having another not off him though still if he was married Im sure hed have a fine strong child but I dont know Poldy has more spunk in him yes …those fine young men I could see down in Margate strand bathingplace from the side of the rock standing up in the sun naked like a God or something and then plunging into the sea with them why arent all men like that thered be some consolation for a woman like that lovely little statue he bought I could look at him all day long curly head and his shoulders his finger up for you to listen theres real beauty and poetry for you I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock there so simple I wouldnt mind taking him in my mouth if nobody was looking as if it was asking you to suck it so clean and white he looks with his boyish face I would too in 1/2 a minute even if some of it went down what its only like gruel or the dew theres no danger besides hed be so clean compared with those pigs of men I suppose never dream of washing it from I years end to the other the most of them only thats what gives the women the moustaches Im sure itll be grand if I can only get in with a handsome young poet at my age Ill throw them the 1st thing in the morning till I see if the wishcard comes out or Ill try pairing the lady herself and see if he comes out Ill read and study all I can find or learn a bit off by heart if I knew who he likes so he wont think me stupid if he thinks all women are the same and I can teach him the other part Ill make him feel all over him till he half faints under me then hell write about me lover and mistress publicly too…

Maybe someday we will all meet our Molly and the wanton will become the well-behaved.   But Molly will lament that, and marriage will not make it better.  Do you think?


Two pieces in the last three days have opened my eyes to a new reality.  Being opened to a new reality doesn’t happen every day, probably because as you get older there are fewer realities that are actually new.  Just things you have forgotten that seem new when you rediscover them.

One article which was good enough to repost in its entirety came from Jacques Berlinerblau, who often says wise things and should be heeded when he does.  Jacques has commented frequently on the need for secularists and even atheists to learn table manners and not rely simply on the assumed rectitude of their position while trying to influence people and win converts.

They could learn a lesson from that old time religion, Christianity, where instead of just shouting at people, like John the Baptist did (and look what happened to him), St Paul professed to become all things to all men in order to win souls to his cause.  Eventually, that strategy made Christianity the majority faith of the Roman empire.

Of course, the atheists old and new don’t believe there are souls to be won.  But there are political values at stake, and elections, and demographics which atheists and “seculars” do claim to care about.  But so far Americn secularism hasn’t had the savvy to know how to preach its gospel in a way that (really) ups the numbers.

For Berlinerblau, this has something to do with an historical incompetence at every level of the secular movment: Without naming names that could be named, he cites

“…a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders. …Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund.

Which brings me to the second piece, by E J Dionne, a truly liberal soul.  The always bluff Freedom from Religion Foundation, which sees itself as a “radical” conservator of First Amendment rights, has outed liberal Catholics for being hypocrites and challenged them to do the right thing: leave the Church.  Writes Dionne:

Recently, a group called [the FFRF] ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post cast as an “open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics.” Its headline commanded: “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.”

The ad included the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by this paragraph: “If you think you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a ‘good Catholic,’ you are doing ‘bad’ to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.”

Yes, it does sound just like the nun who told you to give up looking at dirty magazines during math class. Or maybe I have given away too much of my eighth grade year at St Joseph School.

But there is a pattern here that displays itself, as in neon lights, through the shouting.  I have commented more than three times on this site about the ugliness of the American Atheists’ (and others’) billboard campaigns and the way atheism itself is promoted by using a strategy that depends, basically, on repeating one hundred times the mantra:  “Wake Up Stupid: Nobody is at Home Up There.”

This is supported by the infinitely reasonable proposition that if there is no Santa Claus, no big bad wolf, and no such thing as ghosts, there is no Sky Fairy either. Anyone who says there is is just using up the oxygen that smart people need to grow brain cells.

But guess what?  Many people who would call themselves religious–like E J Dionne, and even the resoundingly secular Jacques Berlinerblau–are not at all stupid.  And they wonder why the advocates of freethought and secularism don’t get that.  Why is a secularism that flows from principles of religious tolerance more suspect than a secularism that flows from atheist suppositions?  It is a good question, because in those countries where a dogmatic atheism has been imposed from the top, tolerance has not fared well.  Restrictive practices based on the godlike perfection of the state–witness Chen Guangcheng– have.

And that leads me to conclude: there is a troubling religiophobia going on here.  The shouters and ultimatum-givers are not just in favor of separation of church and state, or freedom of (or from) religion, or secularism or the right not to believe in God and say so openly.

There is profound stress and anxiety about religion in these movements.


Is this a teenage anger pathology that comes from a passive fear of the gods? A bad church experience that stems from the awakening that Pastor Bob (or Sister Mary Therese) lied to you about…everything? The possibility that despite social approval of your atheism, your private doubts sometimes clash with that approval and put unreasonable and seductive thoughts in your head–a hankering for a ten o’lock sermon or a quick Mass at St Aloysius?

Probably none of the above.  It’s probably more easily explained as your anxiety over the existence of what you have come to believe is SPS–Stupid People Syndrome:  your feeling that the co-existence of atheists and believers has only been paralleled in human history by the brief co-existence of Neanderthal and modern humans.  And it would, after all, be so much easier if social disapproval could be generalized and society were rid of religion once and for all–its lures and seductions driven from the world and the gods into the fiery pit.   Maybe then you could get some sleep.  And stop being so Angry.

Homo Religiosus

Until the day that happens and the First Amendment is repealed, which is what the solution would require, reading Seneca and a little Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius on the gods would help:  They had this phobia mastered long before Christian thinkers like Boethius took up the question.   The gods are lazy blighters who don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. You are on your own.

The point is, religiophobia leads to aggression and aggression often manifests itself in stupidity and rash behavior.  I am not certain, given the religious perspective that God takes care of everything, that religion exhibits fear in quite the same way–which is a poor way of saying that fear of the gods (theophobia) is different from fear that there are no gods (religiophobia).

Oh, I know: you atheists out there will tell me I am making things up and that every atheist has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid of the big bad wolf or the big old sky fairy or any of those things.  And I say: Good for you, Pinocchio.  Then stop worrying about what goes on in the heads of religious women and men, or their being hypocrites for believing some of the things you no longer believe.

–And read some Seneca.

The Big Idea:

by admin Posted on December 7, 2011

 A New Oxonian Repost from December 2011

hristopher Hitchens is, of all the atheists I admire, the one I admire the most. I want him to live forever. But as that is impossible–for any of us–it’s his voice I will miss the most.

He is a journalist, a polemicist, a bad boy. But he is also a keen observer. And, though he may hide it, a well-trained philosopher. All of the so-called “New Atheists,” except for Harris, whose star sets, were Oxonians. In a group so small, you have to admit, that is unusual–until you think “Shelley.” I would even say Wycliffe, but it would take too long to explain why.

Hitch’s atheism is almost an accoutrement of his personality. He has always reminded me of the cynicism of a young Malcolm Muggeridge who would have hated the old Muggeridge, when the old Malcolm got religion. Hitch and I are the same age. His current condition is one I watch with dismay, but (I’m sure) there will be no final turning here, no retreat as the forces of life and death fight it out in his body, no confiteor at the end.

Malcolm Muggeridge

That is because he is brave. In Five Good Things About Atheism, I gave as reason number one that atheism is probably “right”: there is no God or “supernatural” force that can explain the world as efficiently as a natural force or process. It would be cheating to call that process God. It would be the equivalent of the Grinch strapping a tree branch to a dog’s head and calling it a reindeer.

I also said that it takes a certain amount of courage to make this claim–saying I do not believe in God–not medal of honour courage, perhaps–but the simple courage that could be described as principled and honest. When people say to me proudly, “I have never believed in God. I was an atheist when I was five and saw my mother putting presents under the Christmas tree,” I smile and say, “Right.” If you fit this description read no further.

eligious folk often cling to an improbability argument that permits them first to claim a “supernatural” cause of the universe and then to make many more specific claims about the nature of this cause.

They point to the improbability of life, then intelligent life, or moral life, arising in an “accidental” or non-purposeful way. The whole basis for Michael Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity is a version of an improbability argument, though it lacks a sufficient explanation of what an intelligent designer might “look like” at a moral- and thus at a purpose-level, which some over-educated people call “teleology.” It is nonetheless nonsensical from a philosophical and (yes) a theological point of view.

Why? Because the the improbability of anything cannot be educed as probability of something else. It’s a point as familiar to philosophers and theologians as the principle that “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” The simplest known version is Why a bee can’t fly, a problem solved by John Maynard Smith by looking not at improbability but how bees manage to do it.

I suspect many atheists know that axiom even if they don’t know many others. It is dangerous, however, to rely on it exclusively, because to assert that the universe “happens” without cause, despite a massive amount of physical evidence and probability on its side, has to be “interpreted”: t=0 is simply a statement–that everything we are familiar with came into existence: protons, neutrons, stars, galaxies–even space and time. What is difficult for ordinary (and ordinary religious) people to understand is that in addition to physical things the properties, laws and impressions of physical thingsleft, right, up, down, cause and effect, the stage for all physical laws–emerged in the same event. The question of cause and effect does not arise about the big bang but because of it.

At the same time, long before physics and astronomy captured the imagination of hard-headed empiricists, Saint Augustine ponders just this point and wonders about its relationship to his forming idea of God: space and time do not exist before creation but as a result of it. Time especially is a paradox for him. But if this is true, “cause” and “effect” cannot exist either, because what is causally related is temporally related. What then would it mean to say that God is a “cause” of the universe when the conditions for causality did not arise until it existed?

 His solution was to locate God outside the order of creation. Now we know better. And we know better in part because Augustine raised the question in relation to the Book of Genesis, which he could not take as a factual description of time and creation. Would such questions have arisen apart from the idea of a sufficient being (ens necessarium) cause-all, multi-purpose God? It is hard to say: the history we have is the history we have. But one thing (as I’ve said repeatedly): There was no clutch of atheist scientists scrounging out a meager existence in the hills above Rome waiting to come on board and set the church straight.

To the extent they know anything at all about these discussions, or have any interest in them, it may strike my hardcore atheist opponents as strange that this principle dominated attention during the Middle Ages, when “God” was all about proofs and much less the Bible. But they need to come to terms with the fact that something went on in the two thousand plus years between Jesus and us, or the three thousand between the Old Testament and us, and it wasn’t all dark, not even before Darwin, not even before the Enlightenment, and not even within the many-splendored Church. Which, by the way, wasn’t one thing but many things ranging from a political state to a souvenir factory to a patroness (the sole patroness) of higher education.

hen I say that contemporary and largely American-vintage atheism has made God a little idea, I mean atheists frankly have very little idea of the idea. In fact many who responded to my previous essay, and some in sentences that parse, have said that atheism isn’t about ideas: it is a settled “conclusion” about which there should be not discussion but enforcement and action. Anyone who can read a t-shirt should join the army, or a billboard that assures them that that they are worthy and loved and accepted, even if there is no big old Sky Fairy to magic them into immortal beings.

Two postings deserve mention as proof positive that Atheism’s Little Idea is getting smaller: A certain Jason Rosenhouse (who can’t spell Hoffmann and probably doesn’t care much–Rosen-house–really?) has written an especially imbecilic rejoinder which never engages and so never rejoins, following a recent riveting post where he asks the following seductive question: “We might wonder… why the Bible contains so much awful stuff.” And an especially obtuse and humourless man named Eric MacDonald has once again filled a balloon with gas and let it sputter around in my direction hoping it would hit me in the eye. It didn’t. For the elucidation (5 syllables, thus pretentious) of the latter, I offer Samuel Johnson’s essay “The Bugbear Style” which, as he quotes Shakespeare from memory, he will know by heart.

The atheists have convinced themselves, on the basis of reading dubious statistics badly, that they are an enormous underground movement waiting for a messiah who will lead them to Canaan, or at least to Milwaukee. They believe they are “results-oriented” political movers whose time has come: they have their evangelists and epistle-writers already, and unsurprisingly, just like the early Christians, they all agree with one another. As Jacques Berlinerblau writes, their behavior is all the more baffling when you consider they are “a cohort that prides itself on empirical precision.”

They are appreciative of science for “opening their eyes,” but they need to use them more to explore other kinds of literature, especially serious history, and not the fake atheist history of the websites and the Big Book of Atheist Quotations. It is no good accusing Christian fundamentalists of only reading one book with its skewered view of the world if the response is going to be equally false to the facts of human civilization. A few of their magi accused me of “making up” a quotation I made up from Faust, then (in quick succession as the egg dried on their face) getting the German wrong, then missing the point, then saying the joke wasn’t funny. A number of respondents accused me of “making up” the Sure-Fire Atheist Rapid Response Manual, which even as satire was pretty thin, transparent stuff. Not since Jonathan Swift offered his solution to the ‘Irish Problem’ has an audience been more willing to take seriously what is offered in jest. The new atheist troupe is proving two things, day by day: (1) They are resolute; (2) They don’t know what they are doing. There is a corollary to (2): If they do, they are doing it badly.

ut I do not want to give aid and comfort to the religious zanies simply because I expect more from my atheist comrades than they have so far been able to deliver. I know I will be stretching religious tempers to the breaking point when I say that the the idea of an all-good, all-powerful, self-sufficient being “needing” to create less good (or bad), dependent, and contingent organisms is more absurd than the irreducible complexity argument. As far as I am concerned, no matter what data proponents of ID can produce, the absurdity of the improbability argument is incontrovertible.

Most religious people prefer the idea of a “smart” and good god (“omniscient” might not come easily to their lips) with smart ends in view creating smart people like them for his smart universe.

Not the only problem with this view is that this scenario is not attested in the book they use to prove their case: The Hebrew God looks shortsighted and at times thick as molasses: a deal-maker like the merchants, priests and politicians who made him up; a crook; a powerful performer, but limited to a few physical tricks. His “smart” creation is likewise disappointing: small and unworthy rather than savvy; disobedient but persistently repentant; politically corrupt, murderous and disloyal. The Bible is not about how smart people are–and, actually, Christians and Jews used to know this. It is about how bad and ungrateful they are and how big and merciful (within limits and with exceptions, like the flood) God is. It took until the renaissance for people to face up to the idea that in moral terms, Adam was superior to god, a calculation depicted in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” where God–the very image of God atheists most love to make fun of–is geometrically reduced in form to Adam’s size and becomes Adam’s older image.

So, I reject the biblical God with some personal satisfaction. His evolution has been an ideological evolution in the way people thought about him and have been able to recast him in our improving self-image. That is what humanism in the sense most people still understand the word was all about. There is a proud “atheistic” convention of rejecting non-material causation from Leucippus to Feuerbach. It was there during the scholastic period, and emerged from the medieval period–slowly and painfully–as science. There is a proud humanistic tradition–extending from Socrates to Abelard and from al-Farabi to Leo Strauss–of taking moral responsibility away from the gods, who cannot serve as models, and turning the project over to men and women who can design them.

he biblical picture of God is not a coherent view of God. No ancient view of any god is. But it is consistent enough–sufficiently integrated–that to reject a single aspect of his description calls the whole picture into question. Rejecting the whole picture is easily the most efficient way to deal with the biblical god at a literal level, and millions of people are “atheists” in relation to this god and his story.

Some of these people, if we could look beyond the comparatively flat landscape of American atheism to the secular European world beyond, still celebrate religious holidays, light candles, give presents, and may even go to church once or twice a year. The biblical god is not part of their day to day life. Custom and tradition are. They would, I suspect, find the American debate over “Christmas” a little peculiar, jaundiced, perhaps even “typically American.” American atheists on the other hand would argue that the amount of attention given to religion during holiday seasons is oppressive and inappropriate–though this is largely a political rather than a philosophical discussion. It is a reaction to the suffocating influence religion of the most banal variety exercises over American life and political culture.

Like many soft unbelievers (I know what the paralytic expression “accommodationist” means) I regard people who still clutch their childhood god and saints tightly to their breast as superstitious. They are clinging to illusions. Many of them are not very curious about life, and many of them are not very brave about the future. They are the true servants of a god who wanted his people to be “faithful,” not very smart and not very brave, like a jealous husband his bride (Jer. 3.14). But their basic human need for consolation is none of my business; I understand it because I am human, and I need consolation, too. I have no license to rip the saints from their arms, unless they tell me to bow down and worship them too. I know as well that in the evangelical-political arena, this very thing is happening, and when it happens–when I am told that I must believe, act or think in a religious way–unbelievers, secularists, atheists and religious people have a duty to push back, to say, This far and no farther. One other thing: his chosen people were Jews, Clearly, therefore, God is not omniscient or he would have chosen some other people to be his obedient, unquestioning servants.

But my opposition to (even) organized conservative religion is also conditioned by modern reality: If someone cries “Rapture!” in a crowded theatre, no one will budge. Some people will laugh, many will tell the shouter to shut up and sit down, most people will think he is merely crazy. “Modern reality” is really shaped by the gnawing sense that even believers–not just atheists–lead skeptical lives. Religion will be lost to better ideas or it will not be lost at all. No amount of shouting, skewered statistics, contrived blasphemy or insult will kill it off.

o, the God of worship and faith, the God of the priests and mullahs and bishops and conservative rabbis, enjoined on followers by “religion” in its organized form is a god I live without as a moral presence or rule-giver. I’d be hard pressed to do without his story, however, because it is one of the most fascinating stories human beings have ever created. I would like to shake the hand of the man who put the finishing touches on the tale of God’s conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18 (16-33). What a sense of humour.

I can also live without the God of the philosophers: the diminished God of a Voltaire or a Diderot, of Paine and the coffee house agnostics, but I do so recognizing that that God had been reassembled not from premises but from slivers left over from biblical criticism and criticism of the Church, both protestant and Catholic. Even the most acerb critics were fond of making a distinction between God and his Church, until it became clear that this God was in many theological particulars the creation of the church, and aforetime of the Church’s religious ancestors, the Jewish priests. When that happened, he could not even hide behind the laws of nature where Spinoza wanted to stash him.

It’s possible to develop, as Gaskin has done, a taxonomy of unbelief that shows how atheism is not one thing but differs according to “where” one has come from in the religious system and when the atheism occurred. But atheism as an ideological position (a position with respect to an idea) doesn’t ask its holder for his or her credentials (I’m sorry to diosappoint my critics who think that’s what I have been arguing) but only for their reasons for holding that position. Saying “Because religion is stupid,” is not a reason for anything. Saying “Because people who are religious don’t understand science,” may have some general merit, but it’s pretty indirect to the question. If atheism is a defensible intellectual and ideological position, it has to be defended and advocated in the way other positions are defended. Christian apologists became adept at philosophy specifically for the purpose of defending the premises of a faith that seemed ridiculous to their philosophical opponents. Given the upper hand they say they have intellectually, isn’t it time for atheists to become better at argumentation and more aware of the sources that exist for constructing such arguments? To quote Mr Tipton (My Cousin Vinny): “No self-respecting southerner uses instant grits.” So must it be with ideas and arguments.

 healthy disbelief in the god of book tradition, theological extrapolation and defense, and philosophical rescue is a good place to start developing an atheist apologetics. But it’s going to take a lot of work from the billboard and bumper sticker crowd. The god of J L Mackie and the God of Alvin Plantinga are incompatible ideas, but the dialogue between the two is an important and patient discussion of how two thinkers can come out on separate ends of a debate. Both (Mackie died tragically in 1981 at the age of 56) take the idea seriously–not meaning that they give any premature credence to the idea, but that they give the idea the respect it deserves for purposes of discussion. They do not lessen the discussion by grounding their ideas in personal experience, for or against religion, or cheap shots at people who think differently.

As serious professional philosophers, of course, their discussions are a little heavy: Mackie, especially, has an Oxford feel to his language, which makes it both crisp and complicated whereas, as an analytic philosopher, Plantinga can at times be merely complicated.

Most of all, however, they know the history of the idea, the history of debate and discussion, the twists and turns of opinions, and above all, the arguments.

In a strange salute to Mackie, Richard Dawkins wrote, “The atheist philosopher J L Mackie gives a particularly clear discussion of [the ontological argument] in the Miracle of Theism,” and then says of the argument itself, “I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won’t take common sense for an answer”(God Delusion, p. 107). I remember thinking two things simultaneously when I read the passage: First, how would it be to introduce Dawkins in the last sentence as “the atheist ethologist Richard Dawkins.” But that is a minor point.

Dawkins’s major point is an important one: he is saying that common sense doesn’t get us far enough into the analysis of anything in order to be able to draw conclusions, and scientists since the Middle Ages have been wary of unexplicated sensory data for just that reason. If our senses lead us astray in ordinary ways, think about the extraordinary–the cosmos for example. One of the most elegant treatises on the subject of sense-deception was the al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal written by the Persian thinker Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century. It is one of the most remarkable early treatments of perception and cognition ever written; the west had nothing like it at the time. It was written as theology.

A great deal will depend on when we come into the theatre when the main feature is Common Sense–Aristotle, Locke, Paine, William James, or later. The cheap definition–that common sense is “paying attention to the obvious”–seems to be guiding atheist discussion these days. Yet the science that is being invoked against belief in God could never have arisen if we were not fundamentally skeptical about sensory detail–unless we rejected certain axioms that were held to be true for thousands of years. Common sense is not the same as skepticism; skepticism is the correction of common sense:

If common sense were true, why should science have had to brand the secondary qualities, to which our world owes all its living interest, as false, and to invent an invisible world of points and curves and mathematical equations instead? Why should it have needed to transform causes and activities into laws of ‘functional variation’? Vainly did scholasticism, common sense’s college-trained younger sister, seek to stereotype the forms the human family had always talked with, to make them definite and fix them for eternity. Substantial forms (in other words our secondary qualities) hardly outlasted the year of our Lord 1600. People were already tired of them then; and Galileo, and Descartes, with his ‘new philosophy,’ gave them only a little later their coup de grace. (William James, Common sense and Pragmatism, NY: Longman Green, 1907, p 73)

 do not believe that the non-existence of God is self-evident or obvious. In fact, I think that the existence of some sort of god, based on our ancient perceptions of cause and effect, is common-sensical–that is, it makes sense to ordinary people. But atheists have a responsibility to reject the self-evidentialism that has made its way down the totem pole to people who think the existence of God is an established “conclusion” and that philosophical discussion (along with history and a few other encumbrances) is a waste of time. God, it seems to them, is not worth arguing about any more. The only work remaining is to get other people to see it their way. As a Zen master, a goomba packing heat, or a spirit-filled Christian might say, Don’t even think about it.

The Death of American Secularism

Since the virtual death of the Center for Inquiry and the inability of the so-called father of American secularism to find a compass, this critique from Jacques Berlinerblau repinted from New Humanist  Weep, O Not Jersualem; Weep ye sons and daughters of Zion (Not)

Illustration by Otto

Lest he be misunderstood, recently withdrawn Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum wanted to make it perfectly clear that he did, in fact, want to vomit upon reading a famous 1960 address by John F Kennedy. “Because the first line, the first substantive line in the speech,” a revving Santorum explained to journalist George Stephanopoulos in February, “says I believe in America where separation of church and state is absolute.” Santorum then disgorged: “To say people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up!”

Needless to say, not one syllable of JFK’s famed oration suggested that believing Americans have no role in the public square. The first substantive line in the speech (pace Santorum) was that “war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.” The young senator, soon to be president, proceeded to envisage a country “where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all … where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice.”

Sentiments such as these outrage the current, outrage-prone iteration of the GOP and its base. This is a base, incidentally, that has made quite a name for itself throughout the election season’s many raucous debates: it lustily booed the Golden Rule, wildly cheered the death penalty, and did not bat an eye when governor Rick Perry of Texas proposed that the United States re-invade Iraq.

The present Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, already canvassed the Church/State beat during his first presidential run four years ago. He too invoked Kennedy, albeit respectfully and without reference to bodily fluids, as he lamented the establishment of a “religion of secularism”. That alleged faith sought “to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God”. Candidate Newt Gingrich, mired in the second division but seemingly enjoying himself nonetheless, routinely decries “Obama’s secular-socialist machine” on the campaign trail.

Which seems to be a baseless accusation since the president, like so many other Democrats, has given secularism the old heave-ho. How else to explain his supersizing of George W Bush’s much-maligned Office of Faith-based Initiatives? How else to make sense of the quasi-Christological disquisitions he delivers on occasions like the National Prayer Breakfast and Easter Prayer Breakfast? It was, after all, junior senator Obama who once cautioned his party against equating “tolerance with secularism” in The Audacity of Hope – a warning heeded by disconsolate Democrats who watched Bush flutter to a narrow victory in 2004 on the wings of Conservative Christian “values voters”.

When, how, and why did secularism become such a problematic and controversial idea in America? Why have both of the nation’s major political parties and three branches of federal government turned their backs on it? Why has jacking-up (as the American footballers like to say) an already woozy secularism become such a lucrative sport for political and religious demagogues alike?

The sheer volume of persuasive answers to these questions testifies to the current malaise of the secular idea in the United States. One failsafe explanation, however, is the 40-year ascent of religious conservatives in the United States. An almost direct correlation exists between their rise and the fall of those seemingly unobjectionable principles espoused by a figure like Kennedy. What happened to secularism? The Christian Right happened to secularism.

From humble beginnings in the post-Roe v. Wade maelstrom of the ’70s, this movement has grown into an immense, diverse, well-funded, political and cultural juggernaut. Its activists are everywhere, from local PTA Boards to statehouse to Washington DC. Its worldview is articulated and defended by a formidable cohort of pundits and intellectuals. Its ideological concerns (e.g., abortion, opposition to gay marriage or gay anything) dictate many of the policies of the Republican Party. And its convictions about America being a “nation under God” and/or a “Christian nation” do not lack for sympathisers on the United States Supreme Court.

That a traditionalist Catholic and anti-secularist such as Santorum could garner so much primary support in the South among White Evangelical Protestants – interestingly, his co-religionists can’t seem to stomach him – is significant. His success in Dixie casts light on the unprecedented and reactionary voter formations that began to coalesce in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Those would be the decades, not coincidentally, where a doctrine that scholars refer to as “legal secularism” achieved a position of prominence. If American secularism ever had a Golden Age it may have been triggered by Justice Hugo Black’s famous phrase in the 1947 Everson case: “That wall [of separation] must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” For the ensuing three decades – a period that overlapped with the anything-goes 1960s – religious traditionalists in the South and elsewhere observed the fruits of secularism with horror. Their return to the public square was meant to thwart the progress of what they saw as godlessness run amok.

Aside from conservative religious reaction, there is a second explanation for secularism’s crack-up: a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders.

Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund. As I demonstrate in my forthcoming book it is exceedingly difficult to figure out exactly who was steering the good ship secularism while the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds of the nation suited up and took to the pitch. My own research indicates that in the waning decades of the past century, there was little in the way of effective direction and guidance provided to the secular base.

Then again, who was the base? And with that we arrive at one of the most debilitating ironies afflicting American secularism, if not secularism itself. If one looks at the history of this movement it is exceedingly difficult to gain clarity as to what precisely it stands for and what types of people it represents.

As best we can tell, the term “secularism” was coined somewhere around 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake. The intrepid English freethinker had taken a well-known and theologically freighted word, “secular,” and slapped an “ism” on its back. It is not widely realised how much definitional chaos and confusion accompanied its christening. My reading of Holyoake’s most comprehensive statement on the subject, his 1871 The Principles of Secularism, yields no fewer than a dozen descriptions of the term. These include: 1) utilitarianism, 2) freethought, 3) service for others, 4) positivism, 5) naturalism, 6) an emphasis on science, 7) this-worldliness, 8) sincerity, 9) materialism, 10) a form of religiousness, 11) the free search for truth, and 12) free speech, among others.

Of course there is a 13th definition, if you will – one that Holyoake championed for more than half a century. This would be his insistence that secularism was something other than theism or atheism. Such an approach baffled many Victorian infidels. None was more flummoxed than MP Charles Bradlaugh, who debated Holyoake for two nights in 1870 on this very question. There the relentless anti-theism of Bradlaugh – a sort of proto New Atheist – collided with Holyoake’s non-atheistic (and non-theistic) system of ethics. Their argument about the essence of this new “ism” was unresolved and remains so until this day.

A little ambiguity is always a good thing and social movements most likely benefit from a touch of ideological sprawl. All the better to pitch a big tent! But my contention is that secularism’s endemic inability to define itself, to reconcile whopping incongruities in its ideological platform, has contributed to the difficulties it experiences abroad and in the United States. Is it atheism? Is it a type of worldly ethics espoused by Holyoake? Is it separationism? Is it humanism, rationalism, secular humanism, anti-theism, naturalism, freethought, liberalism? What is it?

The potential secular base in America is currently rent by these divisions. Consider that secularists in the Golden Age were mostly religious people who advocated on behalf of separationism (as opposed to, let’s say, naturalism or humanism). Foremost among these were religious minorities. These included liberal Catholics like Kennedy and nearly every Jewish person in the country. There were also larger groups, such as certain Baptists, with deep theological roots in a tradition of religious liberty. Compare these secularists of faith to the current spate of American atheist groups, many of them virulently anti-religious, who increasingly speak in secularism’s name.

Culture Warriors love a void. With secularists perennially incapable of articulating and agreeing upon what they stand for, their opponents are more than happy to do it for them. Caspar Melville memorably quipped in The Guardian: “Secularism is the handy one-word distillation for all that is wrong in the modern world. Consumerism, divorce, drugs, Harry Potter, prostitution, Twitter, relativism, Big Brother, lack of moral compass, lack of community cohesion, lack of moral values, vajazzling.” A quarter-century ago things were scarcely different. In 1985 a New York Times writer joked that Secular Humanism stood for “everything they [the Religious Right] are opposed to, from atheism to the United Nations, from sex education to the theory of evolution to the writings of Hemingway and Hawthorne.”

The time has arrived for some sort of open, frank, melanomas-and-all discussion of what secularism does (and does not) entail. This conversation would benefit from a dash of critical distance and objectivity. In the academy, the subject of secularism lies pincered between two of the most ideologically rigid detractors imaginable. On the one side, a postmodernist and postcolonial Left has argued – in academic jargon of impressive incomprehensibility – that secularism is something called a “discursive formation” and a sinister policy henchman of “Enlightenment Reason” (a very odious thing in such quarters). On the other, the religious Right imagines it as an enemy of religious freedom and close personal friend of Nazism, Communism, Jihadism, what have you.

Until secularism starts to know and define itself, Kennedy’s principled opposition “to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion” runs the risk of being expunged, Santorum style, from the nation’s political body.

Jacques Berlinerblau’s How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedomis published in September by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt