The Jesus myth wars heat up

Jesus

In the nineteenth century, some writers (not generally qualified historians) argued that Jesus didn’t actually exist, and the gospels stories are legends. These views were generally discredited in the twentieth century as historians developed better methods of analysing ancient historical information.

But the movement began a resurgence in the latter part of the twentieth century, as the internet helped anybody who wished to publish information and gain an audience. And now the battle between the historians and the ‘Jesus mythicists’ has heated up.

What’s going on?

From disregard to disrespect

For a long time, scholars tended to ignore the Jesus mythicists. They considered their views to be outrageously extreme and unconvincing, and unworthy of even being discussed, let alone refuted. If they spent time refuting everyone they believed to be a crank, this would take time from serious scholarship

Occasionally a scholar would devote a few lines or even a few paragraphs to the matter, but little more. For example, classical historian Michael Grant (Jesus: an historian’s review of the gospels), Mark Powell (The Jesus debate) and Robert Van Voorst (Jesus outside the New Testament) all gave a page or so to the matter.

Meanwhile mythicists like Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Earl Doherty, Acharya S (aka DM Murdoch), Neil Godfrey and Richard Carrier continued to produce books that were generally self-published (critics say because no reputable publisher would do so) and promote their views widely on the internet. None of these are working as historical scholars, and only Carrier has the qualifications to do so.

But the game seemed to change a few months ago when Bart Ehrman published his book length review of the evidence and the mythicist claims, Did Jesus exist?. He pulled no punches, described some of the more extreme mythicists in very unflattering terms, and gave strong arguments against the less extreme claims. Mythicists, for long fans of Ehrman because of his scepticism about christian faith, reacted strongly against the book, and scholars went to Ehrman’s defence. Neither side respected the other’s views, and it seems like the gloves are off.

Ehrman’s arguments

Ehrman introduced his book in the Huffington Post. I have summarised Ehrman’s arguments briefly in Was Jesus a real person?. Basically, he says that the textual evidence for Jesus is very good by historical standards, and the arguments mythicists use are based on poor historical research and a poor understanding of the period, plus old arguments and evidence that has long since been discredited.

The reaction

Many mythicists have attacked Ehrman and his book. Perhaps most persistent has been Richard Carrier (here and here and more), to which Ehrman replied here and here. Carrier’s attacks on Ehrman seemed to me to be quite rude (more appropriate for an argument in a pub than a scholarly discussion) often pedantic, and broadly refuted by Ehrman and others. At best, he showed that Ehrman was careless with a few facts. In response, Ehrman was robust but icily polite.

Earl Doherty wrote a massive 13 posts (to date) on the Vridar blog against Ehrman, and Neil Godfrey had a post also.

On the historians’ side, some genuine academics (Maurice Casey, James McGrath) and some enthusiastic amateurs, though no less qualified than most mythicists, (e.g. Jonathon Burke and ‘Labarum’) responded also.

Move along, there’s nothing to see here

The whole argument is a little unedifying, but I think it is at least worth knowing about it. But beyond that, I think most of us have better things to do than going into all the details, but some of the key references are here if you want to dive in.

But as a layperson, I have to trust the experts – I don’t have access to the documents, I can’t read the languages and I haven’t studied the culture and history to any depth. And a choice between believing the near unanimous view of thousands of experts versus that of a handful of untrained enthusiasts is really no choice at all. Mythicism is effectively a conspiracy theory that accuses thousands of scholars at hundreds of universities across the western world, and I’m not sure anyone should give it much attention.

34 Comments

  1. It’s also good to know some patterns of the Mythicist method, because once you recognise those elements it gets very clear how bad many arguments are. The tactics tend to be either:

    – pleading for an interpolation with insufficient evidence (so simply because it is convenient for their conclusion)
    – dismissing scholars whenever they disagree with them (often with claims that the scholars are biased, one possible route for the conspiracy theory you mentioned)
    – insisting that scholars are correct whenever they agree with them
    – again and again supposing readings of words that are not supported by evidence and using that to suppose the existence of groups, beliefs or w/e that are otherwise unattested

  2. Thanks for this roundup. I’ve also critiqued some of Richard Carrier’s arguments on my blog, three posts entitled, “The Death of Richard Carrier’s Dying Messiah,” “The Torturous Death of Richard Carrier’s Dying Messiah,” and “Does the Messiah Die in Targum Jonathan After All?” respectively.

    http://religionatthemargins.com

  3. Thanks for those comments.

    IN, I’m sure you are correct. Those are behaviours of people who have made up their minds and hold their position on faith, regardless of the facts. We christians do it too, so we have to be careful about pointing the finger. I think it is an interesting exercise to consider: if we don’t think our beliefs should be only dependent on reductionist evidence, but we also criticise fundamentalists, whether christian or mythicist, what is the right balance of fact and faith?

    Thom, thanks for your links. You have obviously delved into this matter more than I have. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  4. Thanks for the links, Mr Stark, hadn’t seen the later two posts. I’m reading “the torturous death” now and it’s great (Dr Carrier’s advice “try the ASV, KJV, NIV, and the Vulgate” is pretty unorthodox (or maybe orthodox is the better word?)).

    UnkleE:
    “Those are behaviours of people who have made up their minds and hold their position on faith, regardless of the facts. We christians do it too, so we have to be careful about pointing the finger.”

    There’s plenty of Christian bunk science or pseudoscholarship and you’re right about the tactics stemming from motives like that. Still, I think there’s a use to summarise a few of those tactics.

    “I think it is an interesting exercise to consider: if we don’t think our beliefs should be only dependent on reductionist evidence, but we also criticise fundamentalists, whether christian or mythicist, what is the right balance of fact and faith?”

    That seems like a fairly difficult and specialised philosophical issue to me, an issue about when beliefs are justified. What you’ve written on this blog, about the different standards for different fields and thus that there is no simple answer is on the right path.

  5. A little comment on this:

    “Carrier has a good handle on his own field. I’ve read lots of his work, and when he talks about his Greek and Roman sources, he knows what he’s talking about, and he knows the literature. I totally agreed with and loved his chapter in one of the Loftus books, in which he soundly refuted those Christian apologists who argue that Christianity made science possible. It was a joy to read, and he was right.”

    I’m no expert, but several experts do disagree with Carrier’s overarching thesis on “science”, a new take on the discredited conflict thesis, while agreeing that several apologists do deserve a lot of criticism.

    http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/early-history-of-science/ (Carrier is criticised in the comments by a historian of science)
    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2010/09/was-christianity-responsible-for-modern.html
    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2010/09/was-christianity-responsible-for-modern_09.html
    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2010/09/richard-carrier-on-ancient-science.html

  6. Thanks for those links. Those critics are taking issue not with Carrier’s overarching thesis but with a few statements Carrier made peripherally (statements I wasn’t particularly interested in anyway). But the critics your provide actually support Carrier’s overarching thesis, which is that there was science and a notable scientific method long before Christianity came on the scene. I also read through all of the comments on the first link, and Thorny (the Carrier critic you mention there) hadn’t even read Carrier’s chapter; he was proven wrong by Ken and others on most of his arguments and even admitted so in one of the big cases. But interesting reading, so thanks!

  7. Have you read Rene Salm?
    It is always wise to read both sides, those for and against.

    Salm’s exposition of Nazareth is an eye opener, and if you are prepared to place his study next to the evidence offered by mainstream theology it is difficult to fault him.

    And when one considers Luke’s description of Nazareth,(which clearly demonstrates the writer had no idea of the geography of the area) it is no wonder Christians want to discredit Salm’s work.

  8. “Have you read Rene Salm?”
    Actually, I have read a little of Rene Salm – one of the references in my post on Bethlehem and Nazareth was to his website.

    “It is always wise to read both sides, those for and against.”
    I agree. If you notice, in that post I gave 2 links to the archaeologists, two to critics, and three to independent news reports, so that seems even-handed. But can you tell me please which scholars you have read on the subject?

    “Salm’s exposition of Nazareth is an eye opener, and if you are prepared to place his study next to the evidence offered by mainstream theology it is difficult to fault him.”
    I’m not sure what theology has to do with it, but I have checked what mainstream historians and archaeologists have said. I found every scholar I checked believes the evidence shows Nazareth was a small village in the first century – this is the view of (if I have read them correctly) of JD Crossan, Yardenna Alexandre, Craig Evans, James Tabor, Ken Dark, Stephen Pfann, L. Michael White and James Charlesworth, to name just the ones I found quickly. So it seems it isn’t difficult to fault him – in fact I thought his website was a little silly about Nazareth, dismissing the latest evidence by saying: “Typically, no evidence dating to the turn of the era (“time of Jesus”) has been forthcoming.” The evidence for habitation is as close to Jesus’ life as 67 CE – how much closer does he want?

    “Christians want to discredit Salm’s work”
    It isn’t only christians who want to discredit his work, but real scholars of all beliefs.

    So my question to you is – why do you believe Salm (who is not a scholar and not unbiased) rather than historians and archaeologists who have worked on sites in Israel?

  9. Why do I believe Salm? Simple. He has no theological bias, unlike every archaeologist who has claimed that the Nazareth site is a) genuine and b) the village where jesus grew up.
    Furthermore, Bagatti’s (You do know who Bagatti was, I take it?) evidence was demonstrably flawed – as Salm has demonstrated.

    The archaeologists you list, and this woman in particular: Yardenna Alexandre, suggests the only thing of hers you have read is what was said in the press release.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary's_Well
    This is interesting.

    If there was continual habitation it would show before , not only after the date listed.
    Eusebius who was bishop of Caeseria lived just up the road, relatively speaking, but never visited the home town of his Saviour? Odd.
    I mean I would have visited; wouldn’t you? Of course you would have.
    If Luke is to be believed, Nazareth was a city, with a synagogue – although not a shred of evidence to suggest such a structure has been unearthed.
    But as I have pointed out, he obviously never visited the place as his geography was all wrong.
    Over the centuries adjustments have been made as to the size of Nazareth, from a city to a small town to a village to a single family farm. Population estimates have been from thousands to a single family. How is it possible to have such a wide shift in numbers?
    It is illogical and suggests little more than shooting in the dark.
    If as is the current belief, the village only had a small population then Jesus would have been known to each and every one, but the description in Luke suggests he was a stranger.
    And where was his family when the “Multitude” wanted to chuck him off the cliff? (the cliff that isn’t there)

    You deride internet fringe ‘lunatics’ Why? Because pertinant information is now available to a much wider audience rather than the sole preserve of religious caretakers?

    Why not go back and read Luke,(thoroughly) then try to harmonize the “inerrent” inspired word of God with known facts.
    Check out the geography yourself.

    If you are still content with the current evidence, then so be it.

  10. To stay more on topic.
    I would be interested to know what evidence you have that proves the historicity of Jesus.
    I have been researching this area for a few years and have read
    from both sides, and aside from the “Ususal supects” – Josephus, Tacitus, etc, I have been unable to find a single piece of evidence to suggest any historicity of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible.
    Christians, most certainly. There is no question of doubt. But Jesus? There is, as far as I have been able to ascertain absolutely nothing to confirm that the character in the bible was a real person.

  11. “Why do I believe Salm? Simple. He has no theological bias, unlike every archaeologist who has claimed that the Nazareth site is a) genuine and b) the village where jesus grew up.”
    Akhenaten, this is a big statement! You are prepared to question the bona fides of every scholar who accepts the evidence for Nazareth, and trust a non-scholar who isn’t willing to accept the evidence and who hasn’t done any archeology!?

    “Because pertinant information is now available to a much wider audience rather than the sole preserve of religious caretakers?”
    How much pertinent information is available to you, or Salm? Have you or he got qualifications in ancient languages, history and culture, ever visited a Holy Land archaeological site, ever participated in a dig; can you or he read any of the languages or have access to original texts and artefacts? I certainly haven’t, and 99% of people on the internet haven’t either. It’s not just the information, its being able to read it, assess it, put it in context. And to put your conclusions up for peer review by scholars who have spent a lifetime on these matters.

    I think you drastically underestimate the expertise required here, and a little knowledge is dangerous. Salm is like a Young Earth Creationist high school student challenging the best evolutionary biologists in science.

    “Try to harmonize the “inerrent” inspired word of God with known facts”
    I’m sorry, but that isn’t my belief. And it isn’t relevant to the discussion. Whether Luke (who said he got his stories from eye witnesses and wasn’t an eye witness himself) got some details wrong or not has no bearing on the fact under discussion – that there is now good archaeological evidence that Nazareth existed in the first century.

    I cannot see why you would want to think anything else, but your comments here have really illustrated how some people won’t allow the facts to divert them. I appreciate your spending time on my blog, but I think there is little point discussing this matter further. If we cannot agree on the facts, and cannot accept what the vast majority of experts say, and you instead rely on someone with no qualifications and no experience, where can we go? Let’s talk about something else.

  12. “I have been researching this area for a few years and have read
    from both sides, and aside from the “Ususal supects” – Josephus, Tacitus, etc, I have been unable to find a single piece of evidence to suggest any historicity of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible.
    Christians, most certainly. There is no question of doubt. But Jesus? There is, as far as I have been able to ascertain absolutely nothing to confirm that the character in the bible was a real person.”

    I don’t know what reading you have done, but Bart Ehrman says he knows of no academic currently holding a tenured position who thinks that Jesus didn’t exist. The argument is about who he was. You can see a summary of the facts at Was Jesus a real person?.

  13. Have you actually read his book? It doesn’t sound like it.
    I honestly think Ehrman’s point of view is not quite on the level, it is almost as if he has an ulterior motive, for he does not interview anyone other than apologists, that I can ascertain. So what extra information is he drawing upon other than what is already out there?
    Have there been any new revelations in the exegises of the Bible? No. Any new, enlightening ancient documents? No.
    So where does Ehrman draw his conclusions from?
    He provides nothing new to the debate at all, in fact,leaving the reader with the option of confirming one’s faith/believing – or not believing.

  14. With reference to your link; was jesus real.
    The experts you quote/reference only provide an opinion, nothing more. It is their interpretation of the available evidence.
    Not one of the secular sources: in particular Tacitus mentions the name Jesus.
    Your reference to Josephus is a little ambiguous, even though you mention the Testimon. The Church is on record as stating Josephus work suffers from interpolation. What better critic could one ask for?
    The available evidence has not changed for hundreds of years, and little has changed re: the reading of this evidence.

    Maybe you should do research on the etymology of Chrestus/ Christus? Especially where it relates to The Annals.
    I would direct you to a bona fide source that clearly shows how the piece by Tacitus was likely a forgery using modern technology, but you probably wouldn’t visit it.
    However, if you ask, I will gladly provide the link.

    After reading how erudite you were on Nate’s blog I was genuinely hoping that your blog/site would provide new and interesting insights. Yet, alas, it has not proved so.

    If in the future, you do uncover some new information please come give me a ‘shout’; I will be extremely glad.
    Until such timne, I shall leave you to continue in the vain you have started and hope your writing entertains the believers.
    Say ‘hello to Sydney for me….my brother lives there.

  15. I thought i would add this, as it is a more balanced view of why there is likely concensus amongst Historians/Bibilical scholars.

    Although most biblical scholars agree that Jesus did exist, Joseph Hoffmann has stated that the issue of historicity of Jesus has been long ignored due to theological interests.[144] The New Testament scholar Nicholas Perrin has argued that since most biblical scholars are Christians, a certain bias is inevitable, but he does not see this as a major problem.[145] Donald Akenson, Professor of Irish Studies in the department of history at Queen’s University has argued that, with very few exceptions, the historians of Yeshua have not followed sound historical practices. He has stated that there is an unhealthy reliance on consensus, for propositions which should otherwise be based on primary sources, or rigorous interpretation. He also holds that some of the criteria being used are faulty. He says that the overwhelming majority of biblical scholars are employed in institutions whose roots are in religious beliefs.

    Because of this, more than any other group in present day academia, biblical historians are under immense pressure to theologize their historical work. It is only through considerable individual heroism that many biblical historians have managed to maintain the scholarly integrity of their work.[146] John Meier, Professor of theology at University of Notre Dame, has said “…people claim they are doing a quest for the historical Jesus when de facto they’re doing theology, albeit a theology that is indeed historically informed…”[147] Dale Allison, Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary too says, “…We wield our criteria to get what we want…We all see what we expect to see and what we want to see….”[148] However, the Old Testament scholar Bertil Albrektson has stated that a great many biblical scholars do not accept any creed as the foundation of their work and they do in fact honestly try to investigate scientifically the basic documents of Christianity in the same way as other texts from antiquity.[149]

    Wiki

    T’raa.

  16. The guy’s not a scholar, sometimes censors critical but not rude comments on his blog and occasionally cries wolf about how mean non-Mythicists are. I don’t consider his voice more weighty than those of actual scholars, like the ones unkleE cited. So, again I ask whether that was a joke.

  17. Why attack the man? Is his review not fair?
    Salm is not a scholar by your crieteria either yet his challenge to Bagatti’s findings forced a 22 page amendment to the final report. Therefore Salm must have been doing something right.

    It sounds as though you have chosen to dismiss the man and ergo his review out of hand. Doesn’t seem very mature.

    Do you, like the scholars UnkleE lists, have any vested interest that you also need to disparage Godfrey’s review and Salm’s book?

  18. Akhenaten,

    How is it that all the scholars are wrong when their conclusions disagree with yours, yet you still choose to quote them when you think they support your view??

    “After reading how erudite you were on Nate’s blog I was genuinely hoping that your blog/site would provide new and interesting insights. Yet, alas, it has not proved so.”

    LoL!! I am so sorry to disappoint you! All my erudition must have leaked out overnight! : ) (Yet, somehow, I am thinking that you were not hoping for any insights that would challenge your view, but rather desperately hoping they would not!)

    But never mind. This blog and website were not written for one such as you. I try to research the best expert conclusions I can find, and you have made it clear that you don’t accept the best scholars, just the few non-scholars who agree with you. You are welcome to continue to comment, but I think you are wasting your time here.

    Best wishes.

  19. If the scholars you list have a theological bias, especially in this case, a Christian bias then they cannot be impartial. It is illogical, as any findings that contradicted their preconceived views on Christianity would this be destroyed in one fell swoop.
    The Bibical Archaeologist, William Albright discovered this to his detriment.

    “Biblical scholar Thomas L. Thompson notes that the methods of “biblical archaeology” have also become outmoded: “[Wright and Albright’s] historical interpretation can make no claim to be objective, proceeding as it does from a methodology which distorts its data by selectivity which is hardly representative, which ignores the enormous lack of data for the history of the early second millennium, and which wilfully establishes hypotheses on the basis of unexamined biblical texts, to be proven by such (for this period) meaningless mathematical criteria as the ‘balance of probability’ …”[14]”
    Wiki.

    In the same way, no Islamic scholar will interpret the Koran in a fashion that will contradict his preconditioned belief.
    Neither Hindu, Jew, or any other devout religious adherrant, for any serious questioning will result in a collapse of faith; Nate is a perfect example of what results from serious questioning of faith-based belief.
    And every one of the aforementioned adherrants will defend -sometimes with their life -the veracity of their own faith.
    And THIS aspect is so very sad.Tragic, even that a person would waste his precious life on such inculcated clap-trap.

    The only way one can be truly impartial is by NOT having faith in any religious system and then ask of the believer to demonstrate why their’s is the truth, the way and the answer.
    This is something you will never be able to do, and it also adds credence to why there are so many different religions and different sects within these religions.

    There is a book titled, ‘On this day, all gods die’.

    Eventually, it will be so…

  20. “Salm is not a scholar by your crieteria either yet his challenge to Bagatti’s findings forced a 22 page amendment to the final report. Therefore Salm must have been doing something right.”

    What do you mean with his challenge forcing a 22 page amendment?

  21. I’ve read his article, not his book. Sorry for the unclarity, but I was asking what you meant with “his challenge forcing a 22 page amendment”.

  22. “If the scholars you list have a theological bias, especially in this case, a Christian bias then they cannot be impartial. It is illogical, as any findings that contradicted their preconceived views on Christianity would this be destroyed in one fell swoop.”

    Two problems with this statement.

    1. Most of the scholars I quote are not christians – you seem to be under quite a misapprehension about this. The three scholars I quote most are Bart Ehrman and Michael Grant (both atheist-leaning agnostics) and EP Sanders (agnostic). Other scholars I reference are R Bauckham, NT Wright, C Evans & John Dickson (christian), Geza Vermes (agnostic Jew) and Paula Fredriksen & L Michael White (either agnostics or very liberal christians I think). I could mention others, but it gives you the idea. If I thought like you I’d only quote the christians, but I prefer to simply reference the best scholars regardless.

    2. If all the scholars have a bias, then surely so could Rene Salm or any other writer. The big difference is that the scholars all publish in peer reviewed Journals, and so they are kept from major bias by that process (because so many different viewpoints are represented among the scholars), whereas Salm does not subject himself to peer review, and continues to hold his views despite criticisms of them by genuine scholars. Yet you say elsewhere you believe in the peer review process!

    I’m sorry, but it just isn’t worthwhile discussing with someone who is so one-eyed and so inconsistent. I’ll leave the field to you and IgnorantiaNescia. Thanks for being interested, and best wshes.

  23. Again you are misreading my reply. I state that any Christian scholar will have an obvious bias. As do you, being a Christian.
    Salm does not have a bias simply because he is atheist, he is commenting on the evidence put forward by the church (in this case Bagatti) – thus he, like me is responding to claims put forward by those with a vested interest in the status quo.
    Aside from making a few bucks from selling a book (which doesn’t look as if its made that much of an impact) what vested interest could Salm possibly have that would outstrip religious interests? Please, don’t be silly.

    Salm’s work has been peer reviewed, but not by ‘recognised scholars’. Does this dimish the credibility of his findings?

    I have mentioned before that he submitted his objections on the final report and the church published a 22 page amendmment.
    If they had not taken cognisance of his objections they would not have given him the time of day.

    All scholars publish in peer reviewed publications. Do they? Well, the world is still waiting for Alexandra’s report on the Nazareth house so not all scholars, UnkleE. Not all…

    Salm’s objections are valid and merely because he is an amateur should not mean his work should be summarily ridiculed and dismissed merely because it does not fit the theocratic picture.
    After Salm had submitted his objections on Bagatti’s work the final report remained ambiguous regarding continual habitation in the specified area.
    You will choose to believe the case is closed,as Nazareth is crucial to the Historicity of Jesus, whereas the evidence suggests otherwise. Even the differing gospels versions, should be cause for concern.
    If you choose not to accept the nazareth story,so be it.This is choice. It does not make it truth.

    In the end, the truth will out.
    I hope you will handle the dissapointment.

  24. “If they had not taken cognisance of his objections they would not have given him the time of day.”

    Could you specify “cognisance of his objections”? Does it mean they must think he’s onto something or just awareness on their part?

  25. “Salm’s objections are valid…”

    Is that Salm, pianist and composer, or Salm, professional archaeologist and historian?

  26. Arkenaten wrote:
    “Why do I believe Salm? Simple. He has no theological bias, unlike every archaeologist who has claimed that the Nazareth site is a) genuine and b) the village where jesus grew up.”

    And yet his book on Nazareth was published by guess which publisher?

    American Atheist Press.

    No bias there then!!

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