Κυριακή, 5 Μαρτίου 2017

Richard Carrier : List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus (4)

Ottawa Historicity Debate: A Commentary

Video of my debate with Zeba Crook (an atheist professor of New Testament studies) on whether Jesus historically existed is now available online as Jesus of Nazareth: Man or Myth? A Discussion with Zeba Crook and Richard Carrier (produced by AtheismTV). I announced and discussed that here. But now you can watch the debate itself. The AV quality is not very good, but it’s manageable. As I note in the video, there was no way to respond to every point made, for want of time. Indeed, by the time I got to state my first rebuttal, I had to answer thirty minutes of Dr. Crook in just ten minutes. But I think both sides got to state their best case, and left the debate where further discussion is needed but at least moved beyond a lot of the usual sidetracking nonsense.
I shall place here below, and expand, what notes I had jotted down as the debate went on but didn’t have time to get to at the podium, including some comments on Dr. Crook’s final closing, which left loose ends unfinished, since he only at that point had any opportunity to respond to my rebuttal (at which point, he had five minutes to answer my ten, putting him at the disadvantage). Those notes I wrote in my own kind of abbreviated shorthand, but here I just spell them out in full sentences, with connecting sentences and whatnot (so don’t imagine I wrote all those words as-is during the debate; I captured those ideas in a much more abbreviated notation). Some of those notes will repeat what I said in rebuttals, some will expand on them, and some will be things I didn’t have time to talk about.
Certainly ask questions in comments here about anything you didn’t find resolved in the debate, or any arguments Crook made that you think I overlooked or didn’t adequately address (especially things that came up in Q&A, since I didn’t write notes then). But please first read the commentary below. It may already answer your question. In which case I’ll just tell you to read it.


The bulk of the slideshow I used is here (in PDF form). There were some eighty other slides besides those I may have sampled from during rebuttal and closing, so possibly not everything I brought up during the debate is in that download. But you can get most of it there.
If anyone produces a transcript, let me know. I won’t have the time to produce one myself. I shall have to punt to my book, On the Historicity of Jesus, although the electronic version of that will still not be available for some time (the print edition should be available by end of this June). Obviously that goes into much more detail, answers all of Crook’s remaining objections, and extensively cites scholarship and sources for everything I argued. It is far more authoritative than this debate, which is just a select précis and ultra-brief summary of a few key points.
I should note that one commenter on the video said “I think that the question, man or myth, is flawed. My personal best guess is man and myth.” This misses the point of the debate: both Dr. Crook and I agree (as one can surely tell from his opening) that it is either total myth or mostly myth. So the question being posed in this debate is that. The option that he is not myth at all is not even in contention. We both consider that position ridiculous.

From My Notes

[Note that if it isn’t mentioned below, nor in my turns at the podium, I probably agreed with Crook, or else what he said didn’t affect the probability of either hypothesis. Indeed, I agreed with 80-90% of his opening statement.]
(1) Crook did not lean much on the extra-biblical evidence.
He considers it inconclusive. The silences elsewhere are just evidence Jesus didn’t matter. Which is just as likely on either theory. I concur (if we grant the premise, as Crook does, that Jesus was a nobody, and thus the Gospel portrayal of him as famous is false).
(2) Crook leans mostly on the evidence in the Epistles. I concur with that strategy. I think that’s all historians have.
(a) First, that Paul says he got some teachings from Jesus.
As-is this is inconclusive, because Paul admits he got teachings from Jesus by revelation (thus we cannot confirm any came from a historical man). But Crook asks why Paul would admit some of his teachings didn’t come from Jesus. Why wouldn’t Paul just make it all up as coming from Jesus? I would argue this presumes Paul was lying. If he wasn’t lying, he could only claim as from Jesus what his visions produced, which being a product of his subconscious he would not have such control over.
But I would also argue this is just like the current status of the Pope’s limited use of Papal Infallibility. Why doesn’t the Pope just declare everything taught by him and the Church to be infallibly true? Is this an argument for Catholicism therefore being true? Obviously not. There are obvious political reasons to not do this (it runs the danger of destroying the Church by declaring infallible that which is subsequently refuted or has to be changed), and the same reasoning would apply to Paul. In effect, when Paul says his teaching is his own and not from Jesus, he is saying (a) he is not as sure he’s right as when he declares something “from the Lord” (and thus is reserving the right and thus opportunity of changing his mind or conceding he was wrong if he loses an argument over it, i.e. he is not staking his Apostolic authority on it) and (b) he is not presuming what he says must hold in all Christian communities or at all times (rather than the one church he is addressing, or only for the specific set of circumstances he is responding to).
But that’s all moot anyway. Crook acknowledges that Paul was getting some teachings by revelation. Yet Crook must concede those teachings were not coming from a historical Jesus. So even if there was a historical Jesus, and thus actual historical teachings, you are still stuck with having to answer the same question: Why didn’t Paul just credit all his new teachings to a revelation of Jesus? The historicist is in the same boat as the mythicist: if the latter cannot answer that question, neither can the former (whereas if the former can, so can the latter, in fact they can give exactly the same answer). So this cannot be used to argue for either position.
(b) Second, that the James Paul refers to meeting in Galatians is the actual biological brother of Jesus.
I already responded to this in the debate. It can only be argued from premises that originated as Christian faith doctrines, and not from independently-arrived at observations from the evidence as-is. As-is, the evidence is ambiguous and thus inconclusive. We do not know Paul meant biological brother, and the preponderance of evidence even weighs slightly against it.
Crook returned to this argument in his rebuttal to my opening argument. He seemed to argue that because Catholics doctrinally need this James not to be Jesus’ biological brother, that therefore mythicists are doing the same thing. This is a non sequitur. I have actual arguments and evidence for my conclusion, none of which Catholics use. I am not starting with a dogma to defend. I am reaching a conclusion independent of Christian faith doctrines, from the facts as they are. The analogy is therefore invalid. He must address my case. He can’t rebut the Catholic case and claim to have rebutted me.
Crook claimed Paul “wished” James wasn’t the brother of Jesus (because that made James a greater authority than Paul). There is no indication of that anywhere in the Epistles, at all (this is the same error I caught Mark Goodacre in: see my discussion in items 8 through 11 there). That is a Christian faith doctrine, that Crook has sublimated from having been taught “mainstream assumptions” in his field inherited by its progenitors, who were not analyzing the evidence objectively in the first place.
I do not recall Crook responding to my grammatical argument here, either. So that argument remained unrebutted altogether.
Crook claimed that this James being a biological brother of Jesus was not an issue of dispute, but I actually cited a peer reviewed paper acknowledging it’s in dispute (thus refuting his claim that it was not in dispute), a paper that has yet to receive any significant rebuttal (its only rebuttal fails to address the argument, as I explain in OHJ, pp. 587-92), and which cites some scholars disputing it, and even more are named in the academic commentary on Galatians by Betz (which I also cite in OHJ). [This paragraph has been edited for clarity, because there are two different disputes: whether James was the brother of Jesus, and whether James was an apostle.]
Crook only brought up 1 Cor. 9:5 at the end of the debate. Too late to address it. But it falls to the same arguments.
(c) Third, Crook vaguely questions how or whether Paul made everything up then, if there was no historical tradition to work from.
This was not articulated into a coherent argument.
I don’t think it can be, since Crook must concede Paul innovated the Torah-free Gospel, yet attributed it to Jesus–obviously by revelation. Thus, Crook must concede Paul was inventing Jesus tradition. Therefore, Paul did not need a historical tradition. And there is no evidence Paul ever thought there was such a thing (he never makes a distinction, for example, between what a historical Jesus said and what the revealed Jesus said). So again, this “evidence” is a wash. It cannot argue for either position.
I should also add that Paul could also have had a historical tradition to work from that did not come from a historical Jesus: everything learned from a “revealed” Jesus by the Apostles before him (such as that the crucifixion of Jesus could be located in scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; or that living Christians could be baptized on behalf of the dead: 1 Corinthians 15:29). Thus, even if we could show Paul relied on historical tradition rather than revelation at any point, that in itself still does not get us evidence of a historical Jesus.
(3) Crook argued it was a false dichotomy to claim either all Jesus tradition goes back to Jesus or none of it does.
I concur. The point is irrelevant. My case does not depend on any such dichotomy.
(4) That there was no birth narrative in Mark entails readers assumed a normal birth, which entails Mark believed there was a historical Jesus.
That may be so. That does not entail Mark’s belief was well founded, or based on any reliable evidence at all. People who write about the Roswell myth are certain a flying saucer and alien bodies were recovered there, and always write with that assumption. That is not evidence a flying saucer and alien bodies were recovered there.
But it’s also questionable. Insofar as Mark is writing a manual for Christian missionaries to help them teach the gospel and be inspired in their mission and have models of action to use in their ministry, he would have had no use for a nativity narrative, which serves no such function. [That Mark was writing in part with such an aim one can extensively show; I gave only a few examples during the debate, there are many more; cf. e.g. Proving History, pp. 156-57, and chapter 10 of OHJ.]
Crook challenged the claim that Mark was writing a manual for missionaries, but only before I had insufficient time remaining to respond, so as far as the debate goes, that was a wash. Readers will have to see the case laid out in OHJ. The dispute wasn’t resolved in the debate (just two competing assertions were made, although I did present some evidence for mine, which I do not recall Crook addressing).
Note that Mark never writes about how Jesus fulfilled scripture (except generically, in the same sense a cosmic Jesus did, e.g. that he would be crucified). That concern first appears in Matthew, who adds it as a redactional layer on top of a Markan text that had no such concerns. This shows that historicization of the narrative (away from allegorization as its original and primary purpose, as the reader is covertly told in Mark 4:10-20) was ramped up after Mark.
That is remarkable, considering that even Mark was not written until a whole lifetime after the cult began (average life expectancy for anyone who survived childhood was then 48 years; and someone who was thirty in 30 A.D. could expect to be dead, more likely than not, before 60 A.D…see Frier’s Life Table). Why did historicization (which leads to a need for such things as birth narratives, and arguments that a historical Jesus fulfilled scripture) only become a concern after Mark, indeed by all accounts, later even than 80 A.D. (the earliest year most scholars consider Matthew likely to have been written, Mark having been written most likely in the 70s)? The odds anyone who was thirty in 30 A.D. being alive still in 80 A.D. are less than 1 in 200. In other words, historicization only began in earnest after all living witnesses would have been dead.
(5) Having Jesus baptized by John the Baptist was too embarrassing to be made up, therefore it must be true, therefore there was a historical Jesus.
This is simply false. The first premise is not defensible. I made that point in the debate. But a full examination (including scholars who agree with me) is in Proving History, pp. 145-48. Indeed, in this context, the whole form of the argument (an Argument from Embarrassment) is fallacious, pp. 124-69.
(6) One story in Mark has Jesus trying to heal a blind man, who first sees people as trees and has to be double-cured, and this entails Jesus really existed.
Crook never made an intelligible argument out of this. I rebutted it in the debate. There is no such thing as curing blind men with faith, and even psychosomatic blindness does not have a middle-stage of seeing people as trees. The story is obviously fictional. It therefore cannot go back to an actual historical event. Therefore it is not evidence for a historical Jesus.
In any event, I believe the tree element in this story comes from Mark’s effort to paint Jesus as the new Moses (who once saw a tree before effecting a cure: Exodus 15:22-27), but showing that requires a literary analysis too time consuming for a debate. I give the full rundown in OHJ, pp. 414-18 (yes, I have the completed indexable proof now, so I can cite page numbers even in a book not yet in press!).
(7) Matthew makes Jesus look more amazing, therefore Mark is writing straight history, therefore Jesus existed.
This is simply a non sequitur. Mark’s Jesus is already implausibly and ahistorically amazing. So that Matthew made him more so does not argue for anything. I already made other points on this in the debate.
(8) Mark says Jesus couldn’t heal people in his own town, which is too embarrassing to write unless it really happened, therefore it really happened, therefore Jesus existed.
I already rebutted this in the debate. But I also demonstrate it is fallacious in Proving History, p. 178 (see also, most crucially, the general problems with its underlying assumptions: pp. 126-38).
Mark is simultaneously composing an allegory for why Jesus later authorized the Gentile mission (his hometown representing the Jews of Judea, and failing to heal representing failing to save the stubborn Jews with the gospel) and writing a myth about what to do when missionaries fail to effect a successful faith healing (thus providing the stock answer: blame the victim for not having enough faith; and a cover story justifying it: “even God’s Son himself couldn’t heal the unbelieving, so why should you expect us to?”).
Crook makes a point about Matthew cutting this story. But that just shows Matthew either didn’t understand its function, or didn’t agree with it. That Matthew found it embarrassing doesn’t mean Mark did. By Crook’s own reasoning, if its being embarrassing results in it being struck from the narrative, Mark would have struck it from his narrative just as Matthew did. Therefore, we should conclude Mark did not find it embarrassing. Which topples the argument from its central premise. Indeed, it would have been struck decades before even getting to Mark. That it is only first struck by Matthew argues that it first appeared in Mark (just as with the empty tomb story: Proving History, p. 128).
(9) Cites 1 Timothy 3:16.
A forgery, as even Crook would concede; and forged evidence is invalid.
Crook argued later scribes tried tinkering with the passage, but there is no coherent argument from that fact to anything in the original text being authentic. So this is a non sequitur.
(10) Cites Luke 2:41 and 2:43.
Never clear what his point was. Crook argued later scribes tried tinkering with these passages, too, but there is no coherent argument from that fact to anything in the original text being authentic. So this is also a non sequitur.
(11) Crook seemed to confuse euhemerization with mythologization.
It was unclear what he was arguing. But just because some historical persons were mythologized does not mean all mythologized persons were once historical. Zeus and Uranus were originally cosmic deities who were euhemerized later (by Euhemerus himself), i.e. set as historical persons in historical narratives within chronological history (and claimed to have thence been deified). This is what I am saying happened to Jesus. So the question remains, which it is, that, or what Crook argues. I agree if not that, then it’s what Crook argues. But that’s not what I think the evidence supports. So we have to look at the evidence. Past cases can inform prior probabilities…but once we admit that, the priors don’t go for Crook, either (most heavily mythologized persons were never historical).
(12) Seemed to mistake me for claiming Philo said the pre-Christian archangel named Jesus was equal to God.
Since I never said, argued, or implied that, it’s a moot objection.
Crook also never provided an alternative explanation of the evidence I did present.
He must therefore be de facto arguing that it’s a total (and thus extraordinary) coincidence that Paul’s Jesus and Philo’s Jesus have all the same peculiar supernatural attributes (a pre-existent being, the agent of creation, the image of God, the firstborn son of God, simultaneously called Jesus; likewise the Logos and God’s celestial high priest). By definition extraordinary coincidences are improbable. A shared pre-Christian tradition developed differently by both the Christians and Philo explains all the evidence without proposing any improbable coincidence. It is therefore by far the better explanation of that evidence.
(13) Seemed to mistake me for claiming Zalmoxis cult influenced Christianity.
I was arguing for a cultural trend, which was evidenced by multiple manifestations of the same phenomenon, only one of which was Zalmoxis cult (I named several others, which Crook did not address), in exactly the same way Christianity is. I did mention this point in the debate. As well as the fact that influence is even possible (yet still not required by my argument).
Zalmoxis cult resided in Thrace and was known to the Greeks well enough to have generated a mocking polemic (just as Christianity inspired from the Jews), centuries before Christianity. It was discussed in Herodotus, which at the time Christianity began was a standard school text in the ancient equivalent of “graduate school” in literary Greek, which Paul (and the authors of the Gospels) would therefore likely have read (being composers of such skilled Greek they must have advanced to that level in school). And the Thracian Celts (who worshipped Zalmoxis, among other deities) had invaded and settled Galatia centuries before Christianity. The Galatians Paul writes to in Galatians, would have been living in a Zalmoxis-worshipping cultural environment. And if Paul hailed from Tarsus, he himself would have come from a city that would have well known this. But most importantly, pilgrims to Judea every year came from all over, including Galatia and Thrace (and Greece and other places Zalmoxis cult was known), so even Palestinian Jews could not have been wholly ignorant of it. They were well aware of Inanna cult (Ezekiel 8:14). And could not have been ignorant of Romulus cult (which would have been celebrated prominently by Roman forces and authorities in surrounding cities like Caesarea and Tyre). Or Osiris cult (Alexandria being essentially adjacent to Judea on a major trade and pilgrimmage route, with many Jews traveling between, including Philo, and Josephus, who is not only well aware of the cult, but he even tells a tale that indicates many other Jews were as well). And so on.
The claim that influence is impossible is simply a Christian faith doctrine (born of Christian apologetics) that has perniciously filtered into a surprisingly credulous secular scholarship.
(14) Crook somehow fell for Christian apologetics when he mistook Greek anti-Zalmoxian polemic as Zalmoxian belief.
The claim that Zalmoxis was a Pythagorean trickster was not a belief held by his worshipers, but a joke invented centuries later by their opponents, and thus cannot be used as evidence of anything about Zalmoxis himself–just as the Jewish polemic against the Gospels a century later, about Mary having fooled around with a Roman soldier named Panthera, so as to mock the Matthaean claim that she was a Parthenos, a virgin, cannot be an argument in support of the historicity of Jesus.
I can only hypothesize that Crook somehow got this from Mike Licona. Because Licona is the only scholar I know who has ever argued this, and it is so contrary to fact it is extremely unlikely anyone else has been as foolish (and I am fairly certain Licona, a Christian apologist, has even retracted it since). In any event, if you want to see the folly of this mistake exposed (and that quite embarrassingly), see my debunking of the error in Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 100-05.
(15) Crook challenges my claim that Paul is talking about an allegory in Galatians 4.
Here I argued Paul’s whole argument is that being “born of a woman” means being born to a certain world order, and not a literal biological birth to a literal woman. As Paul says, “this is an allegory” (Gal. 4:24). That he only gets around to explaining that his argument in Galatians 4 is an allegory toward the end of his argument (“twenty verses later,” as Crook says) is irrelevant. One would not say the Gettysburg Address is not about slavery because Lincoln only gets to mentioning slavery twenty sentences in (even had that been the case). It’s a single, coherent, interconnected argument. You can’t pick and choose sentences and read them out of context. The argument is the context.
I do not recall Crook answering my argument from vocabulary on this, either. So that argument remained unrebutted altogether.
(16) Paul would have had to avoid talking about the historical Jesus, and therefore that’s why he doesn’t.
This argument, though typical, has never made any sense. If this was such a problem, Paul could not avoid talking about it. Because it would be thrown in his face constantly, requiring him to constantly rebut and overcome it. And that’s just a start of the reasons he would be compelled to do so. I discuss this more extensively in chapter 11 of OHJ. In fact, the absence of Paul ever being aware that this even was a problem, and never having to answer it, is evidence against a historical Jesus.
(17) Crook claimed Philippians 2 does not talk about Jesus being a pre-existent entity.
That’s just too obviously false to require rebuttal.

Historicity News: Notable Books

This is the second of three posts covering news in the historicity-of-Jesus debate (for the first see Thallus et Alius). I recently finished reading the latest books by John Crossan and Dennis MacDonald. They inadvertently support the mythicist case with their latest arguments (despite making some weak, almost half-hearted arguments for historicity), and are worth taking note of. I don’t have time to write a full review, but here are some observations of interest to the historicity debate…
1. Undermining Historicity
Cover of Crossan's book The Power of Parable.Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (Harper 2012), is superb, well-written for laymen, yet astute enough for scholars. And I am not generally a fan of Crossan (even when he agrees with me, I usually find his arguments ill-informed), so this is high praise coming from me. In Power he argues that the Gospels are essentially extended parables about Jesus, based on things he said or that the authors wanted to say about him, and thus are fundamentally fiction, not history. He demonstrates that this mode of writing was well known within Judaism (and beyond) and thus not novel, and then argues how some of these parables about Jesus were invented and why. This ranks right up there with Randel Helms’ Gospel Fictions. I recommend it for all readers.
Cover of MacDonald's new book Two Shipwrecked Gospels.MacDonald’s new book, Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’s Exposition of Logia about the Lord (Society of Biblical Literarure 2012), argues that the whole Q hypothesis is demonstrably wrong, and that in fact there was a previous lost Gospel called The Logoi of Jesus [“The Words/Tales of Jesus”] that lacked a nativity, passion, or empty tomb narrative, and that was used by all the Synoptics, not just Matthew and Luke. Mark is therefore a redaction of this lost Gospel, and so are Matthew and Luke, who also incorporate and redact material added to it by Mark (such as the passion and empty tomb narratives). He also provides more than convincing evidence that Luke knew and redacted Matthew as well (and thus was not written independently).
MacDonald’s case is not entirely convincing to me. Contrary to the promise it showed when I saw earlier versions of it, he commits a number of fallacies in applying his own criteria to establish his case. I think all his evidence can be explained just as well by the standard Farrer hypothesis (see On Dispensing with Q), much more easily than MacDonald maintains. But even if, like me, you remain unconvinced by his central thesis, his book remains essential reading for experts in three respects:
(1) This is now the most recent and thorough translation and scholarly treatment of the fragments of Papias in English, and in fact anyone who wants to write or theorize about Papias simply must read this book’s chapters on him (mainly chapter 1 and Appendix 5, which provides a complete text and translation of all the fragments of Papias);
(2) MacDonald’s evidence nevertheless abundantly proves Luke’s dependence on Matthew (so anyone who wants to maintain otherwise simply must interact with this book’s evidence, in addition to that already detailed by Mark Goodacre in The Case Against Q [with its associated website and the famous article by Michael Goulder, “Is Q a Juggernaut?“]); and
(3) if MacDonald is right about the lost Gospel he recovers from Mark and Luke and Matthew, then his ancillary argument is also true, that this lost Gospel is essentially a rewrite of Deuteronomy (in fact, the Septuagint text of Deuteronomy), casting Jesus in the role of Moses and reversing or altering much of its message.
That last is a fact that does not bode well for historicity advocates, although MacDonald does not pose it that way–just like his previous work showing that Mark is a retelling of Homer casting Jesus in the role of Odysseus (in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark). These two theses together explain pretty much the entire content of the Synoptic Gospels. Once you identify the whole primary content of the Gospels to be intentional literary fiction, the Gospels go out the window as evidence for Jesus; just as Mickey Spillane’s novels go out the window as evidence for the historicity of Mike Hammer.
However, unlike Crossan’s book, MacDonald’s book is very dense and advanced. Clocking in at over 700 pages, most of it is a detailed textual commentary on the Greek text of the Gospels (and the merits of many of his arguments require a knowledge of Greek). I recommend it only for hardcore readers in Biblical studies.
2. Supporting Historicity
Both Crossan and MacDonald are aware of the danger their books pose, and thus make a conspicuous point of inserting brief, half-hearted sections arguing for the historicity of Jesus. These really serve little purpose other than to reassure their colleagues and peers that they are still rubbing the totem and thus haven’t defected to the other side…which their colleagues and peers might definitely fear after hearing out their arguments for the character of Jesus being a literary creation. I’ll address each of their arguments for historicity.
Crossan’s argument is more concise and organized, but wholly unsound (pp. 247-50). It consists of concluding historicity from two premises: one based on external evidence, the other on internal evidence. His “external” premise is the testimony of Josephus (93 AD) and Tacitus (116 AD). Of course, the testimony in Josephus is fabricated (I am certain, and can prove to a strong probability, that Josephus never mentioned Jesus, in either passage where he now appears), and the testimony in Tacitus most obviously comes from Christians deriving their claims from the Gospels, which Crossan just got done arguing are fiction.
But even Josephus’ testimony, if granted authenticity, derives from the Gospels (this has been demonstrated for the main passage by G.J. Goldberg, in “The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke,” The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 13 [1995]: 59-77; the allusion to James later on can just as easily be an invention of Christian legend gullibly reported by Josephus, but I demonstrate that in fact it is an accidental interpolation in Richard Carrier, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 [Winter 2012]).
Therefore, even at their best, the material in Tacitus and Josephus cannot logically “corroborate” the Gospels. Crossan’s external premise therefore falls.
The internal case, Crossan says, begins with the question, “If you are inventing a nonhistorical figure, why invent one you cannot live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite?” (p. 250), a question he can’t answer so he finds it “much more likely that Jesus was an actual historical figure whose radical insistence on nonviolent distributive justice was both accepted and negated by the tradition it engendered.” But this is a non sequitur. If Jesus could start a movement with such radical ideas, then anyone could. And they could do that by inventing a Savior character (“Jesus” essentially means “Savior”) as its celestial or mythic mascot. Then, as the movement grew and these radical ideas became less popular (and more obviously unlivable), the movement had to start changing its central message, and thus its central character.
Therefore the fact that this happened (even granting that it did; not all scholars buy Crossan’s version of the original Jesus) provides zero evidence that it started with a historical Jesus. Because that same evidence is just as expected if Christianity began with (let’s say) a historical Peter touting a revealed Jesus telling him these same radical things. And then just as Paul got rid of Peter’s Torah-insistent Jesus, so did later generations gradually get rid of Paul’s egalitarian Jesus, eventually ending up with John’s Jesus, the most uncharitable asshole version of Jesus ever devised…until someone invented the Infancy Gospels (which finally turned Jesus into that horrid boy from The Omen).
Therefore, the fact that Christian ideas changed (and Christians changed their stories of Jesus to match) does not support historicity any more than nonhistoricity. Crossan’s internal premise therefore falls.
Crossan therefore has no logically sound case for historicity to offer.
MacDonald’s argument is a bit of a shambles but at least gets more into the evidence (pp. 543-53). He starts with the claim that Paul attests to his “extensive interaction with Jesus’ family and followers” (p. 543), although that begs every question (whether these people were his followers and actual family, as opposed to a metaphorical brotherhood), and even MacDonald is forced to admit that somehow “little of this information” [that Paul should have gotten from them] “has seeped into Paul’s letters,” a curiosity readily explained by there being no such information (Jesus being solely a revealed figure; after all, Paul himself seems to know of no other).
MacDonald then says his reconstructed “lost Gospel” (the Logoi) had accurate knowledge of Galilee and came from a bilingual (Semitized) environment, which are mutually consistent with a Galilean origin. But each is a non sequitur–as is the whole inference “Galilean author => historical Jesus” (as if Galilean authors can’t invent; and yet MacDonald himself admits the Logoi is substantially fiction).
MacDonald acknowledges that’s a problem. But if such an argument were pressed, it is just a cascade of fallacies: first, even granting the premises, the conclusion of historicity doesn’t follow; and second, the premises themselves are already questionable. Even granting that the Logoi does show a reliable knowledge of Galilee (which is more debatable than MacDonald claims), that was available to almost anyone (especially from Palestine or Syria or Arabia or Egypt or anywhere in the Diaspora, where pilgrims and people familiar with the Holy Land were always available). Likewise, Semitic loanwords are not uniquely indicative even of Palestine, much less Galilee (see Proving History, pp. 185-86, with my remarks on Ehrman [A] and [B]), a point with which, notably, MacDonald agrees (p. 544).
Cover of the new book Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.MacDonald thus does not lean on this, realizing it’s a weak thread. He instead admits that even in his reconstructed Logoi genuine facts about Jesus are “buried” and “difficult to mine,” requiring the standard “criteria” to extract, a method I and others have already thoroughly refuted–so he is still behind the times here. In addition to my book Proving History, which cites many other scholars agreeing with me on this, see the latest salvo: Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T&T Clark 2012). MacDonald’s attempts to apply these criteria fail in all the ways I already document in Proving History (e.g., the claim that the authors would not invent a baptism by John the Baptist is refuted on pp. 145-48; and so go all other such arguments, e.g., pp. 155-57).
Likewise, in any sound Jesus Myth theory the “sayings” of Jesus (or the ideas that inspired their formulation, p. 545) would have come by revelation, and therefore proving their originality cannot establish the historicity of Jesus (PH, pp. 123-24) even if their originality could be proved, which it rarely can, owing to our tremendous ignorance of first century Judaism (PH, 129-34). Because again, if Jesus could innovate, anyone could. Therefore innovation is not evidence of Jesus. Confusingly, yet again, MacDonald confesses this is true, concluding “Because of the author’s debt to rhetorical invention [in the Logoi], it is impossible to attribute any of these sayings with confidence to the earthly Jesus” (p. 552). So he knows no case can really proceed from this argument, either.
His next argument is that all the Gospels contain incidental details that serve no literary or religious purpose, and those must surely then be historical. For example:
There is no reason to challenge the accuracy of the following information: Jesus’ home was in Nazareth of Galilee; he traveled to Judea, was baptized by John, returned to Galilee, conducted a ministry in [specifically named] towns and villages there…and traveled with several male disciples; he was considered a teacher, exorcist, and wonder worker…met hostility from Torah-observant Jews, and was crucified by Romans with encouragement of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. … [B]ecause it is not religiously weighted, [this summary] probably reflects reliable traditions about him.
He makes no argument either for these being “not religiously weighted” or for that being any indication of their being historical. So already the argument is logically unsound, for having premises nowhere established. In fact, the premises are insupportable.
MacDonald’s claim that there is no religious purpose for any of these details is false. Nazareth and the baptism by John have identifiable origins in mythmaking (see Proving History, pp. 142-48); Christian missionaries themselves “met hostility from Torah-observant Jews” and were teachers, exorcists, and wonder workers, and thus needed a mythic model to follow and validate those roles (see PH, p. 174); fiction would be no more likely to attach female disciples to Jesus than actual history would; and the whole Romans-encouraged-by-Jews crucifixion narrative (which MacDonald admits originates with Mark, being absent from his reconstructed Logoi) is unintelligible as history (see PH, pp. 139-41). That leaves just one element: situating the narrative in Galilee. But any fictional narrative has to be situated somewhere.
Cover of Brunvand's book The Vanishing Hitchhiker.In actual fact, incidental but geographically and culturally accurate details (like the names of towns in an area) naturally accumulate in myths and legends, as demonstrated by Jan Harold Brunvand, in his famous study of urban legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1989). He found that in fact the more specific and incidental details there are in a strange story, the more likely it is to be non-historical. That’s right. Because storytellers add and accumulate just those kinds of things; the story doesn’t feel true without them, so they get added (but to a legend-hunter like Brunvand, they’re a dead giveaway).
There is no rhyme or reason for the details added, other than that they add verisimilitude (they are thus called “validating details”), except for one thing: they do tend to match a specific geographically localized “color,” wherever the story is crystallized, which can often be in different places for different versions of the legend. It is thus notable that, just like urban legends, a completely different version of the Jesus narrative arose, placing Jesus’ execution, by Jewish stoning, in Lydda and dying a hundred years earlier. Even the Gospel of Peter has Jesus crucified by Herod, not the Romans. So the story could be told in all manner of ways. Just like any other legend. For perspective, just look at all the “incidental details” in the many Apocryphal Acts…yet no one would claim those details must then be historical. Those are works of total fiction.
The fact is, the Christians had a scriptural reason to set their messianic fable in Galilee: Isaiah 9:1-7 says to. And Jesus being a “Nazorian”(Nazôraios) provided an obvious basis for putting him in the Galilean town with the nearest-sounding name: Nazareth (Nazareth). Even though those words are not in fact related. So MacDonald’s argument here does not hold up. He recognizes this is true for many other arguments, pointing out, for example, that there are far fewer independent sources than most scholars claim (so “multiple attestation” is not an effective criterion: see PH, pp. 172-75; note how Ehrman tried, illogically, to make exactly the opposite claim: see [A] and [B]), and that multiple attestation doesn’t confirm historicity anyway (p. 551), and that the Gospels are full of examples of “the expansion of sayings [of Jesus] into narratives” and thus they routinely fabricate stories (note that I have pointed out that this was a typical way of fabricating biographies generally, a fact well established in classical studies).
MacDonald then cites Josephus. Which really should be a non-starter as an argument (as I already noted above). He even exposes why when he admits any attempt to reconstruct a “genuine” Testimonium Flavianum can only be hypothetical (p. 547), and it should be obvious how that negates it as evidence (because a hypothetical premise only gets you a hypothetical conclusion: garbage in, garbage out; likewise, even if authentic, the supposition that any of its content derives independently of the Gospels can only be hypothetical–and in fact, as I noted above, is most improbable).
MacDonald even admits that the phrase “the one called Christ” in the second Josephan passage about a certain executed James “may be another Christian gloss” (p. 548). He tries to salvage it anyway by saying no other Jesus could be meant, but as there are many men named Jesus in Josephus, and indeed one in particular in this very narrative (the high priest Jesus ben Damneus, who is obviously the Jesus here meant), that argument is simply invalid. My peer reviewed demonstration of that (in JECS, cited above) will appear this Winter.
Lastly, MacDonald cites corroboration in Paul of some few details and sayings, but we already know that sayings of Jesus came to Paul by revelation (likewise to other apostles of his generation), and the only other details Paul gives of Jesus are unwitnessed mythic facts that Paul fully confesses are derived from scripture (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3-4) or revelation (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:23; cf. Gal. 1:8-12 and Rom. 16:25-26). In other words, without addressing alternative hypotheses for these details in Paul, no argument for historicity can logically proceed from them. Only a proper comparative argument can attain logical validity here. MacDonald gives none.
And that’s the sum of his case. And it’s probably, really, the best case anyone could make (although it could be organized better). Perhaps you can see why more and more of us are finding historicity doubtful.


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