When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?

alexander_athens2One of the most misunderstood methodological issues that surrounds debates over the historical Jesus is the relevance of contemporary written sources (dating to the subject’s lifetime), or relatively early sources (dating to a couple decades of the subject’s life), when reconstructing a reliable biography of Jesus’ life. Very often comparisons are made to other historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who (allegedly) do not have any contemporary sources for their lives, despite the reliability of our historical information about them. Apologists thus argue that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus, and the fact that all ancient writings that mention Jesus date to a gap of decades or centuries after his death, do not make the historical Jesus more obscure or less knowable than other famous figures from antiquity.

As I exposed in apologist Lee Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in The Case for Christ, this mistake is usually made by apologists confusing the earliest extant sources (those that have survived medieval textual transmission) with the earliest sources that were written (and available to subsequent historians) in antiquity. Strobel and Blomberg, for example, implied through ambiguous wording that Plutarch and Arrian (writing 400 years after Alexander) were the earliest biographers of his life [1], when actually the biographer Callisthenes of Olynthus was an eyewitness contemporary to Alexander, who traveled with him during his campaigns. Callisthenes’ biography is still partially preserved in fragments, which are read, studied, and used for information today by modern historians in edited volumes, such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek HistoriansThere were also several other eyewitness historians who recorded Alexander’s deeds, such as Anaximenes of Lampsacus, Aristobulus of Cassandreia, Eumenes, and Nearchus, among others.

Moreover, these early historical sources would have been available in libraries, such as the Great Library of Alexandria, and could be accessed by later biographers such as Plutarch and Arrian [2]. Were it not for these contemporary written sources, and if there really had been no biography or history written about Alexander for a gap of 400 years after his death, modern historians would be far, far more skeptical of our ability to know the details of Alexander’s life (as is the case for many other ancient politicians who, despite being historical, had no extensive biography or history of their deeds written until hundreds of years after their death, such as Cyrus the Great, who certainly existed, but whose life is considerably more obscure than Alexander’s).

On the other hand, skeptics can often be overly skeptical in arguing that an absence of contemporary sources implies the non-existence of the person or event in question. For example, I do not consider it a good argument that Jesus did not exist, simply because nobody wrote about him until several decades after his death [3]. The fact is that there were many poor and illiterate people in the ancient world that nobody wrote a single text about, but who still historically existed. Nevertheless, the absence of contemporary sources for Jesus does make the details of his life considerably more obscure, legendary, and irretrievable to historians. As such, the lack of contemporary or early written sources is not irrelevant to the debate of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus.

So, when do contemporary or early sources matter in ancient history? As discussed above, this is a complex methodological issue, so spelling out some of the main criteria, and explaining how they are relevant to the problems of later myth-making, is now in order.

WordofMouth

The first distinction that should always be made in discussing the contemporary sources that exist for a particular person or event is between: 1) those sources that are still fully extant, and 2) those sources that no longer survive, but are still partially preserved in titles, quotations, and fragments:

1) The fact is that most of the literature that was produced in antiquity has been lost over time. Ancient Greek and Latin literature was originally written on papyrus scrolls, which had a shelf life of about 300 years or so (Scribes and Scholars, pg. 34). As such, when copies were not made of a particular manuscript, it would gradually deteriorate over time until eventually being lost. Classicists now estimate that approximately 95-99% of all literature produced in antiquity was lost in this way [4].

Scribes and ScholarsThere was, however, a major exception to this trend: Christian texts, and particularly those of the New Testament. After the fall of the Roman Empire, church monks took over the process of transmitting and preserving ancient texts. Not surprisingly, these monks had a greater interest in preserving Christian texts over Pagan ones. Accordingly Reynolds and Wilson (Scribes and Scholars, pg. 34) explain: “There can be be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.”

Often apologists like to emphasize the fact that vastly more manuscripts of the New Testament have come down from antiquity than other ancient texts. I have already explained in my article “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context” the methodological reasons why the larger quantity of manuscripts for the NT has absolutely nothing to do with the historical reliability of the NT. But furthermore, these apologists often ignore the historical context behind why more of these texts exist. The primary reason why is because more effort was put into copying and preserving Christian texts during the medieval period [5].

2) Despite the sample bias that exists in the surviving corpus of ancient texts that have come down from the medieval period, there was a much greater body of Pagan literature that existed in antiquity. In the case of Alexander the Great, there was the Great Library of Alexandria, among other libraries, which preserved numerous biographies of Alexander’s life written by contemporary eyewitnesses. These biographies could be accessed by later writers in antiquity, so that later historians (even when writing 400 years after Alexander’s death) did not have to rely on a process of telephone.

As such, when it comes to the reliability of later biographers, such as Plutarch and Arrian, it is important to remember that they had access to these earlier works. Moreover, unlike the authors of the Gospels, Plutarch and Arrian extensively quote and interact with their earlier materials, as I explain in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.” For example, the biographer Plutarch, as historian J. Powell explains in “The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander” (pg. 229), quotes no fewer than 24 earlier sources by name in his Life of Alexander. In contrast, the Gospel of Luke does not provide the name of a single written source that the author consulted. This is a vastly important issue to consider when assessing the reliability of these texts and their relation to contemporary evidence.

So long as extensive fragments and information exist for lost works, such as the lost biographers of Alexander the Great, they can still be considered contemporary sources. There are, of course, Christian texts that also perished in antiquity (e.g. Papias of Hierapolis’ Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord), but none are as relevant to the historical Jesus as Alexander’s biographers are to the historical Alexander the Great [6]. The reason why is that there are no known eyewitness, contemporary sources of the same caliber as Callisthenes of Olynthus that ever existed for Jesus — lost, fragmentary, or otherwise.

Scholars through source analysis have sought to identify earlier sources that lie behind the Gospels and other texts that refer to the life of Jesus. Among these are the Q (Quelle) source, the pre-Markan Passion Narrative, the Signs Gospel behind John, M sources unique to Matthew, L sources unique to Luke, and so on. There are a number of reasons, however, why these hypothetical sources are not the same as the lost biographies of Alexander the Great:

goodacre21) It should first be noted that all of these sources are hypothetical, and none were named or identified in antiquity. This is very different from a source like Callisthenes of Olynthus, who is explicitly quoted by later authors, and who also has extensive fragments preserved of his lost work. The authors of the Gospels name none of these hypothetical sources, and it is possible that they did no interact with them at all. Scholars like Mark Goodacre in the Case Against Q, for example, doubt that the Q (Quelle) source even existed, and Werner Kelber in The Passion in Mark has called into question whether a pre-Markan Passion narrative ever existed.

As such, it is not certain among scholars that these earlier Christian sources even existed to begin with (even if many scholars, and in some cases the majority, think that their existence is probable). No such scholarly dispute exists in the case of Alexander’s lost biographies, and we possess the actual names and some quotations of them.

2) Alexander’s lost sources are attached to known eyewitnesses, such as Callisthenes, whereas none of the hypothetical Christian sources listed above can be attached with certainty to a known figure. Even if the Q (Quelle) source existed and was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke, for example, we do not know who would have written this hypothetical document. It could easily have been just another unknown author and non-eyewitness writing decades later (most scholars place the Q source around 40-80 CE). The author of Luke (1:1-2) does state that there were earlier written accounts of Jesus, which were inspired by traditions allegedly handed down by eyewitnesses; however, the author of Luke names none of these sources nor identifies any specific eyewitnesses who would have been behind them. As such, we have considerably more obscurity about the earliest sources for Jesus than we do for Alexander the Great.

3) The lost biographies of Alexander would have been much larger and substantive works than anything that existed for Jesus. Alexander’s biographies were extensive historical works that covered in detail his different campaigns and actions. These works were edited and made available in libraries, where later historians could have access to them. It is not like there was some great library that existed in Galilee or Jerusalem for Jesus (as there was a great library for Alexander at Alexandria), where the later Gospel authors could go to interact with extensive contemporary histories written during Jesus’ ministry. Jesus and his companions were probably all mostly illiterate (discussed further here).

Even if earlier sources like Q, the pre-Markan Passion Narrative, the Signs Gospel, M, and L existed, therefore, these would have been considerably shorter and less methodologically rigorous texts than anything written by a historian like Callisthenes. They would have probably all been anonymous collections of sayings, or summary outlines of things like Jesus’ crucifixion or (alleged) seven great miracles, that circulated within early church communities and were not edited by public libraries (which also would have made them far more susceptible to later redactions and interpolations). Such sources would have been considerably more sparse than what was available to Alexander’s later biographers, such as Plutarch and Arrian.

So, not only do contemporary written sources exist for Alexander the Great (even ignoring archeological evidence, which is also vastly more abundant for Alexander than Jesus), but they are also better in every conceivable way than the written sources that exist for Jesus — both extant or lost. The apologist will now respond that we should not expect there to be better evidence for Jesus. After all, Alexander the Great was a wealthy politician surrounded by literate people, who even had a library dedicated to him in Alexandria. Jesus, in contrast, was a poor itinerant prophet, who was surrounded by mostly illiterate people, and who did not receive the same public honors after his death. True. But this consideration does not eliminate the relevance of contemporary sources.

There are, in fact, two different kinds of appeals to contemporary sources that are based on two entirely different kinds of arguments. There are: 1) arguments from silence based on the lack of contemporary sources, and 2) arguments from insufficient or unreliable evidence:

1) Arguments from silence are used to argue that a lack of contemporary or early sources for a particular person or event implies the non-existence of that person or event. I have discussed previously when arguments from silence are valid in my article “Outside Corroboration as a Historical Criterion and the Validity of Arguments from Silence.” To summarize: arguments from silence are valid when contemporary evidence should be expected as a result of the person or event in question, particularly when the person or event in question is highly public or extraordinary.

Vesuvius pictureFor example, in another article that I wrote on this same issue, I responded to an apologetic claim that there are no contemporary or early sources that exist for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the burials of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This argument was made in an attempt to show that historians should not expect contemporary accounts even for highly extraordinary events, such as the eruption of a massive volcano. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius happened in the Bay of Naples during the 1st century CE, which belongs both to a period and region where extensive literary activities were taking place. If no contemporary or early sources had mentioned this event, then the validity of arguments from silence may have been called into question by this counter-example. However, I demonstrated in the article that the apologists completely got their historical information wrong and missed a number of very early sources that mention the volcanic eruption. These sources were furthermore all independent of each other (showing that multiple contemporary accounts do exist when actual extraordinary events take place in literate regions).

In the case of the historical Jesus, arguments from silence based on a lack of contemporary or corroborating evidence are sometimes valid and sometimes not. When it comes to the Jesus of the Gospels, who allegedly had the entire Earth go dark at his crucifixion, tore the curtain in the Jewish Temple in twain, and then flew into space in broad daylight, these arguments are valid. It is very obvious that such tall tales were later embellishments and exaggerations of Jesus, and it is not surprising that not a single contemporary knows anything of these events (as I explain here). When it comes to a more minimal, obscure historical Jesus, however, these arguments are not valid. If Jesus was nothing more than an obscure peasant, then we should not necessarily expect that anything contemporary would have been written about him. This is why such arguments from silence do not incline me to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus.

Cliffe2) Appeals to a lack of contemporary or early sources need not be taken as implying that the person or event in question did not exist. This was how apologist Cliffe Knechtle once tried to misinterpret a statement that I had made about there being no contemporary busts or statues of Jesus, as there are for figures like Alexander the Great and Tiberius Caesar. Cliffe responded that we should not expect there to have been busts produced of a poor Galilean peasant. But that was never the point! Of course there will always be less archeological remains for obscure people in comparison to kings and politicians. The point that I was making is that such evidence makes it possible for modern historians to know considerably more about Alexander and Tiberius than Jesus. In the case of Alexander and Tiberius, we have contemporary busts that give us a rough (though idealized) portrait of what they probably looked like. In the case of Jesus, we have no physical description or artifact of any kind from his life.

None of this implies that Jesus did not exist. It implies that we are very limited in what we can know with any certainty about the historical Jesus. We will always have more historical information for famous generals and emperors who changed the world and made a large footprint on contemporary records. We will also always know less about obscure people who never had such an impact. Because of this, modern historians are able to reconstruct far more reliable biographies for people like Alexander the Great and Tiberius Caesar. The details of these two men’s lives are far less obscure to history. Jesus just happened to be someone of less public prominence, so that we have considerably less reliable information about him.

As such, appeals to a lack of contemporary or early sources are valid when arguing that such a lack impairs our ability to know about the person or event in question. We may never expect to have such evidence, since it may have never been produced. But it still affects what we can know about the past, and it is primarily this second form of argument that is relevant to why there is little reliable historical evidence for Jesus.

SocratesIt should also be noted, however, that the evidence for Jesus is not only less than that for famous politicians. There are other less powerful and wealthy figures from antiquity that are still considerably better attested than Jesus. For example, the historical Socrates, who lived in 5th century BCE Athens (a time and region far more literate than Galilee in the 1st century CE), is a figure who, like Jesus, wrote none of his own works and is only known through the writings of others. However, we possess a number of contemporary, eyewitness sources for Socrates’ life, such as Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon (among other fragmentary sources). The evidence for the historical Socrates is thus far greater than that of the historical Jesus. So, Jesus is not just more obscure than politicians, but also other figures from antiquity. This does not at all imply that Jesus did not exist, but it should be taken into consideration when apologists exaggerate the amount of historical evidence that exists for Jesus.

The reason why historians look for contemporary or early sources is because the details of the past can be obscured over time and replaced by later speculation and myth-making. Early sources closer to the event are thus less likely to be contaminated by a later process of telephone. In the case of both Alexander the Great and Jesus, legendary accounts of their lives began to circulate only a few decades after their deaths [7]. However, as Kris Komarnitsky explains in “Myth Growth Rates in the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule,” the pace of legendary development took place at a considerably more rapid pace for Jesus, because of a lack of public interest and records for Jesus’ life. Whereas for Alexander the Great, the historical core of his biography was far better preserved through all of the various records that were produced during his kingship.

Apologists often appeal to Sherwin-White’s (dated) claim that two generations (the time in which the earliest accounts of Jesus were written) was too short a time for legendary development to have displaced the historical core of Jesus’ biography. As Komarnitsky explains in the article linked above, however, Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule, even when it was first published back in the 1960’s, never received widespread support among Classicists (it has instead mostly been popularized by apologist William Lane Craig’s later quote mining of it). A major reason why is that the comparison with Jesus was unlike most of the other historical figures in Sherwin-White’s analysis, who were of considerably greater public interest and had contemporary records for their lives.

As Komarnitsky explains:

“That Sherwin-White did not fully consider the effects of public interest in a figure on the preservation of the historical core after his or her death is evident by the fact that every example he gives in his myth-growth-rate essay of people whom the historical core was preserved — Pisistratus (tyrant of Athens), Hipparchus (tyrant of Athens after Pisistratus), Gaius Gracchus (politician), Tiberius Caesar (emperor), Cleomenes (king), Themistocles (military commander), and all forty-six people in Plutarch’s Lives (every single one a statesman, general, king, emperor, lawmaker, politician, tyrant, or consul) — all are figures of significant public interest.

But what about the presence and influence of firsthand eyewitnesses on the oral tradition, someone might ask. Although a few of Jesus’ closest followers were probably eyewitnesses to a large part of his ministry (such as the Apostles), in an enthusiastic religious movement driven by belief in Jesus’ resurrection and imminent return (I think these were sincerely held beliefs that were not the result of legendary growth), these followers may by themselves have been unable to contain the growth of legend and displacement of the historical core among those in the growing church who did not know Jesus when he was alive or were not eyewitnesses of the specific events being distorted. The ability of a few of Jesus’ closest followers to contain the growth of legend would have been further hampered if the legends were growing in several different locales, for in this case they would have had the nearly impossible task of being present everywhere, stamping out all of the unhistorical legends…

…In conclusion, the Gospels are an understandable exception to what classical historians normally deal with, because classical historians rarely if ever deal with the written records of a highly revered religious figure who had very little contemporary significance to anyone but his followers when he was alive and to his worshippers after his death and where the entire written record comes only from those who worshipped him.”

The fish gets bigger

As such, when dealing with the historical Jesus of Galilee versus the historical Alexander the Great, we not only have less substantial sources for Jesus (anonymous hagiographies) than Alexander (eyewitness historians), but also a considerably bigger problem of legendary development contaminating the sources for Jesus that we even possess. This makes reconstructing the details of the historical Jesus’ life a considerably greater problem than reconstructing the historical Alexander. This is why there has been a “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in Biblical Studies, but no such problem for Classicists reconstructing the life of Alexander. The two historical situations are simply not the same.

This does not mean, however, that we cannot know anything about the historical Jesus. Historians from the 19th century to the present have rigorously analyzed the ancient sources that mention Jesus and come to a consensus that some of them contain reliable information about the historical Jesus’ life. These sources, however, are a small minority of the texts that mention Jesus to have come down from antiquity. When I first started this blog, I refuted an apologetic claim that there were only 10 sources for the Roman emperor Tiberius 150 years after his death, compared to 42 sources for Jesus in the same timespan. This apologetic created the impression that the evidence for Jesus is greater than that of even more prominent figures from antiquity, such as Roman emperors. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Tiberius-Papyrus--204x300To begin with, the apologetic claim was egregiously inaccurate, and had missed over 75% of the literary sources that mention Tiberius during that period (not to mention epigraphical and papyrological sources). The actual number was closer to 45 sources for Tiberius within 150 years. But, furthermore, when one re-crunched the numbers, the sources for Tiberius were vastly earlier. In terms of contemporary sources, there are 14 sources that mention Tiberius during his lifetime, including 100+ epigraphical sources and ~100 papyrological sources, in comparison to 0/0/0 contemporary sources for Jesus.

But that wasn’t even the greatest problem. As I mention in subsection 8 of my refutation of the 10/42 apologetic, not all historical sources are equal. The 45 literary sources for Tiberius within 150 years that survive are vastly more reliable than the 42 for Jesus. To begin with, the statistic included a number of NT texts that mention “Christ” and refer to faith in Jesus, but contain little to no details about the historical life of Jesus, such as the Epistle of Jude. Moreover, the list included outright forgeries, such as 2 Peter, which few mainstream scholars think contain reliable information about the historical Jesus. A number of the authors on the list were very late and contain information that even apologists do not think is reliable. For example, nobody in Biblical Studies thinks that the church father Papias is correct when he records the following saying of Jesus:

“As the elders who saw John the disciple of the Lord remembered that they had heard from him how the Lord taught in regard to those times, and said: ‘The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine.'”

Yet Papias is still included in the 10/42 statistic, despite the fact that he preserves no reliable or independent information about the historical Jesus. The same goes for some of the Pagan sources on the list. No modern historians, for example, believe Celsus when he claims that Jesus had a Roman father named Pantera. These sources are thus largely irrelevant to reconstructing the life of Jesus and only serve to inflate the number of sources for Jesus in the statistic.

Critical historians who have assessed the reliability of the sources for Jesus have identified 6 primary sources that are most relevant to reconstructing the life of Jesus. It should also be noted that these sources are among the earliest that are listed in the 10/42 statistic (most, if not all, dating to the 1st century CE), and that historians, including apologists, dismiss many of the sources that date after these as unreliable or legendary. Once more, therefore, earlier sources matter for studying the historical Jesus. The 6 primary sources are:

1) The seven undisputed letters of Paul (particularly Galatians and 1 Corinthians), including pre-Pauline creeds, such as in 1 Cor. 15:3-7. These letters date from the early 50’s CE to the late 60’s CE, about two to three decades after the life of Jesus, making Paul our only “early source” for Jesus. It should also be noted that Paul provides very few explicit or direct details about the historical Jesus [8]. NT scholar Bart Ehrman explores some of the reasons why in his blog post “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?.”

2-4) The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), and particularly common traditions and sayings found in all of them. These sources date from 70 CE to the early 2nd century CE, about forty to seventy years after the life of Jesus. It should also be noted that the Synoptic Gospels are not independent accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, but are heavily interdependent in their source material. The author of Matthew borrows from 80% of the verses in Mark, and the author of Luke borrows from 65% of the verses in Mark.

5-6) The Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, which are the least reliable. Despite the fact that they offer a considerably different portrait of Jesus than the Synoptic Gospels, scholars find little reliable information in these sources that is not already found in the sources above. These sources date from the late 1st century CE to the early 2nd century CE, about sixty to a hundred years after the life of Jesus.

Almost all of the other sources for Jesus that are mentioned in the statistic, after these, are later and contain little or no independent information about his life. For example, the 10/42 statistic appealed to non-Christian sources like Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius. But, even if the passages in these (later) authors that appear refer to Jesus are valid (I discuss their relevance in my 10/42 article), they do not record information about Jesus that is independent to what is already known from the sources listed above. Tacitus (Ann. 15.44), for example, only says that “Christus” was crucified under Pontius Pilate, but this claim tells nothing more than what we know from the Gospels. In all likelihood, Tacitus probably learned this information from Christian claims already circulating in his community, and not from any independent knowledge that he had of the historical Jesus.

The reality is that we only have two major bodies of evidence for most of the details of Jesus’ life: the apostle Paul’s letters and their sources, and the Synoptic Gospels and their sources. It should also be noted that Paul was not an eyewitness of Jesus; however, Paul did know eyewitnesses like Peter and James, and thus provides a (limited) window into the first generation of Christianity. The large majority of scholars doubt that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, as I explain in my article “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” so their relation to the events that they relate is even more ambiguous. Nevertheless, these sources have been vetted by modern historians over the last two centuries of biblical scholarship, and experts have reached a consensus that they contain some probable details about the life of the historical Jesus (which are by no means the majority of claims made in these texts, the majority of which are legendary, unreliable, or at least disputable).

The details of Jesus’ life that are agreed upon by a consensus of modern scholars include:

  • Jesus was a historical Jew who probably lived in the early 1st century CE.
  • Jesus was probably a native of Galilee.
  • Jesus probably had a brother named James (referenced in Gal. 1:19), a father named Joseph, and a mother named Mary.
  • Jesus was likely baptized by John the Baptist.
  • Jesus, like John, was probably an apocalyptic prophet who taught about a coming Kingdom of God (this theory was first developed by Albert Schweitzer, and has been expanded by modern scholars, such as Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman).
  • Jesus’ ministry got him into trouble with either the Roman or Jewish authorities (or both) at Jerusalem.
  • Jesus was executed by crucifixion, probably when Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect of Judea (26-36 CE).
  • Within a couple years after Jesus’ death, some people believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead (as is evidence by the creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-7, which most scholars date to 2-5 years after the death of Jesus. I discuss this creed and its relevance further here).

The above is a summary of the most that I think we can say about the historical Jesus, based on the consensus of modern biblical scholars. It should be noted that there is no universal agreement among scholars for what caused the belief in Jesus’ resurrection after his death. However, as I explain in my article “Knocking Out the Pillars of the ‘Minimal Facts’ Apologetic,” I think that the early Christians’ deification of Jesus and claims about his resurrection can be very plausibly explained as the result of cognitive dissonance rationalization in the face of grief.

Schneerson

Menachem Mendel Schneerson

This theory is developed more by Kris Komarnitsky in “The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins,” who draws parallels with other messianic movements after the death of their messiah figure, most notably those of the failed Jewish messiahs Sabbatai Zevi and Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Likewise, NT scholar Bart Ehrman has developed a theory in How Jesus Became God that goes all the way from the historical Jesus’ teachings, to his death, to the belief in his resurrection, and to Jesus’ eventual deification, which can explain all of these developments in purely natural terms. Even mainstream Christian scholars, such as Dale Allison in Resurrecting Jesus, acknowledge that there are at least plausible theories for how Christianity could have emerged due to purely natural causes. As such, the belief in Jesus’ resurrection hardly required an actual miracle to emerge.

The details of Jesus’ life that I do not think are reliable and are probably the result of legendary development include the following (these details are also not accepted by any consensus of modern scholars, even if individual scholars may accept them):

  • Jesus was descended from King David (for problems with the genealogies of Jesus, see Paul Davidson’s article “What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy”).
  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem (for problems with the nativity stories, see Richard Carrier’s article “The Date of the Nativity in Luke”).
  • King Herod attempted to kill Jesus as an infant by slaughtering all of the male children in Bethlehem after he was born (I explain why this is almost certainly a later invention here).
  • Jesus performed genuine miracles (as I explain in my article “History and the Paranormal,” historians cannot prove paranormal claims like miracles using the historical method. Furthermore, the belief in miracles attributed to Jesus can be explained as the result of legendary development or other natural causes).
  • Jesus claimed to be the equivalent of God the Father (Bart Ehrman explains why this is a later development in How Jesus Became God).
  • Jesus was crucified simultaneous to a three hour darkness that covered the Earth and the ripping of the curtain in the Jewish Temple (Carrier elaborates on why the darkness is almost certainly an invention here. The ripping of the Temple curtain is mentioned by neither Philo of Alexandria nor Josephus, despite being an extraordinary occurrence that would have pertained to the writings of both. The ripping of the curtain is instead almost certainly a fictional story telling device, elaborated upon here).
  • After his execution, women found Jesus’ burial place empty as the first sign of his resurrection (this claim is accepted by a number of, mostly Christian, NT scholars; however, as I explain in my article about the minimal facts apologetic, there is no consensus of scholars that accepts this claim).
  • Jesus, after his death, physically appeared to his disciples, face to face, in an earthly setting (the fact is that the Gospels do not even record a consistent location for where the post-mortem sightings of Jesus took place. Mark includes no post-mortem appearances in the narrative, and Matthew has Jesus appear to his followers in Galilee; however, Luke and John instead have Jesus appear to his followers in Jerusalem. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 is the first writer to mention post-mortem appearances, but specifics neither that these were physical nor that they occurred in any earthly setting. For explaining how stories of these post-mortem sightings could emerge as the result of purely natural causes, see here).
  • Jesus genuinely rose from the dead (the consensus in the scholarly community is that the resurrection of Jesus is a philosophical and theological matter that must be bracketed as beyond the scope of historical analysis. I rebut apologetic attempts to historically “prove” the resurrection here and here).
  • Jesus ascended to Heaven in broad daylight (the ascension of Jesus is only mentioned in Luke 24:50-53, which places it in the vicinity of Bethany, and Acts 1:7-12, which further specifies the Mount of Olives. Strangely, the Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20 seems to imply that Jesus’ last meeting with his disciples was on a mountain in Galilee, some 70-80 miles North of Bethany, though it says nothing of the ascension. Jesus’ ascension is almost certainly a theological and storytelling device, and not a single author from the 1st century CE outside the New Testament knows anything of it. The story itself was also probably influenced by the ascension of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:1-18, which is elaborated upon further here).

The above provides an outline of what I think that we can say about the historical Jesus, and what are probably later legendary developments. As can be seen, the absence of early or contemporary sources is relevant to this analysis. Many of the stories that I identify as legendary belong to later and less reliable sources. If we had better sources, perhaps we could say more, but that fact is that we do not. One of the great achievements of modern biblical scholarship is that we can say anything about the life of the historical Jesus at all.

It should also be noted that one can accept all of the minimal historical details of Jesus outlined above, and still walk away reasonably unconvinced of the resurrection of Jesus and the core claims of Christianity. Many biblical scholars and former Christians — such as Bart Ehrman, Hector Avalos, and my own mentor Christine Thomas — have done so. The evidence for Jesus is not extraordinary, despite apologetic exaggerations to the contrary. Nevertheless, there is a limited degree of evidence for the historical Jesus, and such evidence points towards the obscure, itinerant apocalyptic prophet described above. This figure, of course, was exaggerated and embellished by legendary accounts since not long after the time of his death. Such exaggerations inspired the legendary figure that is now worshiped in modern Christianity today. That Jesus, however, who is prayed to and worshiped in church, has not been proven by historical evidence. The Jesus of faith is a matter of faith, and the Jesus of history is only an obscure figure of the past, most of whose life details have been lost today.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] As it turns out, an Ancient History Ph.D. student at UNC, who was a former colleague of mine in the UofA Classics M.A. program, found even another error in Strobel’s interview. He pointed out that, even among the extant sources that come down through medieval manuscripts, Plutarch and Arrian are still not the “earliest biographies.” We have surviving copies of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Historiae Alexandri Magni, which predates both Plutarch’s and Arrian’s biographies. So, even when remarks in Strobel’s interview are given allowance for only referring to surviving texts (which is very ambiguous in its wording and misleading to the readers), Strobel and Blomberg are still incorrect.

[2] Furthermore, even if Plutarch and Arrian did not directly access the earlier writings of Alexander’s historians, they still had access to source collections that compiled their materials. As J.E. Powell (“The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander,” pp. 229-230) argues:

“Plutarch cites by name no fewer than twenty-four authorities. The list is headed by those Letters of Alexander which form almost the sole source of the digressions illustrative of character: they are expressly cited in altogether more than thirty places. Next … come Aristobulus, Chares and Onesicritus, cited half-a-dozen times each; then Callisthenes quoted thrice, and Duris, Eratosthenes and the ephemerides, or official diaries, twice each. There remain the following sixteen names, which appear once only: Anticlides, Antigenes, Aristoxenus, Clitarchus, Dinon, Hecataeus of Eretria, Hegesias, Heraclides, Hermippus, Istrus, Philip of Chalcis and Philip the Chamberlain, Philo of Thebes, Polyclitus, Ptolemy and Sotion.

[T]he great majority of these authors can never have been in Plutarch’s hands. His citation of them must be derivative. Indeed, it can be made probable that in composing the Life Plutarch used only two books: the collection of Alexander’s letters for the character-sketches, and for the main narrative a large variorum compilation on the history of Alexander, the same compilation of which Arrian’s Anabasis is principally a judicious epitome.”

Through earlier source collections, such as the variorum that Powell discusses, therefore, the gap between Alexander’s first historians (who wrote during and shortly after his lifetime) could be bridged to later authors like Plutarch and Arrian, who wrote several hundred years later.

[3] Notably, professional mythicist historian Richard Carrier in On the Historicity of Jesus (which, on a personal note, I am quoted in twice on pp. 23 and 412) does not make this argument, but instead argues that the sources that we do have for Jesus — not simply an absence of sources — are best interpreted (in Carrier’s opinion) as referring to a mythical person. This article does not endorse Carrier’s myth hypothesis, however, it does acknowledge that Carrier’s peer-reviewed approach to mythicism is the best scholarly defense of the theory and does not make the same methodological errors common to other, less professional mythicist arguments.

[4] To be fair, a good deal of Christian literature also perished during the process of textual transmission from antiquity to the present. However, it is probably a fair estimate that a larger proportion of Pagan literature perished than Christian literature, owing to the fact that there was greater interest in preserving Christian literature during the medieval period.

[5] Another possible cause for why more Christian manuscripts have survived is because the early church made use of the codex, as opposed to papyrus scrolls. The codex replaced the papyrus scroll as the main writing medium for literature in late antiquity. Because of this change, many earlier texts that were preserved in papyri scrolls were lost. As Reynolds and Wilson (Scribes and Scholars, pg. 35) explain, “The change from roll to codex involved the gradual but wholesale transference of ancient literature from one form to another. This was the first major bottle-neck through which classical literature had to pass. It must have been somewhat reduced in the process, but the losses are not easily specified or assessed. There was the danger that little-read works would not be transferred to codex form, and in time their rolls would perish. A voluminous author, if some of his rolls were not available at a critical moment, might never recover his missing books.” Since codices had already been commonly used for copies of Christian texts (in addition to the fact that Christian monks dominated the apparatus of textual transmission after late antiquity), they were less likely to be lost in this bottleneck.

[6] Probably the most important lost Christian texts that would be relevant to the study of the historical Jesus are the other letters written by the apostle Paul that do not belong to the seven authentic letters of Paul in the New Testament. Since Paul was a near contemporary of Jesus, who recorded a few details about his life, we would probably know more about the historical Jesus if we had more of Paul’s epistles. On the other hand, the Pauline epistles that have survived probably belonged to an edited collection put together in the 2nd century CE. It may, therefore, be something of a misnomer to say Paul’s other letters were “lost,” since many of them may have never been put into an edited collection to begin with.

[7] As classicist Richard Stoneman (The Landmark Arrian, pgs. 388-389) explains: “Soon after his death, Alexander’s life story was written up by an anonymous author … This work, known as the Alexander Romance, emphasized the fabulous elements of Alexander’s story and added many new fables … This work seems, however, not to have been known to the Romans until it was translated by Julius Valerius in the fourth century C.E.; this has led to the mistaken view, still shared by many, that the Greek original was not written until shortly before that date. Probably it arose much earlier, perhaps in the early third century B.C.E. The Alexander Romance is a fictional biography that … is of interest as indicating the way that the memory of Alexander was shaped a generation or two after his death.”

[8] For a list of the historical information that I think the undisputed Pauline epistles do provide, see my my discussion here.

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47 Responses to When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?

  1. vinnyjh57 says:

    I think that recovering the historical Jesus is particularly tricky for another reason: We usually know about people in the ancient world because they were literate or prominent people or something that they did during their lives had an impact on their literate or prominent contemporaries. Jesus is only known to us as the result of supernatural events that were believed to have taken place after he died. Had it not been for the belief that he rose from the dead it is perfectly likely that Jesus of Nazareth would have come and gone without leaving any discernible trace in the historical record.

    If historians are compelled to apply the principle of analogy, then it is necessarily going to be difficult to draw any conclusion in the absence of analogous cases. If we have a poorly documented politician or general from the ancient world, he can be compared to many better documented generals and politicians. However, there are no well documented itinerant peasant preachers who went unnoticed beyond a small group of illiterate peasant followers.

    New Testament scholars are fond of pointing out that supernatural stories were told of many figures in the ancient world. The difference I see is that supernatural tales about someone like Alexander were invented as the result of the things he accomplished during his life; while with Jesus, the stories about his life were only preserved as a result of supernatural events that were believed to have occurred after his death. When you scrape away the supernatural stories about Alexander, you still have a significant historical footprint. When you scrape away the supernatural stories about Jesus, you scrape away the only reason he was remembered in the first place.

    Given our problematic sources, I am doubtful that mythicism can ever be shown to be much more than an intriguing possibility. Nevertheless, I do not believe that a historical Jesus can be recovered in any meaningful sense.

    • Pofarmer says:

      “When you scrape away the supernatural stories about Jesus, you scrape away the only reason he was remembered in the first place.

      Given our problematic sources, I am doubtful that mythicism can ever be shown to be much more than an intriguing possibility. Nevertheless, I do not believe that a historical Jesus can be recovered in any meaningful sense.”

      Given the Paucity of evidence on the Ground, and the problematic nature of much of it, I think that that is a good an argument for mythicism as anything. I’m no scholar, but after doing a lot of reading on the subject, places like here, and Vridar, and Ehrman’s site, I really think that what you have is a risen Messiah Cult led by Cephas and James and joined by Paul, who was later basically kicked out to the Gentiles. I think the basic outline of this Cult is described in the book of Revelation, read as Ancient Astrology. I think after the fall of Jerusalem, and possibly after the beginning of the 1st century, other writers picked up the Risen Celestial savior of Paul and the other Apostles, and gave that character a physical presence in the Gospels. I think that this is actually a better explanation for the nearly complete lack of evidence for the physical Jesus than “he was so obscure nobody knew him, ” and then people believed that he was raised from the dead. It’s as easy to believe that the Christ Character was made up out of whole cloth from the scriptures, and later put into flesh. This was a rather long standing Greek tradition, and the Jewish world was being greatly Hellenized at the time. It seems you would expect some innovations in beliefs and scripture.

      • Hey Pofarmer,

        “I think after the fall of Jerusalem, and possibly after the beginning of the 1st century, other writers picked up the Risen Celestial savior of Paul and the other Apostles, and gave that character a physical presence in the Gospels. I think that this is actually a better explanation for the nearly complete lack of evidence for the physical Jesus than “he was so obscure nobody knew him, ” and then people believed that he was raised from the dead.”

        I do not think that this is an entirely correct description of the historicist position. Technically, if one accepts the historicist interpretation of the Pauline epistles, then we do have the writings of at least one man who knew people who knew Jesus.

        For one, historicists do not accept that Paul believed in a celestial savior (which is a mythicist interpretation), but instead that Paul probably knew eyewitnesses of Jesus, such as Peter and James (and even talks about meeting them in Gal. 1:18-19). In fact, Paul even describes James as a “brother” of the Lord (Gal. 1:19). The historicist interpretation of this passage (which is the majority view in scholarship) is that Paul probably believed that James was Jesus’ biological brother. Likewise, James is identified as Jesus’ biological brother not long after Paul in the Gospels.

        Now, as a Classicist, this strikes me as good prima facie evidence for the minimal historical existence of Jesus. If I were investigating the historicity of any other ancient figure, and we had a letter written a couple decades after his death, in which the author claimed to know the brother of the deceased person (even if he did not know the man himself), then this would probably be sufficient evidence to establish historicity. There are certainly other ancient figures for whom the evidence is sparser than this (even if there are also other figures, such as Alexander the Great, for whom the evidence is much more substantial). But, from my experience dealing with Classical texts and historical issues outside of early Christianity, this would strike me as fairly good grounds for NT scholars to believe in the historical existence of Jesus.

        Now, that does not mean, at all, that Paul corroborates the later stories about Jesus in the Gospels. As Ehrman notes, Paul says very little about the historical Jesus, and the Gospels are contaminated with many legendary stories. Therefore, I do not think that the Jesus of the Gospels existed (at least as literally described), but this does not cause me to doubt the minimal historical Jesus of the Pauline epistles.

        Now, let me further acknowledge that mythicists *do not* accept these interpretations of the Pauline evidence. Richard Carrier, for example, has disputed whether Paul’s reference to James as the “brother” of the Lord refers to a biological brother. If that is true, it would call into question the relevance of the Pauline epistles to the historical Jesus. However, this interpretation is currently a *minority* view in scholarship. If the majority interpretations of the Pauline epistles and their relevance to the historical Jesus are correct, then I think it follows that we have pretty decent evidence for establishing Jesus’ historicity.

        Of course, scholarship is only beginning to seriously debate mythicism (not that the view hasn’t been around for over a century, but it has only recently been defended by qualified scholars, such as Carrier). It will be interesting to see what scholars think of the theory after, say, a decade or so of debating it. But, until the consensus changes, all arguments on Κέλσος will assume the historical existence of Jesus (I also have a number of personal reservations about mythicism and further reasons why I am a historicist that I plan to write about later). On Κέλσος I work to always argue within the scholarly consensus on critical issues, to make clear that no excessive skepticism or minority views are necessary to doubt the claims of Christian apologists.

        • Pofarmer says:

          Thanks Matthew. When I read Ehrmans’ blog, and most apologetics, what I notices is that writers tend to read the Gospels back into the Epistles, to argue for historicity. If you take the genuine Pauline epistles, then the Gospels of Peter, James, Jude, etc, then the Gospels, in the order they were most likely written, you see that there is very, very little evidence for any earthly Jesus until the 4 Canonical Gospels, or maybe slightly earlier depending on how the apocrypha is dated. The other thing that I think is worth noting, is that there is certainly no requirement for there to have been an earthly Jesus for the NT to make sense. Stories of Alexander, and his cities and his conquests, don’t work without the physical Alexander. The tales of Hercules, slaying monsters, doing great deeds, don’t rely on a physical man, just as the miracles of Jesus, improbably birth stories, etc, may be much easier without and earthly Jesus to check up on than without one. Oh well. I most certainly respect your position, and have the greatest admiration for the quality of work you are putting out here, for free. Thank you very much.

          • Hey Pofarmer

            “If you take the genuine Pauline epistles, then the Gospels of Peter, James, Jude, etc, then the Gospels, in the order they were most likely written, you see that there is very, very little evidence for any earthly Jesus until the 4 Canonical Gospels, or maybe slightly earlier depending on how the apocrypha is dated.”

            See my reply to Vinny below about references in Paul’s epistles that I do think are likely to a historical Jesus. I would disagree that this evidence is “very, very little,” but I would describe it as “sparse” and “often ambiguous.”

            Paul’s epistles, of course, are a major factor in determining historicity. Even Erlend MacGillivray (a scholar that I see you have been interacting with on CrossExamined) has acknowledged that, if Paul is referring to a spiritual Jesus, then the evidence in the Gospels becomes considerably weaker. However, the current consensus in the scholarly community is that Paul is referring to an earthly Jesus, which I think can be supported by some of the verses I discuss with Vinny below. I also agree with Erlend that, if Paul is referring to an earthly Jesus, his testimony is early and probably related on good authority (Paul did know Peter and James), which makes a strong case for Jesus’ existence.

            “The other thing that I think is worth noting, is that there is certainly no requirement for there to have been an earthly Jesus for the NT to make sense. Stories of Alexander, and his cities and his conquests, don’t work without the physical Alexander. The tales of Hercules, slaying monsters, doing great deeds, don’t rely on a physical man, just as the miracles of Jesus, improbably birth stories, etc, may be much easier without and earthly Jesus to check up on than without one.”

            Here I definitely agree, and this is a major factor that will always make our historical knowledge of figures like Alexander the Great more certain and probable than figures like Jesus. Alexander’s existence is a historical necessity dictated by a ton of factors (archeological evidence, changes in the course of world history, the fall of empires, and the universal attestation of Alexander as king, etc.). We would have good reason to believe in Alexander’s existence, even without contemporary or early written sources, as I discussed in the case of Cyrus the Great (who was a great conqueror like Alexander and ruled over the same region). A lot of our stories about Cyrus are late and highly legendary, but his existence is virtually certain, because the existence of the Persian Empire virtually necessitates a leading figure like Cyrus, and every piece of relevant evidence that we have says that Cyrus the Great was that leading figure.

            In the case of Jesus, our knowledge of him is entirely textual, and particularly based on ancient religious texts, which will always be less certain and reliable than other forms of evidence, such as the archeological evidence we have for Alexander and Cyrus. But, scholars have invested a lot of critical energy into examining the written sources for Jesus, and they have determined that *some of them* are reliable. I don’t think that mainstream scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, are engaging in special pleading either. As such, I do think the academic consensus must be strongly taken into consideration. Perhaps the consensus will change with time, but right now it is in favor of the historical existence of Jesus.

        • vinnyjh57 says:

          If Paul mentioned meeting the brother of some obscure Corinthian convert named Bill, I think I would take that as a reasonable basis to believe that Bill existed because that is as much reference to a historical Bill as I could reasonably expect to find in Paul’s letters. However, if Paul thought that Jesus was a historical person and that some of the people Paul knew had been companions of that person, I would expect to see more indication of that in Paul’s letters as well as in the other epistles. I think that in every dispute in the early church, there would have been someone claiming that something Jesus or did supported his position and I think Paul would have had to shape his arguments to meet such claims. I think that Paul’s argument make more sense on the hypothesis that the other side of the argument is someone claiming his own divine revelation rather than someone claiming to have known the man Jesus personally.

          I will be very interested to see you develop your views on historicity. I presently consider myself agnostic on the question, but I would not be at all surprised to see someone make a persuasive argument for the likelihood of a historical Jesus. I suspect that some of the Carrier’s arguments look stronger than they really are simply because the responses have been so weak. Unfortunately, scholars who believe that they can have certainty about specific things that Jesus said or did are unlikely to be the source of such an argument.

          • Hey Vinny,

            “However, if Paul thought that Jesus was a historical person and that some of the people Paul knew had been companions of that person, I would expect to see more indication of that in Paul’s letters as well as in the other epistles.”

            Well, below is a list of references to Jesus’ life in Paul’s epistles provided by Erlend MacGillivray (a scholar with whom I do not always agree, but who has training and experience in these issues and a number of very interesting insights). I will provide some of my own commentary about their relevance:

            Gal 3:16 — Jesus was born a Jew

            If Paul thought that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, this verse is not surprising.

            Gal 4:4 — Jesus lived under Jewish Law

            Paul says that Jesus was born of a woman. Historicists take this as a literal birth, even if mythicists interpret it differently.

            Rom 1:3 — Jesus was from the house of David

            Certainly Paul would have believed that Jesus was descended from David, if he thought that Jesus was the Messiah. But he has no good authority for making this claim (what, did he find a faithfully preserved pedigree of Jesus’ family in Joseph’s wood shack?). Paul is just speculating that Jesus is descended from David, because he thinks he is the Messiah, which does not tell us anything about Jesus’ historical ancestry.

            Nevertheless, Paul does say that Jesus’ relation with David was κατὰ σάρκα (“according to the flesh”), which could be another indication of Jesus having an earthly, flesh and blood existence.

            1 Cor 9:5 — Jesus had brothers
            Gal 1:19 — One of his brothers was James

            These two passages are some of the strongest in favor of historicity, as even Richard Carrier agrees. If Paul knew biological brothers of Jesus, then this would be a good argument for historicity. Mythicists, of course, interpret the “brothers of Lord” as form of title or designation of rank, but this is a minority view in scholarship.

            1 Cor 15:5 — Jesus had twelve disciples

            This is a little fuzzy, because it says that Jesus appeared to the “twelve,” but Judas would have been dead at this point, if we accept the narratives in Matthew and Acts. However, it doesn’t seem implausible that Jesus may have formed an inner circle of twelve followers to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, as Ehrman has argued.

            2 Cor 8:9 — Jesus was poor

            The verse says he became poor. A historical description of Jesus’ wealth? Or a symbolic statement about Jesus’ humility? Hard to say.

            Phil 2:5 — Jesus was a servant who acted with humility

            A pre-Pauline creed. It says Jesus was made in human likeness, which historicists interpret to be a flesh and blood existence, though mythicists have other interpretations.

            2 Cor 10:1 — Jesus acted with meekness and gentleness

            These are general descriptions: “By the humility and gentleness of Christ.” I’m not sure how much this tells us historically.

            1 Cor 5:7 — Paul alludes to the Passion week

            This verse connects Jesus’ death with the Passover lamb, which could very well be referring to Jesus’ historical arrest and execution during Passover, though mythicists probably have other interpretations.

            Rom 6:6 — Jesus was crucified

            Paul has knowledge of Jesus’ crucifixion, which is universally attested in our sources as the manner of Jesus’ death. That Paul believed that Jesus was a flesh and blood man who was literally crucified seems entirely plausible to me. Mythicists argue that Jesus was crucified in the heavenly realm, I believe.

            1 Thes 2:14-15 — Jesus crucifixion was brought on by Jewish instigation

            This passage is probably a post-Pauline interpolation, so I will exclude it from consideration.

            Rom 4:25 — Paul speaks of Jesus’ death

            Another reference to Jesus’ death. Though, the main emphasis of the verse is about the resurrection, so I am not sure it tells anything more than Rom 6:6.

            Rom 6:4, 8:29; Col. 2:12 — Paul talks about the nature of the resurrection.

            I’m not sure if Paul’s understanding of the resurrection applies either way for historicism or mythicism, since Paul never specifies that the resurrection took place in an earthly setting.

            Paul’s knowledge of Jesus’s teachings:

            1 Cor 7:10-11 — About divorce and remarriage

            This verse can very plausibly be linked with the historical Jesus, IMO, and it provides earlier attestation for Jesus’ teachings on divorce that are later found in Mark 10:2-10 and Matthew 19:3-10. For this reason, I am inclined to believe that the historical Jesus very likely taught such things about divorce.

            1 Cor 9:14 — Ministers being paid wages

            Paul says “the Lord has commanded.” I’m not sure how reliably this can be connected with the historical Jesus.

            Rom 13:6-7 — Paying taxes

            I do not believe that this passage corroborates the later saying of Jesus in the Gospels about paying taxes, since I think those sayings are anachronistic and do not reflect actual tax practices in 1st century CE Galilee. I elaborate further on this issue here. Perhaps Jesus had taught other things about taxation, however, that Paul is aware of.

            Rom 13:9 — We are to love our neighbors as ourselves

            Seems like a very plausible earlier attestation of Matthew 22:36-40. Likewise, these verses fit well within a historical Jewish context regarding debates over the Law (see my commentary on the verse below).

            Rom 14:14 — Ceremonial cleanliness

            This passage I also think is a good candidate for historicity. Daniel Boyarin (a scholar in Judaic Studies at UC Berkeley) has recently argued that first Christians were originally much more of a Jewish sect than they later came to be understood. Part of his argument is based on Paul’s and Jesus’ understanding of cleanliness laws, which Boyarin argues can be very plausibly situated within a 1st century CE Jewish context.

            1 Thes 4:15 — Paul said to be vigilant in light of Jesus’ second coming

            Yeah, and Paul was also wrong about Jesus’ second coming. This is an apocalyptic prediction, not a historical claim.

            1 Thes 5:2-11 — The second coming would be like the thief in the night

            Interesting that this analogy is also made in Matthew 24:42-44 and Revelation 16:15. But again, nothing more than stock apocalyptic imagery. No sound basis for anything historical.

            1 Cor 7: 10;9:14;11:23-25 — Paul refers to Jesus’ words.

            The last verses in 1 Cor. 11:23-25 also refer to Jesus being betrayed (or “handed over”). Could very well be a historical reference to Jesus’ arrest. I am not sure if the Eucharist was actually started by Jesus or later attributed to him as Christology developed. Seems like either is plausible.

            So, out of the verses above, I would identify the following as the strongest candidates for Paul’s references to a historical Jesus:

            Gal 4:4 — Jesus a Jew born of a woman
            1 Cor 9:5 — Jesus had brothers
            Gal 1:19 — One of his brothers was James
            1 Cor 11:23 — Paul alludes to Jesus’ arrest
            1 Cor 5:7 — Paul alludes to the Passion week
            Rom 6:6 — Jesus was crucified
            1 Cor 7:10-11 – Jesus’ teachings about divorce and remarriage
            Rom 13:9 — We are to love our neighbors as ourselves
            Rom 14:14 – Jesus’ teachings about ceremonial cleanliness

            Of course, other references may be relevant as well; I just think they are less certain. As can be seen from the verses above, Paul says considerably less about Jesus than is found in the Gospels, and I do not think that he corroborates the later legendary claims in the Gospels. Though, he does seem to corroborate a few of the more mundane ones. This is enough for me to think that Paul is minimally referring to a historical person.

            “I will be very interested to see you develop your views on historicity. I presently consider myself agnostic on the question, but I would not be at all surprised to see someone make a persuasive argument for the likelihood of a historical Jesus. I suspect that some of the Carrier’s arguments look stronger than they really are simply because the responses have been so weak. Unfortunately, scholars who believe that they can have certainty about specific things that Jesus said or did are unlikely to be the source of such an argument.”

            I do agree that many of the arguments against mythicism are overly polemical, dismissive, and arrogant. Perhaps this response is more justified in the case of less professional mythicist authors (e.g. Dorothy M. Murdock). However, scholars should take Richard Carrier’s professional arguments for mythicism more seriously (even Erlend, whom I quoted above, has acknowledged this, though he certainly disagrees with Carrier). That said, Carrier was very polemical in his responses to Ehrman and Maurice Casey. I don’t think that this helped his side.

            My approach in discussing this issue is to be firm in stating my opinion, but not to be overly polemical, condescending, and what not. This is obviously a very complex and difficult issue. Even if people are wrong, I do not think that the correct answer is obvious or something that everyone should inexcusably know. To even form an educated opinion requires a great deal of thought and research.

            However, that is also why we have the scholarly consensus, so that people who are not experts can get caught up on common knowledge and mainstream positions. Currently, the scholarly consensus is in favor of the historical existence of Jesus.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Thanks Matthew,

            Here’s the thing about Paul; in essence, he saw Jesus’s ghost. He may have thought that ghost had once been a man who walked the earth, but seeing his ghost doesn’t give us any more evidence that Jesus was historical than someone claiming to see the ghost of Robin Hood would give us evidence of his historicity. In order to use Paul as evidence of Jesus’ historicity, I think we need to find something in Paul that is better explained by Jesus being a real historical person than by Paul merely having a visionary experience of a divine being who he believed to have once been a real person (a la Joseph Smith and Moroni).

            I think the one thing in Paul that would really require a historical Jesus to explain would be biological brothers. If we are justified in interpreting those verses as designating a biological rather than a spiritual relationship; that seems pretty strong.

            As you note, being born under the law and being of David’s line are theological consequences of Paul believing that the heavenly being was the messiah and don’t require any information about a real person. That Jesus was born of a woman flows from Paul’s belief that the visionary risen Christ had once been a man, so I don’t see that it really requires a historical Jesus either.

            I’m not really sure about the allusions to the Passion Week and Jesus’ arrest. I’ll have to look at those more closely.

            I don’t think the teachings can carry much weight. From 1 Cor. 12 we know that many members of Paul’s congregations thought that they were regularly getting messages from God in the form of words of wisdom, words of knowledge, prophecy and tongues. I think that teachings attributed to “the Lord” make as much sense as early church practices founded on revelation that were later attributed to the earthly Jesus as they do as actual teachings of the earthly Jesus preserved by the early church.

            I think that a good argument for historicity probably needs to rest on some more broadly observable phenomena. For example, I think you are right about the time gap in which Jesus seems to have been invented. Ned Ludd and John Frum may show that it is possible for such figures to arise quickly, but I don’t think that the situations are close enough to be good precedents and we don’t see anything similar in the ancient world.

            I think that another candidate might be the way that Jesus becomes more supernatural in each subsequent gospel. Perhaps it would be reasonable to extrapolate that trend backwards to a normal historical man. Perhaps the reason Paul says so little about the historical Jesus is that he was in fact an obscure person, which I think would fit the observed trend.

            I am also curious as to why Paul didn’t simply split off from the apostles in Jerusalem. It seems clear from Galatians that Paul doesn’t think much of his predecessors or their teachings. If it were just a matter of mystery cults with competing revelations, I would think that Paul might simply declare their revelation false and go his own way. That Paul continues to recognize the status of the apostles in Jerusalem as his predecessors leads me to believe that they had some claim to authority that he could not gainsay. Links to a historical Jesus might fit the bill.

          • Hey Vinny,

            “Here’s the thing about Paul; in essence, he saw Jesus’s ghost. He may have thought that ghost had once been a man who walked the earth, but seeing his ghost doesn’t give us any more evidence that Jesus was historical than someone claiming to see the ghost of Robin Hood would give us evidence of his historicity. In order to use Paul as evidence of Jesus’ historicity, I think we need to find something in Paul that is better explained by Jesus being a real historical person than by Paul merely having a visionary experience of a divine being who he believed to have once been a real person (a la Joseph Smith and Moroni).”

            Well, it is important to note that Paul did not first learn about Jesus through his vision. Paul had already known other Christians before his conversion (1 Cor 15:9). So his knowledge of Jesus – whether historical or mythical – would have been through what he learned from other Christians. I also agree with Bart Ehrman that Paul probably persecuted the early church because he thought that they were teaching heretical interpretations of the Messiah and the Law. Paul probably thought that it was blasphemous to teach that the Messiah was a crucified man, until he had the vision or life-changing experience that changed his mind.

            But, Paul also tells us that a couple years after his conversion, he returned to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James (who would have been eyewitnesses to Jesus, if he was historical), and Paul also identifies James as “the brother of the Lord.” If Paul is saying that James was Jesus’ literal brother, as most scholars interpret the passage, then this would mean that Paul probably thought that Jesus was a historical person. He could have known this on good authority too, if he knew Peter and James as eyewitnesses. So, Paul, strictly speaking, had more to go on than simply seeing a ghost.

            “I think the one thing in Paul that would really require a historical Jesus to explain would be biological brothers. If we are justified in interpreting those verses as designating a biological rather than a spiritual relationship; that seems pretty strong.”

            See my further discussion with Pofarmer about this below.

            “I don’t think the teachings can carry much weight. From 1 Cor. 12 we know that many members of Paul’s congregations thought that they were regularly getting messages from God in the form of words of wisdom, words of knowledge, prophecy and tongues. I think that teachings attributed to “the Lord” make as much sense as early church practices founded on revelation that were later attributed to the earthly Jesus as they do as actual teachings of the earthly Jesus preserved by the early church.”

            Yeah, but I also noted that these teachings have parallels in the Gospels, where they are attributed to an earthly Jesus. I therefore think that they carry some weight for plausibly being earlier attestations of the historical Jesus’ teachings before the Gospels. We cannot be fully certain, but I do not think that anything bars this possibility.

            “I think that another candidate might be the way that Jesus becomes more supernatural in each subsequent gospel. Perhaps it would be reasonable to extrapolate that trend backwards to a normal historical man. Perhaps the reason Paul says so little about the historical Jesus is that he was in fact an obscure person, which I think would fit the observed trend.”

            I agree, and I think that this is probably what happened in the case of the historical Jesus.

            “I am also curious as to why Paul didn’t simply split off from the apostles in Jerusalem. It seems clear from Galatians that Paul doesn’t think much of his predecessors or their teachings. If it were just a matter of mystery cults with competing revelations, I would think that Paul might simply declare their revelation false and go his own way. That Paul continues to recognize the status of the apostles in Jerusalem as his predecessors leads me to believe that they had some claim to authority that he could not gainsay. Links to a historical Jesus might fit the bill.”

            This fits well into the theories of Daniel Boyarin whom I discussed above. Boyarin argues that Pauline Christianity was the offshoot or exception to the original Christian movement, which was originally far more Jewish. Instead, Boyarin argues that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem allowed Paul to carry his ministry elsewhere, but that he was kind of the odd ball who was more interested in ministering to Gentiles. The original Christians, Boyarin argues, were more concerned about converting other Jews, but this movement died off or was largely displaced when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE. That left the Pauline Christianity outside of Judea in place after 70 CE, which is the Christianity that we primarily know today through Christian texts. So, Paul may have been considerably more fringe among the first generation of Christians than later thought.

            That Paul didn’t just break off and start a new movement worshipping the same figure could point to a historical Jesus, as you suggest. If Jesus was a historical and not mythical figure, then Paul couldn’t claim to simply have a new revelation of this figure. He would have been too anchored to the apostles who originally knew Jesus. This could explain why he remained with the movement, even when taking it in a considerably radical direction.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Thanks for the response Matthew.

            I don’t think that I have any strong disagreement with most of the inferences that you draw from the evidence, just with the weight that they are capable of bearing.

            One point I do wonder about though is the significance of Paul’s persecution of Christians prior to his conversion. Although I think it quite plausible that Paul persecuted the early church, I’ve seen enough Strobels and McDowells to know that the degree to which one opposed the church prior to one’s conversion is highly susceptible of exaggeration for rhetorical effect.

            However, even granting the persecution, I wonder whether that really tells us anything about the degree of continuity between Paul and his predecessors. Wouldn’t the historical evidence suggest that persecutors of religious minorities often lack an accurate picture of their victims beliefs? Pogroms were often predicated on accusations of ritual infanticide. The Romans accused Christians of incest and cannibalism. I don’t think we can assume that Paul’s antipathy to early Christians had much to do with what they actually believed. Perhaps it is even likely that it didn’t.

            Since Paul says that he went out to preach for three years after he got his revelation before seeking out his predecessors, I don’t think that it is possible to know how much of his message conformed to theirs and how much of it was some combination of his own theological creativity and the type of misinformation that persecutors often possess. All Paul really tells us about the movement before he joined it is that there were a number of people who had seen visions of a crucified guy returned from the dead. What meaning they attached to the visions isn’t clear.

            I’m inclined to treat Paul as the founder of Christianity simply because I can’t see any way to trace any specific parts of his message back to his predecessors. Maybe it was Paul who worked out the eschatological meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as the substitutionary atonement and almost all of the theological concepts that we find in his letters and his predecessors went along with him because they saw that he had a good thing going. On the other hand, maybe most of it was already in place when Paul came along and he merely polished and refined the ideas. I don’t think that the evidence favors one over the other.

          • “However, even granting the persecution, I wonder whether that really tells us anything about the degree of continuity between Paul and his predecessors. Wouldn’t the historical evidence suggest that persecutors of religious minorities often lack an accurate picture of their victims beliefs? Pogroms were often predicated on accusations of ritual infanticide. The Romans accused Christians of incest and cannibalism. I don’t think we can assume that Paul’s antipathy to early Christians had much to do with what they actually believed. Perhaps it is even likely that it didn’t.”

            Well, we do not know much about Paul’s theological beliefs or what he thought about the Christians before his conversion. All we have are brief allusions in his letters that date to decades later. Given the historical context of the 1st century CE, however, I think that we can at least think of some plausible motives: belief that the Christians taught a heretical view of Law, the idea that a crucified Messiah was blasphemous, etc. But it is a situation where we would certainly like to know much more than what is available.

            “Since Paul says that he went out to preach for three years after he got his revelation before seeking out his predecessors, I don’t think that it is possible to know how much of his message conformed to theirs and how much of it was some combination of his own theological creativity and the type of misinformation that persecutors often possess. All Paul really tells us about the movement before he joined it is that there were a number of people who had seen visions of a crucified guy returned from the dead. What meaning they attached to the visions isn’t clear.”

            Paul does relate the creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-7, which the large majority of scholars think predates him. Since that creed refers to the resurrection, I think we can be sure that Paul himself did not create the idea of the resurrection. But, Paul certainly added to the idea of the resurrection, and sorting out theologically what is Paul’s and what is pre-Pauline is indeed rather speculative business. I agree that it is not clear what the apostles claimed to have seen of the resurrected Jesus. The language attached to the visions is unclear, and it can certainly refer to spiritual, rather than physical experiences.

            “I’m inclined to treat Paul as the founder of Christianity simply because I can’t see any way to trace any specific parts of his message back to his predecessors. Maybe it was Paul who worked out the eschatological meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as the substitutionary atonement and almost all of the theological concepts that we find in his letters and his predecessors went along with him because they saw that he had a good thing going. On the other hand, maybe most of it was already in place when Paul came along and he merely polished and refined the ideas. I don’t think that the evidence favors one over the other.”

            Well, all I think we can say is that the idea of the resurrection appears to have predated Paul. Since we first learn of the resurrection through Paul, however, it may be hard to trace any part of the message to before him. Even for Paul we only have seven undisputed letters. That’s the problem with most of ancient history: it gives us very little certainty. A good reason for why we should not rely on ancient texts to prove extraordinary claims that cannot even be proven with more reliable methods today.

  2. stizostideon says:

    I’ve always had real problems with the claims concerning the slow rate of legendary accretion. A relatively recent example of rapid legendary spread is recounted in James Hider’s “The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War.” Relatively early on in the most recent Iraq/Afghanistan war, a photograph showing what appeared to be giant camel spiders was widely circulated. Within months, rumors that Allah had sent armies of giant spiders to combat the Americans were extensive among the mostly-illiterate mujaheddin. It certainly didn’t take one or two generations.

  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  4. You’re right that an “argument from silence,” if made concerning extrabiblical evidence, is invalid. An additional reason for this is that if you compare references to *Christians* from the first century you find many outside of the Bible either, and yet no one doubts that Christians existed.

    A better argument from silence concerns the lack of evidence *within* early Christian documents, which you would certainly expect to refer to an earthly Jesus. If correct, the argument holds significant weight. Of course, the key issue to look at is whether the main premise is correct: that Paul does not refer to an earthly Jesus, because there are a handful of debatable references.

    • “If correct, the argument holds significant weight. Of course, the key issue to look at is whether the main premise is correct: that Paul does not refer to an earthly Jesus, because there are a handful of debatable references.”

      Indeed, a lot of the debate over the historical existence of Jesus has to do with the relevance of Paul (an early source, who knew Peter and James) and the handful of passages in his epistles that either refer to an earthly or spiritual Jesus. I discuss the passages that I do think probably refer to a historical, earthly Jesus in my discussion with Vinny above.

  5. Beau Quilter says:

    This is an excellent post, Matthew! An thoughtful breakdown of the difference between apologetic approaches to Jesus and what can truly be gleaned historically. I appreciate that you are sharing your scholarship in this venue, and I look forward to the books and articles you will contribute in your promising career.

  6. Beau Quilter says:

    Every time I hear this silly Sherwin-White two-generation rule quoted (that two generations is too short to generate legendary material), I can’t help but think of the Pacific cargo cults described by Jared Diamond in GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, whole-cloth religions, highly derivative (like Christianity), but also bizarrely unique, arising in an island population in a matter of years, much less generations.

    • Pofarmer says:

      I think that argument misses one very important possibility, that I know our host disagrees with. What if the story were made up out of whole cloth?

      • One thing I will say about the pace of legendary development is that I am not aware of another ahistorical figure in antiquity that was invented within a few decades of their alleged time of existence, outside the case of Jesus. Most mythical figures were dated to centuries before the present, such as distant Roman kings, heroes fighting around Tory, etc. Richard Carrier has argued that the reason other mythical figures date back so much later is because they are usually associated with things like a Heroic Age (e.g. Hector and Achilles) or a time of founding a people or city (e.g. Moses and Romulus), which will always be placed considerably before the present.

        Now, there are more modern examples of people being made up that quickly. Ned Ludd, for example, was a mythical figure invented within a few decades of the alleged time of his existence back at the turn of the 18-19th centuries. So I do not think that it is impossible for a person to be invented within that timespan. But, if Jesus was invented out of whole cloth, that would make his invention occur considerably closer to the alleged time of existence than any other mythical figures that I am aware of from antiquity itself.

        • Pofarmer says:

          In reading Paul, I don’t see anything that really anchors Jesus to a specific time or place. Possibly the only reference that might, is the reference to “James, Brother of the Lord” in Corinthians. Personally, think what we have going on in that passage, is that you have the leader, Cephas, and James, in Jerusalem. Paul often refers to other Apostles as “Brothers in Christ”, “Brothers of the Lord” etc. So, if Paul is going to see Cephas, the head honcho of the Group, and James a “Brother” then the whole things makes sense.

          “18Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.”

          If it read James “one of the Lord’s brothers” then the whole meaning changes with just one small scribal slip. Yeah, I know, proof and so forth and so on. But, is there anything else in the Pauline literature that actually ties Jesus to a specific place or time?

          And I think Vinny’s second point is also germain. Why doesn’t especially the Gospel of James, which certainly seems to be arguing against Galatians, use a “Jesus said” argument, instead of arguing theology that seems to be more based on OT Judaism?

          • Hey Pofarmer,

            “In reading Paul, I don’t see anything that really anchors Jesus to a specific time or place.”

            While there are not many temporal markers (i.e. references to years or events with a known date) in Paul’s letters that refer to Jesus, I do not think that this should be considered a smoking gun for mythicism. Remember that we only have 7 genuine letters from Paul. Compare this to the more than 900 letters that we have from Cicero. While Paul’s theological epistles tend to be longer than most ancient epistles (they were probably edited and combined from multiple letters), that is still a considerably smaller body of texts. As such, we can’t assume that the few references to the life of Jesus in Paul’s letters are everything that he knew about him.

            Paul may have known that Jesus was executed at around the time of the Passover (1 Cor 5:7), but no specific year is provided. The best temporal marker that we have, then, is Paul’s reference to James as “the brother of the Lord.” Since James was still alive, that would mean that, if Jesus was his biological brother, he could not have lived too terribly long before James.

            “Possibly the only reference that might, is the reference to “James, Brother of the Lord” in Corinthians. Personally, think what we have going on in that passage, is that you have the leader, Cephas, and James, in Jerusalem. Paul often refers to other Apostles as “Brothers in Christ”, “Brothers of the Lord” etc. So, if Paul is going to see Cephas, the head honcho of the Group, and James a “Brother” then the whole things makes sense.”

            First, it is important to remember that Paul is not the only source to identify James as Jesus’ brother. Mark 6:4 and Matthew 13:55 refer to James as Jesus’ biological brother only a couple decades after Paul. Paul’s reference to James as “the brother of the Lord” in Gal. 1:19 is more vague, but I think that it is perfectly plausible that Paul also means Jesus’ biological brother. After all, this was how James was understood only a couple of decades after Paul. You might say that this is reading the Gospels back into Paul’s letters, but I do not think that this is entirely the case, since nothing in Paul’s letters precludes this possibility.

            When Paul states that James is ὁ ἀδελφός (“the brother”) of Jesus, the definite article is adding more emphasis than when he elsewhere identifies Christians as “brothers and sisters.”

            “If it read James “one of the Lord’s brothers” then the whole meaning changes with just one small scribal slip. Yeah, I know, proof and so forth and so on.”

            Yeah, but ordinary textual critical methodology (the same methodology used by Classicists when reconstructing Pagan texts) finds this passage to be genuine. I think, then, in order to be impartial and to not engage in special pleading, we should probably consider the definite article as a genuine portion of the text, at least when there is no textual evidence to the contrary.

            Saying that James is “the” brother of Jesus can either mean that James is Jesus’ literal brother, or that there was a special title or designation that singled out James as “the brother” of the Lord, as opposed to just another “brother” in Christ. To get greater context we have to look at other sources. The Gospels only a couple of decades after Paul interpret James as Jesus’ biological brother, and do not mention the term ὁ ἀδελφός (“the brother”) being used as a special title or designation of authority in the early church.

            I think the most natural reading of the combined evidence is that Paul probably means James is Jesus’ literal brother. This does not mean that it is *impossible* that Paul might have thought that James was only Jesus’ symbolic brother. But we do not have as much corroboration to support the symbolic interpretation as we do the literal interpretation that James was Jesus’ literal brother. As a Classicist, I would at least favor this reading of the evidence for any other ancient figure, outside of Jesus, who had the same data (i.e. a vague reference in a letter saying that someone was “the brother” of someone else, who is then identified in another text only a couple decades later as the biological brother of that same individual).

            Another way you could look at it is like this: suppose that there was a special designation in the early church where certain people were called “brothers of the Lord” AND that James was also Jesus’ literal biological brother. How would Paul distinguish between the two, except by including the definite article and singling out James as “the brother” of the Lord? I do not think that we can expect Paul to have said things very differently if he did think that James was Jesus’ literal brother than what he already says in the passage. So I am not even sure that we should be expecting anything more explicit than what is already there.

            “And I think Vinny’s second point is also germain. Why doesn’t especially the Gospel of James, which certainly seems to be arguing against Galatians, use a “Jesus said” argument, instead of arguing theology that seems to be more based on OT Judaism?”

            Are you referring to the Infancy Gospel of James? That (apocryphal) text places Jesus in an earthly setting, repeating claims that Jesus born in Bethlehem, etc.

            I think that you mean the Epistle of James in the NT. There are two possibilities for the authorship of that text. One is that the letter is homonymous (“same named”) and is written by another, unknown “James” who was conflated with James, Jesus’ brother, during later canonical disputes. In that case, it is only a letter of a church leader giving instructions to his community. I do not think that one can make an effective argument from silence about there being no references to the historical Jesus in the letter, if the letter is simply homonymous.

            The other possibility is that the letter is pseudonymous (“falsely named”) and written as a forgery in the name of James, understood to be Jesus’ brother, as a means of gaining authority. First, it should be noted that, if we assume that all later forgeries trying to gain authority in this way should have referred to the life and sayings of Jesus, why then did more people simply not write more forgeries attributed to Jesus? There were a few, but most pseudonymous Christian texts from the late 1st century CE and onward were attributed to the apostles.

            Why was this the case, when you could have just attributed them to Jesus? I think the reason why is that there was a special interest in the apostles in the generation of Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem, and this interest caused later forgers to attribute teachings to the apostles rather than Jesus himself. As such, I not sure that an effective argument from silence can be made if the letter is a forgery either. Arguments from silence are tricky and only sometimes valid. I discuss the cases when they are more here.

  7. J.J. says:

    Regarding the point about the loss of classical texts and the preservation of Christian texts, we might out to clarify with an additional note since some might misunderstand as if Christian texts all largely survived, which of course is not the case. The NT simply represents 27 early Christian documents which did survive, but there were others that evidently didn’t. Paul indicates other letters he had written to Corinth (which may or may not be incorporated in the two letters as they now stand). At the beginning of Luke, the author says that “many” (πολλοι) had attempted to write an account of Jesus which sounds like more writings than what currently exists. And of course, when we move into the second, third, and fourth centuries there are untold numbers of Christians texts that no longer exist from writers such as Papias, Melito, Hegesippus, Athenagoras, Clement, Origen, Eusebius, just to name a few. Even the Didache was lost until the late nineteenth century. I won’t hazzard a guess as to what percentage of Christian texts were lost, but it’s probably safe to say more was lost than was preserved. And many of these that were lost (at least of the ones from the second, third, and fourth centuries) were still known after the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century but for whatever reason did not survive.

    • Hey JJ,

      I have added two footnotes to clarify the issue you raised:

      “[4] To be fair, a good deal of Christian literature also perished during the process of textual transmission from antiquity to the present. However, it is probably a fair estimate that a larger proportion of Pagan literature perished than Christian literature, owing to the fact that there was greater interest in preserving Christian literature during the medieval period.”

      And:

      “[6] Probably the most important lost Christian texts that would be relevant to the study of the historical Jesus are the other letters written by the apostle Paul that do not belong to the seven authentic letters of Paul in the New Testament. Since Paul was a near contemporary of Jesus, who recorded a few details about his life, we would probably know more about the historical Jesus if we had more of Paul’s epistles. On the other hand, the Pauline epistles that have survived probably belonged to an edited collection put together in the 2nd century CE. It may, therefore, be something of a misnomer to say Paul’s other letters were “lost,” since many of them may have never been put into an edited collection to begin with.”

      As noted in footnote 3, I agree that a substantial amount of Christian literature also perished from a lack of transmission. However, I think a much larger proportion of Pagan texts perished than Christian texts, owing to the fact that there was a greater interest in preserving Christian texts during the medieval period.

      Also, I think that we can know more about lost Christian texts written after the 2nd century CE (e.g. those of Papias) than we can know about lost texts from the 1st century CE, given the fact that we possess more titles and fragments for lost Christian texts after the 2nd century and not very many for lost texts in the 1st century (as you note). However, as I have noted in footnote 5, the lost epistles of Paul would probably have been the most relevant to the study of the historical Jesus.

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  9. Outstanding article, you should turn this into something for peer review. Great stuff.

  10. pete says:

    Many of your posts serve as valuable aides to my activity doing “hobbyist scholarship”.

    Your argument against Lewis’s “Trilemma” is still my favorite.

    If you release a less technical version of your eventual PhD dissertation, I plan to look out for it.

    Let a1= an amalgam of pre-1st century Messianic traditions going back to the alleged time of Moses.
    Let b1= “minimal facts”/deductive conclusions about Jesus which have been tested by accredited scholars.
    Let c1= an amalgam of Christological models pre-supposed as beginning with Paul’s letters, and still developing in our current decade.

    a1 is a powerful historical theme spanning atleast 800 years (perhaps 1200)

    a1 has multiple meanings in regards to “anointed ones” who might be mortal warrior-kings, and/or divinely appointed saviors of Israel, collectively Israel itself, prophet-warrior-kings who ‘reveal’ an eternal kingdom representing optimal moral ideals rooted in the continual interpretation of Mosaic legalisms.

    a1 is a potent mythological narrative for generations of pre-supposed “Jews” who are descended from pre-supposed Hebrew tribes of the distant past. This narrative is strongly imprinted into each generation, and therefore creates unconscious bias which is difficult to “re-program” by outsiders (but may still happen anyway in regards to reports of assimilation of Judeans into Persian society, and the power of post-Alexandrian Hellenistic influence).

    a1 integrates itself with b1 because of a1’s omni-directional inertia as a cultural force.

    b1 -in all it’s ‘cells’- is transformatively mutated by a1.

    a1(b1) are fused during the early to mid 1st century, becoming integrated into c1 after 50/60ad.

    c1(a1+b1) is further mutated decade by decade in the time period between 70ad and present day -decade by decade- a ‘palimpsest’ of layerings which distort other ‘sheets’ above and below.

    a1 is based in ambiguous information.
    b1 is consumed by a1, and obscures b1’s influence on c1.
    c1 is based in ambiguous information.
    Therefore, c1(a1+b1) cannot be used for premises which allow for a sound argument and highly probable conclusion:

    p1. Christian apologetics depends on the logical soundness of c1(a1+b1).
    p2. c1(a1+b2) is ambiguous, and few of it’s many components can be falsified.
    p3. Logical arguments cannot be made from a root premise which is unfalsifiable.
    p4. If few premises in a deductive argument are true, then the conclusion must be false.
    p5. Christian apologetics cannot produce enough falsifiable premises necessary
    for a collection of sound arguments, and highly probable conclusions.
    p6. The validity of Christianity strongly depends on the logical soundness of it’s apologetics.
    i1. p1 through p5 defeat the logical soundness of Christian apologetics.
    c1. Therefore, Christianity is not strongly valid, and by a priori extension, not obligatory.

    I did not intend to get carried away in this comment, and I don’t expect anyone to have the time to critique my way of doing logic, but I offer it anyway as an example of how “amateurs” are able to absorb good arguments from accredited scholars, and organize axioms for the purpose of creating decent models.

    Thanks for indulging me.

    • Hey Pete,

      So is your main argument that: a1 (the concept of the Jewish Messiah) is poorly defined and unfalsifiable, and that: c1 (the Christology of Jesus as the Messiah) is likewise poorly defined and unfalsifiable, with the result that: b1 (the minimal facts agreed upon by a scholarly consensus) — which may be better defined and more falsifiable — cannot coherently or explicitly be connected with a1 and thus amalgamated into c1?

      In other words, are you arguing that the concepts of the Jewish Messiah and the Christologies of Jesus are far too ambiguous to be an adequate explanation of b1? (Which, of course, apologists using minimal facts arguments claim that they claim they are.) And, as such, a1+b1 cannot be used to support c1, which is central to the core claims of Christianity?

      • pete says:

        Your read of a1 and c1 are part of my argument. Yes.
        But b1 is assimilated into the ‘forward progress’ (inertia)
        of a1 so that b1’s apparent influence on c1 is logically nullified.

        b1 may appear to be minimally factual (6 point Jesus), but the
        inertia of a1 is so well imprinted in the collective psyche of Jews
        -covenant breaks/mends over and over again, and a fully
        mandated ‘anointed one’ is expected to bind together what has
        been undone- that a1 is the actual ‘founder’ of Christianity rather
        than b1, itself an incidental ‘switch point’, so that a1 veers off into c1
        as Christologies (new covenant Messianic theories).

        I say “incidental switch point” because b1 is not the actual explanation
        for Christianity in how a1 flows into c1, as well as how modern Judaism
        is still maintaining Messianic hopes also descended from a1, which
        I could plug into a later argument as ‘d1’.

        I see a1>c1 as a laser beam briefly refracted by whatever b1 was, yet
        b1 was ‘mutated’ and carried along c1, as well as retrojected back into
        a1 in terms of how author(s) of Matthew/Luke used Messianic
        expectations.

        It’s a work in progress of course; I need to factor in the exile in Persia
        as well as Hellenism as yet more ‘refractors’ for my ‘laser beam’ time-line
        between a1>c1.

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  12. Christian apologist David Marshall recently wrote a misguided polemic against this essay, which can be found here:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2017/01/epic-rap-battle-jesus-vs-alexander.html?m=1

    I am not interacting with Marshall personally, due to his petulant and childish behavior, which I documented thoroughly in the following post:

    https://celsus.blog/2016/01/03/more-lies-polemics-and-vehement-language-from-christian-apologist-david-marshall/

    But, I do correct a number of the faulty arguments that Marshall has made in this recent post, in a comment that can be read here:

    https://celsus.blog/2017/01/05/where-ive-come-from-and-where-im-going/#comment-6138

  13. Ashton says:

    Where are the original writings of Plato that mention Socrates? None exist. All we have are copies written hundreds of years after Plato. So did Plato even exist? Homer? Nothing until hundreds of years later and all copies. Pythagoras? Nothing exists. Genghis Khan- are there any contemporaries’ sources?

  14. yass.mv91@gmail.com says:

    Hi! I’m a christian interested in apologetics and I’m still very new to this field. I have read your article and I would like to know if you’re up for a request from my part.

    • Celsus says:

      Yes, I am up for your request, but I am very busy working on an academic paper right now. I will only be able to answer you request after a couple weeks from today (at the earliest).

      • yass.mv91@gmail.com says:

        I’m very sorry for taking so long to reply!

        First, I would like to just mention that I’m only 25 years old and I became a Christian not 2 years ago after being a quite illiterate atheist my entire life (meaning, I had no idea what I was talking about in defense of my “atheism”; that is, very weak and uneducated arguments against God). Almost immediately following my conversion, a huge interest grew in me in the topic of apologetics and learning more about the extra-biblical life of Jesus and the early church in order to better defend and learn about the social and historical environment during which these events took place. Therefore, being new in this field, I do apologize if I come off as a fool or an ignorant, because I am indeed and I wish to learn more.

        Second, I read the Case for Christ from Lee Strobel and I would like to thank you for addressing out a “flaw” that I thought that Dr. Blomberg had made regarding the age for surviving sources vs. earliest sources on the topic of Alexander the Great. I had read a bit about him (Alexander) beforehand and I thought it to be weird how Dr. Blomberg and the articles seemed to contradict themselves in this topic. However, as a Christian, I would like to say, if you allow me to do so, that it is indeed remarkable how long the earliest Christian and extra-biblical sources have survived for whatever reasons which, I think, are even still debatable.

        From this point onward, I would like to address your writing and then move onto my request. I am curious if it would be possible to engage on some sort of long-term Q&A session for some doubts that I still have and I hope you could perhaps enlighten me with, if possible. It would be greatly beneficial for my faith and me if I could learn more. I only want to touch on some points, not refer to the entire article line by line.
        So, let’s dive in!

        1 – “As such, the lack of contemporary or early written sources is not irrelevant to the debate of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus.” Why do you think this would be the case? What I mean is that you yourself stated there are possible and very probable reasons for no contemporary writings (which would be addressed in the hypothetical Q; we’ll discuss that later). I would like to know what your take on this is. On one hand, if I understood correctly, you say “yes, there’s a logical reason why people didn’t write about him” but then you go on to say “so that makes him a shady character” as if there might be an intentionally hidden reason behind it as if to gain something out of making up a character that existed some 30 years before (I’m paraphrasing here. If I got your idea wrong, please let me know).

        2 – “Monks had a greater interest in preserving Christian texts over Pagan ones.” Rightly so! Nevertheless, how would this constitute an argument against the historical Jesus? I believe it would be a lot stranger if you told me monks had started copying ancient texts from the other pagan gods with as much priority as Christian ones. Likewise, if you told me that converts from other religions into Christianity suddenly started copying texts from their old religions that would be strange as well! In fact, had the monks copied from pagan than Christian texts, it would have been insane and would demand some serious explaining to do from their part! However, this was not only a matter of “monks copying the official religion of the Roman Empire”; we have also loads of ancient texts in different languages from different cultures as well.

        3 – “There can be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.” I don’t really understand what the point is. What does the author mean by “Christians were not interested in reading them”? What does he mean by “not enough new copies were made to ensure their survival”? Is he talking about Christian texts or pagan texts? If he’s talking about Christian texts, then I have no idea what he’s saying because they did survive. If he’s talking about pagan texts, then obviously. The same applies to point number 2) why would Christians be interested in reading and copying pagan sources? There wouldn’t be a sound reason for it, not even “let’s keep a historical record of all these things “just cuz”” when they had specifically learned about the whole Christian movement and what the creeds taught regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. People were proclaiming he rose from the dead and were being executed for it and eyewitnesses (gospels) had left behind written documents to all these things so I’m sure they would not be interested in anything pagan at that time if that were their religion.

        5 – “The methodological reasons why the larger quantity of manuscripts for the NT has absolutely nothing to do with the historical reliability of the NT.” Sure, I won’t argue that a lie told 100 times is not true but, as you said, it is important to take ALL the information into account as to why they copied all of these things. All four gospels, Paul’s letters and the other books of the NT existed by that time. The monks that copied these things new of the contents within those books and their implications. People were being persecuted prior to the inclusion and then comes the argument of: “The twelve apostles testified and wrote about the events they were witnesses to, to the point of their deaths”. Was it not a priority to keep these things written? Were they only promoting the agenda of their time? Were they only frantically copying the documents they had at their time because it was the trend of the time, “what’s in” of Ancient Rome? I can hardly believe one would do that without having their facts checked first. Furthermore, with the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire, it would be natural for these things to become an urgency, right?

        6 – “Scholars through source analysis have sought to identify earlier sources that lie behind the Gospels and other texts that refer to the life of Jesus. Among these are the Q (Quelle) source, the pre-Markan Passion Narrative, the Signs Gospel behind John, M sources unique to Matthew, L sources unique to Luke, and so on.” Now, for this, stick with me for a moment. Alright, so, as a Christian, there is a certain theological aspect of the Bible that I can’t reconcile with the idea of Q, that is namely, that the whole Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit as stated in 2 Timothy 3:16. This is a basic doctrine of Scripture. This is why, I must say, that I completely agree with you on the idea that the pre-existence of documentation before the writings of the Gospels seems unsustainable to me, even as a Christian or a person interested in apologetics. Whether be it because of the reasons you stated (to which I have nothing to argue against) and/or the theological reasons I adhere to (which fall in line with what you say, as odd as that may be). Also, the fact that many scholars agree that Q is a hypothesis further pushes me away from this idea.

        7 – “When it comes to the Jesus of the Gospels, who allegedly had the entire Earth go dark at his crucifixion […] It is very obvious that such tall tales were later embellishments and exaggerations of Jesus, and it is not surprising that not a single contemporary knows anything of these events.” Regarding the whole crucifixion darkness, arguments can be made for whether or not the authors meant “the entire earth went dark” or if they just meant the country by “entire land”. It would be hard for me to defend whether or not they were able to know if it was dark on the other side of the world. How would they have known if it was also the case for parts in Africa, Europe, Asia or even America? In my opinion, the fact that they said “land” must have meant “country”, not “earth” because as that seems highly unlikely. Also, if they meant a solar eclipse or something else, is also up for debate because the earliest texts mention that “the sun’s light failed” or was “in eclipse” as opposed to “the sun was darkened”, which is what the majority of the older texts contains (possibly because later scribes considered the idea of an eclipse to be a writing error). Therefore, in addressing this, I personally believe that there are two options: 1) a naturalistic view (but not a cause, as to dismiss it as a only natural event unrelated to Christ’s death) the sun was simply “darkened/covered” by either massive clouds/volcanic dust, etc., which indeed made it seem as if the entire land was in darkness, or 2) an actual eclipse. Now, in regards to the eclipse, however impossible this may seem, let us remember we are talking about a supernatural event, in which God would have had the power to intervene. I would also like to know what your opinion on the writings of Phlegon of Tralles, Tertullian, Origen and Thallus on this topic (the crucifixion darkness) is. They’re apparently lost works that were only cited by other ancient historians.

        I will make a stop here. The article was extremely long and I don’t know how much of my comments you have made or addressed until this point. Truly, I wish I could continue writing more questions but, I want to the get to my request. My request is the following: Is there any way you and I could make a strong case FOR the existence of the extra-biblical and historical Christ? You have made it very clear you have studied this methodically but it is my wish to appeal to you and ask if you could make an article against your article, was crazy as that may seem. I wish to learn and know more and you, being very adept at this, seem like a person that would be able to help me with this. Please let me know.

        Thank you for this article and your time.

        • Celsus says:

          Well, I certainly believe that there was a historical Jesus. I just think that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels is a legendary embellishment of that figure, and that Paul gives only a few biographical details about his life. Likewise, while Jesus is attested in a handful of extra-biblical Pagan and Jewish sources, they do not corroborate the extraordinary claims in the Gospels (meaning we are largely dependent on Christian confessional literature to know such things, which I find suspicious).

          If we had contemporary (or even later extra-biblical) documentation for things like the earthquake at Jesus’ death, the ripping of the curtain in the Jewish Temple, and the darkness at Jesus’ death (I’m fine with it not being the whole earth, but it still seems to be implied as a large-scale event), we would have better reason to think that these stories weren’t invented by later Christian embellishment. But without such contemporary, non-Christian accounts, it becomes very plausible (and I think probable) that these stories were invented.

          Now, I’m not saying that we should expect to have more contemporary sources for Jesus. He was an obscure itinerant prophet, after all. But the absence of such sources does make the details of his life more irretrievable to history. Plus, I do think it is odd that neither Philo nor Josephus mentions the ripping of the curtain in the Temple. That would have been a pretty important event in the Jewish world, and so I think an argument from silence carries weight in this situation.

          I’ll have to get back to your other questions later, since I’m quite busy right now. But those are a few clarifications for the time being.

        • Celsus says:

          Well, here are my thoughts about your comment (sorry for the delay):

          First off, if you describe yourself as an “illiterate atheist” before your conversion, I’m not surprised that you were convinced by a book like The Case for Christ. Apologetic books like that give a *very one-sided* view of issues like the historical Jesus and represent counter secular or atheist views in the least favorable light possible. The rhetorical angle is to make it look like there is overwhelming evidence for Christianity, when in reality the author is only presenting a distorted and misleading representation of the issues and evidence at stake.

          For someone who is first learning about these issues, I always recommend reading secular scholarship alongside such books, to actually see what secular scholars or atheists believe, rather than just getting a distorted depiction of their views from authors like Strobel. For the historical reliability of the New Testament, you could start with an author like Bart Ehrman. For theology and the existence of God, I would recommend an author like Graham Oppy.

          Now to your questions:

          1. The reason that a lack of contemporary sources matters with Jesus is not because of arguments from silence, but because of arguments from unreliable sources. There may be very good reasons why we don’t possess an contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life, whereas we have an abundance of sources for the emperor Tiberius, for example, written during his reign. Jesus was an obscure figure and not an emperor, so people took far less notice of him. So absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But the absence of evidence still means we know less about Jesus than Tiberius. So it is a relevant issue. It’s important to point out when emphasizing the *limitations* of what we can know about Jesus, even if they are understandable.

          2. This point is relevant for emphasizing why a greater ratio of Pagan texts were lost from antiquity compared to Christian texts. One of the reasons why we don’t have the original histories for Alexander the Great is because there was a bottleneck of textual transmission during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (though other factors, such as the burning of the Library of Alexandria, may have also influenced the loss of Alexander’s historians). So we have to put the abundance of Christian texts that survive in perspective. It’s a sample bias. Had there been equal emphasis on preserving Pagan texts during the same period, we would probably have *more* sources for figures like Alexander and Tiberius. This means that, if there seems to be a paucity of Pagan sources for certain ancient figures that are extant, it’s understandable, and it doesn’t make a greater number of surviving sources for Jesus that impressive.

          3. This is just clarifying the reason for the loss of Pagan texts. There was less interest in reading them during the Middle Ages. Even if this is understandable, we have to put this in perspective for why it seems that a smaller amount of sources for certain Pagan figures survive. Also, the Gospels were probably not written by eyewitness, as I explain here:

          https://celsus.blog/2013/12/17/why-scholars-doubt-the-traditional-authors-of-the-gospels/

          5. As mentioned above, the Gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses. Furthermore, they never identify any named eyewitnesses as the sources who provided testimony for their accounts. I address this issue here:

          https://celsus.blog/2016/08/29/eyewitness-recollections-in-greco-roman-biography-versus-the-anonymity-of-the-gospels/

          Likewise, the idea that the 12 apostles (or 11, if you exclude Judas, or perhaps 12, if you include Paul) died for the content in the Gospels is completely unsubstantiated. We have highly unreliable sources for how they died, and the Jewish and Roman sources that discuss Christian persecution state that it was caused by political charges, not belief in the resurrection, and certainly not for the contents of the Gospels. I address the martyrdom argument here:

          https://celsus.blog/2012/12/18/48/

          6. Personally I think that Q probably existed as an earlier written source, consisting of a list of Jesus’ sayings. There were also probably other written/oral sources prior to the Gospels’ composition, particularly an earlier signs collection used by the author of John. The Gospels are unique among ancient literature in being written as “open texts,” which had a high degree of authorial anonymity and open adaptation of earlier sources. Elite and scholarly authors wouldn’t write like that, since it would likely be viewed as plagiarism. I discuss the open textuality of the Gospels in this essay:

          https://celsus.blog/2016/03/26/greek-popular-biography-romance-contest-gospel/

          7. Phlegon and Thallus probably made no mention of the midday darkness and are misquoted by later Christian authors. This article discusses why we have no non-Christian sources for the darkness, and how all of our information for it is derivative of the Gospels (leaving the story wholly open to their invention):

          http://www.jgrchj.net/volume8/JGRChJ8-8_Carrier.pdf

          Even if the darkness was meant to refer to “land” and not the “whole earth,” it is almost certainly a literary invention for various reasons. We have a similar tradition of such a darkness occurring at Alexander the Great’s death, for example, in a legendary account that no Classicist believes in. I’ve laid out the reasons why the darkness is an invention (probably by the author of Mark) in this previous comment:

          https://celsus.blog/2013/08/14/outside-corroboration-as-a-historical-criterion-and-the-validity-of-arguments-from-silence/comment-page-1/#comment-7028

          Overall, I get the impression that you don’t know much about historical Jesus scholarship. You make a lot of assumptions that are highly contested–such as that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or that the apostles died for the testimony in the Gospels. These are views that secular scholars have long been familiar with and have contested in a wide range of scholarly literature. If you are reading authors like Lee Strobel, you won’t get a balanced view of this scholarship.

          If someone like Strobel converted you to Christianity, you may now be an “illiterate Christian” rather than an “illiterate atheist.” I would recommend digging deeper, and taking more of a look at secular and atheist scholarship. You’ll find that much of Christian apologetics has been rebutted, and that the evidence for Christianity is not nearly as overwhelming as apologetic books create the impression of.

          • yamv says:

            Hi!

            Thank you for your reply. I did recognize that I know nothing of apologetics, not that I’m new to Christianity. I’m not so sure why you took on such a passive-agressive posture but I’ll take it that you misunderstood that I’m studying this. I’m actually a physicist lol but this topic is of my interest. I said I’m new to this and I wish to learn, so I indeed am iliterate in this area so perhaps you can help me learn, which is what I suggested 🙂

            By the way, no, reading Strobel’s book isn’t what turned me into a christian lol I already was a christian by that time.

            I’ll take my time reading through your comment and works to dig in deeper and I’ll come back to you later.

            Also, is there any way you could kindly adress my request?

            Thanks!

          • Celsus says:

            Well, apologies if my answer came off as passive-aggressive. It actually wasn’t provoked by you specifically, but rather my frustration with how apologetics gives a distorted view of the data. There were certain premises embedded in your question that I had to unpack, because they aren’t assumptions that secular historians grant, such as the twelve apostles attesting to the content of the Gospels or dying for it. Though looking back, I also notice you put that assumption in quotations, so perhaps you were paraphrasing the monks’ view? It just came off as the sort of claims made by Strobel, which lack the nuance to clarify that they are highly controversial. Also, I probably misread the background about your conversion. I was stressed with external circumstances when I wrote the previous reply, so apologies for some of my tone. I appreciate that you are interested in studying these matters more. I would just advice you to beware of authors like Strobel. Authors like Craig Evans are more nuanced, if you want to explore the more traditional angle.

  15. Matthew,

    I am new to the level if serious and objective inquiry that is exemplified here and, for another example, at Neil Godfrey’s blog at Vridar.com . But I have been delving in Christian origins as a casual hobbyist for many years.

    What I now find myself saying is, when all is said and done, at this time, based on currently available objective evidence, the historicity of Jesus cannot be substantiated. Therefore, belief that Jesus is a historical character, even at a “minimalist” level, is an act of faith, at least to some extent.

    Regarding Christ Myth Theory, I find it plausible but not compelling at this time.

    Do you agree with either, or both, of the above?

    Thank you very much for your blogs and for participating in the discussions. I know you are busy, so even a very brief reply would be much appreciated.

    Al Cannistraro
    http://raised-catholic.com

    • Celsus says:

      Well, the Christ Myth Theory is usually defined, generally at least, as the view that the historical Jesus did not exist. That seems to be the same thing as what you describe as Jesus’ existence being an “act of faith.” Though, more specific Mythicist theories posit Jesus as a celestial figure that was later historicized, if that is what you are referring to. I find that unlikely. When we look at Jesus compared to other mythical figures, we at least have documents within the same century that place him in a historical setting, which include accurate historical, sociological, and geographical information. I’m not aware of any other ancient mythical figure that matches that background. Likewise, Mara Bar Serapion’s testimony has recently been dated to the 1st century CE, and his reference to the “wise king” of the Jews most likely refers to Jesus. Since he compares this figure to Pythagoras and Socrates (both historical figures), he seems to be describing Jesus as a historical figure, and thus he would provide outside testimony to Jesus’ existence, as well. So no, I don’t agree. I think we have good reason to think Jesus probably existed. And that is overwhelmingly the majority scholarly view, even among secular and atheist biblical scholars.

      • Thank you very much for your succinct explanation — especially for the bit about the dating of Mara bar Serapion’s letter and his comment about the execution of someone who sounds to scholars like Jesus. I also appreciate your citing as a benchmark the 1st century dating of evidence re a historicized “mythical” Jesus vs. the available historical evidence for other mythical figures..

        All I knew (or, more correctly, vaguely recalled) about Mara bar Serapion before this was what Carrier says on page 275 of his “On the Historicity of Jesus” book, where he discusses him very briefly — mostly in a footnote. Carrier says 150 or later. I now see that the Wikipedia article currently says shortly after 73 AD.

        Again, thanks for grounding your opinion for me.

  16. Doris Fromage says:

    I was reading your original “10/42” article, which included this passage:

    “Next we have Josephus from the late-1st century CE, who has one passage (AJ 20.9.1) that may refer to Jesus and his brother James, but has also been argued to refer to another Jesus (the Jewish high priest) and James, the sons of Damneus (which calls into dispute its supposed reference to the Christian Jesus).”

    There is another, more Occammy possibility (without going into a long discussion of sources and arguments): That the passage, which describes the extrajudicial execution of a band of miscreants, of whom little is known aside from the given name of the ringleader (“James”), has no connection whatsoever to Christianity at all. Remove the “who was the brother of Christ” part, and you have a perfectly understandable passage – that the newly-installed High Priest Ananus, who was known to be “of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring” AND he followed the Sadducees, who were “severe in judgment above all the Jews” (according to Josephus) and who demonstrated this by illegally assembling a sanhedrin that resulted in a set of wrongful executions.

    The part about “Jesus bar Damneus” comes later – this is the person chosen to replace Ananus when he is deposed for his obvious unfitness-for-office. We already know that “Jesus” was a very common name back then – Josephus mentions some 20 different Jesuses in AJ. So was “James”, for that matter (see the circus-circus surrounding the “James Ossuary”). Why, if the ringleader “James” had been “James bar Damneus”, would Josephus not have mentioned that fact, had it been known?

    Finally, if the next high priest’s *brother* had been unlawfully executed, that would have been a scandal of breathtaking proportion. There is NO WAY Josephus, of all people, could have known about such an outrage and not commented upon it. After all, high priests come from highly-respected families – they aren’t riffraff pulled in off the street. If the “James” in question had been Jesus bar Damneus’ *brother*, the fact that he was ringleader of a gang of hooligans would have been an enormous public disgrace for his family (including his supposed brother, Jesus) AND would have reflected badly upon his apparently upstanding “brother”, in which case he probably wouldn’t have been chosen to replace Ananus as high priest, as that is not a position given out as a consolation prize.

    • Celsus says:

      To be honest, I actually think this passage probably does refer to Jesus of Nazareth and his brother James (I only noted the other possibility because there are some scholars who dispute this and posit the theory I mention).

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