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The “Did Jesus Exist” Controversy–Encore

July 27, 2012

Well, in the four days since I posted my weariness with being asked to engage erroneous statements and often re-treaded claims by a new mini-circle of people attempting to deny that there was a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, there has certainly been some lively interest.  I’ve tried to engage serious comments and queries, but it remains to be seen whether those to whom I’ve responded are really interested in considering matters patiently and with respect for historical method.  A  few further observations here on the discussion:

We’ve had examples of the erroneous, but confidently asserted, claims on which the “mythicist” stance seems to rest.  E.g., no evidence of Nazareth as a real village (cf., e.g., J. L. Reed, Archareology and the Galilean Jesus, 131-32; J. L. Rousseau & R. Arav, Jesus and His World, 214-16); or that a figure called “Jesus” was an object of religious devotion before early Christianity (no evidence of this at all); or that statements in Paul’s letters about Jesus’ brothers were later interpolations (no text-critical support or in scholarship on these texts), etc.

Perhaps the most puzzling claim, that would be amusing were it not apparently asserted so seriously, is that sometime in the 1980s a massive conspiracy (by “New Evangelical” interests) engineered the appointment of scholars in departments of Religion, Classics, Ancient History, etc., and that it managed to skew scholarly opinion, even among Jewish scholars and people of n0 religious affiliation, to support the historical existence of a Jesus of Nazareth.    Hmm.  That’s right up there with the notion that the Twin Towers were destroyed by the CIA!  (Is there something in the drinking water nowadays in some places?) Certainly, many of those who have engaged the current “mythicist” issue (e.g., Maurice Casey) would be surprised to learn that their views have been shaped ingeniously without their knowing it by this “New Evangelical” cabal eager to prop up traditional Christianity!

It’s Friday, and I’ve still got to finish that essay I mentioned earlier this week, so I won’t linger.  But it’s an interesting sociological (or pycho-social) question as to what makes some people feel the need (and it does seem to be a need) to exert such efforts to go against the rather solid judgement of qualified scholars in the subject, whatever their religious persuasion.  What is it that leads some to prefer the assertions of people with no established scholarly reputation or recognition in the disciplines in question?  And why the zeal and fervor of some of those who buy into these assertions? Perhaps a good question for some graduate student in sociology.

Anything is open to question, of course.  But to engage the sort of questions involved in this discussion really requires one to commit to the hard work of learning languages, mastering textual analysis, text-critical matters, historical context of the ancient Roman period and the Jewish setting of the time, archaeology, and more.  And we know when someone has done this when they prove it in the demands of scholarly disputation and examination, typically advanced studies reflected in graduate degrees in the disciplines, and then publications that have been reviewed and judged by scholarly peers competent to judge.  That is how you earn the right to have your views taken as having some basis and some authority.   I’m not an expert in virology, or astro-physics, or a number of other fields.  So, I’ll have to operate in light of the judgements of those who are.  Why should I distrust experts in a given subject?  Why should I term it “intellectual bullying” if scholars in a given field asked about a given issue state the generally-held view in a straightforward manner, and ask for justification for rejecting it?

Anyway, as I say, it’s Friday.  So, got to get some work done on that essay, and then . . .  home for a gin & tonic and an evening relaxing with my wife . . . and our mischievous cat.

 

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91 Comments
  1. Erlend permalink

    Apologies for keeping this thread going when it looks like it has slowed to a stop, but there is a new book, along with Thompson and Verenna’s, and Carriers, coming out this year that argues for mythicism: “Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus” by Thomas Brodie and published by Sheffield Phoenix Press. It is interesting that Sheffield Phoenix is associated with Sheffield Biblical Studies department where two of the most stringent critics of Mythicism (Maurice Casey and Steph) are, so I wonder how they will interact with the book. Anyway see more at http://www.sheffieldphoenix.com/showbook.asp?bkid=217

    • Thanks for this, Erlend. It is interesting to have Brodie’s proposal forthcoming. It’s not the standard “mythicist” proposal, but (predictably for those of us acquainted with Brodie’s previous work) a very novel one. When it appears, it will undergo the critical review of other scholars, and we’ll be able to see whether it achieves any acceptance. Commendably, Brodie produces work intended to obtain scholarly engagement, and doesn’t try to bypass that process.

      • What I find interesting is this idea of Jesus being a motif constructed from previous themes can produce to many strikingly different conclusions. So Denis MacDonald in his “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” thinks Jesus is based on a motif from Homer’s writings, Robert Price that he is based upon re-telling rising-dying God myths, Carrier a similar theory (though I think based on some different myths), while Thomas Thompson in his “The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David ” thinks Jesus character was based on near Eastern-Mythology and ideas of Kingship, and now apparently Brodie thinks he was based over themes in the Hebrew Bible. Now there will be some overlap between these granted, but they all reach different conclusions. Which one’s parallels are correct? Which model is Jesus actually based upon? It can’t be all 3-4 of them. I think, rather, this tell us more on the easily ability to find parallels where we want to find them. So the more of these studies that emerge I think it actually weakens the case for mythicism. But what methodology can enable us to find where such intertexualities actually do exist, or can allow us to calm some of the enthusiasm people have for constructing these models? think I need to reopen several chapters of Karl Sandnes’ “The Gospel ‘According to Homer and Virgil’: Cento and Canon” and also try to read up on intertexuality in antiquity…

      • Dear Erlend,
        Yes, I think the problem is that scholars, rightly noting how the evangelists and later Christian writers, in an apologetic and proclamatory aim of making Jesus the fulfillment of biblical promises (and in some later christian writers, the fulfillment of pre-Christian pagan ideas/themes too), make the non sequitur move of concluding that this thematization of Jesus in these terms means there was no historical figure to thematize.
        I come from Clay County, Missouri, the home turf of the James “gang”. I was brought up on stories of them as heroes, likening them to Robin Hood. That dressing of Jesse James as a Missouri Robin Hood is one thing. It would be another to imagine that Jesse never lived.

    • I think you mean strident. As Casey’s latest screed against Thompson shows, he is anything but exacting. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/cas368006.shtml

  2. I wanted to make a comment about the issue Vinny brought up about whether Paul knew about a crucified man named Jesus. Sometimes we need to connect the dots that are sitting right in front of us. First lets take a look at the account where some Jewish leaders have Peter and others in the Sanhedrin questioning them about their actions.

    Acts 5:28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

    Although the name Jesus is not mentioned here, it is confirmed a little later on in 5:40. But the important part is when the Jewish leaders mention that they do not want the blood of this MAN (anthropos) to be upon them. Then Peter responds with the following.

    Acts 5:30 “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.”

    I do not see how a celestial being can be killed by humans by hanging him on a tree. So the obvious meaning is that a man (anthopos) named Jesus was killed by hanging him on a tree. What we know by this is that the Jewish leaders were aware of a human man named Jesus that was killed by hanging him on a tree, and that they did not want Peter and others to teach on the basis of that name.

    Now a little later on, we read about Stephen’s encounter with the Sanhedrin. Whether this is the same Sanhedrin that Peter stood before, I am not sure, but we should be able to conclude that if the Jewish leaders who dealt with Peter knew about a man named Jesus who was crucified, so did these ones as well. Now the important part here is after Stephen’s long speech, Acts 7:58 mentions a Saul, who is presumably the young Paul, who would soon start persecuting the Christians. Saul/Paul did not do this out of ignorance, he hated the Christians because he knew what the Jewish leaders knew, that a man named Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and the son of God and that he was crucified for this by hanging him on a tree.

    Yes, Paul knew about the man Jesus even before his conversion.

    Howard Mazzaferro

    • Howard,
      Though you cite some interesting texts and make some valid observations about them, from a critical historical standpoint, Acts (widely thought to have been written ca. 70-90 CE) has occasioned some queries about how to treat its accounts. Some would wonder if the several decades between the events cited and the Acts narrative means that we have to seek corroboration of things if we can. In any event, Paul’s letters are a few decades earlier, and so I’ve relied mainly on them, our earliest textual data, in trying to focus minds on the evidence about Paul and early treatment of the figure of Jesus.

      • It sounds like the critical historical standpoint includes some equivocation about how critical it should be: “Some would wonder if the several decades between the events cited and the Acts narrative means that we have to seek corroboration of things if we can.” What would possibly happen if corroboration could not be found?

      • No, Mark. There’s no “equivocation” on how critical one should be. I simply noted differences of opinion among scholars on the question of how to treat material in Acts for which we don’t have corroboration, e.g., the Acts account of the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. In these cases, scholars (such as I) are cautious about basing too much on the Acts narrative alone. But, of course, in the matters relevant here, such as references to Jesus as a first-century Jewish figure of Roman Palestine who was crucified and whom some people very quickly thereafter claimed had been installed in heavenly glory by God, on these matters we have abundant corroboration in Paul’s letters (which, of course, are also earlier than Acts). No need to try the snide bit, Mark. Scholars aren’t out to fool anyone.

      • I admit I have a snide nature, but the above comment is against type. I take full blame for your reading. My point is that I would think that there should be no other accepted view than to treat uncorroborated material in Acts as having very little historical value, if any. Your original statement seems very weak-kneed to me, as this is not the typical case where there is a difference of scholarly opinion. And I understand you rely on Paul when the material in Acts is corroborated there.

      • Mark, I publish your clarification of your view. We have it now.

  3. Jonathan Burke permalink

    Vinny,

    “What Paul tells me constitutes data, and other than the reference to James as the brother of the Lord, everything in Paul tells me that the earthly Jesus was made known through revelation and scripture.”

    Evidence please.

  4. Fortigurn permalink

    “The data is much better explained by Paul not knowing anything about a man named Jesus and his earthly teachings. If you’d like to address this point, with bibliography, I would appreciate it.”

    Mark, if you want Larry to address that point, you need to actually make a case for it. The burden of proof is on the claimant. Until you can make an evidence based case, there’s nothing to discuss.
    Jonathan Burke

    • Bretton Garcia permalink

      “I came to you, knowing nothing,” Paul himself admits. Except the very, very, very barest skeleton of a narrative. While scholars agree that Paul’s writings, seldom quote Jesus directly, or offer any picture as vivid or full, as say the gospels.

      As noted by Doherty. And Paul himself.

      • Bretton,
        Your comment is a rather stunning illustration of the reasons why the arguments for the “mythicist” stance aren’t taken seriously: You completely mis-quote and certainly misconstrue the text you attempt to cite. The specific statement correctly quoted (from 1 Cor 2:1-2) = “When i came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the mystery of God in lofty speech or ‘wisdom’, for I determined to know (or make known) among you nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In the larger context of 1 Cor 1–2 Paul is contrasting his preaching of Jesus Christ with the philosophical and rhetorical posturing that some in his Corinthian church seem to have admired. In the statement quoted, he explicitly states that his preaching was all about Jesus Christ. Rather clearly, Bretton, the statement actually implies a strong focus on the person of Jesus Christ and his significance, with special reference to Jesus’ crucifixion and its significance. The statement emphatically does not say what you impute to it. If this is the sort of argument Doherty and others make, it’s all a tissue of misunderstanding and inability to do rather simple exegesis.

      • Jonathan Burke permalink

        You didn’t address anythign I wrote.

    • Mark,

      “My point is that I would think that there should be no other accepted view than to treat uncorroborated material in Acts as having very little historical value, if any. ”

      Do you understand that this is not how professional historians treat the text, and do you understand why?

  5. Vinny, one problem that you and Neil have is that you don’t know the difference between the fallacy of appeal to authority, and legitimate appeals to authority. Nevertheless, Larry has not even made legitimate appeals to authority. He has never said ‘It’s true because experts say it’s true’ (the fallacy of appeal to authority), and he has never even said ‘You shouldn’t challenge it unless you’re an expert too’ (another fallaciouis appeal to authority).

    What he has done is try to explain to you why experts are more likely to have a better understanding of a specific field than non-experts. The fact that he even has to explain this to you shows a significant knowledge gap on your part. You need to consider carefully the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes exactly what you’re doing.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

    This is why non-experts (in particular enthusiastic amateurs or hobbyists), need to actually provide evidence for their claims and demonstrate an ability to discuss the issue knowledgeably. Neither you nor Neil have been able to do that.

    Vinny, you have made repeated appeals to your own competence, skills, knowledge, experience, and intelligence, yet when I ask you to provide comment on some of the key issues concerning the historicity of Jesus, you immediately fall silent. This does not look like you actually trust your own self-estimation. Likewise, as soon as I challenge Neil to provide evidence for his claims, silence descends. He just doesn’t want to go there.

    If either of you really had the confidence in your abilities that you claim to have, and if either of you really thought you were sufficiently informed to engage the current scholarship, then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. We would be reading your articles in the relevant academic journals, and noting the scholarly support for your conclusions.

    The fact that both of you claim to be sufficiently competent to engage scholars on subjects in which neither of you are academically qualified, yet neither of you wish to actually test your competence in the field of scholarly peer review, illustrates strongly that you don’t want your views scrutinized because you don’t believe they can withstand it.

    Jonathan Burke

    (Editor’s note: Jonathan pushes pretty hard here, and may be a bit “in your face”. But I’ve published his comment, in part because people have sometimes objected to my editing of them. I don’t think there’s anything actionable here, but I would prefer if we could avoid discussing people and stay with issues. Neither Neil nor Vincent is a working scholar in the field, but they have a right to ask for the warrants and bases that scholars invoke in reaching judgements. I’ve tried to convey them briefly in my several responses over the last several days. I confess that it has seemed, however, that Neil and Vincent are curiously reluctant to agree with what is dominant scholarly opinion. That’s anyone’s right, but it may not carry much weight if one can’t demonstrate competence in the subject. Readers can decide for themselves.)

    • Bretton Garcia permalink

      (Editor’s Note: I interleave responses/corrections below, marked by “LWH”, Garcia’s statements marked “BG”)

      BG: 1) The appeal to the authority of religious scholars, many of us feel, appeals to a fallible standard. There are ideas, fads that come and go in scholarship; so that we know that scholars are not absolutely reliable. While there have always been problems with specifically, religious study.
      LWH: Attend carefully, please. I have invoked textual data and have corrected your mis-handling of texts. I repeat: Scholarly “authority” is only as good as how well it stands up under qualified assessment. Stop this red-herring claim that I’m appealing to “authority of religious scholars”.

      BG: This is a field of study that at various times, has seriously affirmed the “objective” existence of talking donkies; people that walk on water; and now, the Historical Jesus. Even keeping in mind recent advances, it is useful to remember that for many years, religious programs, even “scholarship,” were not allowed on campus; and religious courses could not be taken for credit. For good reasons; there has always been a kind of partiality in the field; Religious Study is not a totally provable, objective field like Nuclear Physics.
      LWH: ALL irrelevant to the discussion. There is no confessional test to either of the universities at which I’ve worked for over 30 yrs. Nor is it the case at most of the places where major work in the field is done.
      BG: 2) But as a matter of fact though, there are huge numbers of scholarly works that, without explicitly denying the historicity of Jesus – which is an emotionally explosive cultural issue after all – do go on to question one specific element of Jesus, after another, after another. So that finally, if you connect all these dots; what you see is that finally – there is nothing left.
      LWH: Again, you’re confused. Questioning specifid details of a text doesn’t mean that the entire contents of the text are false. You’re “connect the dots” is a non sequitur . . . yet again.
      BG: A conclusion that no one wanted to make explicit for obvious reasons; but a conclusion that is there, for anyone who can see.
      LWH: It’s a “conclusion” based on inaccurate information and faulty reasoning, at least to judge by your comments.

      • Jonathan Burke permalink

        “The appeal to the authority of religious scholars, many of us feel, appeals to a fallible standard.”

        Irrelevant. Larry isn’t appealing to their authority. He’s explaining why they are more likely to be competent in the field than you.

        “This is a field of study that at various times, has seriously affirmed the “objective” existence of talking donkies; people that walk on water;”

        Typical higher criticism makes no such affirmations. You’re just making things up.

        “; and now, the Historical Jesus.”

        No, this isn’t new. Secular historians have long held Jesus to be a historical figure on purely historical grounds. Again, you’re making things up.

        “do go on to question one specific element of Jesus, after another, after another. So that finally, if you connect all these dots; what you see is that finally – there is nothing left.”

        Questioning one element of Jesus doesn’t mean that element of Jesus has been disproved, and ‘connecting the dots’ in the way you suggest requires actual evidence that each ‘dot’ is valid. There’s a very broad consensus on a specific list of historical facts which are not called into question. You seem unaware of this.

  6. Some usefull texts in portuguese about this theme: http://adcummulus.blogspot.com.br/search/label/Exist%C3%AAncia%20de%20Jesus

    thanks :)

  7. vinnyjh57 permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    Granting that Paul is merely our first source and not the first person to claim to have (or who is claimed to have) encountered the risen Christ, I don’t see where he describes anyone else’s experiences as being any different than his own, i.e., others also encountered a supernatural being who made himself known through revelation, appearances, and scripture. That still would not require an actual historical person underlying the visions.

    • Again, you’re missing essential data. Those Paul cites, e.g., Kephas, James, et alia, are all people he knew as direct acquaintances of the historical figure Jesus. They certainly didn’t first speak of a “Jesus” on the basis of resurrection appearances. Moreover, as should be obvious, and as I’ve noted earlier, to encounter a resurrected Jesus (NB: Not simply a heavenly figure, but a resurrected man) means that this same figure had been killed, dead, from which state they experienced him as risen. Why the difficulty in grasping these things? To say that Paul is “merely our first source” radically underplays the importance of his evidence. Paul knew well a host of other figures closely connected with the Jerusalem church and with Jesus, and strove to maintain positive connections with them, as especially demonstrated in the Jerusalem collection. So, his reports on what he and other early believers shared is pretty damned significant, and under-estimated at one’s peril.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        Where does Paul ever say that he knew Peter to be a direct acquaintance of the earthly Jesus? Where does Paul ever say that any of his contemporaries had heard Jesus speak, watched him perform miracles, or been a witness to his crucifixion? Where does Paul indicate that a host of people that he knew had been closely connected with the man Jesus? It is true that Paul refers to James as “the brother of the Lord” which would suggest an actual historical Jesus if we are confident that Paul intended to reference a biological relationship. However, to my mind, the lack of anything else in Paul to corroborate his understanding that Christ made himself known in any way other than by revelation makes me reluctant to place all that much weight on Galatians 1:19.

        I hate to be obstinate, but encountering a supernatural being whom one believes once to have been an actual human being does not mean that there ever was such an actual human being. I don’t see this as a difficult point to grasp either. The appearance of the Angel Moroni doesn’t mean that there was a historical Moroni. The appearances at Fatima and Lourdes don’t prove that there was a historical Mary. You need evidence of the actual person’s existence that is independent of the visionary encounters. Does Paul give it to us? I have a hard time seeing it..

        Vincent J. Hart

      • Vincent, to what on earth do you suppose Paul was referring when he spoke of Jesus as crucified (and, boy, did he do so!)? And he wasn’t referring to some event in “mythic” time but in real time. The Kephas/Peter to whom he refers (and says he sought to interview, per Gal 1:18) is rather consistently referred to in early Christian texts as a disciple of Jesus. As for James, “the brother of the Lord”, there is no basis for taking the expression as indicating anything but a family relative & most likely a sibling. (And let’s not wander off into semantic possibilities of the bare term, but stay with the uses of the term in sentences in Paul. Sound linguistic method.) What you say about Moroni & Fatima is valid and irrelevant. Let’s not argue about Moroni, for God’s sake! Let’s attend closely to the data and the issue before us.
        One final note: No one, nooo one, in the early centuries, no critic such as Celsus, ever questioned Jesus’ historical existence. They disputed and ridiculed early Christian claims about him, but not his existence. Indeed, it was his human existence that they found incompatible with the exalted claims Christians made about him.

      • Have you heard of Matthew Novenson’s book Christ Among the Messiahs? Neil Godfrey has just concluded a seven part review that seems applicable to this subject: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/christ-among-the-messiahs-part-7/

      • Matt is a colleague here in Edinburgh, appointed earlier this year. His book looks like a very strong case to me.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        You urged me to focus on the data, but what I suppose Paul is referring to doesn’t constitute data. What Paul tells me constitutes data, and other than the reference to James as the brother of the Lord, everything in Paul tells me that the earthly Jesus was made known through revelation and scripture. I see nothing to corroborate Paul’s understanding that the earthly Jesus had been known to any of his contemporaries. It is always possible that the less obvious interpretation is the correct one and the only way to reduce that possibility is by corroborating the more obvious one. It is true that later sources describe Peter as a disciple of the earthly Jesus, but Paul doesn’t, so I cannot claim Paul’s reference to Peter as corroboration of what Paul understands.

        It may be true that we have no record of anyone questioning the existence of a historical Jesus in the early centuries of Christianity and I would agree that it has some bearing on the question. It just doesn’t strike me as terribly conclusive because I have never seen a convincing case made that we should expect such a record to exist had anyone raised the question.

        I feel like historical Jesus scholars only have about 75 pieces of a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle. A few of those pieces seem to fit together into nice little clumps, but there is simply no way to know what the gaps between those pieces look like or how big they are. It may be quite reasonable to suppose that the blue pieces are sky and the green pieces are foliage, but if they aren’t (which is entirely possible), every other conclusion drawn about the whole picture will be wrong. No matter how closely those 75 pieces are examined and dissected, there is no way to overcome the problem of the missing pieces.

        Vincent J. Hart

      • Vincent,
        Where do you get your conclusions from? You claim “verything in Paul tells me that the earthly Jesus was made known through revelation and scripture”. So, Paul’s reference to his two-week interview with Kephas was about the stock market? weather? what? If Paul only cared about his own revelation, why would he have done this?
        And when Paul cites a saying of Jesus in 1 Cor 7:10, which has a rough parallel in the synoptic tradition (e.g., Mark 10:1ff), and then says in v. 12 that he has no such saying of the Lord about a believer being married to an unbeliever, and in v. 25 (“concerning the unmarried”) again says he has no command of the Lord and so ventures his own judgement, you prefer to take these as all to do with revelation experiences?
        You clearly feel a strong need to hold your view, so I shan’t disturb you further. Nothing is sufficient for you, even though the things cited are sufficient for scholars generally, and of all religious persuasions, and in various relevant fields. So be it. Just don’t assume that you’ve accomplished anything by refusing to consider any possibility but your preferred (desperately, so it seems) option.
        Of course, we have only parts of the picture. But that’s what ancient history is like. If you doubt the existence of someone because our information about him/her is partial, then you gotta doubt one helluva lot! How about Siddhartha Gautama (the “Buddha”)? Our earliest sources are from a few centuries later. Scholars don’t even agree on the century in which he died! Yet, there doesn’t seem to be the same urgency to deny his existence. Hmm. I wonder why.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        I don’t know what Peter and Paul talked about because Paul doesn’t say. I don’t have any data. It could just as well have been that they talked about Peter’s revelations and visions of the risen Christ as that they talked about Peter’s time as a disciple of the earthly Jesus. (I would also note that the last time you asked me about that visit, you deleted most of my answer as non-essential.) Can you point to anything that Paul says anywhere that makes it more likely that it was the latter than the former?

        I absolutely consider the possibility that Paul’s teaching on divorce was derived from something that Peter told him about the earthly Jesus’ teaching. The problem is that Paul doesn’t indicate that it was, so I cannot eliminate the possibility that it was something that Paul thought he knew by direct revelation and that this teaching on divorce (or a similar one) was later attributed to the earthly Jesus. Wouldn’t most scholars recognize the possibility that things like that happened? Can you point to anything that Paul says anywhere that makes remembered teaching more likely than personal revelation? If not, I am compelled to remain agnostic on the question.

        As far as I know, there is no great urgency to deny the existence of the historical Buddha, but from what little I have read on the topic, no one would get all worked up if I suggested that the evidence was insufficient to establish that he wasn’t for all practical purposes a myth. As far as I can tell, no one would start comparing me to a flat earther if I suggested that the existence of a historical Buddha isn’t anywhere near as secure a fact as the moon landing. I suspect that many scholars of the historical Buddha would acknowledge that there is plenty of room for doubt even if they personally conclude that his existence is more likely than not.

        Contrary to your assertion, I have no desperate need to be agnostic about a historical Jesus. For most of my adult life, I never gave the matter a second thought. About ten years ago, however, some local Bible believers started demanding that my children’s high school remove certain books from the curriculum because they found them offensive. When I debated with these people, they challenged me to look at the evidence. When I did, I concluded that even the evidence that Jesus existed wasn’t all that overwhelming. If someone showed up demanding that the economics curriculum include a discussion of rainbows and pots of gold, I might be arguing about the existence of leprechauns now.

        Vincent J. Hart

        BTW, I very much appreciate the time you have taken to respond to my comments.

      • Dear Vincent,
        Just a few brief comments in response. First, Paul’s obvious point in Gal 1-2 is to try to emphasize that he was not beholden to Jerusalem for his apostolic appointment/authority, and so he somewhat defensively seems to state as minimally as the record will allow him any suggestion of indebtedness to Jerusalem church figures. But, even so, it is important that he says he went to Jerusalem (Gal 1:18-19) specifically to inquire of Peter (Greek: historesai), and he also mentions contact then with James “the Lord’s brother”. Most of us think that Paul was likely keen to get their sense of Jesus and the gospel, etc.
        As to such Pauline citations of Jesus as the divorce text, most of us scholars think that the similarity to Jesus’ divorce saying in the Synoptic tradition suggests that the tradition was known to Paul, and then also incorporated by the Synoptic writers. You seem to have missed my point that in 1 Cor 7 Paul distinguishes between issues on which he has a saying of Jesus and others where he has to rely on his own spiritual judgement (e.g., 7:25), which most of us take as indicating that Paul had some sort of body of Jesus-sayings (oral or written), which he likely got from others. I know you demand that Paul should have footnoted everything. Too bad, I guess. Take points off his work!
        I’ll not comment on your candid reasons for taking up your present stance on these matters, except to say that we might want to be careful about our intellectual life being too much shaped in reaction against something.
        Finally, as I doubt that anything I’ve said (or that scholars in the field largely hold) will have much effect on your preferred stance, I suggest that it’s pointless to continue this rather directionless discussion. Be well.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        If Paul thought that the earthly Jesus had a teaching ministry, I’m sure that he would have wanted to talk to the men who had been his disciples in order to find out what he had said and done. The problem is that neither Galatians 1:18 nor anything else Paul writes says anything about him obtaining that kind of information from anyone. If, on the other hand, Paul thought that Peter also knew the risen Christ supernaturally through revelation and appearances—as Paul did—he would also have reason to go visit Peter to gather information in order to determine whether Peter’s gospel was consistent with the one Paul was preaching, Paul would need to know whether he should be telling the Galatians to embrace the Jerusalem apostles or to reject them as false brothers.

        Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t tell us what information he was looking for when he went to Jerusalem and he doesn’t tell us what information he got. I understand what most of you scholars think Paul had in mind, but the fact of the matter is that I cannot see where Paul confirms your understanding. It is not a question of demanding that Paul footnote anything. It is simply a question of maintaining the appropriate degree of uncertainty about matters that Paul doesn’t address. If Paul never cites remembered teachings of the earthly Jesus rather than revelation from the risen Christ, I cannot claim to be certain that Paul considered his source to be the former rather than the latter.

        I do not prefer a stance. I prefer data. If what most scholars hold about what Paul thought is not based on what Paul wrote, then I am probably not going to be persuaded by naked appeals to authority.

        You be well, too.

        Vincent J. Hart

      • Vincent, I really must object to the implicit impugning of scholars in your final statement. That is simply a cheap shot, and I hope you’ll have the grace to recognize it. Scholars’ views ARE based on data, evidence, Vincent. What do you think we’ve been considering in the texts I put to you? Now yuo make your inferences from the data, and I make mine, and we can discuss the warrants for the one and the other. But all serious scholarly views are attempts to make sense of data. I’ve shown you where Paul cites sayings of Jesus that are also cited as Jesus’ statements in the Gospels, which are pretty much universally taken as reflecting earlier Jesus-tradition (earlier than the composition of the Gospels). It’s an entirely reasonable inference that Paul knew of such Jesus-tradition and cites it in, among other places, 1 Cor 7. If you prefer some other inference, or prefer simply to ignore the data and take up your self-styled “agnostic” stance, that’s certainly your choice. But don’t think or suggest that your stance is the only reasonable one and that “scholars” do something else that is unwarranted.
        Your reference to “naked appeals to authority” is unworthy of you, and a total misrepresentation of my comments. But if you can’t desist from making such unfair characterizations, then fare thee well. We’re done.

      • Mark Erickson permalink

        Dr. Hurtado, regardless of the strength or weakness of your arguments, you are coming off worse than any commenter here. Tarring mythicists as flat-earthers is certainly more of cheap shot than saying you are arguing from authority. Even your reference to the supposed motives of Vinny is worse. Perhaps you are unaccustomed to the baseness of the word “naked”, but that doesn’t mean Vinny can’t use it.

        PS I would still take a bibliography if you’re inclined to provide it.

      • Dear Mark,
        Read my blog posting to which you allude carefully this time. You’ll see that I don’t call anyone a “flat earther”. I merely liken the re-treading of long/previously refuted claims as wearying, like the wearyness of having to correct a flat-earth advocate. Oh, and any authority that anyone should enjoy should be based on them having demonstrated their prowess at handling the languages, texts, and skills of scholarly work in the field. No “naked” appeals to authority have been made by me on this site.
        Oh, and remind me what you want bibliography on.

      • (Editor’s note: To save time & space, I’ve interleaved responses to Vincent’s comments below, my responses marked “LWH”)

        Vincent: I try to be a polite guest. When I make comments, I always try to look to the blogger to set the rhetorical tone. If the discourse is restrained and civil, I try to follow that lead. If bombast and hyperbole are on the bill of fare, I don’t mind going there from time to time. I took no offense when you described me as “desperately” refusing to consider any position but my own (I’m used to that kind of thing), but I do feel that by doing so you set rhetorical boundaries for the conversation which “naked appeal to authority” did not cross.

        LWH: My objection to “naked appeal to authority” is that it was grossly inaccurate and misleading. All along, in response to your queries, I’ve provide you with the textual data and the textual reasoning scholars commonly use to try to make sense of those data. That’s not “naked appeal to authority’, Vincent. That’s providing you with the data and reasoning in question. You may not accept it, but you can’t allege it hasn’t been provided.

        Vincent: If you take as a premise that there was an earlier tradition concerning the sayings of an earthly Jesus, I would agree that it is entirely reasonable to infer that Paul knew of that tradition and that some of his references originate from it. However, I am posing the following question: Does Paul provide us with evidence that such a tradition existed? In order to answer that question, we cannot take as a premise that it did. I submit to you that if we start from an agnostic position on the question, Paul provides us with little to no evidence that he understood such a tradition to exist, regardless of how he is “pretty much universally taken.”

        LWH: Paul cites words as from Jesus. These words we can parallel in the Synoptic tradition of Jesus’ sayings. The most economic explanation is that what Paul cites was a body of such sayings (whether oral or written). That’s the view scholars generally take of the matter. You asked, and it’s been answered. You’re of course free to choose some other option.

        Vincent: I do not think that my agnostic stance is the only reasonable one. I actually find it rather uncomfortable at times and I was very much hoping that Bart Ehrman would make an argument that would push me off the fence in favor of historicism. His failure to do so does reinforce my suspicion that the sources are simply too problematic to make any more than a provisional case that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical person.

        LWH: OK. You’ve stated your stance, and indicated that you don’t satisfactory the data and reasoning/approaches that I’ve outlined as generally followed by scholars. I can’t account for Ehrman’s book. I think we won’t make any further progress, so thanks for your engagement and candor on these matters.

      • Larry, the most economical explanation should only be accepted when two theories have equal explanatory power. That is not the case in this situation. The data is much better explained by Paul not knowing anything about a man named Jesus and his earthly teachings. If you’d like to address this point, with bibliography, I would appreciate it.

      • Well, for what it’s worth, most scholars who have pondered the matter disagree. You asked for reading suggestions. Start with this one and get back to me when you’ve digested it: David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).

      • Mark Erickson permalink

        (Editor’s note: To save time/space, I interleave responses to Mark’s comments below, his comments marked “ME”, my responses marked “LWH”)

        ME: Basically, bibliography (shorter and more accessible, the better) about how Vinny is wrong above. 1) How we know what happened at the meetings between Paul and Peter and whether we can even credit the meetings ever taking place.

        LWH: Well, Mark, pretty much any competent commentary on Galatians will discuss the text where Paul refers to his two weeks inquiring of Kephas. E.g., J. D. G. Dunn, , The Epistle to the Galatians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993). Again, the point is that Paul says he spent the time making inquiry of Peter/Kephas (the Greek word important here). Did Paul lie about the whole thing? Anything is possible. Given the circumstances in which Paul was having to defend himself and account for his contacts with the Jerusalem leadership, he would have been a damn fool to do so. So, think what you prefer.

        ME: “The Kephas/Peter to whom [Paul] refers is rather consistently referred to in early Christian texts as a disciple of Jesus.” What early Christian texts? How do we know Paul was referring to a contemporary of Jesus.

        LWH: Early Christian texts in question include Acts and the Gospels, all first century. And, of course Peter was a contemporary of Jesus, as was Paul! Paul’s “conversion” is commonly dated only ca. 1-3 yrs after Jesus’ execution. So, whether they ever intersected or not, Paul, Kephas and Jesus were certainly contemporaries. (Oh, and the James “the brother of the Lord” was obviously a member of Jesus’ family, so . . . likely a contemporary!)

        ME: “No one, nooo one, in the early centuries, no critic such as Celsus, ever questioned Jesus’ historical existence. They disputed and ridiculed early Christian claims about him, but not his existence. Indeed, it was his human existence that they found incompatible with the exalted claims Christians made about him.” First, how do we know “noo one” ever questioned Jesus’ historical existence? Isn’t that trying to prove a negative? Second, wouldn’t the lack of a historical Jesus resolve the incompatibility claimed by the critics?

        LWH: Ok. Of all that we know about reactions to, and criticism of early Christianity, there is no disputation of Jesus’ historical existence. That do ya? Want some more bibliography? Start here: Robert L. Wilken, The Christians As the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984); Henry Chadwick, trans., Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965); Jeffrey W. Hargis, Against the Christians: The Rise of Early Anti-Christian Polemic, Patristic Studies, no. 1 (New York: Peter Lang, 1999)

        ME: From Vinny: “Can you point to anything that Paul says anywhere that makes remembered teaching more likely than personal revelation?”

        LWH: I’ve answered this in my direct response to Vincent.

        ME: About meeting with Peter. Proving your point: “Most of us think that Paul was likely keen to get their sense of Jesus and the gospel, etc.” Meaning an eye witness account of Jesus and the gospel. 6) Proving “most of us take as indicating that Paul had some sort of body of Jesus-sayings (oral or written), which he likely got from others.”

        LWH: Hmm. Not sure what you’re asking, if anything here. I simply stated the inferences drawn from the textual data by most scholars, assuming that it might be of some significance.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        Why is it more economic to suppose that Paul is citing a body of sayings of the earthly Jesus rather than a prophecy that either Paul or some other member of the community claimed to have received by direct revelation? Nowhere does Paul say that the earthly Jesus had a teaching ministry or that any of his contemporaries passed on teachings that they had gotten directly from Jesus. On the other hand, he uses the language of direct revelation on a number of occasions. Paul speaks of his own revelation as well as members of the community being given words of knowledge, words of wisdom, and prophecies. Isn’t it more economic to suppose that when Paul speaks of a word or command of the Lord that he is citing the kind of direct revelation to which he makes frequent references rather than a body of sayings that he never acknowledges?

        Vincent J. Hart

      • Dear Vincent,
        You raise a good question. I’ll try to answer it. OK? Certainly, Paul speaks of many revelations (e.g., 2 Cor 12:7), and of course refers to his own religious re-orientation as occasioned by what he terms a revelation (by God) of God’s “Son” (Gal. 1:12-16). As I’ve said before, in principle anything (almost) is possible; and the task of critical historical work is to judge what is more likely, more reasonable in light of all the data. So, e.g., to repeat yet again what I’ve stated several times, Paul cites sayings of Jesus which are also included in the Synoptic Gospels. The latter show no indication of being particularly indebted to Paul for their contents. Moreover, the literary texture of the Jesus-sayings doesn’t fit Paul’s discourse style, but instead exhibits lots of “local color” of Jewish Palestine. So, merely to mention very concisely some of the reasons, most scholars by far judge that the best inference is that Paul drew upon Jesus-tradition already circulating then (obviously, at least by the time he wrote). Where did this Jesus-tradition come from at that early point? Well, as I say, given its literary texture and features, it seems to derive from a Palestinian Jewish setting. That is, independently of Pauline data, the gospels seem to reflect a derivation of Jesus-tradition from an early Jewish Palestinian setting (especially the Synoptic sayings material).
        Now since Paul shows acquaintance with some of this material, it seems most likely that he was using this early Jesus-tradition, and not drawing upon supposed sayings communicated in his revelatory experiences.
        In some other texts, Paul explicitly identifies the content of revelatory experiences, e.g., 2 Cor 2:8-9. He makes no such claims for the sayings I’ve pointed to in, among others, 1 Cor 7. Instead, those seem to reflect the Jesus-tradition that we also encounter in the Synoptics.
        There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to imagine that Paul would have had some aversion to Jesus-tradition. So, why should we impute such a stance to him?
        Whether you’re persuaded or not, at least I hope I’ve explained briefly why most scholars judge things the way I’ve given them, and that it’s not a “naked appeal to authority”. Cheers!

      • Jonathan Burke permalink

        Vinny, you wrote:

        “Dr. Hurtado, Why is it more economic to suppose that Paul is citing a body of sayings of the earthly Jesus rather than a prophecy that either Paul or some other member of the community claimed to have received by direct revelation?”

        1. Because Paul speaks of Jesus as a mortal man who was born, lived, and taught, and whose sayings were adopted by the community bearing his name.

        For example, when Paul says ‘the Lord commanded those who proclaim the gospel to receive their living by the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:14), the burden of evidence is on you to prove that what he really meant was ‘I once had a vision in which the Lord said those who proclaim the gospel should receive their living by the gospel’. Of course Paul doesn’t say anything like that. He speaks in the past tense, of what Jesus said to third parties; people other than Paul; ‘the Lord commanded those’, not ‘the Lord commanded me’, or even ‘the Lord commanded us’.

        2. Because there’s no evidence that Paul believes (in this passage and the others cited by Hurtado) that he’s citing a prophecy that he or some other member of the community claimed to have received by direct revelation.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        Thank you for that interesting information. I too cannot imagine any reason whatsoever why Paul would have any aversion to Jesus tradition. In fact, I cannot imagine any reason why he wouldn’t cite it as frequently and as explicitly as possible.

        Cheers.

        Vincent J. Hart

      • Vincent, Then we agree that he did do so, and both would have welcomed him having done so more often. But, of course, Vincent, all we have are a handful of his letters, and it would be rather foolish (wouldn’t it) to presume that these occasional letters (typically responding to issues not addressed in the Jesus-tradition) reflect all that Paul knew and taught about Jesus. It would be as/more reasonable to allow that he conveyed more about Jesus in his missionary preaching and teaching than is contained in these letters. Likewise, as I’ve sometimes indicated in classes, it may be more dodgy than some scholars have assumed to think we can construct a “theology of Paul” out of these few texts. Perhaps all we should claim is a “theology of paul’s extant letters”.

      • Jonathan Burke permalink

        Vinny,

        A few easy questions for a Mensa member.

        1. How much of the Jesus tradition was available for Paul to cite?

        2. How much of the Jesus tradition did Paul know?

        3. To what extent would citing the Jesus tradition have been useful to Paul’s aiims in the undisputed epistles?

      • Mark Erickson permalink

        Without implying I’m a supplicant, I appreciate your responses.

        1 Cor 7? Do you mean the whole chapter for just verses 10-11? If you’ve cited other verses of Paul quoting the teachings of Jesus, I’ve missed them.

      • Mark, At a few points in 1 Cor 7 Paul either cites a saying of Jesus (where he has one) or says he doesn’t have one. SO, in 7:10-11, he cites a version of the divorce saying also reflected in Mark 10 and Synoptic parallels. In v. 12 (where he’s dealing with a related issue but one on which he has no Jesus-saying), he gives his own verdict. Likewise, in vv. 25ff., he says he has no saying/command of Jesus on which to draw and so gives his own opinion. In the book by Dungan to which I’ve referred you and others now a couple of times, he identifies several Jesus-sayings in Paul’s letters. I presume that you’re serious enough to read it.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        No we don’t agree that he did so, which I think you know already.

        I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Paul knew and taught lots of things that didn’t make it into his letters. Unfortunately the best, if not only, evidence I have of what he knew and taught is what I find in those letters. I can’t know whether the more that he conveyed favored historicity or not.

      • Ok, Vincent. We’ve got your view on record. Cheers.

  8. Brettongarcia permalink

    Dave Burke et alia:

    It is surprising that Historicist, Historical Jesus folks today present themselves as the status quo and the assured summit of biblical studies. It wasn’t too long ago that 1) Crossan and the Jesus Seminar historicists were controversial, to say the least. Even 2) Meier’s c. 1999 review of them was sometimes positive, but sometimes negative. Parenticularly there are 3) wellknown problems with their historiographical methodology; especially the “Criterion of Embarassment.” Even as 4) there have always been many works from Classics departments suggesting that huge segments – and potentially, all – of the New Testament, were influenced by ANE and Greco-Roman influences … or myths.

    Indeed, the factuality of one element after another of the NT has been severely questioned by one academic after another – and found wanting. So that today? The thesis that the NT is more or less wholly mythic, now presents itself as a viable thesis. Particulary from relevant information regarded as “outside” the field of study; the Classics departments for example. (To say nothing of our Physics departments).

    In fact, it was the rather arbitrary stipulation that Classics – and Greco-Roman influences therefore – were “outside” the field, that simply arbitarily removed the greatest evidence of mythic influences from the “accepted” “field of study,” our religous scholars’ field of attention.

    • Brettongarcia,
      I don’t recognize my own field in your comments. From the early “Religionsgeschichtliche Schule” days onward, Christian origins has always rightly emphasized the entire cultural and religious environment, “pagan” and Jewish.
      Also, you’re making what seems to be a frequent non-sequitur and over-simplifcation: Your assumption seems to be that scholars in a given historical field disagree, so there’s nothing at all that can be posited. Scholars question, challenge, pose possibilities, etc., that’s what we do. So, scholars test the warrants of everything in the NT. But that hardly means that there’s no history to investigate. And those posing the questions aren’t in fact typically people in Classics (who actually often are puzzled that NT scholars are so suspicious of NT texts!!), but NT scholars.
      So, it really would be well for you to get a better sense of a field before you make such erroneous and sweeping characterizations of it.

      • Brettongarcia permalink

        I’m glad that you agree that the classics are relevant. Here in America or among conservative theologians though, the notion that Jesus must be seen as wholly Jewish – and therefore, rather separated from Greco-Roman influence and myths – seems to often prevail.

        From my perspective, too much of the field has been singing the Ballad of the Wholly Jewish Jesus for far too long; and that limited perspective has particularly, limited the ability of conservative scholars to see (in this case, Greco-Roman) myths, deep inside Christianity.

      • Well, Jesus was “wholly Jewish”, but, of course, the Jewish setting was one in the Roman era. And early Christianity rapidly became a trans-local and trans-ethnic movement. The emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus has, however, hardly been confined to “conservative” scholars. How about the four volumes on Jesus by Geza Vermes, for example (a prominent and senior Jewish scholar). Of course, early Christianity was a Roman-era religion, and, especially in the second and third centuries, began to engage actively the larger intellectual world of the time. Your assertion of “Greco-Roman myths deep inside Christianity”, is, however, wide of the mark when it comes to Christian origins. To be sure, as the centuries followed, especially in the post-Constantinian period, Christianity took on (and adapted to its own purpose) features of ancient “pagan” thought, images, themes, etc. But it is VERY hard to demonstrate anything other than antipathy toward pagan religion in the NT. And, in any case, the question before us is the historicity of a figure named Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever later “mythic” themes about him may have developed, it is pretty clear to scholars in relevant fields that there was a very Jewish figure to whom these themes were added.

  9. vinnyjh57 permalink

    I am a reasonably bright person. I’m an expert level chess player. I graduated near the top of my law school class. I passed the test for Mensa. I was able to follow Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time without an advanced degree in physics. I have read books by scholars in a wide variety of other fields like Steven Pinker, Daniel Denett, Ronald Dworkin, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jared Diamond and I have always been able to see how their conclusions follow from the evidence. I certainly don’t know what they know and I can’t do what they do, but my lack of advanced training has never prevented me from appreciating a convincing argument supported by evidence.

    One of my reasons for not placing the confidence in historical Jesus scholars that I place in other experts is their insistence that I should not expect to be able to think intelligently about a basic question like whether there is sufficient historical evidence to establish that Jesus existed without highly advanced training in esoteric areas. I have never encountered a comparable attitude in any other field. I cannot help but think that if it really takes all that training to understand the experts’ reasoning on such a basic issue, the evidence is probably not nearly as clear as they are claiming it is.

    • Dear Vinnyj, I don’t ask you to take an advanced degree to *understand* scholars’ reasoning. I think it is fair, however, to ask you to be competent to *judge the validity* of scholars’ work. Surely, you aren’t claiming that you can’t understand what scholars in Christian origins are reasoning are you? To stay with your commendable and impressive ability to understand scientific things, it surely requires specialist training to be able to question effectively and correct people such as Hawking, Pinker, etc. in their science reasoning.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        There are many points upon which I do not understand the reasoning of scholars of Christian origins. For example, you said that the claimed appearances of the risen Christ were insufficient to explain the actions of early Christians without an actual historical Jesus as well. I pointed out that the claimed appearances of the Angel Moroni were sufficient to explain the actions of the early Mormons without there ever having been an actual Moroni. I truly do not understand the criteria by which scholars of Christian origins go about determining when visions are an insufficient explanation. Moreover, I do not believe that it takes any specialist training to ask that question.

      • Dear vinnyj,
        Good question. Here’s the answer. First, what I said was that the initial claims of Christianity about Jesus, specifically that God has raised him from death after his execution by crucifixion, and that God has vindicated him as Messiah, can’t so readily be understood without positing a prior person crucified as a failed messianic pretender. Can you follow that reasoning, or am I being too abstruse? The earliest Christians were making quite specific claims about the figure Jesus, who was a contemporary known to them and others. You have to attend to the specifics of a case to grasp the reasoning.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        With all due respect, I don’t quite see the reasoning there since I have given you an example of a well documented religious movement that can be readily understood without positing a prior historical person behind claimed visions. What empirical criteria do you use to determine when a prior historical person is required? I would also point out that the earliest Christian source didn’t know the historical Jesus.

      • Mr. vinnyjh57 (Can we please use real names? What’s the deal with this hiding behind these silly phoney monikers?),
        Thanks for the respect, but I’d appreciate more attending to the data. Yet again, my statement wasn’t some general one about a “movement”, but a specific statement about the specific claims of earliest Christians–that God raised Jesus from death (after crucifixion) and installed and validated him as Messiah and Lord. These statements are best explained in the context of (1) Jesus’ prior execution, and (2) the charge being that he was a royal/messianic pretender. These are actually pretty widely accepted views, sir. Sorry if the reasoning still escapes you.

      • Mark Erickson permalink

        Where exactly do you find “the initial claims of Christianity about Jesus”? Paul? Mark? Q? What are the main verses you’re relying on?

        Initial claims is fine, but this: “The earliest Christians were making quite specific claims about the figure Jesus, who was a contemporary known to them and others.” goes too far. Where is the evidence that contempories who knew the figure Jesus were the earliest Christians? And does the reverse apply – Jesus knew the earliest Christians?

      • Dear Mr Erickson,
        By “the earliest claims” about Jesus made by Christians I follow standard historical method in preferring (1) our earliest extant sources (which are Paul’s letters), and then (2) looking for what historical information is provided. When one does that, one finds that the earliest extant claims include prominently that God raised Jesus from death and installed him as Messiah and Lord. In addition, these statements all site him as a Jew, living in Roman palestine, who delivered teachings (several citations in Paul), etc. Moreover, Paul (himself a contemporary of Jesus) also refers to contacts with other contemporaries (including prominent followers of Jesus, e.g., Peter, and also relatives, e.g., James). That do you??

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        The specific claim made by our earliest source that “God raised Jesus from death (after crucifixion) and installed and validated him as Messiah and Lord” seem to me to be fully explainable by the visions that Paul had. If I were to see the ghost of King Arthur, that would not constitute any evidence that there had actually been a historical King Arthur. When Joseph Smith saw the Angel Moroni, that did not constitute any evidence that there had actually been a historical human being named Moroni. This is not to say that Paul says nothing that might be better explained by positing a historical Jesus, but the overwhelming majority of things Paul writes, including that specific claim, don’t require any more explanation than his belief that he had experienced visions and revelations of a supernatural being.

        As to the use of “vinnyjh57,” the explanation is rather involved and I suspect non-essential. My real name is Vincent J. Hart which I doubt means anything to you at all. When I first began blogging, I chose to remain anonymous because I wasn’t sure how much information about myself I wanted floating around in cyberspace, and I posted under the name “Vinny.” I have since made my real identity available to anyone who cares enough about it to look for it, but since most people in the blogosphere don’t seem to care, I continue to post comments under some variation of “Vinny” for the sake of continuity.

      • Dear Vincent,
        First, thanks for kindly introducing yourself and complying with house rules. Second, your comment is incorrect in premiss and therefore incorrect in conclusion. Paul came to SHARE the view that the crucified Jesus had been resurrected from his experience (which he took as divine revelation), but PRIOR to that he had devoted himself to attempting to destroy (his words) the young Jesus-movement, which means that the movement was already circulating claims about Jesus that he considered odious and possibly blasphemous. Given that his “revelation” experience convinced him to join the Jesus-movement, it’s logical to infer that he came to share a view of Jesus that he had previously opposed.
        This is confirmed by his own statements: e.g., 1 cor 15:1-7, where he lists resurrection appearances to others prior to his own, and then includes his as a late event in the series. Further, in the clear evidence of conflicts between Paul and certain other Jewish-Christian figures, there is no indication of these having anything to do with beliefs about Jesus as crucified and resurrected, etc. Instead, the conflicts seem to have been over the validity of Paul’s policy that gentile converts were not required to take up full Torah-observance and were to be treated as full co-religionists on the basis of their faith in, and obedience to, Jesus. The purported analogy to Joseph Smith’s alleged vision of the angel Moroni is not analogous. Smith’s claim was the initial one; Paul simply embraced the Jesus-claims that he had previously opposed. (Of course, he also believed that he had been given a distinctive commission to the gentiles. But that’s not christology.)

      • Mark Erickson permalink

        Correct me if I am wrong, but the earliest extant source of Paul’s letters is from 200 C.E. I don’t know when the earliest quotes or even attestment occurred. But from what I’ve read, the first century is ruled out. So that leaves at a minimum 70 years from the passion story. How can you be so confident that the historical information in Paul’s letters is reliable?

      • Mark, the earliest full COPY of a COLLECTION of Paul’s letters is P46 (palaeographically dated ca. 200 CE). It is commonly accepted among critical scholars that these letters were written ca. 50-60 CE (one or two perhaps even a bit earlier). They have been scoured intensively for 150 years at least for indications of any interpolations, etc. None of the alleged interpolations affect the issue before us. Textual criticism is one of my own areas on which I’ve written a good deal, for what it’s worth. In comparison to any text from antiquity, our manuscript basis for the NT writings in general is faaaar and away, light years, better, sounder. If you’d like bibliography, say so.

      • Mark Erickson permalink

        “So”, but go easy – shorter and more accessible the better. Thanks for your responses.

        Interpolations are one thing, but how about the historical accuracy of the original? How do you determine that? I’ve also grown weary of “in comparison to any text from antiquity”. So what? The absolute accuracy, not the relative, is what is important.

      • The only texts from antiquity about which we have absolute textual certainty that we have exactly what the writer wrote are “documentary” texts, such as letters and contracts. For all else, all literary works, pagan, Jewish, Christian, whatever, all we have are copies. The discipline of textual criticism engages the available evidence and by diligent study of manuscripts, copyists habits, and a host of other matters scholars attempt to judge the best critical edition of a given work. All we have is comparative judgements, and those for the NT are unexcelled.

    • Fortigurn permalink

      Vinny, given your confident assessment of your own competence, I am wondering why you still haven’t yet answered the two simple questions I’ve asked you twice over at Vridar.

      1. If you are not claiming any particular competence in the field of historical Jesus studies, then on what basis do you challenge the conclusions of those who are competent?

      2. If I give you a list of contested issues in the field of historical Jesus studies, how many will you be able to engage competently? I have a list right here, so let me know.

      Someone with your expertise, knowledge, skills, intelligence, professional qualifications, experience, and competence, should find these extremely simple questions to answer.
      Jonathan Burke

    • Jonathan Burke permalink

      Vinny, when you keep citing Joseph Smith’s alleged visions of angels, you show a lack of knowledge of professional historiographical methodology. Let me show you.

      Smith’s personal visions, from a historian’s point of view, have a baseline probability which is extremely low for the following reasons.

      1. They are the kind of events which have never been reliably documented in human history; there is a legitimate a priori objection to their historicity on the basis of improbability; it is improbable for angels to appear to people.

      2. They are claimed to have occurred during a time when claims of such visions were common, yet none were documented reliably nor verified.

      3. There is only one source, Smith; there is no multiple attestation from independent sources, and there are no third party sources.

      That an itinerant Jewish teacher called Jesus lived in Roman Judea during the first century, from a historian’s point of view, has a baseline probability which is far higher than Smith’s visions, for the following reasons.

      1. It is the kind of event which has been reliably documented in human history; there is no legitimate a priori objection to Jesus’ historicity on the basis of improbability; it is not improbable that an itinerant Jewish preacher lived during the first century, and in fact it is very probable.

      2. It occurred during a time when itinerant Jewish teachers in Roman Judea were common, several of which have been documented reliably and verified.

      3. There is more than one source; there is multiple attestation from independent sources, and at least two third party sources (that is, outside the Christian community).

      This is how professional historians work, and this is why your analogy is completely invalid. A professional historian wouldn’t make that kind of mistake.

  10. Testinganidea permalink

    Just curious about the note in Brettongarcia’s post:

    “(Editor’s NOte: This is one of several lengthy comments by “Brettongarcia” in response to my posting of 27 July, each of which contains a lot of sweeping claims. Let this one do for the lot. )”

    The post itself seemed short, not lengthy as you indicated. Was there more to the original post or was it lengthy because he  had submitted the same short post eight times? If it was part of a larger post do you know where the original may  be found? 

    • The comments not posted from “Brettongarcia” were all somewhat thin of content and short burst of anger. I didn’t think they reflected well on him, and they didn’t raise or engage any serious points.

    • Mark Erickson permalink

      Pace Dr. Hurtado, I think your readers are qualified enough to sort through even long comments on your blog, if that is their desire. And if a commenter is frequently producing bilious comments, the readers would be best served by finding that out. You’re not wasting paper either, just a few more scrolls. Finally, it looks bad. Since we don’t know what you are deleting, we might think you deleted cogent and on point ideas. Total transparency is the best policy.

      • Mr Erickson,
        OK. From the unedited versions of lengthy comments of . . . certain people, you’ll be able to judge whether much golden truth may have been cut.

  11. Dr Hurtado: I apologize if someone has covered this already. I’ve been thinking a lot about the rather disparate and incompatible versions of the historical Jesus proposed by various scholars, and trying to come up with a minimum definition of a Jesus who is not strictly mythical — setting aside, as one must do in this inquiry, the “Jesus of faith”.

    The task is not as easy as it is for a figure who is intrinsically connected to historical events. Even though people might disagree on what kind of a person Julius Caesar was, for example, someone had to lead the conquest of Gaul, rule Rome as consul in 49 BC, and so on.

    A historical Jesus consisting simply of a first-century Cynic, zealot or apocalyptic teacher who had followers and got crucified by the Romans is no HJ at all. Many such people could plausibly have existed (and indeed probably did) without ever being the impetus on which Christianity was founded. Accordingly, the best “minimal Historical Jesus” I have come up with so far is (1) a Jewish teacher or rebel who (2) had several disciples named Peter, James and John (“Peter” at the very least), and (3) those disciples went on to become Christian leaders with whom the writer of the Pauline epistles engaged. In other words, an unassailable link between the individual and the historical reality (such as can be shown) of early Christianity seems to me far more important than any ultimately irrelevant biographical details about Jesus, and far more important than beliefs later Christians may have held regarding Jesus.

    I don’t think you would need to verify any miracles or any aspect of the passion narrative (including Jesus’ death), and certainly not the virgin birth or resurrection in order to establish a historical Jesus. However, if we cannot demonstrate the likelihood of the three criteria above being accurate, then I’m not sure we could claim certainty about the historicity of the Jesus after whom Christianity is named. Would you agree with these criteria, and do you think they have sufficient evidential support?

    • Paul D, your “criteria” strike me as what I would say comprise certain basics of the available data. So, e.g., starting with our earliest sources (Paul’s letters), we get a body of information that begs explanation, such as named historical figures with whom Paul had contact, etc.

  12. Dave Burke permalink

    Yet again I raise the question: if mythicism is such a credible, convincing thesis, why is it absent from the world of peer review?

    • Dave,

      Well, as I had pointed out in a previous comment, the first peer-reviewed studies that are sympathetic to mythicism are coming out this year; e.g. Thompson and Verenna “Is This Not the Carpenter”, Carrier’s article in JACS, and a Rene Salm’s presentation at SBL on Nazareth. They are different to your standard internet, or old, mythicists. You can still point out that it is a fringe position, but mythcistics are starting to reassert themselves within academia and offering interesting arguments.

      • When they do so, then we can consider them dispassionately. I’ll await with interest.

      • Dave Burke permalink

        Erlend,

        While I’m delighted to hear that the mythicists have finally worked up the courage to enter the world of peer review, I doubt they’ll have any impact.

        * Thompson: ex-Catholic minimalist specialising in Old Testament history & archaeology
        * Carrier: atheist with an MA, an MPhil and a PhD in Ancient History
        * Verenna: undergraduate studying a major in Greek & Latin and a minor in Classical Humanities
        * Salm: self-employed piano teacher/composer turned amateur historian

        The big name here is Thompson, a genuine and credible academic. Unfortunately his expertise falls outside the relevant field, but of the four he comes closest to it and I expect him to bring the best case.

        Carrier also lacks qualifications in the relevant field (but makes good use of what he has) and struggles to be taken seriously outside his blog. Nevertheless he is a competent labourer and can be expected to make a fair effort.

        Verenna is a plucky student with admirable vigour but no relevant qualifications.

        Salm is an amusing irrelevance with no qualifications whatsoever. His 2008 book, ‘The Myth of Nazareth’ was dispassionately demolished by British archaeologist Dr Ken Dark (University of Reading) in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, who concluded:

        –‘Despite initial appearances, this is not a well-informed study and ignores much evidence and important published work of direct relevance. The basic premise is faulty, and Salm’s reasoning is often weak and shaped by his preconceptions. Overall, his central argument is archaeologically unsupportable.’

        Earl Doherty is notable by absence; not surprising given his well known phobia of peer review.

        Frankly, this is an embarrassing lineup for mythicism (a piano teacher? Seriously?) Can you imagine how they’d be received if they were a team of Christian apologists submitting papers to an atheist journal? Guys like P. Z. Myers would have a field day. We’d never hear the end of it.

      • Verenna, Thompson’s ‘co-editor’ Verenna was not even an undergraduate when that book went to press. He has since enrolled as an undergraduate in ‘classics’. Thompson is an Old Testament specialist and completely out of touch with critical scholarship on early Christianity, makes extraordinary claims about New Testament scholars outside America, that the Westar Jesus Seminar is considered conservative when the opposite is the case. It is generally agreed that the WJS is so radical that it borders on lunacy. There has been much published vigorous criticism from Dunn to Casey and Crossley in the last two decades as well as seminars with discussion on the institution at NT conferences which Thompson does not attend. Salm is not qualified. Etc. The manuscript of Casey’s refutation of the main mythicist arguments, has been delayed as he includes critique of this unimpressive book. Crossley’s contribution is good but he’s not a mythicist and it was just an article he had written on John scholarship. It has no historical value but recent post 2001 conservative scholars seem to ignore Casey’s 1996 work ‘Is John’s Gospel True?’. (the answer is no)

      • Fortigurn permalink

        I haven’t seen a new mythicist argument yet. I have seen Carrier assert a meaning for a Greek phrase in a verse in the New Testament, despite the fact that the meaning he asserts is unattested anywhere for that phrase else in the New Testament, and in fact unattested anywhere else in any Greek text in the first century. I have seen Doherty assert a meaning for a Greek words which he acknowledges is found in no professional lexicon, and for which he can provide no examples in any Greek text.

        There is nothing in Thompson, or Verenna, or Carrier, or Salm, which has not already been addressed repeatedly in the academic literature. They are just recycling what you can already find on third rate blogs. We get the same old argument from silence and made up word meanings, and that’s it.

        The argument from silence is the stock in trade of the mythicist, so it’s no surprise they haven’t provided any new evidence.

    • Brettongarcia permalink

      It’s absent because of religious censorship. If Larry Hurtado would restore my responses which he has censored, you’d see some of the content that has been suppressed by formal and informal religious censorship; by the inability of the faithful to face evidence contary to their beliefs. And their instinctual suppression of any such evidence.

      • No, “Brettongarcia”, I merely edited the repetitious and lengthy expansionist comments, preserving your essential points. I’ve done the same with some other comments taking the opposite point of view. No religious censorship (as should be evident in my engaging comments), just trying to avoid taxing the patience of readers. Get over yourself.

      • Dave Burke permalink

        Brettongarcia,

        >>
        It’s absent because of religious censorship.
        >>

        Feel free to prove this. The evidence actually shows that it is absent because it has not been submitted to peer review. At least one prominent mythicist (Doherty) actively shuns peer review. If that is ‘censorship’, it is self-censorship!

  13. I, too, admire Professor Hurtado’s thoughtful engagement with the web-proponents of the ‘mythicist’ view. I also have to say, having seen Hurtado hold his own in debates with, shall we say, ‘more informed’ opponents in respected academic circles, his recent responses have been more than magnanimous. I am simply rehashing what the professor has already said: anyone is entitled to their own opinions, but in the matter of historical enquiry, concerning as it does the weighing of available evidence, one has to demonstrate that his/her hypothesis makes the best sense of the data. Hurtado’s claims deserve attention, not because of his status as an ‘eminent professor’, but because they are corroborated by reputable historical scholars and experts. All parties who wish to participate in a serious discussion about historical issues need to be aware, minimally, of the current state of research, and be prepared to defend their position via logic and reason.

  14. Insight into Neil Godfrey’s consistent rejection of the historical Jesus is provided by his own acknowledgement that his approach to the issue is possibly shaped by his former Fundamentalism. He writes thus.

    “I do ask far more questions than I answer. I’d like to think the reason is that I’m still a history teacher at heart, and still feel it’s the job of my bones to unsettle preconceptions and provoke debate and enquiry.

    Or maybe it’s just my past history in a religious cult that thought it had all the answers and this is part of my “coming out” of that. I used to say Questions liberate; Answers bind.”

    Godfrey appears disturbed by certainty, and prefers a position of doubt, of uncertainty and vagueness. He appears to see certainty derived from facts and evidence, as the fearful position of the Fundamentalist.

    • Brettongarcia permalink

      (Editor’s NOte: This is one of several lengthy comments by “Brettongarcia” in response to my posting of 27 July, each of which contains a lot of sweeping claims. Let this one do for the lot. )
      As a trained PhD in cultural history, I have never seen any evidence whatsoever from religious Studies, and HJ Historicism, that would actually stand up to real, impartial, secular Historical standards of proof. . . . . . Outside the tiny and prejudiced world of “objective” religious “historians,” the rest of the academic world is just not convinced.

      • OK, Brettongarcia, you’ve now repeated these assertions several times (8 comments this afternoon!). It’s obviously very important to you to make these assertions, so I’m publishing one that will do for them all. You’ve had your time at bat.

      • Dave Burke permalink

        Brettongarcia,

        >>
        Outside the tiny and prejudiced world of “objective” religious “historians,” the rest of the academic world is just not convinced.
        >>

        Feel free to prove this.

  15. ‘Why should I distrust experts in a given subject?’

    Because even Euler made mistakes?

    We should all examine the evidence.

    There is prima facie evidence of Jesus existing. Galatians 1:19 speaks of the brother of the Lord.

    And Paul is adamant that the Romans do indeed kill people. In Roman 13, he speaks of them as God’s agents, who do not bear the sword for nothing, and who hold no terror for the innocent.

    Somebody who regarded crucified people as people who got what they had coming to them, would not have invented a crucified Messiah.

  16. Dave Lincicum permalink

    Excellent reflections, and admirable patience in engaging these views. I’ve long thought that someone could write a theological/sociological counterpart to Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay on ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ (http://karws.gso.uri.edu/jfk/conspiracy_theory/the_paranoid_mentality/the_paranoid_style.html), transposed into, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Jesus Theories.’

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