The Dragon In The Garage of Historical Jesus Studies

26 Apr

I recently read a response that James McGrath wrote to Earl Doherty about Paul's silence about the historical Jesus. I'll say right off the bat that I'm not convinced by Earl's hypothesis (I really haven't read it all that indepthly, but the crucifixion in heaven deal sounds a bit too bizzare for my ametur mind), but if James' response represents the mainstream's position about Paul's silence, then I am horribly unimpressed. As a matter of fact, it makes me think less of the field as a whole. Because James' response is nothing short of ad hoc apologetics. It is almost a dictionary definition of the term “ad hoc”; an excuse made up literally just for a single purpose.

Before I get into why this irks me so, here is a snippet of an interview of Eliezer Yudkowsky:

let’s say someone tells you that they have a dragon in their garage. And you say, “OK, let’s go look at the dragon.” They say, “It’s an invisible dragon.”

You say, “OK, let’s go and listen to the dragon.” And they say, “It’s an inaudible dragon.” And you say, “Well I’d like to toss a bag of flour in the air and see if the dragon’s invisible form is outlined within the flour.” And they say, “Well the dragon is permeable to flour.”

Now, when Carl Sagan originally told this story, he was telling it to say, if your beliefs have no effect on the real world than you’re allowed to have them but please keep them out of my politics. Or you can tell the story to emphasize the idea that false hypotheses need to do sort of fast footwork and complicate themselves to avoid falsification.

But when I tell that story, I tell it with the moral that, this person who says they have a dragon in their garage, clearly has a good model of the world hidden somewhere in their brain. Because they can anticipate, in advance, exactly which experiences they’ll need to come up with excuses for. He’ll know in advance that when you look into his garage you’re not going to see a dragon there. And the moral I take from that is: don’t ask what facts do I believe? Ask: what experiences do I anticipate?

The silence of Paul (and other pre-gospel epistle writers) about any details of the earthly Jesus is a real problem. It's an anomaly. So let's come up with some possible reasons why Paul (and other writers) did not write any significant details about the historical Jesus:

1. They didn't know any

2. They didn't care

3. They were embarrassed by them

4. The stories were too well known to repeat

5. There was no historical Jesus so the stories hadn't been invented yet

The first three put serious doubt on the traditional gospel story. The fourth is basically confirming the traditional gospel story; that Jesus was an insanely popular rockstar during his one (or three) year ministry so everyone already knew everything. But it's phrased in a way to account for the invisible dragon in the garage. They already know that the epistle writers should have written some things that would point us to a historical figure (not a legendary figure, which phrases like “born of the seed of King David according to the flesh” sound like), and they anticipate that experience and have come up with an idea to account for the lack of that anticipated experience. The fifth is basically Earl's position, and is really the first option taken to its end. James' position is that Paul didn't write any details about Jesus because he's writing off-hand letters and cannot waste ink and parchment on recounting things that his audience is well acquainted with:

What [mythicists] do is readily discuss the letters of Paul as though it is possible to determine from them whether Paul and the movement he was a part of thought Jesus was a real person. What they hope you will not notice up their sleeve is this: In your average letter, written to someone you know or who can safely be assumed to share important major assumptions with you, you are incredibly unlikely to emphasize that a person you refer to actually existed. But in the case of mythicism, the lack of repeated clear statements of Jesus' status as a historical figure is highlighted as though it were evidence for mythicism, and no mention is made of the fact that this could simply represent a failure to state the obvious.

In your average letter, you would expect to see some anecdotes about a person you have in common with the recipient. Especially if the person you know in common is an authority over both of you on a given subject. No one would write in an offhand letter “hey, and President Obama is a real person”. They would write something like “…and according to President Obama, the economy is going to recover. Tim met him at the convention at Facebook last week where he asked about the economy during the Q and A.”. If I had access to correspondence between two members of the Branch Davidians I'm sure they would have anecdotes like that. An example of something that agnostics like me would expect in Paul's letters would be something like what later Church Fathers did. Take Irenaeus:

For the apostles, who were commissioned to find out the wanderers, and to be for sight to those who saw not, and medicine to the weak, certainly did not address them in accordance with their opinion at the time, but according to revealed truth. For no persons of any kind would act properly, if they should advise blind men, just about to fall over a precipice, to continue their most dangerous path, as if it were the right one, and as if they might go on in safety. Or what medical man, anxious to heal a sick person, would prescribe in accordance with the patient's whims, and not according to the requisite medicine? But that the Lord came as the physician of the sick, He does Himself declare saying, “They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5.31-32) How then shall the sick be strengthened, or how shall sinners come to repentance? Is it by persevering in the very same courses? Or, on the contrary, is it by undergoing a great change and reversal of their former mode of living, by which they have brought upon themselves no slight amount of sickness, and many sins?

A pretty simple quote of Jesus, used to correct a false belief.

Now, what sort of evidence would we anticipate if Paul (and other writers) really were pressed for ink? They wouldn't write any anecdotes about people, themes, and ideas that their audience is already familiar with. In other words, for this explanation to not be an ad hoc explanation (in the philosophical sense, not the pejorative sense), it should account for more than just one specific problem we're trying to explain (away). We should look for a potential falsification of its general idea.

In My Wild and Reckless Youth, Eliezer writes about going beyond just mere falsification:

As a Traditional Rationalist, the young Eliezer was careful to ensure that his Mysterious Answer made a bold prediction of future experience.  Namely, I expected future neurologists to discover that neurons were exploiting quantum gravity, a la Sir Roger Penrose.  This required neurons to maintain a certain degree of quantum coherence, which was something you could look for, and find or not find.  Either you observe that or you don’t, right?

But my hypothesis made no retrospective predictions.  According to Traditional Science, retrospective predictions don’t count – so why bother making them?  To a Bayesian, on the other hand, if a hypothesis does not today have a favorable likelihood ratio over “I don’t know”, it raises the question of why you today believe anything more complicated than “I don’t know”.  But I knew not the Way of Bayes, so I was not thinking about likelihood ratios or focusing probability density.  I had Made a Falsifiable Prediction; was this not the Law?

In other words, our explanations or our “anticipations” should not only predict things, but they should retrodict things. This is especially true in history, where everything is in the past.

Now, does the general rule “early epistle writers didn't write about things their audience was already familiar with” hold up? Or was this rule invented to apply only to a specific problem? I would say that if Paul quotes the LXX, then this rule prima facie doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If Paul describes the actions of a character or major events in the LXX, then this rule most certainly doesn't apply.

1 Corinthians 10.1-10 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food 4and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

Here Paul is writing about a situation that he presumes his audience is already intimately familiar with: the Exodus. So it seems we have one example of Paul wasting ink relating a story that his readers already know about.  But it gets worse. Paul quotes the LXX (again, which we should assume his audience is already familiar with) instead of quoting Jesus:

Matt 5:39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also

Romans 12:17-21 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” (Deut. 32.35) says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Prov. 25:21,22 ) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Similarly in Jude:

Jude 1.14-15 Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.

Why is Jude quoting the apocalyptic speech of Enoch instead of one of the apocalyptic speeches of Jesus (like say Matt 25.31-46)?

So the general rule does not seem to apply. I would not anticipate Paul wasting ink talking about the Exodus, and I most certainly wouldn't anticipate Paul wasting ink to go out of his way to not quote Jesus. HJ scholars will have to either come up with further ad hoc reasons for the silence, or admit that Paul's (and other early epistle writers') silence is a legitimate problem. But what really irks me is that it seems I'm reading nothing more than apologetics, since James continues to attack this strawman:

If texts cannot provide a basis for drawing conclusions about the historicity of a figure they mention, then there was no need for any of this discussion of details of Paul's letters that mythicists engage in without objection.

He's been corrected, over and over again, that no one actually holds this view; the view that there has to be evidence “other than texts” to solidify the existence of Jesus. But since he ignores the corrections and continues to knock down that strawman, he seems to be engaging in the type of behavior I regularly see reading the works of conservative apologists. I really wish he would correct himself when pointed out, but it seems his aim is to defeat mythicism at all costs, not by actually engaging in its arguments. I guess I'll have to go elsewhere to read some good critiques of mythicism.

And so I close with another of Eliezer's posts – Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points:

Modern Orthodox Judaism is like no other religion I have ever heard of, and I don’t know how to describe it to anyone who hasn’t been forced to study Mishna and Gemara.  There is a tradition of questioning, but the kind of questioning…  It would not be at all surprising to hear a rabbi, in his weekly sermon, point out the conflict between the seven days of creation and the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang – because he thought he had a really clever explanation for it, involving three other Biblical references, a Midrash, and a half-understood article inScientific American. In Orthodox Judaism you’re allowed to notice inconsistencies and contradictions, but only for purposes of explaining them away, and whoever comes up with the most complicated explanation gets a prize.

There is a tradition of inquiry.  But you only attack targets for purposes of defending them.  You only attack targets you know you can defend.

In Modern Orthodox Judaism I have not heard much emphasis of the virtues of blind faith.  You’re allowed to doubt.  You’re just not allowed to successfully doubt.

…The reason that educated religious people stay religious, I suspect, is that when they doubt, they are subconsciously very careful to attack their own beliefs only at the strongest points – places where they know they can defend.  Moreover, places where rehearsing the standard defense will feel strengthening.

It probably feels really good, for example, to rehearse one’s prescripted defense for “Doesn’t Science say that the universe is just meaningless atoms bopping around?”, because it confirms the meaning of the universe and how it flows from God, etc..  Much more comfortable to think about than an illiterate Egyptian mother wailing over the crib of her slaughtered son.  Anyone who spontaneously thinks about the latter, when questioning their faith in Judaism, is really questioning it, and is probably not going to stay Jewish much longer.

…To do better:  When you’re doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most.  Don’t rehearse standard objections whose standard counters would make you feel better.  Ask yourself what smart people who disagree would say to your first reply, and your second reply.  Whenever you catch yourself flinching away from an objection you fleetingly thought of, drag it out into the forefront of your mind.  Punch yourself in the solar plexus.  Stick a knife in your heart, and wiggle to widen the hole.


Posted by on April 26, 2011 in jesus myth


4 responses to “The Dragon In The Garage of Historical Jesus Studies

  1. Steven Carr

    April 27, 2011 at 6:13 am

    'Now, does the general rule “early epistle writers didn't write about things their audience was already familiar with” hold up? Or was this rule invented to apply only to a specific problem?'

    Paul writes 'There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people.'

    2 Corinthians 9:1

    Of course, Paul writes about it, even though he has already said there is no need to do so.

    Paul even writes about what the Corinthians did last year, even though they already knew what they had done 'Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so'

  2. blogforthelordjesus

    April 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    I am not perplexed or bothered by someone being curious about why the epistles don't contain more information about the historical Jesus (though it does seem like they're asking why the epistles aren't gospels, in the same way that someone might ask why an apple is not an orange). However, when someone uses this uncertainty as part of a “proof” for mythicism, it seems their agenda is not curiosity or truth seeking.

  3. beowulf2k8

    April 30, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    “However, when someone uses this uncertainty as part of a “proof” for mythicism, it seems their agenda is not curiosity or truth seeking.”

    Why, because you the infallible judge of all things have already determined that the truth is that Jesus actually existed? Palease! You can't say that everyone leaning in the mythicist direction is dishonest and doesn't care about the truth, anymore than you can say that everyone who claims to believe in Biblical inerrancy is dishonest and doesn't care about the truth. There are surely many who KNOW the Bible contradicts itself, yet lie and claim it never contradicts. They are dishonest and don't care about the truth. But there are others who simply believe it is inerrant without reading it, or much more than a disjointed verse here or there. They may be extremely sincere and there is no reason to condemn them as liars along with the real liars. So it is with mythicism. Some may just be going for that interpretation a priori because they are atheists. But not all are.

  4. J. Quinton

    May 2, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    I wouldn't say that that the silence is “proof” of mythicism only because that word gets abused and misconstrued. I would say that mythicism makes sense of that silence. But then again, there are other historical Jesus scenarios that could make sense of that silence as well.

    What doesn't make sense of that silence is the gospel Jesus scenario, and to claim that it does – as the apologist do – is to force oneself to come up with dragon-in-the-garage type [non]explanations.

NeuroLogica Blog

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Slate Star Codex

The Schelling Point for being on the #slatestarcodex IRC channel (see sidebar) is Wednesdays at 10 PM EST


Matthew Ferguson Blogs

The Wandering Scientist

Just another site

NT Blog

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Euangelion Kata Markon

A blog dedicated to the academic study of the "Gospel According to Mark"


My ὑπομνήματα about religion


Understand your mind with the science of psychology -


Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science

Maximum Entropy

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

atheist, polyamorous skeptics

Criticism is not uncivil


My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Research Digest

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Disrupting Dinner Parties

Feminism is for everyone!

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

The New Oxonian

Religion and Culture for the Intellectually Impatient

The Musings of Thomas Verenna

A Biblioblog about imitation, the Biblical Narratives, and the figure of Jesus

%d bloggers like this: