Category Archives: jesus myth

Historical Jesus Scholars Should Do What Biologists Do in the Creation/Evolution Debate

In my time traveling through the mire of debating Creationists (both occasionally IRL and on the series of tubes) one of the questions I get from them is “What is the best evidence for evolution?”. Before I even considered myself a Bayesian, I started to realize that this was a trick question, especially after Creationists would attempt to refute that “best evidence”.

On my website about the evidence for the theory of evolution, I list a bunch of evidence and then their explanation in an evolutionary framework. In a Bayesian sense, all of this evidence increases the probability of evolution, since their absence would decrease the probability of the theory of evolution. And that’s the point; the best argument for evolution is that there is so much evidence accumulated together for evolution. Which is the Bayesian answer.

Historical Jesus scholars should follow the same reasoning when dealing with mythicism. There is no “best argument” for the historical Jesus. The best argument should be a cumulative Bayesian one, meaning that the best argument for the historical Jesus is (or should be) that there is so much evidence for the historical Jesus. That’s certainly what I would do, and that is certainly what Richard Carrier will do in his forthcoming book about the historical Jesus (though he will be arguing the negative for Jesus’ historicity).

For example, Bart Ehrman, whenever questioned about whether Jesus existed or not, usually falls into the analogous Creationist trap above. He notes the best evidence for why he thinks Jesus existed which is essentially using the criterion of embarrassment. This fails for two reasons: One, like I wrote above, any “best argument” has the possibility of being wrong which if it is, then this gives the opposition the opportunity to claim victory. And two, even if that logic weren’t the case, criteriology can never uncover “evidence”. A criterion of embarrassment is an interpretation of evidence, not the evidence itself. The only way that Ehrman’s argument could be foolproof, and admitted into the evidence bin, is if it were formulated like this:

P1: All people in antiquity didn’t invent dogma that was embarrassing
P2: All Jews in antiquity were embarrassed by a crucified messiah
P3: Jesus was crucified
C: Therefore, Jesus was not invented

This argument is only as strong as its weakest premise. Do we know that all people in antiquity didn’t invent embarrassing details of their religions? Do we know that the Jews were Borg-like entity with one monolithic thing that they were embarrassed by? The same failure happens when scholars appeal to Paul meeting James the brother of the lord as a “slam dunk” argument. There are no slam dunk arguments; the only “slam dunk” should be the accumulation of evidence.

Usually, though, when dealing with Creationists, I lay out all of the evidence and then ask them to explain it using their Creationist framework (e.g. how do you explain both Endogenous Retroviruses and Ring Species using one framework?). More importantly, I ask them what is the least likely type of evidence we would expect to see given Creationism. That is the principle of falsifiability, explained using Bayesian conditional probability terminology. Historical Jesus scholars should do the same, instead of listing hypothetical documents that aren’t in evidence; they can’t be in evidence because they’re hypothetical (if you have to appeal to a hypothetical document to support your hypothesis, this makes your initial hypothesis less likely).

For example, under a mythicist framework, when talking about the original language that a pericope is written in, the least likely evidence would be… absolutely nothing. There’s no restriction on the language that a pericope would originally be written in. This means that there is no language that is the most or least probable given mythicism, making mythicism unfalsifiable when it comes to language evidence. Which is a strike against mythicism. That should be the strategy that historical Jesus scholars engage in when dealing with mythicism. On the other hand, given that Jesus was such a charismatic preacher that that was why his followers revered him and exalted him to the right hand of god after death, what is the least likely evidence we would see? The least likely evidence would be the absolutely zero quotes of his so-called charismatic preaching in any NT writings until around the time of Marcion and Justin Martyr; a full 100 years after Jesus was supposed to have lived**. If you didn’t read any gospels and only the epistles written in the first 100 years of the Christian religion, the last thing you would come away with was how much Jesus’ teachings influenced the new religion.

So as of right now I’m extremely disappointed in the way that historical Jesus scholars have been arguing against mythicism. They need to think more rigorously and scientifically, using actual logical reasoning instead of faulty criteriology and waving around invisible — hypothetical — documents. What I’m seeing is the same sort of reaction that Christian apologists have when trying to defend the truth of their god’s existence or the resurrection; being well read but not knowing anything about formal logic or even probability theory to ensure that they’re not promoting logical fallacies. Maybe the whole enterprise is inherently apologetic in nature, as Hector Avalos argues in The End of Biblical Studies.

** Of course, I’m excluding the four gospels because no one seems to be aware of their Jesus-the-teacher content until Marcion and Justin Martyr


The Existence Of Jesus Is Just A Theory

This should be the most common response to Creationists who insist that the theory of evolution is “just a theory”. And that feeling of being taken aback when you say “well, Jesus is just a theory” is the same feeling that normal people get when Creationists say that “evolution is just a theory”.

Make no mistake. Jesus is a hypothetical construct posited to make sense of Christianity, much in the same way the theory of evolution is posited to make sense of biology. The evidence for evolution is much better than the evidence for the existence of Jesus. So if Creationists want to doubt the theory of evolution because it’s “just a theory”, then they should be even more doubtful of the existence of Jesus based on the same logic. This is based on the simple fact that the hard sciences have more evidence to work with than history.

On the flip side of that, if the existence of Jesus is beyond reasonable doubt for the Creationist, then how much more solid is the existence of evolution? They are really stuck between a rock and a hard place if they assert that one is open to questioning and the other one is beyond questioning. This statement should really expose the hypocrisy of their “it’s just a theory” statement.

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Posted by on March 27, 2012 in apologetics, creationism, jesus myth


Richard Carrier Takes On Bart Ehrman

Richard Carrier has posted on his blog a response to Bart Ehrman’s article over at the Huffington Post discussing Jesus Mythicism. Here is an excerpt from Ehrman’s peice:

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

I couldn’t believe when Ehrman said this, because it’s simply not true. We don’t have multiple “independent” accounts of Jesus’ life; all accounts of Jesus’ life comes from one context: Early Christianity. And none of the gospels are independent because they all derive from Mark in some fashion, and Paul is useless for recovering the historical Jesus.

And then there is a problem with appealing to hypothetical documents behind prima facie sources. It would be fine if the hypothetical source had 100% certainty of existence, but anything less than that drags down the probability of any hypothesis that depends on the hypothetical. That’s why it’s called hypothetical. There’s a chain: Probability that Jesus exists * probability of the hypothetical source * probability of the main source. If the prior probability of Jesus’ existence was unknown, say 50%, and the hypothetical source had a probability of 80%, then this drags down Jesus’ probability of existing to 50% * 80% = 40%. The more hypothetical sources you add to that chain, the less probable Jesus becomes (which is why we need something like Bayes’ theorem to have a responsible way of adding hypothetical sources along with their probability of existence).

Anyway, this is a snippet of Carrier’s response:

He actually says we have such sources. We do not. That is simply a plain, straight-up falsehood. I can only suppose he means Q or some hypothesized sources behind the creedal statements in Paul or the sermons in Acts, but none of those sources exist, and are purely hypothetical. In fact, barely more than conjectural. There is serious debate in the academic community as to whether Q even existed; and even among those who believe it did, there is serious debate about whether it comes from Aramaic or in fact Greek sources or whether it’s one source or several or whether it even goes back to Jesus at all. The background to the creeds and sermons are even more conjectural (the creeds might go back to Aramaic sources, but none attest to a historical Jesus in the required sense of the term; and the sermons almost certainly do not go back to Aramaic sources, but are literary constructions of the author of Acts, writing in a Semitized Greek heavily influenced by the Septuagint

Don’t be too alarmed of a falling out. At least hopefully. Carrier has glowing praises of Ehrman’s other works. But…

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Posted by on March 22, 2012 in jesus myth


The Many Faces Of Jesus

A while ago I made a post called Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?. That post was meant to illustrate that the name Jesus was common in antiquity, and a lot of those people named Jesus share eerie similarities with the Jesus of Christianity.

Here is a post over at Vridar that is itself a repost of David Fitzgerald’s own blog post about the myriad Jesuses created by scholars of the historical Jesus.

The entire post is worth reading, but I just want to call attention to one fact: There isn’t just “one” historical Jesus (that is, the Jesus recreated by historians). There are a multitude of historical Jesuses.

Albert Schweitzer in his From Reimarus to Wrede: A History of Research on the Life of Jesus (1906), was already discovering that every scholar claiming to have uncovered the “real” Jesus seemed to have found a mirror instead; each investigator found Jesus was a placeholder for whatever values they held dear. Over a century later, the situation has not improved – quite the contrary.  To say there is still no consensus on who Jesus was is an understatement. A quick survey (Price presents excellent examples in his Deconstructing Jesus, Prometheus, 2000, pp. 12-17) shows we have quite an embarrassment of Jesi:

Cynic philosopher – The many borrowings from Greek philosophy in Jesus’ teachings would make sense if Jesus had actually been a wandering Cynic or a Stoic philosopher, or the Galilean equivalent. Burton L. Mack, John Dominic Crossan, Gerald Downing and others have strongly defended this view, citing plenty of Cynic statements with their equivalents in the Gospels.

Liberal Pharisee – Something like his predecessor, the famous Rabbi Hillel.  In Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, historian Harvey Falk argues that virtually all of Jesus’ judgments on the Halakha, the Jewish law, are paralleled in the Pharisaic thought of that time, as well as later rabbinic thought.

Charismatic Hasid – Similarly, Dead Sea Scroll authority Geza Vermes, an expert on New Testament-era Judaism and author of Jesus the Jew: a Historian’s View of the Gospels, sees Jesus as one of the popular freewheeling Galilean holy men, unorthodox figures like Hanina Ben-Dosa or Honi the Circle-Drawer. Just like Jesus, they had little respect for the niceties of Jewish law, which of course ticked off the religious establishment.

Conservative Rabbi – On the other hand, Jesus upholds the Torah, insisting “not one jot or stroke of the Law will pass away” (Matthew 5:17–19).  He wears a prayer shawl tasseled with tzitzit (Matt. 9:20-22), observes the Sabbath, and worships in synagogues as well as the Temple.

Antinomian Iconoclast – But on the other other hand, Jesus then turns around and point by point dismantles the Torah (Mark 7:18-20, Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-37, 38-42, 43-44, etc.) and dismisses the Temple (Matt. 12:6, 23:16, 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6).   

Magician/Exorcist/Faith Healer – Morton Smith, discoverer (or more likely, its forger – but that’s another story) of the Secret Gospel of Mark made the argument that Jesus the Christ was actually Jesus the Magician in the book of the same name.  Like the pagan miracle workers, Jesus cast out demons and healed the blind, deaf, and mute with mud and spit, using the same spells, incantations and techniques as taught in the many popular Greek magic handbooks of the time (Mark 5:41; 7:33–34).

Violent Zealot Revolutionary – But maybe Jesus was really a political messiah, inciting a revolt against the Romans; like Theudas or “the Egyptian,” the unnamed Messianic figure Josephus describes, or the two “robbers” crucified with him (since rebel bandits were commonly referred to as “robbers”). Why else would it be the Romans crucifying him, rather than the Jewish Sanhedrin just stoning him to death for blasphemy?  There is evidence one can point to: Luke’s Gospel lists a disciple called Simon “the Zealot,” and seems to hint that Jesus had other Zealots in his entourage: at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his followers to grab their bags and buy a sword (22:36); they tell him they already have two swords on hand (22:38); when Jesus is about to be arrested they ask if they should attack (22:49).  In Mark 14:47, one of the disciples does just that and cuts off the ear of one of the High priest’s men (the story grows more details in the other Gospels: Matt. 26:51-52, Luke 22:50-51, John 18:10). Many capable scholars including Robert Eisler, S. G. F. Brandon, Hugh J. Schonfield, Hyam Maccoby, and Robert Eisenman have thought this is where the real Jesus is to be found, and there are many scholarly variations arguing for the Jesus as Che theory.

Nonviolent Pacificist Resister – but then again, Jesus isn’t called the Prince of Peace for nothing; there’s no trace of such political agitation when he instructs his followers “if someone strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39), or when conscripted by Roman soldier to lug their gear for a mile, to “go with him two” (Matt. 5:41).

Apocalyptic Prophet – This is the Jesus that Albert Schweitzer and many subsequent historians have thought was the real thing: A fearless, fiery Judgment Day preacher announcing that the end was nigh and the Kingdom of God was coming fast.  Like Paul (and many other first century Jewish apocalyptists) this Jesus did not expect the world to survive his own lifetime.   Bart Ehrman makes a well-reasoned case for such a figure in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

First-Century Proto-Communist – Was Jesus the first Marxist?  Milan Machoveč and other leftists have thought so. You have to admit Jesus has nothing good to say about the capitalist pigs of his day (Luke 6:24, 12:15), repeatedly preaching that they cannot serve both god and money (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13), that they should sell all they own and distribute the money to the poor (Matt. 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22) and most famously, that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven (Matt.19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25) – and don’t forget his casting the Moneychangers out of the Temple with a scourge. Acts not only depicts the early Christians as sharing everything in common, it even the states the Marxist credo: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” (Acts 4: 34-35).

Early Feminist – Or was he the first male Feminist?  Some scholars like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Kathleen Corley point to his unusual attitudes towards women, some of which seem remarkably progressive for the first century.  They say not only were some of his closest followers women, but he forgave the woman caught in adultery, and challenged social customs concerning women’s role in society (John 4:27, Luke 7:37, Matt. 21:31-32).

Earthy Hedonist – Or was he a male chauvinist pig?  Onlookers criticize him for being “a glutton and a drunk” who consorts with riffraff like tax collectors and whores (Luke 5:30; 5:33-34; 7:34, 37-39,44-46).

Family Man – but then again, Jesus is a champion of good old family values when he gets even tougher than Moses, ratcheting Old Testament law up a notch and declaring “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11–12). He also reminds his followers to honor their father and mother, then sternly warns “whoever speaks evil of father and mother must surely die” (Matthew 15:4).

Home Wrecker – Though when Jesus speaks evil of the family, apparently it’s okay: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). When Jesus is told his mother and brothers have come to see him, Jesus ignores them and asks, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:47-48) “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34–35).

Savior of the World – But despite all that, Jesus loves everyone; he even preached to Samaritans (John 4:39-41; Luke 17:11-18) and Gentiles (Matt. 4:13-17, 24-25).

Savior of Israel (only) – Well, he loves everyone except Samaritans or Gentiles.

When a Canaanite woman begs him to heal her daughter he ignores her; after the disciples ask him to make her go away, he first refuses, saying “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). When Jesus sends out his disciples, he commands them not to preach the good news to Gentile regions or Samaritan cities (Matthew 10:5-6).

Radical Social Reformer – Still others like John Dominic Crossan and Richard Horsley see Jesus as a champion for the Jewish peasants suffering under the yoke of the Roman Empire and its rapacious tax collectors; a Jesus somewhat along the lines of Gandhi and his struggle against the British Empire.

The problem with the vast majority of these reconstructions is that they don’t have the necessary logical connection to a death by crucifixion. Bart Ehrman points out:

The link between Jesus’ message and his death is crucial, and historical studies of Jesus’ life can be evaluated to how well they establish that link.  This in fact is a common weakness in many portrayals of the historical Jesus: they often sound completely plausible in their reconstruction of what Jesus said and did, but they can’t make sense of his death. If, for example, Jesus is to be understood as a Jewish rabbi who simply taught that everyone should love God and be good to one another, why did the Romans crucify him?

Of course, the Apocalyptic Prophet model also doesn’t necessitate Jesus’ death by crucifixion. As I pointed out in my post “Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”, there was another apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who was simply roughed up by the Jews, given a trial by a procurator — not saying a word in his defense — and simply let go. He was left free to preach his apocalyptic warnings for six years straight until he was killed by a random weapon during the first Jewish-Roman war.

None of the wandering, preaching Jesus models (including a straighforward reading of Mark) make sense of his execution by crucifixion.

The model that I’m partial to is the violent revolutionary, which to me makes sense of Jesus’ association with Simon the Zealot. As I wrote in that post, Simon the Zealot possibly makes an appearance in Mark, but Mark might have Hellenized the original Hebrew/Aramaic name for “zealot” and ended up with something phonetically close to “Canaanite”.

Simon himself was executed around 46 AD.

As I’ve written before, I think that Jesus was cruficied along with Simon and Simon’s brother James. Which itself gives us the familiar Gospel image of Jesus crucified among two “robbers”. The only problem is that this places Jesus’ cruficixion 10 years later than what is given in the Gospels. But why trust the Gospels’ dating anyway? 40 years prior to the destruction of the Jewish Temple is symbolism enough to make it suspect. And there’s no reason to think that any of the teachings of Jesus go back to an original Jesus, other than a straightforward reading of the Gospels and using fallacious criteriology. The fact that Pharisees in Galilee during the time period of Jesus and disciples calling Jesus “rabbi” are anachronistic** also makes the Gospel teachings of Jesus suspect. There are other anachronisms which place the composition of the Gospels after 70 AD, which would mean that post-70 Christians were retrojecting their gripes with Pharisees into the time period of Jesus using Jesus as a mouthpiece for their own struggles.

** “Sage” or “elder” (elder in Greek: πρεσβύτερος::presbyteros) were terms of respect in the time period of Jesus; Second Temple (pre-Rabbinic) Judaism. It’s almost tautological that “rabbi” (Hebrew for my teacher) would be a term of respect in Rabbinic Judaism, which itself only started to form after Judaism was decentralized due to the destruction of Jerusalem. Decentralization forced Pharisees to start setting up shop in other areas besides Jerusalem. Hence Pharisees only started having a presence in rural areas like Galilee as a necessity of Rabbinic Judaism. Here are other anachronisms

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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in early Christianity, historical jesus, jesus myth


17% of Aussies Think That Jesus Didn’t Exist

Y'know, I'm not sure what I think about this!
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Posted by on November 29, 2011 in historical jesus, jesus myth


The Messiah Was A Jewish Idea

I recently watched an awesome video of Bart Erhman giving a talk about his new book Forged. During the Q&A, he received a question about the idea that Jesus never existed. To paraphrase, his response was that the idea of the messiah was a Jewish idea. Some versions of this Jewish messiah depicted him as a sort of conquering hero (like Simon Bar-Kokhba). Others viewed him as a celestial figure that would descend from the clouds and conquer Earthly kingdoms. In all of these iterations, the messiah is a conquering figure. So, if someone (i.e. some Jewish person) were going to “invent” a messiah, they wouldn't make up a story about him getting crucified. Essentially getting himself conquered instead of the one being conquered.
But is this even a fair assessment of what Christians did?
Christians claim that Jesus was (is) the messiah because he did do some conquering: He conquered death. This is what our earliest Christian writings claim. But let's go beyond that. What about the concept of eternal punishment or eternal rewards? This most certainly is not a Jewish idea (try to find the concept of any sort of afterlife just reading the Hebrew bible), but somehow it got into somewhat mainstream Jewish belief (the Pharisees; cf Josephus AJ 2.8.14). How did this happen? The concept of the Logos, also, is not a Jewish idea. How did this also get into Hellenistic-Jewish (and subsequently Christian) belief? The concept of an apocalypse, also, is not originally a Jewish idea. A book like the second half of Daniel (7-12) is evidence of Greek ideas infulencing Jewish ones.
The answer is quite obvious. Syncretism. Non-Jewish beliefs were synthesized with Jewish beliefs. Those are examples of some outside influence changing how Jews viewed their religion. Why couldn't the concept of the messiah also have been subject to similar syncretism? Or, what if some other religion absorbed the Jewish belief in the messiah, and this belief similarly underwent some transformation?
The Jewish scriptures had been translated into Greek – the equivalent of English today as far as international language popularity goes – for a couple hundred years before we first start noticing Christian belief in history. For a modern example, the concept of rap music was originally 100% an inner city phenomenon; just like the concept of the messiah was originally a Jewish idea. Since rap music was in English and thus able to be transmitted onto any other culture or peoples that understood English, the concept of rap could spread beyond its birth the Bronx c.1979. 30 years later, we have rap music being performed by native French speakers.
How easy would it be for a similar thing to happen to the concept of the messiah, when that concept was easily read and understood by any two-bit Greek and their mystery religion(s)? The one thing that the Jews had going for them was the idea that their religion was an ancient one. This gave their concepts a bit more respect. 
I'm not arguing this point very intensly, because we have no evidence of other mystery religions co-opting any sort of Jewish beliefs. I'm just writing this to point out a very possible flaw in Erhman's argument. I don't think it's as prima facie absurd as he intimated it was.

Posted by on July 27, 2011 in historical jesus, jesus myth


The Dragon In The Garage of Historical Jesus Studies

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

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