NY Times implicitly accepts Biblical account of Jesus’s deeds

May 15, 2014 • 5:04 am

While reading yesterday’s New York Times, I was startled to see this headline in the first (“A”) section:

Screen shot 2014-05-14 at 6.56.36 PMWell, I thought, “may” might denote some doubt about the existence of the historical Jesus or about whether he did what scripture describes, but that wasn’t the case. It turns out that the article in question was about the discovery of the remains of a synagogue where a Jesus whose deeds are not in question may have taught.

Here’s the upshot: in 2004 a Catholic priest, Father Juan Solana, was looking for a place in Israel to build a center where pilgrims could rest and congregate. He acquired land near the Sea of Gaililee to build a large hotel, and during the construction the unearthed the remains of a first-century synagogue. From there the article simply accepts that it may have been connected with Jesus, but casts no doubt about the Biblical accounts of Jesus’s deeds.

Here are some excerpts from the Times piece; I’ve put statements about the acceptance of Jesus’s deeds in bold:

But their spades struck history only a little more than a foot below the surface: a stone bench that, it soon became evident, was part of the remains of a synagogue from the first century, one of only seven from the Second Temple period known to exist, and the first to be found in Galilee. A local coin found in a side room of the synagogue was dated from the year 29 — when Jesus is thought to have been alive.

Those involved in the project say it immediately brought to mind a biblical verse, Matthew 4:23: “Jesus went all through Galilee, teaching in its synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, and curing the sicknesses and the ailments of the people.” The site of the dig was only about five miles from Capernaum, a known center of Jesus’ activities.

. . . Dina Gorni-Avshalom, the archaeologist who manages the dig on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the synagogue and the reading table provided researchers with extraordinary insight into the nature of the link between the Jews of the north and the temple in Jerusalem, as well as the connection between Judaism and early Christianity. On top of that, she said, there was sufficient “circumstantial evidence” to assume that Jesus may have set foot there. 

Maybe I’m carping a bit here, but shouldn’t there have been a caveat to the effect that “historians are divided about whether Jesus really did the things that the Bible describes”? And really, how much confidence do we have that Capernaum was “a known center of Jesus’ activities”?  After all, how would it sit with Times readers if Manchester, New York was described as “the known place where the angel Moroni showed Joseph Smitgh the golden plates”?

But what do you expect of a faith-osculating paper that regularly gives copious space to the accommodationism of Tanya Luhrmann, as it did on the same day?




54 thoughts on “NY Times implicitly accepts Biblical account of Jesus’s deeds

    1. Yeah, pretty much. I’m cutting them some slack. But I’m not sure what percentage of Biblical historians deny the existence of a historic person on which the Jesus myth is based. I would say it would have to be about 25% to justify the word “divided”, and I doubt it’s that high.

      1. You’re probably right, especially considering that the overwhelming majority of “scholars” who specialize in Biblical studies are devout Christians and theologians employed by religious institutions.


        1. Yes, but ven in the non-Christian camp there is still a significant majority who hold to a historical Jesus, notably the vociferous atheist Robin Lane Fox whose book “The Unauthorized Version” is a fairly strong attack on the Bible.

          In short, it’s true that a majority of New Testament scholars are Christians, but also the case that a majority of non-Christian New Testament scholars are going along with the common line of a probably historical Jesus.

          IMO, an honest historian would allow that Jesus existence cannot be proven beyond reasonable doupt. There is no clearly convincing evidence of Jesus’ existence. But even the Robin Lane Fox’ trend towards seeing it as a cleaner reading of the evidence.

      2. “historians are divided about whether Jesus really did the things that the Bible describes”. Jerry’s post made no mention about historians being divided on the question of whether the man actually existed. The issue mentioned is whether historians agree He did the deeds He’s purported to have done.

      3. Richard Carrier, whose book, On the Historicity of Jesus is due out in a couple of months, is of the opinion that Jesus was not based on a real person at all, but he says that is very much a minority opinion among Bible scholars. Most of them think there was a ‘nobody’ probably named Jesus who preached in Galilee.

        1. …and the problem with the “nobody” preacher Jesus theory is that it’s violently contradicted by all evidence ostensibly used to support the theory (the Gospels, etc.); completely unsupported by any other evidence; and incoherent, to boot.

          Santa is real! His name is, “Harold,” he’s a skinny retiree living in Florida, he hates children, and he’s allergic to reindeer (though he’s never actually seen a living one), he’s a Jewish atheist, and he’s never given anybody a Christmas present in his entire life…but he’s the real Santa!



          1. That raises the interesting question as to whether George Wells in his later years or Robert Price in his early ones believed in a real Jesus or not.

            Wells eventually became convinced that the sayings attributed to “Q” (the stuff in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark) may very likely have been the sayings of a preacher-rabbi wandering around Palestine, but he maintained that the Gospel stories were almost entirely fiction and in particular the entire crucifixion narrative!! James Leslie Houlden’s “Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia” interprets this as Wells changing his mind and deciding there really was a Jesus after all. But if you remove the whole passion narrative, is this really a historical Jesus??

            In early days, Robert Price toyed with the notion that Jesus might be a composite of two or more historical personalities. So is that a historical Jesus or not?

            1. In early days, Robert Price toyed with the notion that Jesus might be a composite of two or more historical personalities. So is that a historical Jesus or not?

              Not in any meaningful sense of the word.

              But what really gets my goat is how eager people are to manufacture absurd “possibilities” such as that from nothing more than a conviction that the entire foundation of Christianity can’t possibly be made up…and yet they’re equally eager to not even pretend to address the writings of Saint Justin Martyr, contemporary of the Gospel authors, who passionately and exhaustively and most persuasively demonstrated that Jesus is a composite of several Pagan demigods.

              Just once — once! — I’d like an historicist make a serious stab at explaining away Martyr’s First Apology.



              1. Ben, write your request for an explanation and email it to Robert M. Price criticus@mindvendor.com (this is the address at his web page). I listen to his Bible Geek and Human Bible both, and I’m pretty sure he is one historicist who will give it his level best.

                My understanding of his position is that the Biblical Jesus is likely based in part on itinerant Levant magician-soothsayer-Judeo religion mystics, combined with the dying/rising sun god archetype, and an amalgam of select bits and pieces from other deities common to cultures in that geographical region (to include possibly Hindu-Buddhist input), but not a single specific individual.

                I’d like to hear Price’s evaluation of the writing of Justin Martyr.

              2. Price’s notion of Jesus as a composite (of both historical figures and myth) is discussed in his early book “Deconstructing Jesus” especially in the chapter “The Many Behind the One”. But he’s not a firmly committed historicist as he and Earl Doherty co-sponsored a contest for the best essaying defending Jesus being wholly mythical. At the end of the book cited, Price settles for a Jesus-agnosticism saying we really can’t know if the bottom layers of the gospel have a historical basis or not.

                Dates assigned to the Gospel of Matthew have swung from 70 to 140, so while Justin Martyr is a near-contemporary I don’t know if he’s a strict contemporary.

                Justin Martyr also thinks Jesus’ teaching embodies the best of Greek philosophy, Socrates etc, but I don’t find anything at all Socratic in Jesus’ teaching, so JM thinks there’s a lot in the mix, gods and philosophers.

              3. If you read Price’s “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man” you will find that he is at best an agnostic on the subject of Jesus’ existence. He comes firmly to the conclusion that if Jesus existed we know nothing about him, which is as good as not existing in my book. I think he has lately become even more of a mythicist. I certainly wouldn’t call him an historicist.

        2. Carrier also points out that laypeople should still defer to the consensus among historians (as biased as that consensus may be, and as much as he himself is aiming to challenge/change that consensus.) for the time being:

          Philosopher (and FtB alum) Dan Fincke has written a good, concise piece on why atheists need to don a little more sense and humility when claiming Jesus didn’t exist. In his article On Atheists Attempting to Disprove the Existence of the Historical Jesus, Fincke makes a sound case for two basic points: (1) amateurs should not be voicing certitude in a matter still being debated by experts (historicity agnosticism is far more defensible and makes far more sense for amateurs on the sidelines) and (2) criticizing Christianity with a lead of “Jesus didn’t even exist” is strategically ill conceived–it’s bad strategy on many levels, it only makes atheists look illogical, and (counter-intuitively) it can actually make Christians more certain of their faith.

          I think his piece is a must-read. I’ll only briefly comment on some of its key arguments here.

          I quite agree with (1) and (2). I’ve made both points myself over the years. But Fincke lays out the reasoning well. He concludes, for example, that until “secular historians…at least become widely divided over” the matter of historicity (emphasis on widely and the minimal benchmark of divided), atheists who are not themselves experts in the field should not be “advocating for one side or the other routinely and prominently.” (There is a growing division, BTW, but it’s not yet wide…although I know other historians who privately confess they are willing to concede agnosticism about historicity but who won’t admit it in public, so the division is wider than we know–but until more go public, we can’t know how wide.) Meanwhile, Fincke explains, “we should either be agnostic on the issue,” as Fincke is, or “defer to historical consensus,” or, “if we really find [e.g.] Carrier’s arguments compelling” then we should “still be cautious and qualified in our declarations, acknowledging that we are agreeing with a minority view (and one that even Carrier seems far from certain about).”


          So perhaps the Times was using this approach.

          1. That sort of insistence to deference to authority is arrogant and not deserving of respect.

            When Jerry tells people Why Evolution is True, he does so by presenting the evidence and reasoning, simply and eloquently and incontrovertibly compellingly.

            When Sean Carroll tells people why human-scale physics is complete, he does so by explaining the Standard Model and the domains over which we do and don’t have evidence and just how complete said evidence really is. (And, for those unfamiliar with Sean, note that he’s describing a very narrow and focussed portion of physics, that of the everyday world, and excluding things like cosmogenesis and quantum gravity and the like that aren’t settled.)

            When climate scientists tell people why AGW is a problem, they pull out mountains of data (quite literally; see mountain-tall ice cores for but a small example) and models ranging in sophistication from ones suitable for ten-year-olds to ones running on the most powerful computers we’ve ever built.

            And the only time any of those classes of scientists mention “consensus” is to correct the factual misrepresentations of the other side with respect to where the consensus lies. See Project Steve, for example.

            But when historians tell people that we should believe that Jesus was an historical figure, they don’t even pretend to point to evidence; rather, they point to “the consensus of scholars.” Or, if they do point to evidence, it’s the Bible and perfectly unevidenced fanciful and imaginative reconstructions of a game of telephone that we’re supposed to trust them is how the Bible came to be. “Q,” they often label it, and even have the nerve to cite as unimpeachable contemporary eyewitness testimony.

            So, sorry. Carrier and other historians may be selling, but I ain’t buyin’.



    2. “historians are divided about whether Jesus really existed”

      I’m reading backwards from the most-recent post, as is my wont, so I’m coming to this comment after reading the paens to H.R.Giger and ‘Alien‘. Do you realise how different an interpretation of “divided historians” that leaves me with?

  1. I’d like to take a moment to plug my own little resort. I built a deck on the back of our house two years ago and late last year a few Adirondack chairs for a place to relax outdoors.

    If anyone would like to stop by and have a few beers on the land where Thor once struck a tree with lightning I’d be honored to have you.

    1. I hope your Adirondack chairs have some sort of cushion, otherwise without such an ‘Asgard’ you’re likely to get a Thor ass.

  2. There’s no circumstantial evidence about Jesus. There is no eyewitness testimony There is only hearsay from unreliable sources.

    1. It is interesting that the author of the article uses scare quotes around “circumstantial evidence”. Is it a Freudian slip that the proof is not circumstantial or that there is no evidence, even circumstantial evidence….or just bad grammar? 🙂

      1. I think that the quotes were meant to indicate that Dina Gorni-Avshalom used exactly that term. It’s passing the buck in my opinion. If
        the term is questionable enough to require quotes as if to say “She said it, not me” then a real reporter should push back a little, and ask the interviewee to defend that word choice.

    2. Surely the coin is the circumstantial evidence? He obviously pocketed it when he turned out the money lenders and then lost it again. If that doesn’t prove the Bible is literally true, I don’t know what would.

      1. The fact that “In me we trust” (in English, of course) was scratched on to the coin was the final bit of slam dunk evidence.

  3. I think you’re carping a little bit. 🙂 I have no problem with the article; the stuff on Jesus is (IMO) clearly just intended to give the article some ‘why should I care’ value to readers, nothing more.

    Also, a bit more pedantic, doesn’t the phrase “…when Jesus is thought to have been alive…” fulfill your requirement for a bit of skepticism?

    1. “… the stuff on Jesus is (IMO) clearly just intended to give the article some ‘why should I care’ value to readers >>>’

      Realistically, isn’t it more likely the information was included for marketing purposes, a la saints’ relics, etc. etc.?

      And what’s a priest doing opening a resort, anyhow?? And is it tax exempt as a religious property, the way it would be in the US?

  4. Wait, wait, wait.

    Was it a Reform temple? Orthodox? We can refine the odds by incorporating synagogue politics.

    As the punchline goes, “Bah! I wouldn’t be caught dead in that shul.” (I’ll provide the joke set-up if anyone wants it.)

  5. I’ll cut the article some slack too. The headline is to jazz things up, and I can believe there *was* a historical Jesus, who was, of course, very very different than the one described in the Gospels. And if so, a historical Jesus preaching (raising a ruckus not raising the dead) in various synagogues in the Galilee is probably on the more plausible side of events attributed to him.

  6. I have exactly the same amount of evidence that it was actually not a synagogue but a pizzeria where meatballs were made from what the ritual sacrifice provided then sacred unleavened bread was cut into strips and boiled.
    Plus it’s right next door to a first century day care where several items of pasta art were discovered.

      1. And I have it on good authority that a pizzeria it was not as the location was occupied, at the time, by a falafel stand famous for having the best tahini sauce in Judea. There is a surviving papyrus scroll remnant, recently translated from ancient Aramaic, that, in so many words, stated their hummus was to die for.

  7. Oh, and read nothing objectionable at all in the the interesting article by Tanya Luhrmann “To Dream in Different Cultures”, though I am not familiar with any of her earlier writings.

  8. There probably IS an overwhelming consensus among New Testament scholars that a historical Jesus existed. The handful that don’t, such as Price, Doherty, Carrier, are viewed as marginal, if not considered outright cranks (which they’re not, IMO.) Whether the consensus is of any worth is the question that should be asked, given the field is dogged by confessional interests, a lack of decent external evidence contemporary with the time of Jesus(that is, documents that actually mention him) and a shaky and unreliable methodology used to sort fact from gospel fiction. It will be interesting to see if Carrier’s upcoming book will have any impact on this most insular and at times pretty uncritical scholarly endeavour.

    1. It’s also worth noting the bait-and-switch the historicists pull on the question.

      When pressed, Jesus instantly shrinks from the virgin-born miracle-working establishment-overthrowing zombie son of a god…down to some random schmuck of a street preacher who had a following of maybe a dozen families at most, flew entirely below the radar and completely unworthy of attention, and who was deified after his death (which might not even have been by crucifixion).

      And then, as soon as you turn your back, the Gospel narrative probably really was an accurate summary of his biography, except without the supernaturalism. And as soon as you’re out of earshot, it’s only logical that the supernatural stuff really was really real after all.



      1. Actually, Ben, many folks who believe in a historical Jesus are convinced that the details of Jesus’ trial must be wholly false (given what we know about Sanhedrin trials), and many more believe in a mythical non-historical Judas than believe in a mythical Jesus.

        Multiple historians have argued that it was probably the Romans who had the biggest vested interest in Jesus death and that by the time the Gospels came to be written there was a greater vested interest in blaming it on the Jews.

        For a simple account see http://infidels.org/library/modern/james_still/jesus_trial.html

        For a more complex one see Paula Fredriksen’s book “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”

        My point is that indeed quite a bit of the NON-supernatural stuff has in fact come under heavy fire from mainstream historians.

        1. Oh, I’ve made the exact same point, repeatedly and often. How could the Trial have been even a fraction as scandalous as the Gospels portray it and the Satirists failed to have noticed it? How could Jesus have made the scene he allegedly did at the moneychangers’s tables and Josephus remained ignorant of it? How could a street preacher proclaiming himself as Philo’s signature philosophical invention escaped mention by Philo himself?

          Clearly, only if it’s all weapons-grade bullshit.


  9. Jill Abramson was just fired as executive editor of the NY Times. Was she doing a bad job? The take over at The New Yorker (Ken Auletta, May 14) is that Abramson had upset her bosses by questioning why her salary was less than equally graduate male employees. A another insider view was that Abramson, who was very jealous of NY Times reliability and isolation from, say, political pressures, had objected to business intrusion into jounralism. Auletta compared in, perhaps unintentionally, to church and state! Perhaps the more churchy slant is just an omen of things to come.

  10. I read this i nthe same way as I read the (several) “oil companies” who are drilling for oil in various parts of Israel and claiming to base their search on evidence of oil seeps, natural gas flares, etc “recorded” in the BuyBull.
    The oil search may be genuine enough, but they’re either terribly unsuccessful (if they’re seriously exploring for oil), or the reports in the BuyBull are … well, what you buy when you buy bull, or they’re not doing a very good job of deciding on an exploration strategy on the basis of solid geology, then interpreting the BuyBull until it screams and making up a BroughtBull justification for drilling where your geologist tells you to drill.
    I spent a whole 5 minutes thinking such thoughts as I rolled around on the ground helpless with mirth, while my taxi driver was trying to deliver a package to one such company (no adverts here!) while driving me back to my flight home after one (conventional geology) major discover which is changing the geopolitical situation in the Eastern Mediterranean Ocean. Real geology score 1 ; BuyBull geology score nil!

  11. Ehrman, Sanders, Fredriksen, Vermes all confirm that Capernaum was a center of Jesus’s activity. They are all evidence-driven historians, and they are all well acquainted with the pertinent evidence.

    1. So? Any kindergardener will confirm that the North Pole is the center of Santa’s activity, and they’re also well acquainted with the pertinent evidence.


        1. Those aren’t the only three possibilities you know. Given your circumscribed list, fraudster seems most likely. The person who wrote those words seems determined that his correspondents believe he has a vewy powewful fwend in Jewusalem.

          But this is a PRATT so I won’t be pursuing it any further.

  12. Let’s get after ALL the media, NYT and NPR for total slanted coverage of popes, religion and all and ignoring of a-theism of all sorts. I wish I could plant that superbly awful satanic goat statue in front of the Grey Lady

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