Unquesting the Mythical Jesus

The Jesus Process

1.  Plausibility and Possibility

In a few previous posts I’ve talked about the weight of “plausibility” in assessing arguments for the historicity of Jesus. A few commenters have correctly said that plausibility is not evidence. That’s true.  No one said it  was.

Plausibility is a precondition for managing the kinds of information that would be suitable for discussing a character like Jesus of Nazareth.  A plausible cabbage is a cabbage that is not being passed off as a cucumber.  Socrates–even without much evidence for his existence, outside dialogues attributed to him by a pupil whose dates and specifics are also sketchy–is typical of a range of fifth century Athenian philosophers.  He is thus plausible as Herakles is not. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Clark Kent were contemporaries in 1938; only one is plausible.

It is the minimal distinction between what is typical and what is unusual (or, strictly, incredible) that permits us to raise questions about plausibility. It’s true that a good writer can invent plausible figures, but in fact the characteristic of literature called verisimilitude (roughly, “believability”)  in its evolved form (realism) is a feature of modern literature that grows out of particular schools of writing–especially naturalism in fiction. Dreiser’s departure from Victorian novels of manners and morals in Sister Carrie (1900) is a good example. In the previous history of fiction, characterization was often stereotyped to reflect the moral or ideological prescriptions of the day. The raison d’etre of a literary or dramatic figure was to represent a virtue,  a vice, a fate, or teach a lesson–until relatively recently.  One of the incidental reasons to think that the Jesus of the gospels is not a stock or contrived figure is the lack of literary unity with respect to his character.  While countless scholars have seen this feature (including Schweitzer)  as “mysterious”, it is probably merely a function of inconsistencies among traditions.

In Aristotle’s era, dramatic heroes like Agamemnon or Odysseus possessed what was called “magnitude” (μέγεθος) or larger-than-lifeness, not life-likeness, even though he specifies a “grounding in reality” as the basis for all good dramatic art, which he regarded as an imitation (mimesis) of reality. Even plausible figures in ancient literature tend to be  highly constructed, and in cases where the figure is typically heroic–Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus, for example–the artifice of the writer and artificiality of the figure are transparent.  A writer with the skill to make a Jay Gatsby or a Bruce Babbitt as opposed to a stock figure like Lucian’s Peregrinus (who may have been historical) would have been implausible in himself.

To say that Jesus is a plausible figure is thus merely to say the following: (1) His description fits the historical matrix from which it comes; (2) Allowing only for the credulity of writers and listeners of the time, there is nothing especially surprising about this description that would cause us to conclude it is fabricated or composed from assorted myths and legends, and (c) Lacking any positive grounds for thinking that the figure was invented through the fraudulence or malice of legend-spinners, it is more economical to think that it is a story (not an historical record) based upon the life and work of an historical individual. Saying only this and no more is saying that we prefer plausible explanations to more extravagant ones: that is what Occam’s razor requires us to do–to utilize and exploit the possibilities before us before spinning off into other possibilities that do not arise organically from the material in front of us and its closest known correlates.

The first “great” naturalistic novel, 1900

2. The Hegelian ‘Fallacy’

The older and more extravagant forms of mythicism came to light out of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, associated with the German universities, especially Göttingen and Tübingen. The names of the leaders of the school–Bernard Duhm, Albert Eichhorn , Hermann Gunkel, Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Bousset, Alfred Rahlfs, Ernst Troeltsch, William Wrede and others–are known, primarily, only  to scholars.

 Most of the group (never really a school) were German protestant theologians, though they eventually had Catholic sympathizers like Alfred Loisy and a few so-called Catholic modernists.  Wrede (d. 1906) is perhaps the most famous of the lot for his work on the so-called “messianic secret” in the gospel of Mark, arguing that many elements of the gospel tradition were secondary and rationalistic– that the real source of Christianity’s success is a mythological interpretation of the life of Jesus rather than the teaching of Jesus ( “another backwater Jewish sect”) and other equally controversial ideas that were considered radical in their time.

The radicals and left Hegelians, like the history of religions club, were influenced by the idea that history moves in predictable patterns, under the influence of recombinant conditions (Zeitgeist  that shapes, alters,  synthesizes and recreates “ideas.”)  The Zeitgeist was, of course, a metaphysical construct but was often spoken of as though it was a real factor of change.  Hegel describes it as much:

Spirit does not toss itself about in the external play of chance occurrences; on the contrary, it is that which determines history absolutely, and it stands firm against the chance occurrences which it dominates and exploits for its own purpose. (Phenomenology of Spirit)

It is impossible to overstate the influence of the rival interpretations of Kantian and Hegelian philosophy on the New Testament scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  I mention it here because one of the results of that influence was to assume that “history” is a form of ideological coalescence, a process where events and personalities invest other ideas, personalities and events to create the contexts in which we live–our “present.”  Truth resides in a complex outcome driven by the spirit of time and simplicity is hardly achievable at all as the flux continues.  For the same reason, the “original” idea is not as important as the unevolved idea: what stands at the end of the process, however temporary, is what is intended, “how things are.”

Hegelianism made its energy felt in fields as removed as geology, biology, archaeology, theology and philology: it gave us words like “evolution” and “syncretism,” and even “synthesis” in its modern usage. Even the conservative John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman wrote his famous 1878 essay “On the Development of Christian Doctrine” under its spell.  The belief that a single-monistic God directed the course of the world gave way to the belief in processes molding and remolding phenomena according to an”absolute” purpose.   Even early views of natural selection could be described as telic and purposive rather than “accidental” using Hegel’s idea of spirit and purpose as the unseen forces of change in history.

The application of Hegelian ideas  to theology and to biblical studies was simultaneous as the areas were taught in parallel fashion in the German faculties. The first doctrine that came under scrutiny was “inspiration”– whether the New Testament was a sui generis book delivered whole-cloth through divine revelation to inerrant scribes, or whether like other historical monuments it could be read and seen as a document of its time.  Slowly and irrevocably, Hegelian principles began to gnaw away at the doctrine of divine authorship  The notion that there were lots of messiahs  lots of saviors  lots of resurrections  and lots of parallels between Christianity and other ancient religions was exciting stuff in the theological lecture halls of 19th century Germany. If you can imagine what sexy scholarship looked like circa 1850, think Göttingen and Tübingen.

On the one hand, it was no longer possible to say that Jesus was unique, or even very different from his Jewish context.  On the other, more Hellenistic side, it was no longer possible to see the Christian salvation myth as entirely different from other salvation myths.

As an uneven amalgam of these two traditions (not to mention, a cake- batter blend of the two in certain sections of the fourth gospel), it was tempting to conclude that the Jesus problem could be solved using Hegelian tools. That is what Strauss’s disciples thought  and later what Baur and Drews in Germany and a few radical Dutch and American scholars began to believe. In a word, they bought versions of the Hegelian “conglomerate” model hook, line and sinker, thinking that only theological conservatism prevented their colleagues from acknowledging the composite and basically artificial nature of the New Testament sources.

There are too many problems with the various Hegelian models of Christian origins that emerged in the nineteenth century to discuss them here but it may be enough to point to the most obvious one.  Concerning the implicit “theodicy” of Hegel’s view  the best place to start is with Thedor Adorno’s piercing Negative Dialectics.

Hegelianism is an overgeneralized and even romantic way of dealing with historical processes. In the long run, things run the course they run–influenced by the conditions under which they develop, like water at freezing point. An event in historical terms is a singularity no matter how influences bear on its occurrence.  Even the most rigid determinist would be hard pressed to say that Hegel’s ideas constitute a law of development.

Thus, in one sense, every historical event is unique. In another sense, it has many parallels  It is unique in the sense that it forms an Archimedian point of occurrence that does not share space with any other point; but like the stars in the sky, its analogies are not only obvious but help us to distinguish it from other events.  The key to defining a particular historical moment lay in its differentiation from what is parallel and similar.

That is why, with respect to the New Testament artifacts,  it is important to emphasize both the familiarity and unfamiliarity of the Jesus event. From the gospels we gather (or can reasonably conclude) that it was rather ordinary: the story is told  on a superficial level, with  allusions to ambient events–politics, rulers, sects, religious customs–but very little in the way of character development in the documents themselves.

We are given basic information to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth belonged to an established ablutionist sect of preacher-wonder-working dissidents who lived on the edge of Jewish popular opinion and “mainstream” sects,  and rapidly deteriorating tolerance of such characters.  The basic narrative provided in the gospels does not make Jesus unique, however; it absolutely situates him in the time and place where he is reckoned to have lived. Even at the point in the gospels where a mythic savior or celestial hero would defy death on Golgotha, smite his enemies and rise laughing into the heavens (as some strands of Gnosticism taught, the hell-harrowing Jesus of the Gospel of Nicodemus, and even the Christ of Philippians 2.5-11), the canonical Jesus simply dies a gloomy death, with only a drum roll and minor stage business thrown in to mark it.

Christ harrows hell

Some responders who are deeply committed to mythicism (and use the word “historicism,” rather absurdly, to describe a “belief” in the historicity of Jesus) cling to a notion that the existence of the gospels do not “prove” that Jesus exists because it is just as “plausible” that

(a) they (the writers) were wrong about him or,

(b) they are talking about some other Jesus or some other character by some other name who was wearing a Jesus wig;  or

(c) are, for amusement or malice,  making the whole thing up.

Unfortunately, each of these invitations to skepticism is non-parsimonious; that is, they ask us without warrant to lay to one side the concrete information and what it says in favour of alternative explanations not warranted by either internal or external reasons for doing so.  Parsimony does not ask us to put skepticism on hold; it asks us to use skepticism methodologically rather than as a Pyrrhonic silver key that, at the extreme, calls final certainty about anything into question.  The effect of unbridled, unsystematic Pyrrhoinism has always been antagonistic to final knowledge about anything and mythtic utilization of the “It could be this, or that, or anything else, or nothing at all” suggests that sort of indifference to  a constructive skeptical approach to the Bible.  Hume’s rejection of Pyrrhonism might apply: “Philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not nature too strong for it.” In short, the prior question–“What are we dealing with in the New Testament books and how can it efficiently be described” cannot begin with the belief that  all explanations have the same status and that all those rendering opinions have the same capacity to render good ones.

Sextus Empiricus, recorder of Pyrrhonism

The appropriate response to (c) is that while there is every reason for a gospel-monger like Paul to make things up, given the fact that he is confronted directly–perhaps within two decades– with a post-crucifixion crisis in the life of a small band of religious orphans, there is no equally compelling reason for a gospel writer to do so.  Indeed, the way in which the synoptic  gospels confront the crucifixion has little symmetry with Paul’s expansive notion that the resurrection of Jesus is a “fate” that can be experienced by all believers, given a little tinkering with the definition of σάρξ (flesh).

The “embryonic” gospels seem early enough and linked enough to Judaism to resist applying the literal fable of Jesus’ resurrection to his followers. Indeed the story we now possess suggests that the followers were not confident in saying too much about the event itself–especially with respect to appearance legends. Paul seems far enough away or disconnected enough from the Jewish context into which Jesus fits to explicitly attribute the effects of the resurrection to all those who are “in Christ.” Indeed, that is why his brand of Christianity succeeds where the slow tale of a Galilean wonder-worker would not have attracted or sustained attention. The theological positions are radically different. No gospel survives in which the circumspection of the early community, as reflected in the earliest resurrection account, has not been displaced by Paul’s thunderous use of resurrection as the axial moment in the life of faith. Yet through simple redaction techniques and synoptic criticism we can reconstruct the movement from diffidence and caution to “proclamation” and elaboration. This pattern is the very opposite of the way in which myth develops.

Examination of the contents of these (accidentally) canonical artifacts has to begin with accounting for this radical difference, and a primary question would have to be: Why would any two writers “just making things up” make up such completely different stories? (That by the way is the subject of a chapter in the book, not a blog topic.)

As to (b) a rough application of the rule of economy would suggest that the artifact evidence is evidence of a man named Jesus, whose name, career and fate correspond to the careers and fates of others of the time.  A coincidence of a common name is evidence of a common name, and evidence of a common name ascribed to a similar career holds for very little unless one is wedded to dates certain for the gospels   For reasons I will try to make clear in my book, I hold to a relatively early date for significant portions of the gospels, not because I wish to stick them closer to the time of the “historical Jesus” but because in terms of their rationalization of his fate and what can be made of it, the gospel, like new wine, are a little thin. By the same token, “Jesus could have been anybody” does not respond to the fact that the gospels say that Jesus was an historically-located somebody, and as we’ve said before arguments from analogy and similarity would only be useful if we had satisfactorily exhausted the possibility that the gospels are substantially wrong in their descriptions.

Thus far, that case has not been made.

As to (a), that Jesus is “made up,” or is a deliberate fiction in the service of religious cult: a consistent line would require us to state reasons for the fabrication. What is the likely social context for making up a rather dull story about a failed messianic prophet from Galilee, especially when that story flies in the face of essential parts of later construals like Paul’s. A strong reason for the existence of the story would be that the story had wide appeal because the man was a popular teacher and people rem embered him, and that eventually these reminiscences, inconsistent and partial as they are, found their way into writing and then were copied, edited, and high;y elaborated and spiritualized by “John” 

The weak reason for the existence of the Jesus story is that is that an unknown scribe, with time on his hands decided to tell a story.  Two centuries of careful work on the gospel suggests that this explanation is absurd.

65 thoughts on “Unquesting the Mythical Jesus

  1. Joe,

    You really have put all your thoughts on this together and publish it. Good on the blog but would be really helpful for all kinds of people and years to come. As ever, cogent, elegant and incisive. Useful antidote to the fanciful, irrational, fairy tales out there.

  2. “(c) are, for amusement or malice, making the whole thing up”

    “For amusement or malice” hardly covers the whole range of plausible motives for inventing Jesus, but it seems abundantly clear that you actually know that.

  3. I was just thinking last week that perhaps the most “promising” of the mythicists is Richard Carrier. Carrier is having a book published sometime this year that could be considered his *magus opus*. I suspect that Carrier’s effort will backfire. He will marginalize himself far more than he has already done so and when this book is carefully scrutinized, Carrier will finally be judged as the fringe scholar people are already concluding that he is. But, ironically, I think that this book might be the best thing to ever happen to him. His credentails have made him a heavyweight of the Secular Humanist community and every bitter apostate out there will use his book as a club to beat fundamentalists with and supposedly misguided scholars like Dr. Hoffmann or as an excuse not to take them seriously.

    The end result? This book can actually make Carrier wealthy. If he earns a lot of money from all the atheist mythicists out there, looking for the perfect superweapon to blow fundamentalist churches to smithereens, he will be set for life. And Carrier’s book probably will sell. I imagine it will be a best-seller just like any book written by Richard Dawkins or Noam Chomsky is almost practically guaranteed to be a best-seller.

    • Unfortunately, one does not need to read Carrier or German philosophers to find accounts of miracles to be implausible. I have not read the previous stated articles, but ANY talk of miracle making automatically classifies someone as mythical for me.

      • Are you dismissing Pontius Pilate as historical and practically every famous figure mentioned in ancient history as well? There aren’t many without a few miracles stories attached. What about Joseph Smith? And Agnes (otherwise known as the nun Teresa of Calcutta)…?? No Roman emperors?

      • There aren’t many without a few miracles stories attached.


        As I’ve said before, the difference with the others is that the miracle stories arose as a result of events during their natural lives. With Jesus, the stories about his natural life were only preserved and perpetuated in order to promote belief in a miracle that was thought to have taken place after his death. When you scrape away the miracle stories about Alexander the Great, you still have a significant historical footprint based based on his accomplishments. When you scrape away the miracle stories concerning Jesus, you scrape away the only reason anyone ever told any stories about him in the first place. A historical Jesus of Nazareth would be just as likely to have come and gone without leaving any discernible trace in the historical record. What tools does a historian possess by which he could hope to establish the existence or non-existence of such a man?

      • The main difference between Jesus and Alexander is that Jesus was a religious leader and Alexander was a military leader. The second is that they each come from different cultural and historical contexts. “When you scrape away the miracle stories concerning Jesus, you scrape away the only reason anyone ever told any stories about him in the first place”. Not that it would matter anyway, but no you don’t. There are multitudes of differences between historical figures with myths attached in different cultural and historical contexts Vinny. Miracle stories did arise as a consequence of natural events in his life. His mother gave a natural birth, and later Matthew wrote a myth. He was important to his followers. It’s been argued to demonstrate belief in his mission to save Israel in an apocalyptic time. He taught about human principles and Jewish Law in order for people to be saved. Not all miracles can be treated the same. He was known as a healer but some of these ‘healings’ were exorcisms and exorocisms are a cultural psychological phenomenon. Healing stories become exaggerated in story telling. The calming of the storm and feeding of five thousand, turning water into wine, many myths, each of which must be treated separately. There are good and reasonable explanations for their origin and development with arguments and evidence which there is absolutely no point in repeating here. Perhaps try Roger Aus. He has written several monographs on different miracles. In many ways your ‘logic’ suggests that historical figures must be mythologised on the basis of previous ones, in a sort of assumed parallelomania. They’ll all different. With many similarities.

        “the difference with the others is that the miracle stories arose as a result of events during their natural lives.” Difference? Really?

      • Steph,

        I fully agree with you about the main difference between Alexander the Great and Jesus, and it is precisely my point. Military leaders do things that bring them to the attention of the prominent and literate people of their day. Their campaigns often leave archeological evidence. A military leader leaves a historical footprint in ways that are well known and that can be compared to the footprint of other military leaders. This is what enables historians to isolate the myths that sometimes arise around military leaders from the actual events of their lives.

        A religious leader like Jesus is another matter altogether. Until he annoyed the Roman authorities sufficiently to get himself crucified, we cannot establish that he ever came to the attention of anyone outside a small band of illiterate peasants. We cannot establish that anyone of prominence became aware of his existence until decades after his death. We cannot establish that anyone had any information about him other than the stories that the cult preserved. I don’t believe that we have any reason to think that the cult would have existed to preserve those stories had not it come to believe in supernatural events that took place after Jesus’ death. I think we have every reason to think that the cult invented stories about him in order to perpetuate belief in his postmortem supernatural accomplishments. I also think that we have reason to believe that the primary reason that any particular story was preserved was because it was useful in perpetuating that belief.

        In the case of Jesus, I remain skeptical that it will ever be possible to isolate the myths from the actual events of his life because there is no way to establish that any story about the events of his life would have would have been preserved but for its utility in perpetuating belief in the resurrection, and hence, no way to establish that any particular story wasn’t invented for that purpose.

        If the evidence for Jesus’ existence were not problematic, I don’t think these discussions would spend so much time on issues of parsimony and plausibility. Those are questions you ask when the evidence is ambiguous or inconclusive.

      • So why did and who did, write a story about a divine man who never lived who healed and taught and performed miracles? And why did they include details about Jewish Law that only a Jewish audience would understand? And why does he used an Aramaic idiom to predict Jacob and John would die with him, when they didn’t die with him? And what’s all this about ‘the son of man’ which is nonsense in Greek? And why does he predict the temple would be taken down stone by stone when it wasn’t? It was burned. And why did the story forget to mention the resurrection?

      • Aha! But Steff you miss the point that these were VERY CLEVER and VERY sophisticated writes who knew they were duping untold generations of god believers with their tricks. What an amazing concoction from these seemingly innocent, but terribly deceitful writers.

      • Steph,

        I’m not sure who wrote the story, but whoever it was, I think that they wrote it to promote belief in a supernatural heavenly being who had manifested himself through visions and revelations. Had it not been for those visions, I am doubtful that anyone ever would have bothered to write anything about the man.

        As to the various details that the writers included, my guess is that most of them had previously proved effective in promoting belief in the supernatural being. I think that details that were ineffective would likely have been dropped. In effect, details were recorded because they had survived years of focus group testing.

        It is certainly a possibility that some of the details had their origins in memories of an actual event that occurred in an actual person’s life. However, it is also a possibility that any of the details could have been invented by someone who thought that they might be an effective means of promoting belief in the supernatural being. What I don’t see is any credible way to distinguish between those possibilities. As far as I can see, it all comes down to personal intuitions concerning plausibility.

      • Vinny,

        This is incredible. You dismiss arguments and evidence and all previous scholarship, with the implication it can be boiled down to ‘personal intuitions’. It appears you clearly depend on yours as you weave one of the most incredible stories I’ve read.

        Have you read the church fathers? You show no signs of having done so. From these it is quite clear there was much disagreement within the early churches. Treatises and letters reflect the claims that others spread false teachings and heresies. So Paul too. The disagreements are largely about Jesus’ nature, ie the difference between humanity and divinity, the amount and the point at which he became divine and particulars about his birth. Yet you have a problem with a completely ordinary Jewish human being called Jesus, whose birth and early life we know nothing of nothing of whose birth we know, human being called Jesus who even got things wrong from predicting the temple would be taken down stone by stone in their lifetime when it was burned over a generation later, to predicting that he would rise from death according to the tradition of the Macabbean martyrs. Instead you ignore all scholarship, and avoid all historical problems including textual ones with a glib dismissal, labelling all scholarship indiscriminately on your mythicist friend’s blog, ‘like fundamentalists’. You appear to speculate with your ‘intuition’ about what people would think and do and how they would behave in a culture and period of history you show no signs of understanding. How did this original mythicist sell his story and why would anyone, and how, and who, be persuaded to buy it to promote it themselves. Wouldn’t someone having visions declare them himself hide it when nobody would have declared him mad? As for ‘contradictions’ you use the word without recognising that contradictions are not all the same. It is not about simple contradictions but trajectories with explanations to demonstrate redaction and identify historical context.

      • Steph,

        I have not the slightest problem with a completely ordinary Jewish human being called Jesus of whose birth and early life we know nothing and who even got all sorts of things wrong. I think such a person is entirely within the realm of possibility. However, as I’ve said before, we really can’t expect completely ordinary Jewish human beings to have left much of a mark in the historical record, which I think should make it very hard to establish the part such a person played in the origins of a cult that was primarily focused upon a supernatural being who manifested himself through visions and revelations.

        I’m with Tristan Vick on this one. I think that a reasonably intelligent layman should be capable of understanding why the case for a historical Jesus is as convincing as it is claimed to be. As I am a more than reasonably intelligent layman, I think I am capable of judging whether I am getting a straight answer from the people who claim to be so much more knowledgeable than I am.

      • Vinny, I didn’t really expect to change your mind about anything. I don’t think that would be possible. I’m with Berry – but I’m also with Joe: The authors of the gospels were an amazing concoction from seemingly innocent, but terribly deceitful writers…:-)

      • Some even have a desire to be ‘known’. That is they want to be famous. And claims ‘fans all around the globe’…. Enough to make one explode.

    • Vinnie, you’re always trying to be the “reasonable” myther in these boards, but when pressed for anything specific, you really strike out and look pretty silly doing it.

      You say: “I’m not sure who wrote the story, but whoever it was, I think that they wrote it to promote belief in a supernatural heavenly being who had manifested himself through visions and revelations. Had it not been for those visions, I am doubtful that anyone ever would have bothered to write anything about the man.”

      First, the lack of known authorship troubles you with regard to the historical Jesus, so why doesn’t it trouble you a bit in regard to your pet theory?

      Second, “they” wrote to promote belief in a heavenly being who manifested, blah blah blah. Seriously? Actually, “they” wrote to promote belief in a specific sect of Judaism. Right or wrong, their beliefs didn’t spring up out of nothing.

      Third, you should describe these “they” people a bit. Who were they, why did they do what they did, why did it spread the way it did? There are plausible answers to these questions regarding Christianity, while mythers can do nothing but grasp at straws.

      Fourth, “had it not been for those visions…” What proof do you have of these visions? You’re pulling this (stuff) entirely out of your (hat), and pretending to have a pony. You don’t even have the basis of a reasonable theory, yet you pretent fo be saying something reasonable.

      • Berrie,

        I’m not sure what happened to the response I posted to your comment yesterday, but I will try again.

        I am not a myther. I am agnostic about a historical Jesus. Sometimes the sources are so problematic that a historian cannot do anything more than lay out a range of possibilities. One of the things that makes the sources problematic for any theory is lack of known authorship.

        One of the possibilities that most mainstream scholars seem to find respectable is that the historical Jesus was so thoroughly mythologized that almost nothing can be known about with any certainty. What puzzles me is that while “almost nothing” seems to be a perfectly respectable position, “nothing” is deemed to be bat-crap, KoolAid-drinking, tin-foil-hat crazy. I just don’t see that “almost nothing” and “nothing” are far enough apart to justify such disparate reactions.

        As far as the visions go, Paul says that he and some predecessors witnessed appearances of the risen Christ. I acknowledge the possibility that Paul might have been a schizophrenic or a pathological liar, but I hardly think that citing those visions constitutes an attempt to pull something out of my hat.

        It is true that there are plausible answers to your questions, but as we all know, plausibility is only the starting point. Parsimony is frequently in the eye of the beholder.

      • Vinnie:

        You seem like a nice guy, so I don’t mean to be too harsh, but your game is a bit tiring. You keep insisting that you are not a myther, but you defend mythers and mythicism all over the internets.

        And you keep making the same statements, based on misrepresenting people’s words and the facts.

        Your latest response is an example. For one thing, when historians say they know “almost nothing” about the historical Jesus it is in the context of certainty. There is very little we can know with certainty about whether Jesus said one thing or another or whether the miracles were based on real (non-miraculous) events or how exactly he died or was buried.

        But that isn’t anywhere close to saying that we know “almost nothing” about whether Jesus existed. For that, the probability is overwhelming and the agnostic position involves throwing up one’s hands and ignoring the evidence.

        What’s more, whlle “almost nothing” might not be much different from “nothing” if we were talking about grains of salt, in the context of our discussions about whether Jesus was a real person it IS a huge difference.

        We know almost nothing about the apostle Peter’s wife, other than the fact that he is mentioned to have a wife. That we don’t know her name or anything else about her is no reason to doubt that she existed. Why? Well, there is nothing remarkable about a Hebrew man of the time being married. There s no reason to think someone would make such detail up.

        Just the same, the elements of the Jesus story fit what we know about the time period, down to the exaggerated claims of supernatural deeds. There were similar exaggerated miracle claims made of Peter and Paul in the New Testament and of those and others, including Simon Magus, in other literature, but those claims are not evidence that those people were made up. We recognize a type of hyperbole that was common at the time.

        If Paul’s visions were the only thing we knew about Jesus, you might have a point, but there is so much other detail from so many other sources that developed over time, your point is not very credible.

      • I wonder what Paul was thinking when he said Jesus was raised up from the dead, just as the Macabbean martyrs (men who had lived) and the Psalms described of a man, if he wasn’t assuming Jesus was also a man who lived and died. He had to live and die before being raised from the dead. Isn’t that assumed? Do divine men die? He ‘became’ divine when he was ‘raised up’. Paul, after busily killing Christians, converted, and wrote letters to Christian communities telling them how to behave and somebody else weaved a life into a gospel. When exactly the latter was finished is debated. But arguments and evidence suggest that there is some early material that wouldn’t have been included if it was written later, and this same material is altered or eliminated by the later gospels. But what did Paul mean? He didn’t know about Jesus until after he died. He was aware of some of the things Jesus (might have) said but he didn’t know about him until after the living man died. And was raised from the dead. It’s extraordinary that mythers are so insistent Paul should demonstrate that he knew about Jesus. Effectively why the heck didn’t Paul write a gospel………..

  4. The present understaanding of certain of our top NT Studies scholars about the historicity of Jesus.

    The problematic of the writings of the New Testament which produces the many Jesuses, even the mythicist’s no Jesus, can all be psychologically understood by the maxim which defines the methodologies and their related conclusions in New Testament studies: If you begin with Paul, you will misunderstand Jesus. If you begin with Jesus, you will understand Paul differently.
    To begin with Paul is to begin with the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT, all of which certain of our top NT Studies now know are not apostolic witness to Jesus, thus not reliable sources for knowledge of Jesus. “The sufficient evidence for this point is that all of them have been shown to depend on sources earlier than themselves and thus not to be the original and originating sources that the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic”. (Schubert Ogden). Without a readily identifiable alternative source which might have claim to apostolicity, there effectively has been no evident way to “begin with Jesus”. Thus the writings of the NT are widely taken to be our primary if not our sole NT source for knowledge of Jesus. Scholars both within the Guild of NT Studies and outside secular critics seem bound each to his/her own particular bias: the NT scholar, with convictions that conflates the NT Christ of faith myth with the HJ or that a credible Jesus yet lurks somewhere behind these texts; while the secular critic , with the convictions of the Mythicist argument or at most a Jesus of no or little historical significance.
    Only since the 80s have certain of our top NT Studies scholars, under the force of present historical methods and knowledge, become confirmed in their recognition that indeed we do have an alternative NT source containing the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles in the texts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3 – 7:27, the SM). Although the SM is positioned as a front-piece in the Gospel of Matthew, its identity and significance has been seriously obscured, even to credible NT scholars, by a widely held redaction-historical claim that the evangelist Matthew composed the SM out of Q traditions and his own composition, to fix the SM to its secondary context the Gospel of Matthew. Betz dispels this claim with his developed hypothesis that the SM is a source that has been transmitted intact.
    James Robinson’s history of this development: “For over the last two centuries there gradually emerged a new access to Jesus, made available through objective historical research. To be sure the Evangelist themselves have already tailored their narrations of Jesus’ sayings to focus on the (Pauline) kerygma, making the gospel of cross and resurrection the quintessence of the whole ministry of Jesus. Yet for modern people, a person who remains historically inaccessible is somehow unreal, – – indeed a myth. The result was in the Nineteenth Century, the quest for the historical Jesus. It was no coincidence that a century and a half ago, as the rediscovery of Jesus was just getting under way, there came to light a collection of Jesus’ saying used by Matthew and Luke in composing their Gospels. Matthew and Luke updated the sayings so that they made clear what Jesus must have meant, namely what Matthew and Luke meant, and embedded the sayings in their copies of the Gospel of Mark, making of Matthew and Luke hybrid gospels, partly Mark and partly the sayings collection. Then, after Matthew and Luke used it in their enlarged and improved Gospels, that primitive collection of Jesus’ sayings (which grew within the Jesus Movement to become the SM) was no longer copied and transmitted by (Gentile) Christian scribes, since the church of course – unfortunately — preferred those more up-to-date and complete Gospels (from birth to death, written in the context of Pauline Christ kerygma in the Gentile world some 40 years after the crucifixion, effectively severing Jesus from his sayings and his Jewish roots). This more primitive text was itself lost completely from sight. In fact it ceased to exist, no copies of Q survived. It was never heard of again, after the end of the first century, until, in 1838, a scholar in Leipzig, Germany, detected it lurking just under the surface of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. – – scholars came to call it simply the “source”, in German “Quelle”, abbreviated ”Q”, we have come of late to call it the Sayings Gospel Q. This old Sayings Gospel was not like the canonical Gospels. So colored over with the kerygma of cross and resurrection that the historical Jesus, though embedded therein, was actually lost from sight by the heavy overlay of golden patina. Rather this document was just primitive enough to contain many sayings of Jesus without kerygma overlay. Here the real Jesus who actually lived in history has his say. ” (The Real Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q, by James M. Robinson, an article online). For what the real Jesus did have to say see Essays on the Sermon on the Mount by Hans Dieter Betz.

    • In simplest terms our sole sufficient evidence for knowledge of the real Jesus is the New Testament source which contains the original and originaging faith and witness of the apostles. This source developed from the event of the key disciples returning to Jerusalem (within weeks?) purposing to again take up the teachings of their revered Master to begin the Jerusalem Jesus Movement. From within this movement collections of sayings of Jesus were made which grew to become the Sermon on the Mount. Hans Deiter Betz is the expert on the Sermon naming it the alternative to Gentile Christianity as known above all from the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament. This development is sufficiently documented in the NT
      as positive evidence beyond the “plausable”.

  5. Josephus mentions an apocalyptic preacher named Jesus, who was killed after preaching that Jerusalem was doomed.

    There is simply no way to doubt the existence of an apocalyptic preacher named Jesus in the first century AD.

  6. Theologians should not try to be historians.

    Is Socrates plausible in the context of then-current Athens? His contemporaries did not think so: they sentenced him to death for being so far out of line with then-contemporary beliefs, mores.

    Is Jesus realistic, in a way that would be impossible for a 1st century writer to portray? But he is not so realistic; he is GOD; larger than life, more self-sacrificing than most; and walking on water.

    Indeed, the special quality that leads us to suspect it was mostly made up, were extraordinary things like giant miracles. Historical figures were said to do this too: but to such an extent? Jesus is a “miracle-worker” even first and foremost.

    You criticize Hegel and his idea of people as products of their time. But then your main argument is that we best know jesus existed or was plausible – because he matches the characteristics of his time.

    And then? If you value “parsimony”? Then ask yourself this: how simple, brief – parsimonious – really, is the vast, vast apparatus of traditional Christian religious studies? Is all the literature on the provenance of the gospels, really brief, and simple?

    If “parsimony” or simplicity is your value, then traditional religious studies fail. And fail totally.

    Far, far more simple, are the four simple words: “someone made it up.”

    • Are you ‘trying’ to be a historian Brett? Some theologians have degrees in, or including other things, including history, philosophy, classics and linguistics. Not all historians of Christian origins are theologians and theologians don’t just read theology. I have no degrees in theology, in fact my university neither taught it nor offered it as a degree. I studied the history of the world’s religions and many other things as well, including history. Multidiscipline degrees and interdisciplinary approaches were encouraged. I didn’t have any objection to that – I embraced it. Greedily.

      The rest is characteristic of you muddling up, as always.

      As to you last question: the answer is ‘why’.

    • Yeh, and I suppose that somebody must have “made up” brettongarcia too because I cannot imagine a person with such a simplistic mind being for real. The answers we are still waiting for from the mythicists is a plausible scenario of WHY and HOW Paul, Matthew and the others made up their phantasy jew.

    • Actually, a big flaw in your argument is that the NT writings themselves don’t portray Jesus as God. John is the closest thing to portraying Jesus as divinity, but whether he goes there has been the subject of debate through the centuries. The writings were later interpreted to portray him as God and that generally how they have been taught in orthodox churches.

      But that goes to show that what you are fighting against isn’t the historical Jesus, but later theological gloss.

      There is nothing more simple than the idea that Jesus was a real figure whose life was exaggerated by later followers, in much the way that others did at that point in history.

      It much more difficult to imagine someone making up this life and complicated backstory. And then getting others to imagine and write about the same life in so many other complicated ways, all while intersecting that life with real events and real people.

      “Someone made it up” is the least plausible explanation. Why? How? When?

      However, I grant it is the most simple explanation for someone who doesn’t want to admit the truth is complex and the details ultimately unknowable. It’s simple if you don’t want to tax your brain or flat out don’t care (which is reasonable, just not intellectually honest).

      • Where in the world do I say that the NT documents portray Jesus as God? If I do not say it, how can it be a big flaw in my argument. I am not sure you actually understand the argument. You seem to be arguing rather against what you assume to be my “position.” But I don’t think you understand that either. I would love to hear you paraphrase it?

      • I think all replies respond to Garc who preaches with such mistaken authority:

        “Is Jesus realistic, in a way that would be impossible for a 1st century writer to portray? But he is not so realistic; he is GOD; larger than life, more self-sacrificing than most; and walking on water. writer to portray? But he is not so realistic; he is GOD; larger than life, more self-sacrificing than most; and walking on water.”

        It is Garc’s muddling up: Garc cannot distinguish between NT documents and later Christian doctrine.

      • Berry,

        I agree. Although, I do think certain mythicists make a few good points, and, in my opinion, the mythicist position is a worthwhile component of the historical process, but, overall, the mythicist argument seems to be, as you say, the least plausible explanation, for the reasons you state. That’s why I don’t find it very persuasive.


    • Ah! how could I have missed the evidence: so Francis Bacon impersonating Shakespeare in a Mae west wig was really St Paul in a cape posing as someone who knew a illusory figure named Jesus. Got it.

  7. Pingback: Joseph Hoffmann on Mythicism, Skepticism, and Historical Reasoning

  8. “Socrates–even without much evidence for his existence, outside dialogues attributed to him by a pupil whose dates and specifics are also sketchy”

    Dialogues written by two different pupils, actually. Plato and Xenophon. Plus a mention in Aristophanes’ Clouds. All contemporaries. And mentions by a few more contemporaries. Including Thucydides, who, like him or not, must surely rate as at least slightly more sober, down to Earth and reliable than the NT authors.

    And there are sculptural likenesses of Socrates which look as is they could be copies of likenesses made of an actual person. Nobody has the slightest idea what Jesus looked like — if he existed.

    And I’m not even particularly interested in Socrates or Plato. I’m certainly not an expert on the Socratic problem. The differences between it and the HJ question are so many and significant that I’m really surprised that you mentioned Socrates. I’m beginning to grasp your arguments for the plausibility of the historical Jesus. But they’re not convincing me yet.

    • “Socrates–even without much evidence for his existence, outside dialogues attributed to him by a pupil whose dates and specifics are also sketchy–is typical of a range of fifth century Athenian philosophers.” The point is not that Socrates is implausible but that with sketchy evidence (I think) it is justifiable to assert his existence. You seem to imply that the accent should fall on massive evidential differences therefore evidence for his life and activities must come from the writings of Plato and Xenophon. It is likely that neither of these presents a completely accurate picture of him, but Plato’s Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Symposium contain details which must be close to fact. The “bust” you refer to is a copy of a copy that may or may not resemble him; it’s based on charactonymic evidence, and a tradition that there was a bronze effigy of him made by Lysippos (4th century) of which the 1st C AD copy in the Louvre is supposed to be a copy. But no one knows that for sure. Not sure what the reelvance of not knowing what Jesus looked like has to do with anything. Try this for starters on the Socratic problem: “One thing is certain about the historical Socrates: even among those who knew him in life, there was profound disagreement about what his actual views and methods were. Apart from the three primary sources below, there were those called ‘minor Socratics’, not for the quality of their work but because so little or none of it is extant, about whose view of Socrates we shall probably never know much.[2] After Socrates’ death, the tradition became even more disparate. As Nehamas (1999, 99) puts it, “with the exception of the Epicureans, every philosophical school in antiquity, whatever its orientation, saw in him either its actual founder or the type of person to whom its adherents were to aspire.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/#2

      • “The point is not that Socrates is implausible but that with sketchy evidence (I think) it is justifiable to assert his existence.”

        Well, we disagree. I would not call the evidence sketchy. Perhaps I define the adjective differently than others, but to me, one thing “sketchy” suggests is that the amount of evidence is small. I would also hesitate to call the evidence for Jesus’ existence sketchy. It isn’t the amount of evidence which leaves me unconvinced in Jesus’ case, but the nature of that evidence.

        “You seem to imply that the accent should fall on massive evidential differences therefore evidence for his life and activities must come from the writings of Plato and Xenophon”

        I’m sorry, I did not mean to imply that. Actually I think that the most reliable evidence may come from Aristophanes, if one assumes that while lampooning Socrates he was at pains to make his caricature very recognizable to his public. But quite aside from the question of whose depiction of Socrates contains the most solid information, the very fact that four such very different contemporaries as Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes and Thucydides all depicted him among other contemporaries whose existence we have no particular reason to doubt — well, I’m not sure what the correct jargon for something like that would be — “triangulation,” perhaps? — but it’s one reason why I myself wouldn’t call the evidence for Socrates sketchy. (There’s a lot of subjectivity in such terms, of course.)

        “Not sure what the reelvance of not knowing what Jesus looked like has to do with anything”

        Just that nonfictional people have appearances, and that no-one has any idea whether Jesus was tall, short, thin, physically weak, muscular, heavy, fair, dark, straight-haired, curly-haired — there is no such adjective in any description of him in any primary source. Which doesn’t prove anything. It is, however, a notable absence. Well, perhaps it’s notable. It’s one less nail available on which an historical portrait of Jesus could be hung.

      • The evidence for Socrates is sketchy. It comes from contemporaries who belong to a different social class and culture from Jesus’ contemporaries. While Jesus’ followers may have been taught to read Torah and have a basic ability to write (see Josephus on schooling of Jewish boys), there was no equivalent in the Jewish community or lifestyle to match the philosophical and dramatic authors around Socrates. No contemporary historian bothered to mention him. And none of their depictions may be ‘true’. Jesus’ contemporaries may have passed on the traditions orally and in notes, while Socrates’ passed his on through fictionalised depictions. We possibly have an imaginary description of what the creator wanted him to be remembered looking like. The evidence for Socrates, I think, is sketchy indeed. And nobody bothers to tell us what he ate for breakfast: ‘a notable absence. Well, perhaps it’s notable. It’s one less nail available on which an historical portrait of Socrates could be hung.’

  9. (EDITED)

    One of the problems I have is the difference between compelling evidence and convincing evidence.

    Whether or not Socrates has convincing evidence, the evidence he existed is compelling.

    The historical Jesus suffers the same uncertainty. Regardless of how compelling the evidence is, we still need that positive evidence to take us the rest of the way.

    The fact that there is nothing to convince us of Jesus actual existence is troublesome. Now I know you may point out some rather good indicators that he existed, but that’s what I mean by being compelling. Be compelling all you want, if all you want to be is compelling. But bring some proof, if you want to be convincing.

    Also, the analogy with Socrates is rather insufficient because insufficient time has been spent on investigating the existence of Socrates as compared to the Christian messiah.

    This being the 21st century and having historians no closer to the truth seems to suggest, to me, that a continued investigation into the question is a huge waste of time.

    Every rock has seemingly been over turned. All that can be revealed most likely has been.

    Of course, I could be wrong about this. But I doubt any forthcoming evidence will vindicate the Biblical position, let alone the historical one. At best anything extra will only fill in small gaps of the already vague historical framework.

    It seems to me there is a statistical trend over the past few centuries. The evidence has been fading fast. It has all but flat-lined.

    Let us assume, for the sake of argument, we actually DO know most everything there is to know about Jesus Christ.

    Can we be convinced he was real?

    Absolutely convinced?

    I know this is why Joe ends at agnosticism when it comes to the question of the historical Jesus. He could have existed. But then again, there is a slight minuscule chance that he didn’t. He might have even been a hybrid, part legend, part man, and the legend got away while the man stayed behind in the first century.

    To me, the entire field of biblical studies, having spent more time and energy researching and investigating this one historical figure–far more than any other–should have turned up positive evidence by now which would be more than convincing.

    Convincing to the layman. Not historians with well trained eyes, mind you. Convincing yourself Jesus may have been real is easy to do. There are already a lot of believers who’ll gladly side with you. But hardly any of them have looked at the evidence. When you do look at the evidence, it’s anything but convincing.

    You need to be able to throw down the evidence and say here it is without needing people to pull our their reading glasses and squint through their lenses to try and see what you’re getting at.

    It needs to be obvious.

    But that evidence is gone to us now. Dried up in the sands of time and washed away on a desert breeze.

    So did the historical Jesus exist?

    I cannot think of a more unimportant question than this. Or a bigger waste of time.

    So are the mythicists wrong?

    Who cares?

    It requires us to ask the first unimportant question before we can even get to it, making it doubly unimportant.

    • There is a lot of argument and evidence to demonstrate that the “Christian messiah” did NOT exist as a historical figure but was an image developed by the Christian Church. Who is the ‘we’ to be convinced? Have we really left no stone unturned? The DDSs and Nag Hammadi were revealed only last century. This has boosted knowledge, and among other things, has provided a contemporaneous source to examine in order to advance knowledge in the use of languages and writing which is significant for examining evidence. Have you read everything there is to read? Have we explored all methods to examine developed evidence and argument? Mythicists demand modern historical standards for ancient historical evidence. What is the ‘real’ Jesus? Reminds me of the terrible Luke Timothy Johnson. If it’s so unimportant and such a waste of time why do you write such long comments about it and bother other people with your subjective opinion?

    • Tristan Vick:

      When I look at the time people spend playing Sudoko and video games — or the amount of time I spend on chess, for that matter — and watching things like the so-called “History Channel,” it’s hard for me to consider a halfway-serious-or-better investigation of any historical subject to be a waste. But of course it’s a subjective call. I’d rather discuss Livy than Jesus, but I’m an autodidact, and there are many times more discussions of Jesus available to me than of any other ancient subject, so I’m going with the flow.

      “Every rock has seemingly been over turned. All that can be revealed most likely has been”

      Most certainly not. Aside from the question of how thoroughly the evidence we have now has been sifted and how sensibly it has been evaluated, ancient documents are turning up all the time. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts are merely the most famous examples. Have you heard of Oxyrhynchus? It was an ancient town in Egypt. Late in the 19th century fragments of payrus began to be found in what had been the town’s garbage dump. What was their trash is literally our treasure: over 10,000 manuscript fragments have been found in that pile of ancient garbage, mostly from the first few centuries AD and some BC, including some of the oldest known fragments of the New Testament, and many other Early Christian writings, and they’re still digging, and they’re still deciphering what they’ve found so far, and that’s just one site. There is absolutely no way to tell how many more manuscripts will turn up all over north Africa and the Middle East, or how revealing they will be. Not to mention other types of archaeological finds.

      “I cannot think of a more unimportant question than this. Or a bigger waste of time./So are the mythicists wrong?/Who cares?/It requires us to ask the first unimportant question before we can even get to it, making it doubly unimportant.”

      And yet you’re here, writing about it, instead of doing something you would consider important. That’s odd. Are you trying to save the rest of us from ourselves?

      • Correction: over a million papyrus fragments have been found at Oxyrhynchus. 5000 have been published since 1898. The process of publication has sped up considerably but it’s still going to take a while to get to them all.

        Another correction: patient papyrologists have finally been able to explain to me that my visions of sites comparable to Oxyrhynchus “all over north Africa and the Middle East” are unrealistic, and that future finds will probably be mostly in the Nile region.

    • Tristan, you say:

      “The fact that there is nothing to convince us of Jesus actual existence is troublesome.” Who is “us?” I think you speak for yourself.

      You say the evidence needs to be “obvious.” Well, apart from having no videotape, it is obvious.

      The man was an apocalyptic prophet at a time of known apocalyptic fervor. He belonged to a nationality that was known to have suffered under Roman rule, and met the same fate as others of his group. He spoke a message that fits well into the time period in which he spoke it. He had a small group of followers that after death was led by his physical brother James, a man who was himself the subject of many writings from the period.

      His followers argued about which ones had a closer relationship, which ones closer represented his teachings and the meaning of his painful and embarrassing death. As time went on, as hope in his message became less plausible, the original version of his teachings and legacy was replaced with one more relevant to the later audience.

      The accuracy of any of those things individually can be debated, as can be the details of the things written about him that were obviously embellished. But that all of those would cumulatively originate from an invented figure is nothing less than ludicrous.

  10. Tristan, what historians with welltrained eyes are you thinking about. As far as I know almost no secular historians with Antiquity as à specialty doubt that Jesus existed.

  11. What is the likely social context for making up a rather dull story about a failed messianic prophet from Galilee, especially when that story flies in the face of essential parts of later mythological construals like Paul’s.

    Are Paul’s construals later than the gospels?

    • What do you mean “later than the gospels” The gospels are the end product of a long period of collection, redaction (editing not excision) and elaboration. If the one called Mark is the earliest it may have been written as early as 66, or possibly a bit later than 70 CE. By then, we think, Paul was quite dead. If on the other hand you mean the individual elements that went into the gospels, then some of them–e.g. the account of the crucifixion, and some teaching elements–are doubtless earlier than Paul and others later. Assigning Paul’s letters dates in the fifties and arranging them on the basis of a relative chronology is a parlous battle not for the feint hearted. Unfortunately, much of that dating (e.g., an early date for 1 Thess) is based on impressionistic appraisal of the “apocalyptic” content of the message with no real basis in fact. My answer is that the oral tradition behind the gospels is certainly older than Paul, and as Paul’s letters are written of a piece and partly in reaction to the crucifixion, the 50’s is an ok average date. However the antiquated mythicist ideas that as Paul doesn’t talk about an historical Jesus and the gospels do “proves” that Jesus was an historicized fictional figure rather than a real one is simply based on a 19th century defective understanding g of the formation of the Jesus tradition that, frankly, almost no one outside the mythtic circle believes any more. (rjh)

      • Until he was silenced/suspended just a week ago by the Church, Thomas Brodie recently argued that the whole notion of an “oral tradition” predating the gospels, overlooks clear signs of editing and other markers suggesting a clearly “literary” origin for even the oldest material in the gospels. Some scholars notice clear signs of literary editing for example even in say, “Q” material, and the oldest material in Mark.

      • That’s an absurd notion since by the time something is reduced to literary form editing is the natural way of recording it; simply begs the question. There are clear signs the Odyssey was edited and that even our earliest written MS of it show that tranche; it is also true that Homer never wrote it, if Homer there was, and that all such works were transmitted orally through stereotyping, which also would have been the mimetic behind the gospels. Any other sallies?

      • I don’t think that it proves Jesus was a historicized fictional figure rather than a real one, but I do think that Paul’s silence regarding a historical Jesus and his refusal to credit his predecessors for his understanding of the gospel make it extremely difficult to identify those elements that are in fact earlier than his mythological construals. There seems to me to be very little about the formation of the Jesus tradition that can be described with words like “doubtless” and “certainly.”

  12. “that is what Occam’s razor requires us to do–to utilize and exploit the possibilities before us before spinning off into other possibilities that do not arise organically from the material in front of us and its closest known correlates.”

    No, no, no. Occam’s razor does not require us to do anything but favor the simpler thesis when it has the same explanatory power as another thesis. You mucked this up in the other post too. You ignore the word “necessity”, used in two of the three axioms, here as well.

    How do you determine what arises organically from the material? How do you determine what counts as a close enough correlate?

    • Erickson you are begging the question and claiming a distinction. The simpler thesis is not the elaborate conspiracy and mythic convolutions within mythicism. What arises organically from the material in method are precisely those linguistic and hermeneutical tools that competent scholars in NT studies use. The only thing that is mucked up is your understanding of some pretty basic principles that you twist out of shape and then profess to understand better than everyone who actually understands them. The term organically has to do with a particular documentary and cultural matrix. You really do need to load your gun with bullets and not mush before you fire off these comments.

  13. STEPH
    It’s extraordinary that mythers are so insistent Paul should demonstrate that he knew about Jesus.

    Was Paul kept out of the loop when it came to oral tradition about Jesus?

    • That is an interesting sentence when Paul complains bitterly in Gal and 2 Cor especially that he is being kept out of the loop by the “superapostles” who actually knew Jesus. Sometimes, as a teacher of mine once said, a good Bible can shed massive light on the commentaries: you should read one.

      • It is really interesting that Paul complained that the superapostles who actually knew Jesus were not telling him about Jesus. Thanks for that information. It was not something I had read in the Bible myself.

      • Carr, it’s interesting reading that source, not to mention the fragments and manuscripts as well. And Steven, reading through whole letters in that book by Paul, its interesting that some of the things he writes have parallels with several of the teachings, sayings, and language, attributed to Jesus in the gospels. It’s fascinating how the book does indeed often shed massive light on some of the more extraordinary commentaries.

    • Steven:

      To take Prof. Hoffman’s point a step further, a theme that runs through all of Paul’s writings is his authority in relation to the people who lived and worked with Jesus. He was angry at those who tried to ignore him because they knew Jesus personally. Paul’s rebuttal is that he saw the real Jesus in a vision.

      I know taking things in context is difficult when you can’t think much beyond sarcastic asides, but what makes more sense in that scenario — that the vision led to the creation of a fictional person or that the real person gave rise to the fictional vision?

      For any rational person, the answer is obvious.

      And it’s not just a dispute in Paul’s writings. The same issue colors
      Acts and James, who ironically was the subject of all sorts of lionizing commentaries by writers in the first and second centuries. It was said the Jersusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD as God’s judgement against the murder of James by the high priest a few years earlier.

      Now since someone in antiquity wrote something that obviously isn’t literally true about James, you have to conclude that he never existed, right?


      • ‘ He was angry at those who tried to ignore him because they knew Jesus personally.’


        2 Corinthians 11 5-6
        I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you.

        The superapostles were able to speak much better than Paul, because they had known Jesus personally.

  14. Absolutely wonderful post. Will be my go-to link to rebut the deniers. Really well written with the mind of the reader coaxed along over some rough terrain. I’ve spent the morning on message boards with ADHD atheists, so I admit I had to take a couple passes over the post to settle in, but well worth the time.

    Thanks again. Look forward to your book.

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