R. Joseph Hoffman knows the truth about Jesus!

January 2, 2013 • 5:48 am

Over at The New Oxonian, R. Joseph Hoffmann,who has not exactly been a friend of this website, reports that he is writing a book that will at last tell us the historical truth about Jesus. In his piece, “Jesus: The Outline,” Hoffmann previews what his researches have revealed:

I am going out on a limb, this last day of 2012, unprotected by footnotes, to offer a few paragraphs on what I think the gospels tell us that we can be relatively sure is “true.” I have been persuaded by a few friends to lay all of this out in a book at the end of this year, so I will. With any luck, it will be shorter and easier to read than any of the books I have read on the subject in the last two decades. Think of this as a preview; I’ll save persuasion, argument and evidence for later.

Here are some of the “facts”, and I quote Hoffmann directly:

  •  “Jesus of Nazareth was born toward the beginning of the common era to a peasant woman named Miriam. He was from the region known as the Galilee (ha-Galel: Josh. 20.7), and according to an early but dubious tradition from ‘Nazareth.’”
  • “By far, in making sense of the synoptic gospels, the likeliest scenario is that Jesus was taken by his mother to Jerusalem as a boy, a tradition preserved in the unlikely and legendary story of the journey to Jerusalem in Luke 2.42-51. While in no sense ‘liberal,’ Jerusalem was populous and rustic scandals could be glossed over. As a teenager, he probably found work in the building projects associated with the reign of the Herodians. He listened to apocalyptic preaching and became an ardent opponent of the Roman occupation of Palestine.”
  •  “In specific ways, the political message of Jesus seems identical to the person described by Josephus (Ant. 18.1) as Judas of Galilee, who opposed the tax structure imposed on the Jews following the census of Quirinius mentioned by both Luke and Josephus. The geographical coordinates of Jesus and Judas coincide in important and suggestive ways.”
  •  “On one of his preaching ventures, accompanied by the followers who had come to believe he was a deliverer (perhaps believing it himself) Jesus was arrested, accused of fomenting rebellion against Roman rule, and (possibly) with the capitulation of Jewish leaders, executed.”
  • “The ‘displaced tradition’ of Jesus’ attack on the temple cult in John 2 (which violates the Markan chronology, if it knows it) comes closest to giving us an accurate picture of how Jesus was remembered by the earliest community, as a prophet, trouble-maker, and critic of the religious regime of the Pharisees and priests.”
  • “In Jerusalem, Jesus was remembered as a charismatic outlaw. A tradition, such as the Judas [Iscariot]-tradition, while partly legendary (including the name) is entirely plausible from the standpoint of Roman tactics. It was a snare, or a set-up, that tradition recasts as betrayal. The legal process against Jesus needed witnesses; the self-contradictory gospel insistence that ‘no one could be found’ to testify against him suggests that the Romans conducted his trial with dispatch. It would have been handled by a magistrate and not by the governor of the province.”
  • “As to his teaching, certain elements seem secure. Rather than a raw political apocalypticism such as we find in the preaching of John the Baptist, known to be an enemy of the Herodians, Jesus seems to be a typical purist member of ‘the fourth sect,’the religious group Josephus associates with the final troubles leading to the wars of 66-70.

To be sure, Hoffmann also tells us what he thinks Jesus did not do, like preach the gospel of love (he claims that Jesus’s authentic preachings were about the denigration of ritual and promotion of social equality). Yet how can one reliably tell which teachings are real versus made up after the fact?

Now Hoffmann gives only an outline in his article, butI still can’t see how he can advance Jesus scholarship in this way.  Most of his material seems to derive from what he claims to be credible parts of either the Bible or stories about Jesus written long after he died—if he even existed.

Hoffmann is no “mythicist,” for he obviously feels that a historical Jesus (though not a divine one) did exist. But the materials for such a historical analysis have been there for a long time, and Hoffmann doesn’t seem to adduce any new ones.

While I haven’t yet read his book, since it hasn’t been written, Hoffmann’s analysis seems to be more a matter of opinion and plausibility rather than of solid historical documentation. And, when it comes to the existence of Jesus, “plausibility” arguments are all that historicism can adduce. They’ve never settled the issue, or even come close.

103 thoughts on “R. Joseph Hoffman knows the truth about Jesus!

  1. Hoffman also objected to Carrier’s use of Bayesian thinking – in a manner that showed that what he was actually objecting to was joined-up thinking in general, considering it a damnable imposition.

  2. I was going to mention Richard Carrier. He gave a lecture at my college in late November and managed to convince pretty much everyone present of the superiority of his approach. I’d definitely pay close attention to what he has to say.

  3. Hoffman actually says “I’ll save persuasion, argument and evidence for later”?

    Isn’t that basically saying “don’t bother reading what follows”?

  4. Kind of a noticeable silence on things that might matter to some people. You know, resurrection, miracles, redemption from sin, and everything else that makes him an important religious figure and not just a philosopher or political activist.

    As an atheist, I do not really care about a historical Jesus. To even begin a reasonable discussion about it one must have already abandoned all the religious nonsense that I want people to be rid of. The whole exercise seems like little more than a theist’s final grasp at the last tiny straws.

    I have no objection at all to talking about Jesus the same way as Alexander the Great or Socrates. The nonsense lies elsewhere.

  5. I went through to Hoffmann’s post

    Paragraph 1:-

    After spending the greater part of my academic life trying to persuade people that the New Testament is chock full of myths, I’m at the point where it might be useful to say what I think isn’t one.


    Paragraph 5:-

    I am going out on a limb, this last day of 2012, unprotected by footnotes, to offer a few paragraphs on what I think the gospels tell us that we can be relatively sure is “true.”

    I take from the first para that he’s looking for bits of the NT which are not myths. That is surely equivalent to asking which parts of the NT are true. So… why does he write “true” rather than just true in paragraph 5? I’m confused.

    I’m thinking that Hoffmann’s “true” isn’t my true & he needs to define his version of the word at some point.

  6. wow, the same old garbage that has been laughed at for years. Golly and I had such hopes (not). The arguments for a “historical” Jesus are always so hilarious since *no* Christian is saying that they believe only in some possible itinerant rabbi who did no miracles and who was one of a pile of messiah claimants.

    1. “The arguments for a “historical” Jesus are always so hilarious since *no* Christian is saying that they believe only in some possible itinerant rabbi who did no miracles and who was one of a pile of messiah claimants.”

      What Christians think is surely irrelevant to deciding a historical question. And it is a question.

      1. IMO, a question that has an answer already. No half-deity, maybe some stories that collected around one man. Since we know that cults can arise out of regular old human beings, the historical interest and education worth of this line of questioning is limited.

        1. I agree the importance of this single issue has been much overblown, given that both sides more or less agree that all the important details of the gospel narratives are theological inventions.

          1. Once you toss out the Gospel narratives as theological inventions, what, pray tell, could possibly be left as Jesus?

            If, for example, Jesus wasn’t crucified by Pilate’s personal order after a shameful mockery of a trial by the Sanhedrin, how could he be the “real” Jesus?

            Hell, for that matter, does he even need to be named, “Jesus” to qualify as the “real” Jesus if we’re going to go that far? Why not suggest that, no Jesus wasn’t crucified, and, not only was his name not “Jesus,” his name was “Paul”?

            Is that how desperate you are to claim an historical Jesus, that you’ll throw out everything he is?

            Santa is real! He lives in Florida year-round after retiring from his job as a used shoe salesman; he hates children; he’s thin as a rail and clean-shaven; he’s allergic to fur and hates wearing red; the only Christmas present he’s ever given was the one his third-grade teacher forced him to; he’s never even seen a reindeer, dead or alive, outside of a cartoon figure; and his name’s, “Harold.” But he’s the real Santa!



            1. What I think we are trying to reconstruct is the historical process that led to the gospel narratives, including the origins of the Jesus cult itself. The historicity of an original cult leader called Jesus is one the components of that reconstruction, but by no means the most important one (unless you’re a Christian).

              1. So, break it down for me.

                What do you consider the single most important biographical fact of Jesus, which, if said fact is not true about a given person, said person cannot possibly be the true historical Jesus?

                Now, what evidence do you have that supports the existence of an individual with a matching biography?

                Just one single fact will do.

                The kicker, of course, is that it has to be specific enough to apply to only one person. If it’s just that said person must have been crucified, well, of course, then it could have been any of countless people and the fact is worthless. If it was, instead, that he must have been crucified at Pilate’s personal order after the Sanhedrin practically flung poo at him in a mockery of a trial, then we’ve got something to go on.

                But please — don’t run with my example unless you truly think it best. Pick the fact that you consider definitional, and present it (with evidence, please!)



              2. Back to front, again. Historicism and mythicism are input variables not outcomes. The question is which makes the best sense of the evidence we do have.

              3. The question is which makes the best sense of the evidence we do have.

                What evidence?

                All I’ve been doing in this (and every other) thread is trying to get the historicists to present the evidence they find most compelling, and the most they ever come up with is either Bible Babble or the stuff of Pagans born long afterwards that both insults and dismisses Christians.

                You’re not even doing that much.

                So, let’s make it as simple as possible.

                What single piece of evidence do you think is best explained by an historical Jesus?


              4. Since I’ve already said the way you are posing the question is flawed, simply repeating the question is not going to advance the discussion.

              5. John, if you steadfastly refuse to present evidence in support of your claims, despite my repeated attempts to convince you to offer even a sliver of a hint of such evidence, then I’m afraid all I’m left with is Hitchens’s razor.

                If you at all value intellectual honesty, then you will diligently re-examine your position in light of evidence until such time as you can confidently provide evidence to support it. Otherwise, rationalists will dismiss your unevidenced position with the same lack of integrity with which you offer it, however sincere you may be.



              6. Historicism is not “my” claim (clearly, since this is a thread about Hoffman). The evidence allows accounts to constructed using either assumption, so the issue which is more plausible.

              7. John, if you do not claim historicism, why are you arguing so vociferously in favor of it?

                There’s a common term for arguing for positions you don’t actually hold: trolling.

                Jerry doesn’t care much for trolls.


              8. I favour a historicist interpretation. My point was that this postion is hardly unique to me; it is in fact the majority position in critical scholarship. And the thread is about Hoffman.

              9. This is true, but the trouble is that New Testament history is not done like other history (the field of New Testament history comes from theology, not history, and many “historians” of it effectively do theology), and actual historians (as surveyed by Carrier) consider the field’s methodology hopelessly defective. See also particularly Avalos, who bludgeons this one into the ground. Carrier notes that we have the position where the academic consensus does in fact hold this position, but the academic consensus is also ludicrously broken, with really glaringly obvious methodological and epistemic problems.

                tl;dr yes as far as that goes, but that doesn’t actually support your position very well at all.

              10. First blatant circular reasoning and now argumentum at populam, with the population mostly composed of those whose salvation and / or jobs depend on the orthodox position being right. You’re flaming out, John.


  7. I agree that all one is left with on this questions is plausibility, and that includes on the question whether there ever was such a person at all. In that sense, neither the historicists nor the mythicists have any kind of knock-out punch, and dogmatic certainty by either side is misplaced.

      1. The question is which assumption makes best sense of the evidence (the texts), specifically their internal tensions and contradictions. It only matters to Christians whether such a person actually existed; for non-believers it’s simply a historical questions about how best to account for the data.

    1. Is that your “neutral” position? That is, what I can see, a theologically founded agnostic position.

      The simplest theory of myths is that they are myths.

      The simplest theory of mythical religious founders/gods, before the Enlightenment and ubiquitous book printing made only known scammers eligible (say, Smith and mormonism), is that they are myths.

      This is well tested, since no religious founder before 18th century is attested to be a historical person, and their description is always made generations after and a geographically long distance away.

      So I don’t think we need to ask “why would this specific religious founder be a historical person”, which is the proposal that christianists make and claim is the reason for the eminence of their faith.

      But we can do that too, disregarding the myth theory.

      That makes 3 strikes against this particular myth. (Theory of myths, theory of religious myths, lack of evidence for this specific myth).

      As always, having an empirically founded and testable position is not “dogmatic” any more than nature is.

      1. The question is not what is the “simplest” theory (whatever that means), but what is the most parsimonious. It is not clear to me that asserting the Jesus narrative were cut from mythical whole-cloth achieves that purpose. In any case, the kind of broad-brush argument you have outlined is not likely to be particularly convincing to even mythicists.

        1. The main trouble you outline is convincing those who don’t want to be convinced – rather than any problem with the burden of proof, the structure of myth and so on.

          1. As Wikipedia notes: “The principle is often incorrectly summarized as ‘other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one.’ ”

            Specifically, I had in mind which position involves making fewer ancillary assumptions. All I am saying is that it is by no means clear that the mythicist position is the more parsimonious. There are of course other considerations, but one of them should *not* be what makes for the simplest argument to use against Christians. That would be a political criteria (even if true) that has no place in the discussion.

            1. The most parsimonious explanation of the data might well be that these myths accreted around a real person. The mythicist’s hypothesis demands a complicated set of ancillary explanations involving forgeries and other processes in addition to the accreted myths. I think some mythicists are pushing too hard, arguing more forcefully than the data warrant, perhaps due to their own philosophical biases or career goals (the same thing the non-mythicists are often accused of).

            2. John, let’s put your sense of parsimony to the test, if you don’t mind. Here’s a short list of names of well-known ancient figures:


              Which of those figures do you consider historical; which do you consider fictional; and on what basis do you make that distinction?



              1. Ben, more relevant might be someone like Apollonius of Tyana if we were thinking of analogous figures.

              2. John, what evidence do you have equating Jesus with Apollonius?

                My evidence for the list I just presented is Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Chapter 21: “Analogies to the history of Christ.” And I’d be more than happy to offer up many more such sources, sources roughly contemporary with the authorship of the Gospels.

                I very much doubt that you have any evidence to support your position, since nobody else I’ve ever asked has every been able to offer any.

                Alternatively, what evidence can you offer to refute the claims that Martyr makes? Or do you concur with his explanation for the analogies?


              3. Ben, since you outlined your argument re: Justin Martyr in a very recent thread, I don’t think we need a replay here. And if you don’t find striking parallels between Apollonius and Jesus, then you are in lonely company.

              4. So, just to make sure I know where you stand: you have no comment on Martyr’s impassioned equation of Jesus with practically every other Pagan demigod in the pantheon; you have no positive evidence outside the Bible and century-late Pagan accounts supporting the existence of an historical Jesus; and the most you have to offer supporting your thesis is another fantastical miracle worker again whom is unknown to history until a “biographer” assembled a fantastical “biography” at least a century and a half after his death?

                Pardon me while I fail to be overwhelmed.


              5. The Justin Martyr argument doesn’t bear on the question, IMO, having read your voluminous recent posts. And I’ve stated my own position; others can judge the fairness of your characterization.

            3. I highly recommend Richard Carrier’s own wonderful post, Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire:
              The region was crawling with messianic prophets, many of whom were said to have great powers, and it was also full of very gullible followers. Why is it even slightly implausible that one of these prophets is at the root of the Jesus myth? There are clearly analogous myths accreted around real individuals of that time, as documented by Roman skeptics like Lucian.

              1. My question is, why should we believe that there’s exactly one charismatic prophet at the root of the Jesus myth? Isn’t it just as plausible that the myth was woven together after the fact from a number of different strands of local legend?

                Suppose we were to uncover a trove of ancient documents that allowed us to trace the various elements of the Jesus story back to a dozen different itinerant preachers, one of whom, let us suppose, happened to be named Jesus or something like it. Would it then make sense to say that we had found the historical Jesus? I don’t think so, because the story would still not be about that specific guy. It would be about a fictional character representing that whole class of guys.

              2. Why is it even slightly implausible that one of these prophets is at the root of the Jesus myth?

                I don’t think that anybody is arguing that it is implausible. With such little actual evidence, a lot of plausible explanations can be–and actually have been–proposed. The real question is which explanation is more parsimonious. But before we can decide on that we have to actually look at what evidence we really have.

                The way I see it we have just a bunch of texts with no external corroboration of their claims. We also know that by the first century CE, Christians started to be visible, and that by the fourth century CE they essentially acquired state power.

                Superficially it may seem that “there was a (single) individual at the root of it all” is the most parsimonious assumption but with a closer examination of the actual evidence this is not so clear. The earliest documents we have, the epistles, are very problematic under the assumption that there was an actual recently crucified individual that started the movement. There is very little on the writings of Paul about a human Jesus and the little there is, is never clear cut. For example Paul doesn’t say that he met a “brother of Jesus” but a “brother of the Lord”, he doesn’t say that Jesus will come back he just says that he will come, the verb he uses in “born of a woman” does not unambiguously mean “born” it could also mean “made”. He talks about receiving knowledge about Jesus, and reports things that Jesus told him in visions, and he never mentions any other way that sayings of Jesus are known. When he refers to other apostles there is no indication that they became apostles in a different way that he did. He says things that (much later) in the Gospels are attributed to Jesus but he presents them as his own sayings, even though on occasion he reports sayings of the Lord that he received in his visions.
                On the other hand he says a lot of things about Jesus that it’s hard to imagine that would be said about a rebel crucified a few years ago: that he is the second Adam, that he preexisted on the right hand of God from the beginning of time and so on.

                And it’s not only Paul’s epistles, all the (authentic) epistles are like that. None of the supposed “oral traditions” appear on any of the early Christian writings, I find it hard to believe that there was all these stories circulating around about Jesus, but the first time we actually come across them is at the final decades of the fist century CE. Somehow all the early writers saw no reason to refer to any of these stories and all of a sudden after 40 years or so everybody starts telling them.

              3. My question is, why should we believe that there’s exactly one charismatic prophet at the root of the Jesus myth?

                The thing is, we have no evidence for even a single charismatic prophet, and, indeed, not even any indication that early Christians ever thought of Jesus as anything resembling a charismatic prophet.

                What we do have, in spades, are treasure torves of ancient documents that allow us to trace the various elements of the Jesus story back to not a dozen different itinerant preachers, but a dozen different pagan demigods.

                And, as to the “Jesus” name, let’s not forget that not only was it every bit as popular a name then as “Joshua” remains to this day, but also that the literal translation of “Jesus Christ” is “YHWH’s anointed savior.” I hardly think we need to look to an historical human as the only plausible source for such a name for the figure….


              4. Gregory, surely multiple people could be at the root of the story. But the mythicists would deny even that possibility.

                I think if one of the multiple people were identified as Jesus, then yes, the historical Jesus (or Jesuses) would have been found. You say this wouldn’t be the Jesus of the Bible, but we already knew that we wouldn’t find the Jesus described in the Bible, because people don’t walk on water, etc.

              5. Ben, are you sure about your line “The thing is, we have no evidence for even a single charismatic prophet”? Carrier’s piece I linked to above suggests there were prophets all over the place.

              6. Lou, I hope I’ve never given the impression that I think there weren’t any charismatic apocalyptic prophets in that era, and I don’t see any cases in this thread where I’ve done so. If so, my apologies!

                Rather, my position is two-fold.

                First, there is no evidence of a charismatic apocalyptic prophet matching Jesus’s description; and, second, no description of Jesus is reasonably compatible with him having been an historical charismatic apocalyptic prophet.

                (Of course, there are elements of his story which portray him as charismatic, apocalyptic, and pathetic. Er, “prophylactic.” Whatever. My point is that none of those portrayals can reasonably be understood to have been of a mortal doing the charismatic apocalyptic prophesy, but rather of a demigod doing those things at the same time as he’s, for example, mustering the zombie armies with which he’s enacting a preview of the grand finale. It’s rather like calling Atlas a weightlifter without giving consideration to the weight he carried.)



              7. Ben, the sentence I quoted from your post left me with that impression. I am glad that wasn’t your intention.

                Of course if you require the instigator(s) of the Jesus story to have worked miracles, you get an empty set of possible instigators. That can’t be a required attribute for the historical Jesus. I think what we should require is the attribute that person(s) X actually inspired or attracted some of the stories attributed to Jesus. How to find evidence for that attribute is another question….

              8. Lou, it is your very assertion that there ever was a Jesus who wasn’t miraculous that is both unevidenced and a relatively modern claim with its origins in Christian apologetics.

                If you could present evidence for a non-divine Jesus…but we’ve been down that path.


              9. Lou, “inspired by” seems like a pretty vague criterion. All fiction takes inspiration from real life. The myths of Scientology were “inspired by” the existence of DC8s and atom bombs. That doesn’t mean we should go looking for a historical Xenu.

              10. Greg, no, but it does mean that you have found a historical source (the DC-8) for the myth. That, and only that, is what a secular historian wants to find in the case of the Jesus myths. This question doesn’t have any necessary relation to Christian apologetics.

      2. “no religious founder before 18th century is attested to be a historical person,”

        Most historians are willing to accept a historical Buddha, and Lao-Tzu (founder of Taoism). (On the other hand almost no one thinks Krishna is historical). While there is a school that Mohammed is mythical, it is a minority.

        The founders of specific religious movements within Christianity, St. Francis, Thomas Menno (founder of the Mennonites) are all generally regarded as historical. And certainly the existence of Martin Luther is extremely well-attested!!

        That said Hoffman’s outline can only rise to some level (low, medium, or high) of plausibility, never to certainty, but it appears Hoffman is somewhat aware of this.

        1. I don’t think that the historicity of the Buddha is at all well attested, it is highly unlikely that such a person actually existed.

  8. The evidence for the historical Jesus is too corrupted to come to any reasonable conclusions. But of course, agnosticism isn’t enough for the type of people who are interested in the historical Jesus (Christians, mainly).

  9. Hoffmann’s attempt to link Jesus to the “Fourth Philosophy” of Judas the Galilaean is revealing: his views on this topic show that he is quite out of touch with modern scholarship on the subject. D. M. Rhoads (1976) and Martin Goodman (1987) pointed out long ago that Josephus never indicates that the “Fourth Philosophy” outlived Judas’ brief rebellion, so Hoffmann’s suggestion that Jesus was a “typical purist member of ‘the fourth sect,’” is ridiculous. We’ve no evidence at all that such a sect existed for Jesus to be a “typical purist member” of.

    As for the depiction of Jesus as an anti-imperialist, Helen K Bond makes a good point over at The Bible and Interpretation (http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/bon368024.shtml) that the gospels really don’t support this position: “What we have here in scholarship that puts an anti-imperial agenda to the fore in Jesus’ teaching, it seems to me, is the desire for a useable Jesus – someone who will speak to modern day liberal Christians who want to critique their own government’s imperialist practices.”

  10. So, just another failed attempt to resurrect the Jesus Seminar…

    I’d like to know what his sources will be for Jesus working on the Herods’ building projects. Does he have Jesus’ W-2s? Or was Jesus an independent contractor, so only got 1099s?

    It’s laughable speculation.

  11. But what evidence have Hoffmann in order to be “relatively sure” about his “true” proposed facts?

    ”In specific ways, the political message of Jesus seems identical to the person described by Josephus (Ant. 18.1) as Judas of Galilee, who opposed the tax structure imposed on the Jews following the census of Quirinius mentioned by both Luke and Josephus. The geographical coordinates of Jesus and Judas coincide in important and suggestive ways.”

    Well, well. Then the rest of the Jesus figure is a myth and there was a Judas with a totally different social context, a revolt leader with a large involved family. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judas_of_Galilee ]

  12. For all the fanfare supposedly accompanying the birth, why then was there no fanfare (in the Bible) about anything in the following couple decades, at least. Not even a paragraph about “where I’ve been.”

    Bad storytelling, but bad editors, too.

  13. It is ridiculous to use any bible reference for the historicity of Jesus. Although the bible references actual places and people, that is common in works of fiction. If references in the bible are known to be false, like the zombie Jesus, healing lepers or feeding 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, then the rest can be assumed to be made up as well. This is like claiming that because NUMA is a real agency founded by Clive Cussler, Dirk Pitt must be a real person since Clive Cussler writes about Pitt’s adventures with NUMA and they all take place in real locations and he interacts with known people.
    The entire exercise of determining if Jesus was a real person seems like a complete waste of time. If the miracle performing jesus isn’t the one you’re looking for, why look for one in the first place? The whole point is to prove that Christianity is based on the life of the biblical jesus. Claiming that you’ve proved a person named jesus was real but he wasn’t the miracle performing Jesus you have done nothing.

    1. “The entire exercise of determining if Jesus was a real person seems like a complete waste of time.”

      Not if you are a historian. By your argument both mythicists and historicists are wasting their time over a pointless question.

      1. I would agree if Hoffman were searching for the biblical Jesus, but he’s not. For the purpose of being able to prove his existence, Jesus has been redefined to something Hoffman is sure he can find which would be a guy named Jesus who lived around 2000 years ago. That is pointless.

  14. Wait.

    I’m confused.

    Hoffman has already made clear that he thinks that the Gospels are works of fiction, right?

    Is he at least examining non-fictional works to determine which parts of the Gospels are fact and which are fiction, or is all this just masturbatory literary analysis?

    And, if the former, wouldn’t it make the most sense to have your teaser be the non-fiction bits than the fiction bits?


  15. Can someone help me understand what a historical Jesus is? To me it seems like a table without legs and a top. Which is the same as empty air, save maybe a few screws.

    It just makes no sense to me to call a character without the mythical elements “Jesus”.

    1. One line of thought runs as follows:

      There was a Jesus sect already in existence at the time the first epistles were written, and the notion is that this sect had its roots in the execution of its loony leader a couple of decades earlier.

      1. On what evidence do you base the claim that either Paul or any of his correspondents held beliefs about Jesus that are compatible with him being a “loony leader” executed in approximately 30 CE?

        (I’m assuming you’re assuming a traditional dating of the Epistles to 50 – 65 CE, a dating I personally find questionable, but not so questionable that I’m interested in challenging it here.)


        1. I think there is consensus that a proto-Christian sect pre-dated Paul (ie he didn’t bring it into being, but decisively shaped it). The question is therefore: what was the origin of that sect. “Don’t know” is an acceptable but not very satisfactory response. Another answer posits an executed sect leader around whom a variety of myths/sayings accreted. The test of this hypothesis is whether it makes sense of the evidence we have in a parsimonious fashion.

          1. Then it fails the test, for it fails to account for the fact that there’s nothing left of Jesus once you strip out all the undeniable Pagan parallels (which Martyr detailed); that neither Paul nor his correspondents breathed a hint of Jesus as a lunatic nutjob human; and that Paul did establish his own bona fides by describing his personal, spiritual encounter with Christ and by making clear that everybody else who experienced Christ experienced him in a similar fashion.

            I’ll ask again: do you think any of the Pagan demigods with whom Martyr analogized Christ were, at first, real historical figures? If not, why Jesus?


            1. You may be right, but then you would have to give an account of the facts and texts that is clearly more convincing than a historicist account.

              1. An historicist account is clearly inconsistent with all available evidence, unless you wish to go down the Christian apologist route and claim that the Gospels are God’s Honest Truth™ and everything inconsistent with them is the work of Satan.

                That means that Jesus was invented in exactly the same way as every other Pagan demigod, especially including all the ones he very closely resembles.

                What, exactly, is your objection to the claim that Jesus’s origins are exactly the same as Orpheus’s origins? Or do you think Orpheus was an historical figure?


              2. I don’t think a historicist account is “clearly inconsistent” with the evidence, as you confidently assert.

                “Jesus was invented in exactly the same way as every other Pagan demigod” is a bare assertion at which even a veteran mythicist such as Price would blush. Invented by whom? When?

              3. John, just because we don’t know exactly who invented any of the other Pagan demigods or can fix the dates of their invention doesn’t mean that it’s unreasonable to describe them as fictional inventions. Indeed, their origins span many generations, as a collaborative effort of theological “stone soup.”

                Jesus was exactly the same. There was no one single invention of Jesus. Or, rather, the earliest Jesuses were likely so unlike the Jesus of the Gospels that it would be difficult to pick any particular one of them as “the” original Jesus. Which individual raindrop and / or snowflake is “the” source of the Mississippi?

                We can, however, point to many sources and events in the development of Jesus, some with more confidence and completeness than others.

                For example, we can be very certain that the Eucharist and the Last Supper was something that Paul first introduced into Christianity, and that he got it from the Mithraism of his home town of Tarsus. Before then, either there were no events leading up to the Crucifixion or there were other ideas of what happened the night before.

                We can also be reasonably confident that the virgin birth was either unknown or heretical to the author of Mark, but embraced by the author of Matthew. Who first decided that Jesus was born of a virgin is unknown, but there’s little doubt but that the way in which he was born of a virgin was adapted wholesale from the story of Perseus, and that it was, effectively, the author Matthew who first made it truly so.

                We can also trace the evolution of extinct branches. Despite the conviction of the Ophites, the modern Jesus is not a snake god. They probably got that from the Egyptians (indeed, they were themselves Egyptian). Similarly, Jesus never married, despite heresies claiming otherwise; contra Marcion, he did not initially arrive on Earth by beaming down from the sky a la Captain Kirk.

                You’ll note that I’m not claiming that there was an historical Jesus who was a perpetual bachelor. Rather, I’m claiming that the Jesus character from religious fiction never married, just the same way that I’d similarly claim that Orpheus married Eurydice. It is a statement of literary analysis, not of historical fact. Even if you could find some ancient text that claimed that Orpheus never married, it would still be incorrect to claim that he never married, just as it’s incorrect to claim that Jesus did despite ancient texts to the contrary.



              4. The immediate questions that need to be answered cluster around the origin of the apparently widely spread Jesus sect already in existence 20 or so years after the execution of someone they saw as their founder. This where the rubber hits the road with the mysthicist position.

              5. With question-begging so transparent, it’s quite clear that you really are a troll.

                Hint: the question isn’t how to explain the origins of Christianity after Jesus. The question is whether or not Jesus was even there in the first place. “Proving” the former by assuming the latter is…quite pathetic, really.


              6. There is simply not the evidence to “prove” either position (I think we all agree on that). The issue is which assumption produces the most plausible interpretation of the evidence we do have. I don’t see what’s wrong with that approach.

              7. Only if you pick your meaning for “prove”. What we have is a hypothesis (that this person existed) which needs to be shown to be much likelier than the null hypothesis (that such a person didn’t exist).

    2. An historical Jesus is a desperate attempt to reconcile a childish fairytale with reality so its adherents don’t feel as gullible as they are.

  16. So let me get this straight. Coyne’s “like as not Jesus didn’t even exist” meets the plausibility test. And Hoffman’s “Jesus probably wasn’t tried by Pilate” doesn’t. (And Coyne is just as qualified to draw conclusions as is Hoffman, because he too has read all the relevant documents.)
    If the game doesn’t rise above the level of plausible evidence–if there isn’t enough evidence to settle anything, only to advance mere opinions–wouldn’t familiarity with whatever evidence does exist–all of it=-be even more important than it is in cases where there’s epistemically superior evidence to be had?

  17. Yes, I realize much of what Hoffman knows and Coyne doesn’t isn’t evidence that bears directly on who Jesus was and what he did. But Hoffman is acquainted with evidence about Nazareth, Palestinian and Roman history, Galilean circumstances, Roman legal proceedings and the like that he does have at hand evidence that’s relevant to his conclusions.

    1. Problem is, Hoffman has yet to present any such evidence independent of the Gospels to support his claims of historicity.

      And he won’t, because there isn’t any.

      His Christian apology in this case is as silly as somebody claiming historicity for Harry Potter because London is a real place with real train platforms and because some people keep owls as pets and you could probably train one to carry messages.

      The question isn’t whether there are parts of the Gospels that aren’t completely off the deep end. Every bit of fiction has stuff that’s at least vaguely plausible — even Star Wars has, for example, people just scraping by farming in an arid desert.

      The question is whether or not anything in this bizarre zombie snuff pr0n fantasy has any bearing on reality, and that can only be addressed by examining reliable evidence — all of which contradicts the affirmative position whilst trivially supporting the mythical conclusion that you’d initially assume without a second thought were it not for millennia of Christian propaganda.

      Or else do you suppose that Odysseus is an historical figure who really did see his men transfigured into pigs by Circe, not unlike the demons Jesus drove over the (non-existent) cliff? Was Perseus a truly historical figure, born of the virgin Danae in accord with the prophecies? And so on.


  18. Hoffman’s sounds like a reasonable and plausible hypothesis. But as Dr Coyne points out, without any hard evidence a hypothesis is ALL it is.

  19. I would rather ask you what is there for you to demonstrate the non-existence of Jesus. There is no issue to be settled about the historical existence of Jesus; there are only “atheists” who expect that by casting doubts on Jesus’ existence their doubts will become so popular that people will actually believe them. As Mao said, “A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth.”

    1. Thomas Brodie is harldy an atheist and he doesn’t think that Jesus was a historic person. There are also a lot of atheists that believe that Jesus existed in history. So much for your folk psychoanalysis.

    2. Claudia, the burden of proof is always on those who claim the existence of something, never on those who claim nonexistence.

      I do not expect you to prove the nonexistence of leprechauns. I don’t expect you to prove the nonexistence of fish sticks at the center of Jupiter. If I were claiming these things to be true it would be rational for you to ask me to provide the evidence.

    3. Claudia, I’ve done so repeatedly here and in other threads on WEIT the past few days.

      The short version is that there are libraries worth of actually contemporary sources, most or all of which should mention Jesus, and yet not a single one does. When descriptions of Jesus finally start showing up generations after the “fact,” he’s described as a figure distinguishable in name only from any of the numerous Pagan demigods who you’d agree with everybody else are entirely fictional. That point is made clear in excruciating detail by the very earliest of Christian scholars, such as Justin Martyr in the early second century. And when the Pagans first noticed the Christians, they universally dismissed them as a bunch of lunatic nutjob wackos, much like you’d dismiss the Raelians. Further, we can even trace certain elements of Jesus’s story to specific interpolations by certain people, such as Paul’s stealing of the Last Supper / Eucharist from the Mithraism of his home town of Tarsus.

      The conclusion that Jesus is exactly what he appears to be — yet another Pagan death-and-resurrection demigod, cast in the mold of all the others and grafted onto the Jewish pantheon — is hardly a stretch.

      When you understand why you agree with me that there was no historical Perseus, Hercules, Dionysus, Bacchus, Æsculapius, Mithra, or the rest, you’ll understand why I don’t think there was an historical Jesus, either.



          1. My basement IS a tauroctony.

            Kind of.

            When our son was a very small child we were fearful of him going into the basement (old 1915 house, lots of hazards). There happened to be an old poster of a dragon hanging on the wall down there and he mistakenly took it for real one day. Thereafter, for a few critical years, he was convinced that the sound of the boiler running was evidence of the dragon.

            Had it been a picture of a bull…

              1. lol.

                Well the good news is that the boy turned out to be a good clear-headed atheist despite his demon-haunted basement.

      1. “Paul’s stealing of the Last Supper / Eucharist from the Mithraism of his home town of Tarsus”

        Care to point to an actual inscription of a mithraic eucharist? Care to point to specific inscriptions that show any eucharistic elements that aren’t regular parts of any contemporary meal? Care to say what inscription or artefact from Tarsus you are basing this on? How many inscriptions relating to Mithras in Tarsus do you think we have, in total? Or perhaps you are actually relying on ancient Christian sources for your information about Mithraism (though presumably you’d note the irony in that).

        I mean, the Jesus Paul describes is clearly a myth, and Paul even admits to getting the Eucharist story from someone else. But yout comment is pretty terrible analogizing!

        Mithras is often abused as a stick to beat Christianity with, to the extent that a good proportion of the information about Mithras to be found online is, well, bullshit. The stuff of “Mithras was born of a virgin on 25 December, had 12 disciples” is all rubbish, and you’ll not find a professional Mithraist who won’t laugh it out of the room. Its ironic, because most of these Mithras misrepresentations were first popularized by Christians who wanted to show that Mithraism was a poor rip-off of Christianity.

        It is easy to find analogies to any figure if you are vague enough, and willing to make up evidence. This has dogged lots of study of ancient religion, but Mithraism seems to be particularly blighted – how long was the whole “Roman Mithras = Persian Mitra” rubbish perpetuated (which, in turn, is actually partly the source of the myth that Tarsus was a particularly important center for Mithraism).

        Getting your information on Mithras from a professional Mithraist might be worth doing.

        Or actually reading up on some real ancient history, independent of your obsession with Jesus. There are a few similar other points in your post.

        Just because the other guys are wrong, doesn’t mean you’re right.

        1. “Getting your information on Mithras from a professional Mithraist might be worth doing.”

          There is such a profession? I missed my calling!

        2. Sorry for not re-re-re-re-posting the evidence for my assertion; I’ve done it so many times this past week or so that I’ve just assumed everybody here has seen it.

          But you obviously haven’t, so here goes.

          The earliest mention of the Eucharist comes in I Corinthians 11. Though Paul is superficially relating the Last Supper, the context makes it quite clear that he’s instead giving instructions on how to perform the Eucharist, and that these instructions are new to the people he’s writing to.


          Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, chapter 66, “Of the Eucharist,” made clear, in no uncertain terms, that the Christian and Mithraic Eucharists were copies of each other:

          […] having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

          To be sure, Martyr claims that the Christian version is the original and the Mithraic one a copy…but the “wicked devils” he’s referring to here are presumably the same ones he repeatedly elsewhere blames for creating all pre-existing Pagan analogies with Christ. Meaning Martyr himself is claiming that Mithraists were practicing the ritual earlier in time than Christians were, but it was still somehow the Mithraists who copied the Christians.

          Even if you wish to insist that it’s reasonable that Martyr himself might be referring to normal after-the-fact copying, we still have to consider how reasonable an assumption that is.

          As it turns out, we know that the cult of Mithra was very well established by the first century CE, and that it was favored by soldiers and pirates. Suggesting that a well-established religion of conquerors would steal one of its most important rites from an unknown fledgling cult of a just-conquered people seems quite bizarre just on the surface.

          But we can look even deeper still

          Plutarch had a bit to say about the mysteries of Mithra as well:

          [The Cilician pirates] also offered strange sacrifices of their own at Olympus, and celebrated there certain secret rites, among which those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them. (Life of Pompey, chapter 24)

          I don’t remember how the date works out from Plutarch’s history, but it was before Pompey finally put a stop to their pirating in 66 BCE — at least a century before Paul, and maybe a couple centuries.

          Now, the last piece of the puzzle comes from knowing a bit about the local geography.

          The capital of Cilicia, and the pirates’s home port, was Tarsus.

          As in, “Paul of.”

          I hardly think it reasonable to suggest that Paul was perfectly unaware of the central rite of the religion of his own home town.

          Therefore, the case is as iron-clad as these things get: Paul incorporated the Mithraist Eucharist into Christianity, and gave Jesus his Last Supper while he was at it.



          1. Like I said, you’ve still offered no actual inscriptions or evidence for the assertion that the a Mithraic eucharist was the source of Paul’s passage, nor even that anything that could be interpreted as a Eucharist (in anything but a way in which all meals could) is found in any Mithraic source. Where exactly do you find the “Mithraic eucharist”?

            So, please spare the high-school ancient history, and claims to have previously given evidence many times, and just give the evidence for what you claimed. The actual artefacts or inscriptions [their catalog numbers and institutions say] or at the very least peer-reviewed archaeological research from the last 20 years that describes the “Mithraic Eucharist”.

            Because, its easy to make up stuff. And its easy to believe something somebody else made up if it fits your prejudices. But that’s not evidence. Can you actually give some real evidence for the “Mithraic eucharist”?

            1. thebull, it would seem that it’s not high school ancient history you’re in need of, but high school remedial reading for comprehension.

              I just presented you with ample evidence from the relevant period, complete with quotes and ample (though informal) bibliographical references. That you’re unable even to identify it as such is your problem, not mine.



  20. Hoffmann has posted a sequel:


    He starts by stating

    the perfectly obvious suggestion that their cause is nothing more than a cobbling together of mutually contradictory premises, the full weight of which don’t amount to an argument.

    and then goes on to explicitly concede the main mythicist points. For example:

    Gospels do not record history:

    The gospels were written as propaganda by a religious cult. That impugns them as history, even at a time—the last decades of the first great Roman imperial century—when history wasn’t especially committed to recording what really happened in a dispassionate and disinterested way.

    Jesus was hardly remarkable:

    He wrote nothing. He said little that could be construed as original or memorable, so that almost everything attributed to him could have come from other sources. We can point to a dozen “mystery” religions whose heroes had at best a shadowy existence, but probably none at all. And even though the dying/rising god cults differed pointedly from each other and from Christianity, it is pretty clear that Christianity after the time of St Paul fit the description of a salvation cult pretty well.

    There is no reliable historical evidence for a historical Jesus:

    Given that there is (a) no reason to trust the gospels; (b) no external testimony to the existence of Jesus (I’ve never thought that the so-called “pagan” reports were worth considering in detail; at most they can be considered evidence of the cult, not a founder); (c) no independent Christian source that is not tainted by the missionary objectives of the cult and (d) no Jewish account that has not been invented or tainted by Christian interpolators, what is the purpose of holding out for an historical Jesus?

    So why is he arguing for a historical Jesus? He does go on to explain but it’s not very clear. He seems to be arguing that the Jesus figure is not implausible in the sense that it fits the “three c’s: conditions, context, and coordinates” which as far as I understand it comes down to: If we assume the existence of Jesus we don’t get any obvious contradictions with what know about the history of Palestine at the beginning of the Common Era. So why not?

    Of course there may be more to his argument and I missed it.

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