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The Jesus-Discussion: Let’s Move On

August 9, 2012

A little over two weeks ago, I naively posted on reports of re-emergence of the early 20th-century claims (back then made by a few journalists and writers, none of them competent in the fields involved) that “Jesus” was an entirely mythical/legendary figure, and that no “Jesus of Nazareth” ever lived.   Along with the view of pretty near all scholars in the field, I expressed surprise and a certain weariness that a claim rather effectively considered and refuted many decades ago was making the rounds again as if it were new and had any strong merit.  Immediately, there were urgent comments from supporters of the so-called “mythicist” Jesus line, some of them in reasonable tones, many of them scurrilous, angry, haughty, disdainful, and most of these latter types I simply deleted.  Those who made assertions that could be engaged, however, I have typically responded to, trying as patiently as I could to explain briefly what scholars tend to hold, with selected illustrative data that they draw upon (but I have to say that patience is a virtue that I have to work at).

Some of those who have commented seem to be preoccupied with this issue, and it appears that there are a few blog sites out there pretty much devoted to the matter (especially, it seems, devoted to promoting/defending the “mythicist” point of view), and trying to question the basis of dominant scholarly views.  But, after two weeks of to-and-fro on the issue, I think it’s time to move on.  I say this for two main reasons.

First, in the two weeks of comments/responses to my postings, I’ve seen nothing cited by way of new evidence or analysis of known evidence that comprises a new and sufficient basis to treat the latest re-assertion of the “mythicist” Jesus claim as any more credible than the earlier versions refuted decades ago.  I’ve asked for such, but I don’t see any.  Some have claimed that the current wave of popular-oriented books offer such, but in spite of repeated invitations to point out briefly and specifically the supposed evidence and new reasons, I don’t recall any forthcoming.

Instead, what we have are many unsupported assertions (e.g., about Paul, early Christianity, ancient Judaism, Pharisees, etc.), put forth often with surprising confidence, but for which there is scant support in relevant scholarly circles, often out-dated generalizations, and distortions (albeit perhaps unintentional) of evidence.   I’ve taken the trouble repeatedly to point out these errors in responses to comments, although it’s not clear that it’s had any effect on those who asserted the errors in question.

So, for example, a few have challenged whether the early Jesus-movement was really a Jesus-movement after all, proposing that it may have been simply a (vaguely alleged) eschatological sect that later came to adopt a Jesus-figure (of imagination) as its iconic centre.  Having devoted a good many years, and resulting pages, to the matter of how Jesus featured in earliest Christianity, with pretty much every other scholar who has considered the question, I have to say that doesn’t fly.  For the fuller reasons and argument behind this view of things, you’ll have to read some books, among them my own:  esp. Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003), and How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (2005).  (I hasten to add that, unlike the works cited by “mythicist” advocates,  these and the other books to which I have referred are the sort that have been widely reviewed by other scholars in various countries and from various perspectives, and have been subjected to the most detailed attention in scholarly conferences and symposia.  They haven’t necessarily survived without criticism on some points, as you’d expect, but they’ve certainly been examined in detail, and were published precisely to invite such critical analysis.)

Others  have noted rightly that some matters widely held by scholars are inferences drawn from evidence, and have urged that it is possible to imagine some other inference here and there.  To these I’ve tried to indicate briefly why it is that scholars tend to prefer certain inferences as more likely than others.  It’s been disappointing that sometimes the response has been an unfair accusation that I haven’t given a basis for scholarly views.  I have, and repeatedly, but necessarily in abbreviated form, and I have urged seriously interested people to work through the scholarly studies where the fuller analysis and arguments are presented.

Part of the problem may be an insufficient acquaintance with how historians work with the limited data available.  Let me illustrate this by analogous examples.  To someone with limited acquaintance with ancient historical matters, it may seem impressive, for example, to learn that no writing by Jesus survives, or that a contemporary Jew such as Philo of Alexandria doesn’t mention him.   So, one might buy the accusation that people posit a historical figure named Jesus without any (or adequate) basis and out of insufficiently examined bias.  But, actually, the situation isn’t really so unique.

For a “pagan” example, take Apollonius of Tyana, for knowledge of whom we have almost exclusively a “Life” of the figure written by Philostratus, completed sometime in the early 3rd century CE.  Per Philostratus, Apollonius lived in the early-mid first century CE, which means that our earliest text about him was composed some 150+ years after the putative date of his death.  Yet, although there are many questions about exactly what he was and did, most scholars readily accept that there was such a figure.  Philostratus’ “Life” is full of miraculous accounts that generate some doubts about them,  and Apollonius is presented as a divine-like figure, but behind the account most scholars think there was a historical Apollonius, and that he likely had some following.

To point to Jewish examples, let’s consider Akiva, the great early rabbinic figure typically thought to have been active in the time of the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE).  Our earliest texts mentioning him are rabbinic writings, the earliest layer of which (Mishnah) may have been composed ca. 200 CE(?).  We have anecdotes about Akiva, but large gaps in biographical information.  Nevertheless, I think pretty much every scholar who has considered the matter judges that he’s a real historical figure and was of some significance.

As yet another example, let’s take Hillel, typically posited as living sometime first century BCE.  He left no writings, and no contemporary mentions him (no reference in Philo, or Josephus, for example), and our earliest texts mentioning him are, again, rabbinic material, from sometime after ca. 200 CE, well over 200 years after his death.  But Hillel is pretty important in Jewish tradition, and scholars (whatever their religious stance) tend to think that he lived and obviously made an impact sufficient to generate traditions about him.

You see?  In positing a Jesus of Nazareth, there’s no funny business, no special pleading, no unique moves going on.  It’s pretty much the same sort of historical reasoning that we have in these and other cases of ancient figures, particularly those of major significance.  So, when scholars don’t react excitedly to people noting, for example, that the earliest extant narrative accounts of Jesus were written ca. 40-50 years after his death, it’s essentially because this isn’t unique.  In fact, the date of the gospel accounts in relationship to the time of Jesus is comparatively pretty close.  And when we note the abundant references to Jesus in Paul’s letters, dated ca. 50-60 CE (specifically, references to Jesus as born a Jew and ministering among Jews, crucified, examples of his teaching), we have even stronger basis for thinking that Jesus wasn’t some legend composed wholecloth by the gospel writers.

In the discussion I several times asked that proponents of a “mythicist” Jesus view provide the detailed analysis of the evidence that scholars are required to produce to make any impact.  I may not have made myself clear, and one or two respondents seem to have thought what I wanted was the sort of lengthy (inadequately supported and ill-informed) blog-comment they sent.  But serious scholarly work won’t get done in blog-comments.  The way things work is that those who seek to influence scholarly/informed opinion (1) do the hard work involved in mastering the evidence and scholarly procedures, (2) produce sufficiently informed and well-argued cases that are directed to those competent to judge matters, (3) these are reviewed and assessed by fellow scholars (and, as anyone who has been so assessed can vouch, it isn’t an easy ride), and (4) if found persuasive, or at least a cogent alternative view, the work gets recognized and its views treated as worth the time of scholars.

From a recent blog comment, it appears that Thomas Brodie (a NT scholar based in Ireland) has forthcoming a book in which he presents his own distinctive proposal that the gospel accounts of Jesus are heavily shaped by narratives of OT figures, and the “Jesus” of the gospels is, thus, essentially a literary figure.  Here’s the URL on the book:

When Brodie’s book appears, it should receive close scholarly attention and review, and we’ll see what is made of it by other scholars with sufficient expertise to assess it.  But nothing of any weight has been produced in the last two weeks of discussion here to call into question the dominant judgement of scholars that “Jesus of Nazareth” is a real figure of history who generated a following during his own lifetime, and was executed by crucifixion.  So, for now, let’s move on, and await whatever future scholarly discussion produces.

The second reason for doing so is that I’ve got a lot of other things to do besides try repeatedly to explain scholarly views and correct mis-understandings of them and the evidence on this matter.    For example, I still haven’t finished that essay on early Christian apocrypha that I had started on two weeks ago!

So, best wishes to all those who read and interacted with me on the matter, and let’s see where things go in scholarly debate hereafter.

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  1. Dr. Hurtado:

    I didn’t see a distinction drawn in the discussion above between assessing the validity of an assertion based on the ‘preponderance of evidence’ available versus assessing validity with a view to ‘proof’ to some predefined standard. If I missed that in the discussion feel free to delete my comment as mute. I do not doubt that this very discussion is in the source you reference. Assessing the preponderance of evidence is, of course, what scholarship is ideally about. ‘Proof’ to a standard set by scholars is commonly constrained to less weighty issues. However, I have noted a trend over the years towards a degree of confidence in the assertions by scholars in public venues that seems unwarranted by a review of the evidence they provide and what seems additionally available. I might speculate that posters are responding some to this general tendency, though I might be alone in this perception. There is some data to suggest contemporary network media tends to invite behavior that is more generally ego dominant for all participants, including those who post comments. Perhaps if the behavior of the person with whom I dialogue appears to focus not on concern for the ‘preponderance of evidence’ then it is reasonable to ask them what motivates their position other than this. Such as shift of focus might move the conversation into less redundant territory and distinguish it a bit from a focus on scholarship per se without denigrating the participants. And then we can move on.

    • Hmm. I confess that I had to read your comment a couple of times to try to get what your point(s) is/are, and am still not entirely sure. But I’ll try to respond briefly to what I think you’re trying to say. First, as I’ve repeatedly stated in the many to-and-fro exchanges on my postings, historical scholarship is all about weighing all relevant data and judging what is the most likely explanation. We can’t replicate the data as in science. So, we can’t have the sort of empirical proof that experimental science aims for. Second, scholarly rhetoric varies with the scholar, and there are sometimes statements that go “to the max” on claims, when what they’re really describing is the preponderance of data and scholarly judgement. In the current dust-up over the “mythic” Jesus, one reason for this may be the strident claims of some of the “mythic” Jesus proponents, and the disdain expressed for scholarly work. It’s understandable that hard-working scholars would hit back.
      Finally, I’d myself ask why, when scholars of various stances on religious issues (Christian, Jewish, unaligned, etc.) in the relevant fields (Christian Origins, Classics, Ancient History,etc.) pretty much all agree that a historical Jesus of Nazareth seems required to account for the origins of the Jesus-movement, some people invest such emotional concern and efforts to wriggle around for some other position on the matter. Obviously, it’s not a concern for scholarship, for most of those I refer to have never invested the effort in acquiring the scholarly expertise needed to address the matter thoroughly.
      But, as I’ve said before, I prefer to focus on data and informed analysis of them, not on personalities. In the absence of any such new data or analysis forthcoming or adverted to over the last few weeks of discussion, it’s definitely time to move on.

  2. Dr H,

    I think your post is spot on. When I started to engage with Jesus deniers on a couple of other blogs, I dug out some old books from my Uni days on comparable figures such Confucius and the Buddha who do not come from the Jewish-Christian tradition and who are usually thought to be historical. I just wanted to see if there was any obvious ways in which the evidence for these figures, or the methods used to study them differed markedly used from those used in NT scholarship.

    Having done so, I see absolutely nothing to justify the mythicist mantra that the methods and conclusions of historical Jesus scholarship is substandard, at least when compared to those of non-NT scholars who study figures. Nor has anybody been able to offer me any evidence (much less prove) that this is the case.

  3. I think you did patience just fine. It’s not really about changing minds either. A good give and take is what most people want I think. Best wishes.

    PS I dont think your examples help your case at all.

    • Mark,
      Thanks for your kind words. As to my examples, I fear that they do rather make my point: If these figures are treated as unarguably historical on the basis of far less and far more distant sources (from their lifetime), then, with sources and references far closer to the historical figure (in the case of Paul’s letters, within a couple of decades at most), the standard scholarly view that Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure has a comparatively much stronger basis. Be well.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        Are any of those figures really unarguably historical? Would questioning their historicity be comparable to questioning the moon landing?

        Vincent J. Hart

      • Vincent, It’s hard to make anything from antiquity impossible to argue about (as I think I’ve said repeatedly). The question isn’t, if you wish to do so can you dispute this or that event or person. Of course you can, and it’s been done a lot, and continues wherever scholars find a basis for doing so. The question (yet again!) is, taking all things into account, what is the more likely explanation of phenomena. And when it comes to the evidence concerning the early (VERY early) Jesus-movement, a Jesus as historical personage seems to scholars a required factor. My point (yet again!) about Hillel, Apollonius, Akiva, et alia was simply that the acceptance of them as real figures (even though the evidence is less close in time to them) by scholars shows that positing a Jesus of history isn’t some kind of exceptional move. And, yes, I’d guess that denying that Akiva ever existed would strike most historians of ancient Judaism as pretty far-fetched, perhaps not that far from denying the moon-landing. I’d really like to move on, Vincent. We aren’t going to get anywhere with you, are we? You’ve nailed your colors to the mast, and it would be now difficult to shift. I understand.

      • These people are NOT treated as unarguably historical except by people who need them to be unarguably historical to make HJ arguments look better. I meant what I said, but I am just as weary as you regarding the “but Jesus is much better attested to than other people who are barely attested to” argument. Hillel is “typically posited as living sometime first century BCE” and “scholars … tend to think that he lived”. Whoa! Those claims are so much like those made about HJ!

      • Mark,
        I’m losing patience with your surly, school-playground antics, but yet another attempt to see if you really want to learn anything. If not, say so, and I’ll save my energies for productive things. The figures I cited (Hillel, Akiva, Apollonius) are all treated as real people by ancient historians, not solely by “historical Jesus” scholars. You’re simply wrong. Either provide the names and publications of historians who deny the existence of these figures or pack it in.

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        I agree that it’s hard to find anything from antiquity about which it is impossible to argue. That is why I don’t understand why historical Jesus scholars so frequently use words like “inarguably” when what they really mean is “likely.” I neither deny the existence of a historical Jesus nor do I think that positing such a person is in any way an exceptional move. I simply find the evidence much more problematic than it seems that you do.

      • Vincent,
        Yes. Thanks for again reminding us of your view. Duly noted. I too don’t like “unarguably”, when a perusal of scholarly literature typically indicates the item in question is (or has been) argued about and alternatives posed. So far as the “Jesus thing” is concerned, scholars in all related fields (ancient history, ancient Judaism, Christian origins, etc.) pretty much all agree that the constellation of data and factors makes positing a historical figure as so compelling that it seems unreasonable to go to any length to try to deny such a figure. But, as I say, we’ve got your own hesitation on record.

      • Mark, when you say things like, “These people are NOT treated as unarguably historical except by people who need them to be unarguably historical to make HJ arguments look better”, it doesn’t really help your cause. To request Jesus to be withdrawn from real genuine history is nothing more than special pleading. The only reason why Jesus has become the topic of criticism is because of the implications of hie life and teachings. IT HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH HISTORIOGRAPHY. If it was anyone else in question, the topic would be mute and irrelevant. Therefore, in consideration of this, it is really a question of motive isn’t it? Simply put, Jesus deniers have an axe to grind, THEY DO NOT WANT Jesus to be considered historical. MORE IMPORTANTLY, it is their desire to stifle any and all meaningful talk about Jesus.

      • Dear Mr. Paul,
        Although I suspect that your allegations are correct for at least some of those who are spear-carriers for the “mythicist” Jesus view, it is perhaps unfair to some others. In any case, I’d prefer to address evidence and methods, and refrain from ad hominem statements on any side, if possible. Also, as I uyrged in the posting to which you comment, the positions have all been declared; no new evidence or basis for declaring Jesus of Nazareth a non-historical figure have been offered or pointed to (at least none that stands up to inspection); and so let’s move on.

      • Thank you for your comment, professor. While I have not read all of your previous discussions on the subject, I think you have successfully made your point and I appreciate the time you have spent on it. Meanwhile, I’ve come to recognize the pattern, here and elsewhere on the net. I am not a scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I do understand some of these empty debate tactics which is what fueled my comments. It is not my desire to diminish honest inquiries and stop any serious discussion. But, as you have said, you have made your point and it is time to move on, at least until some new information in support of the Jesus deniers’ position is discovered. Thank you for your patience.

  4. Bravo! I think you gave this subject the appropriate amount of attention. You did not immediately reject it, but rather gave some time to consider comments that were made to you. Having considered them, you realized that there was nothing that warranted further encampment on the subject. Though the mythicists may complain about their treatment at your hand, I do not see that they have any reasonable basis for doing so. You have shown them a generous deference.

  5. Bob Moore permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    Thanks for taking your time to respond to me (and others).

    Comparing the evidence for an historical Jesus to Apollonius, Akiva, and Hillel, helps me to understand things a little better. Thanks.

    I know you haven’t been satisfied with the evidence or analysis–presented to you personally–that would argue sufficiently against taking Jesus historically. And, I still don’t quite know if your “sufficient basis” is a subjective thing or not, but I do hope that scholars, Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier and others help to clarify such things more in the future.

    • Bob, Thanks for your comments. Brodie has published a book apparently directed to scholars in the subject, which is what one does to gain a hearing for an academic stance in the field. The others, e.g., Carrier, seem not so ready to present themselves and their case in a scholarly arena. Hmmm.

  6. It is very important to explain to mythicists why there is no more evidence for Jesus of Nazareth than for Rabbi Hillel. You did a good job on that.

    • Er, ah, “mathstutorwirral” (whoever you are in reality), you either miss the point or seek slyly-but-not-so-clever to distort it. As I noted, the evidence for Jesus is far closer to his lifetime than for Hillel or the others. If anything, there’s a stronger basis for the standard view of Jesus as a historical figure.

  7. Apologies to be posting on this topic again, but on the argument from silence (and similar to what you have helpfully outlined above) in my spare time I have found it interesting to start working my way through Professor Robert Garland’s “Celebrity in Antiquity: From Media Tarts to Tabloid Queens” (an unusual title, but a very interesting work) and Graham Anderon’s “Sage, Saint and Sophist: Holy Men and Their Associates in the Early Roman Empire”, trying to note down in a word document how close the extant records we have for apparently well-known people in antiquity (including actors, philosophers, religious charismatics etc…) are. All are pretty much written about decades, even hundreds of years after their lives, and are almost always only referenced in one solitary source. We just do not get multiple records of people close to their time (apart from some notable politicians…). So either almost no one in antiquity was ever famous or did something notable, or mythicists and internet skeptics don’t understand how to interpret ancient sources or understand how fame in antiquity worked and are misleading their readers…

  8. Bobby Garringer permalink


    As a non-scholar who is very interested in history in general — especially late colonial American history and early American national history to the time of the writing of our Constitution — I have a general acquaintance with what strenuous efforts historians put forth to produce significant work.

    As a Christian and a pastor — with training in philosophy — I am very interested in what historians, archaeologists and theologians have to say about Jesus in his cultural and historical setting.

    So I was surprised to read in several places that Bart Ehrman had written a book, defending the historicity of Jesus. And I was as annoyed as you by the number of protesting comments you received after mentioning Ehrman’s book.

    Frankly, the book you mention above by Thomas Brodie will probably have little to say that hasn’t already been said about the Gospel narratives and their relationship to Old Testament characters.

    The Gospels and the letters of the New Testament letters appear to express deep devotion to a man who said and did things that were memorable, to say the least. The personality of Jesus and the message he intended to express seem to come through clearly enough in this set of first century documents — despite their obvious literary, didactic and apologetic formats.

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