A Twi**er exchange

August 30, 2014 • 1:04 pm

This was inspired, I think, by my recent post about whether there was a historical person around whom the Jesus myth accreted. There was surprising interest in the question, and I’ve learned nothing to convince me that there was more evidence for a historical Jesus than there was before. But on to the social medium tempest:

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At least Richard doesn’t try to whitewash evolutionary biology to pretend that it says something it doesn’t!

If you want to see a great whitewash of Islam, with all of its bad aspects completely blotted out (or rationalized), read Aslan’s book No god But God. You’ll be either amused or horrified to see the Whiggish rewriting of Muslim history, including Aslan’s “explanation” for why Muhammad (despite the assertion of important Islamic texts) didn’t really marry a child bride, Aisha, when she was 6 and deflower her at 9.  No, Aslan says that she was deflowered after puberty, which was okay because that was the custom then.

Aslan may know a ton about Islam, but he also knows how to twist it so it’s user-friendly to those Americans who are apologists for this most pernicious of all faiths. (I am not, of course, saying that all Muslims are bad people or extremists.) And of course American book-buyers ate it up.


140 thoughts on “A Twi**er exchange

  1. I need to test this hypothesis:

    People who post on Twi**er reduce their IQ by 30 points.

    Any thoughts? Why do they act like children?

        1. Byte-sized (“[sound] bite-sized”?) social media doesn’t tell you very much about the message, sender or receiver. Nor does it lend itself to contextual information, such as referencing.

          If we use the friendly rule of the internet, Dawkins could have twittered a common and short sound bite.

          Next step would be “never assume malice when stupidity suffice”, I’ll grant you that.

    1. “People who post on Twi**er reduce their IQ by 30 points.”

      Probably there is an inverse relationship between the ease of communication and its substance.

  2. Permit me to get this in before the rush.

    One thing I’ve found striking from historicists is the lack of a specifically-formulated theory of Jesus. Instead, he’s a goalpost on rocket sleds, instantly transmogrifying into whatever figure needed for that particular argument.

    So, if I might, I’d love to ask of those who think Jesus was an actual historical figure:

    * Please give a short, uniquely-identifying biography of Jesus. No more than a few sentences should be required. Was he a rabble-rousing preacher? A rebel commando? Which of the major Gospel stories do and don’t reasonably describe him? And, if your Jesus significantly or even radically deviates from the Gospel Jesus, what is your basis for still considering your Jesus to be valid for consideration as the real Jesus?

    * Please give credible evidence that positively supports your theory. Please don’t give evidence that’s merely not inconsistent with your theory, but evidence that comes right out and states whatever it is you’re trying to prove. If you think Jesus was a rebel commando, cite an ancient source that says that Jesus was a rebel commando.

    * If your evidentiary sources aren’t completely credible — that is, if they include significant elements you disagree with — indicate what independent criteria you apply to support the bits you agree with and reject the ones you don’t.

    * Please offer a reasonable explanation for why all the other sources that contradict your theory should be discarded. Again, applying these same standards to your own favored sources shouldn’t discredit them as well.

    In all the years I’ve been debating this topic, going back to the days of USENET, I’ve yet to meet anybody who’s even pretended to attempt to meet this challenge head-on. I hope that’ll change here, but I’d also be flabbergasted if it did.

    …and, if I might suggest? If you can’t meet this challenge, you have no business publicly espousing an historical Jesus in the first place….



    1. Just for fairness, here’re my own answers to the questions.

      Jesus was a syncretic Pagan death / resurrection / salvation demigod grafted onto Judaism.

      This is supported by Justin Martyr’s First Apology, much of which is devoted to exactly this point. Additionally, Lucian of Samosata describes in detail how Peregrinus did much (but not all) of that syncretic work. Further, Paul’s introduction of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11 is a picture-perfect example of the sort of thing Peregrinus described, further supported by Martyr’s bitter complaint about imitation of the Mithraic Eucharist.

      Martyr and I part company as far as the explanation for how this came to be; he argues that evil daemons with the power of foresight knew Jesus was coming and so planted the false stories amongst Pagans centuries in advance in order to lead honest men astray. I agree with Martyr’s analysis of which elements of which Pagan demigods were copied between Paganism and Christianity and believe that that part of Martyr’s analysis stands on its own. His supernatural explanation for the origins is much better replaced by the mundane one that, as with all other such religions, the earliest practitioners and proponents picked and chose from familiar surrounding religions to build their new one.

      The superficially contradictory examples from history would be best exemplified by the Gospels, which purport to be straight-up history. However, they’re fantastic zombie snuff pr0n fantasies that no sane person could possibly take seriously — though it’s entirely plausible to read them entirely as fiction (regardless of the sincerity or stated intentions of the authors).

      Last, as a coda, I’d note the profound silence of all contemporary and near-contemporary sources, including many who couldn’t possibly have missed anybody remotely recognizable as Jesus. Anybody whom those sources could reasonably have overlooked can’t possibly pass for Jesus as understood by early Christians. Anybody recognizable by early Christians as Jesus couldn’t possibly have been overlooked. But an entirely mythical Jesus would perfectly fit the descriptions given by early Christians and wouldn’t have been noticed by anybody else.



      1. There are mountains and mountains of books about the “historical” Jesus. Probably far more than any other figure in history. You could get through the entire Game of Thrones book series before you even began to wade through a fraction of them. But it would be a waste of time anyway, and the fact that they mutually contradict one another.

        1. “Mountains and mountains of books” are irrelevant if they all copied from each other.

          The best — such as it is — evidence is neatly collected in a readily-availalbe anthology titled, “The New Testament of Jesus Christ.” None of it is remotely credible or even plausible (zombie snuff pr0n!) and it’s highly doubtful any but some of the Epistles was written by anybody even alive at the purported time.

          Then there’s lots of heretical apocrypha, all of which is even more bizarre and contradictory still.

          There’s no independent (non-Christian) sentence by anybody who was alive at the same time, and the only surviving lengthy non-Christian texts addressing Christian claims are quotations in Christian apologetic texts — and those quotations uniformly ridicule and dismiss Christian claims.

          So I hope you’ll pardon me if I’m not exactly impressed by hand-waving to “mountains and mountains of books” as reason to believe in Jesus.



          1. As I mention below I agree with you. I just find it fascinating, people will spend careers writing this stuff, particularly religious ones, it’s almost like long commentaries on Westeros or Lord of the Rings, it takes on a life of its own. And the faithful eat it up like candy.

            1. Well, we also get people spilling oceans of ink over texts everybody agrees is fictional — Shakespeare for the obvious example. And fans of various SF and fantasy works in various genre are notorious for their obsessions.

              The difference, of course, is that it’s (almost perfectly) only the religionists who insist that their fantasies are really real.

              I’ll heartily cheer on a member of the Society for Creative Anachronisms doing something outrageous, and can tolerate if not quite comprehend the epic arguments over spaceship propulsion systems.

              What gets my goat is a priest supervising a play-pretend zombie cannibal tea party and insisting that it’s somehow meaningfully really real. The pomp and circumstance and especially (some of) the music associated with the Mass can be impressive and moving works of art, but it somehow shits all over them to try to move the whole thing from fantasy to reality.


      2. Philo of Alexandria is a good case in point. He was a mystically minded Jew living in Alexandria until 41AD when he died. He was well connected with the ruling class in Jerusalem and wrote at great length on subjects such as the logos and salvation, yet he says not word about Jesus. He talks about many other minor and major trouble makers of his time but Jesus, a prophet supposedly talking on subjects close to Philo’s heart is completely ignored. If Jesus had been teaching in Palestine at this time and getting himself crucified Philo could hardly have failed to notice.

        1. I am not nearly as knowledgeable as some people here, but my impression was that at the time at which Jesus was supposedly to be around, the Jews were in messianic fever and there were several self proclaimed messiahs and prophets.
          Of course, this does not prove the historicity of Jesus in any way, but if he lived at that time, isn’t that possible that he was one of many, not interesting enough for Philo to care about?

          1. Take a step back, and try to support the claim that Jesus was nothing more than a random run-of-the-mill messianic prophet. If nothing else, how do you get from that Jesus to Paul’s?

            And let’s not forget that Jesus’s theology was the same one that Philo himself had just invented. Either Philo managed to miss the first person who preached himself as the human incarnation of Philo’s own invention, or you’re now removing even Jesus’s own theology from Jesus.


            1. Ben, I am purely speculative. What I mean is not the Jesus was necessarily insignificant at his time, but merely that he could be.
              We have quite a few Jewish sources from that time and none of them mentions Jesus. This suggests that if Jesus existed at all, he wasn’t an important figure.
              But if he was an unimportant, one of many messiahs, he could have a few followers, who continued, after his death, spread his message.
              We know that Paul’s positions on several matters wasn’t obvious in the group of early Christians. Whatever Jesus’ teachings were, we cannot tell how loyal those who spoke in his name were loyal to them, including Paul.

              All in all, the actual Jesus, if he existed at all, can be very different from the Jesus described in the New Testament and other early Christian sources.

              1. Ben, I am purely speculative. What I mean is not the Jesus was necessarily insignificant at his time, but merely that he could be.

                Not if we are to take the Christians seriously, he couldn’t have been.

                In 1 Corinthians 15, “Paul” begins by establishing his bona fides by indicating all those who personally experienced Christ and that his experience of Christ was just the same as all the others. But we already know that his experience was visionary.

                Later in that same chapter, we have these verses which again make clear that Jesus was not of this Earth:

                45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.

                46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.

                47 The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven.

                Further, just a few chapters earlier, we have this same author unambiguously introducing to his audience the Mithraic Eucharist as the Last Supper. How on Earth could Paul get away with introducing such an important story to Christianity if shortly before there had been an actual human whose life couldn’t possibly have included said Eucharist?

                Paul only makes sense if he’s adding new layers of syncretism upon existing ones, and that, in turn, only makes sense if Jesus was — exactly as he appears to be — a syncretic Pagan death / resurrection / salvation demigod cast in the same mold as all the others Justin Martyr so painstakingly lists.

                But if he was an unimportant, one of many messiahs, he could have a few followers, who continued, after his death, spread his message.

                Certainly not in the timeframes involved. If you want to posit the “real” Jesus as having been a first or second century BCE figure, I could maybe grant you that point — but, again, how could one even claim such a Jesus as the “real” Jesus and maintain a straight face?


              2. For me, what would make a person “the real Jesus” is not his resemblance to “the Christian Jesus”, but being historically the basis from which the Christian Jesus evolved.
                If the real Jesus existed at all, he can be very different from how he is portrayed even in the early Christian sources (even without the supernatural stuff).

                Why do you think that such a person couldn’t live in the first century a.d. (this isn’t a challenge. You obviously know the subject better than me. I’m really trying to understand 😉 )

              3. Why do you think that such a person couldn’t live in the first century a.d.

                The Pauline epistles at least read as if they’re written by a contemporary of the Jerusalem Church. We literally know nothing of Christianity prior — at least, not without extrapolation; that’s where the trail stops.

                However, I think we can safely conclude that, if absolutely nothing else, the “real” Jesus had to have been the founder of the Jerusalem Church.

                Yet Paul makes clear that a corporeal Jesus couldn’t possibly have been said founder. Again, he establishes his bona fides with his spirit-world interactions with Jesus, explicitly making the point that his interactions were every bit as spiritual as everybody else’s. And he’s able to authoritatively interpolate the Mithraic Eucharist into Christianity in the form of the Last Supper — something inconceivable had the members of the Jerusalem Church actually been with Jesus up until his death.

                This pushes any human founder of the Jerusalem Church far back into the mists of time — something not only inconsistent with any Jesus that can even vaguely be recognized by anybody, but the way such religions are born in general.

                But none of those problems present if Jesus was, right from the get-go, a spirit world deity just like all the other demigods of that era.



              4. “And he’s able to authoritatively interpolate the Mithraic Eucharist into Christianity in the form of the Last Supper — something inconceivable had the members of the Jerusalem Church actually been with Jesus up until his death.”
                I don’t understand this.
                Why is it inconceivable? Is it not possible that this is just great marketing?

              5. A self-described outsider “marketing” to the insiders about the person they personally knew but the outsider never met? And doing so by stealing the most sacred central ceremony of the god Mithras?

                If you believe that, might I be permitted to market to you some of that prime Arizona oceanfront property?


          1. Philo doesn’t mention John the Baptist. Indeed, I don’t think he’s mentioned outside Christian scripture and Josephus, which is a big part of the reason why many don’t give a great deal of weight to his historicity, either. The claims of John’s existence are less extraordinary than those of Jesus’s, so the standard is reasonably lower. Perhaps that standard is met for John, but certainly not unequivocally.


        2. Indeed, if Jesus was even remotely like how he’s presented in churches on Sunday, Philo would have been the first and most devoted disciple and would have authored the most amazing biography of him.

          You have to distort Jesus literally beyond all recognition just to get him to vaguely within shouting distance of somebody whom Philo wouldn’t have noticed.


          1. Ben

            “Not if we are to take the Christians seriously, he couldn’t have been. ”

            But we know that the Christians cannot be taken seriously, so this statement is rather empty. How it is more implausible to assume that a low significance doom-sayer prophet’s (one from the many) life was completely distorted than to assume that he never existed and and his entire existence was completely made up. I really can’t see you point here.

            1. You must admit that this doom-sayer you postulate nonetheless managed to get himself transformed into the creator of the universe less than a couple of decades after his death. He can’t have been of that low significance; how many others of his ilk were similarly transformed? That’s right, none. Even Kim Il Sung hasn’t yet made it to Son of God status! If you want a Jesus who was just some shmuck then how the hell is that Jesus Christ? Philo talks about plenty of regular trouble makers of little importance, none of whom managed to become god. If a person living at that time is to be Jesus Christ, he needs to be distinguishable in some way from every other bloke wandering around the Galilee at the same time. You really can’t have it both ways.

              1. Marella, only if he actually existed and did the things said of him, written about the time in which he apparently walked and talked. The problem with the view of explaining how a minor doomsday prophet could have been so exalted is that there is an underlying assumption that the history presented in the NT is at least history on these points, but we have no evidence that is the case. There have been many people prior and since who have been given god status. That this one became the global religion can be explained historically in the same way that one can with Islam or any other of the major religions.

            2. How it is more implausible to assume that a low significance doom-sayer prophet’s (one from the many) life was completely distorted than to assume that he never existed and and his entire existence was completely made up.

              Because at some point, the blank slate you end up with could be anybody randomly pulled off the street and no longer denotes a single individual. That contributes virtually nothing worth noting to the subsequent mythologizing beyond simply inspiring it, and if we’re at that stage, you’ve just walked right into mythicism. In any case, other messiah claimants of the time are simply Jewish rebels against Rome. Yet even the vague Jesus of Paul is, shorn of supernatural elements, an apocalyptic preacher with a son-of-God delusion who was blasphemous enough to get crucified. If a local Jewish slave could unsuccessfully rebel and get noticed, anybody that outrageous would not slip below the radar.

              Let’s grant, though, that there were preachers of a mass in the same mould. In what sense is a random preacher, indistinguishable from the others, the Jesus? If all the New Testament Jesus has in common with this real Jesus is that he was a preacher and his name was Jesus, then we might as well look for a street magician named Harry and call him “the” Harry who is the kernel of truth in the J. K. Rowling books of fiction. Or look for a run-of-the-mill thief in King John’s time and claim he’s Robin Hood. This is before we get to the much more detailed Jesus of the gospels, who, even without his superpowers, most certainly could not have escaped the radar of the time.

              In any case, the evidence around this figure doesn’t go the right way. Within the movement itself, you start with a heavily supernatural figure who, stripped of those features, can only be vaguely attached to anything earthly by someone who is the closest thing to a contemporary, yet seems more interested in revelation and whatever the voice in his head tells him is true than in getting his story from the alleged disciples and brother of Jesus. Someone trying to quash heresy and unbelief in his churches, and who’s willing to boost his own credentials with the odd autobiographical tidbit, surely would have outlined some actual history.

              The biographical details don’t appear until long after the movement has already branched out, long after the events they describe, by people who certainly were converts but not witnesses, and who progressively add more and more detail to the previous accounts (Matthew plagiarizes Mark, Luke plagiarizes them both). Beyond the believers themselves, there’s no mention whatsoever from secular sources who should be expected to notice a preacher with even one of Jesus’ distinguishing features (such as causing trouble at Jerusalem, claiming he was son of God, preaching the end of the world unless you follow him, etc.).

              That leaves a problem. If Jesus is in any sense a distinct Jesus and did something significant to get him noticed, he would have been noticed by local contemporaries and would not get lost in the noise of mere run-of-the-mill preachers. If Jesus was so insignificant that he wouldn’t be noticed among other run-of-the-mill preachers, the believers might as well just invent him from scratch, since any random schmuck would apparently be enough to fit the bill. At that point, you might as well claim a fictionalized war was inspired by real wars, or by a particular real war indistinguishable from others.

              1. As I wrote in reply to Ben, the real Jesus, if there was one, is the person who is the actual basis for the Christian Jesus.
                The accuracy of his descriptions in the New Testament isn’t a factor. I think the HERE (WEIT), everybody can agree that the scriptures are full of nonsense.

              2. As I wrote in reply to Ben, the real Jesus, if there was one, is the person who is the actual basis for the Christian Jesus.

                I have no objection to the possibility or even the speculative plausibility that a real person could have inspired the myth (in the sense that it wouldn’t break physical laws, biological laws, or even social and psychological ones if it were true), any more than I’m automatically against the existence of the yeti. If that’s as far as it goes for historicism, that’s OK.

                It’s when you get someone like Ehrman and MacDonald pronouncing historicism with exaggerated confidence and meagre evidence that it sounds less like a historian’s tentative agnosticism and more like the Dunning-Kruger effect you see more often in theist and yeti arguments.

                Reading Paul’s letters, and knowing how religions like Mormonism and Scientology get started and attract adherents – or heck, even how mundane pseudoscience like homeopathy, New Age mysticism, and UFOlogy arises – I find it highly believable that the first Christians could have deluded themselves into thinking up Jesus from nothing, or of accepting the second-hand word of a con artist who claimed to have a vision or something. That’s why it interests me when mythicism is treated as if it were 100% bunk. It sounds like a perfectly acceptable rival hypothesis, to me, at least in some of its forms.

              3. Another point: Supposing, for the sake of argument, the first Christians were followers of a poor and obscure Jewish man called Joshua who preached in the street and claimed the world was going to be destroyed and God would save only those who followed him and were “brethren” to each other, but otherwise was ignored and died without incident. By your criterion, would he be the real Jesus?

              4. Wouldn’t we therefore be in agreement that the New Testament – even shorn of its supernatural bits – is mythical, then? If the connection between Jesus – in his first appearance on paper as Paul’s ghostly vision of a promiser of the apocalypse – and Joshua is only that they preached apocalypse, then practically every other detail in the New Testament must be invented.

                I’m not saying agnosticism is not on the table here. I’m saying that you agree Jesus is almost entirely myth in that scenario.

              5. I am sorry if I created a different impression, but I am not trying to promote agnosticism. The existence of a god isn’t an option to me.
                I don’t think that “every other detail in the New Testament must be invented”, but I am convinced that enough details are to pull the rug from under Christianity.
                What makes the question of Jesus’ historicity interesting to me is not the possibility of “Christianity being true”, or to mock Christians. It’s the importance of Jesus’ character and the religion based on it in history.

              6. …, but I am not trying to promote agnosticism. The existence of a god isn’t an option to me.

                Sorry. I meant it in the general sense of being comfortable not knowing something with any conclusiveness (i.e. whether Jesus was a real person or a total myth) due to, say, a lack of conclusive evidence, not in the original sense of applying this position specifically to theism.

                What makes the question of Jesus’ historicity interesting to me is not the possibility of “Christianity being true”, or to mock Christians.

                Where did I say or imply this? Even if historicism were an iron-hard position, I would still be criticizing Christianity’s doctrines. Mocking them is not high on my priority list, anyway.

                It’s the importance of Jesus’ character and the religion based on it in history.

                Exactly. And surely part of that is wondering what the evidence is for and against the proposition that anyone of that description existed.

              7. I am perfectly comfortable with not knowing in general and whether Jesus was real in particular.

                “Where did I say or imply this? Even if historicism were an iron-hard position, I would still be criticizing Christianity’s doctrines. Mocking them is not high on my priority list, anyway.”
                I got defensive and thought that you suspected me of trying to defend the historicity of Jesus as some first step in “proving Christianity” 🙂

                I find it hard to believe that a very convincing evidence either way will ever pop up.

              8. So, let’s keep going.

                What if he never actually preached in the street, but only spoke to his friends in casual conversation?

                What if he didn’t claim the world was going to end or did but didn’t have a plan for salvation? Or if he did, but he only told one other person and it was that other person who told the rest?

                What if his name was, “Harold”?

                Would any of these people still be the real Jesus?


              9. For me, yes, so long as “Harold” was actually the person to whom early Christian referred to.
                But to be really honest, I have to admit that the image I have is of a person who preaches in the street. So if existed, but was merely talking to a couple of friends in some living room… well, I don’t know, but I guess that I won’t feel that he is “a real Jesus”.

              10. I hope you see where I’m going with this.

                What if he gave a single sermon on the street, but it was a flop and he got discouraged? What if he was one of those crazy guys ranting incoherently into his beard whom nobody paid attention to? What if he wasn’t in Jerusalem? What if he was Julius Caesar’s contemporary?

                Now, once you’ve set whatever limits you’re comfortable with, wherever they are…turn it around. How many people fit your description?

                Just how many of your “real” Jesuses could there have been, all having equal claim (by your standards) to the throne? How do you pick the one “real” one out of the throng?

                And, for the kicker…got any evidence supporting any of this? And, got any way of reconciling schizophrenic one-time street preacher Harold with Paul’s divine celestial savior of mankind?


              11. Ben, I am not trying to “prove Christianity” 🙂 I am not a believer and definitely not Christian.
                I am just playing with ideas of how Jesus could be real, in the sense of an actual person who was the basis for the Christian Jesus.
                From the little I know, there were several messianic preachers, who had groups of followers, around the supposed time of Jesus. I don’t know an exact number. But this means that there are actual candidate to be Jesus. What would make one of them “the real Jesus” is being the focus of the group that gave rise to rise to Christianity.

              12. So, let’s wave a magic wand and assume for the sake of argument that one of these messianic preachers meets your requirement.

                What’s the connection between this person and Paul’s Jesus? None that I can possibly imagine; Paul’s Jesus just simply and most emphatically wasn’t a messianic preacher.

                …come to think of it, I don’t remember anything in the accepted-authentic Epistles that include Jesus doing any public preaching. Visionary revelations and teachings, yes, but no Sermon on the Mount, no speechifying at the Temple while going on a rampage, no eloquent discourse at the Trial, no nothing. I could be overlooking something, of course…but, if I’m right, how can you explain away the oldest and only allegedly-contemporary source not even mentioning your personal hypothesized Jesus’s principal profession and claim to fame?

                Let me put on another layer. Could your Jesus be the real Jesus if he didn’t deliver the Sermon on the Mount, or at least one public sermon that fit that general description?


              13. I think that we are moving in circles now. I set a (much) lower bar of resemblance to Christian Jesus than you.
                I can imagine a real Jesus who didn’t deliver the sermon on the Mount. The connection to Paul’s Jesus (or any other Christian description of Jesus) can be very loose. The connection has to be what I said above, that he was the focus of the group that later became Christianity. That the earliest Christians gave him some religious authority. He can be a self-proclaimed messiah, but he could also be a person who was viewed by his immediate followers as a prophet, a rabbi, a preacher or anything that gave him a unique religious status in that group.
                I guess that I will have a hard time accepting such a person as “the real Jesus” if it turns out that he wasn’t a Jew in Palestine, around the supposed time of Christian Jesus. We know that there were a few such figures around the time of Jesus, though not necessarily in the group that evolved to Christianity.

                Personally, I think that an actual person who meets this criteria and is similar in interesting ways to the Christian Jesus will be a lot more exciting than a person who meets this criteria but otherwise doesn’t resemble Christian Jesus. But this is a bonus for me, not the deciding test.

              14. Yes, we do seem to be closing the loop.

                I’ll leave it by suggesting that your definition of “Jesus” seems confusingly dissimilar to that which anybody else would be comfortable with, and would likely benefit by adopting some sort of a distinguishing name. That, of course, and that I still hold that the evidence flatly contradicts your hypothesis and most certainly doesn’t support it….


              15. Hopefully, then, if nothing else, if you find the subject as interesting as you appear to, I’ll at least inspire you to go read some of the original works for yourself and make your own conclusions. Pretty much everything is readily available in english translations only a short Google search away.

                Indeed, that should always be your first instinct: double check against the complete original source, and read at least a paragraph on either side for context. For example, it’s commonly claimed that Origen says that Josephus wrote about Jesus, just not quite the way that the Testamonium does. But pull up Origen’s actual words, and it’s clear that not only is that not the case, but that Origen’s text of the Testamonium blamed the fall of Jerusalem not on the crucifixion of Jesus but the execution of James the Just — thereby rendering laughable all subsequent attempts to “reconstruct” the “original” Jesus-centric form of the text.

                These are the sorts of things you learn just by following through to the original sources….



              16. I am actually familiar with the question of Josephus’ quote about Jesus in another context (the debates between Jews and Christians in the middle ages. They are taught in history classes in highschools here). I learnt about Origen’s contribution to the mess, but I admit that my memory betrays me and it’s vague on this (I did some googling to see what you are talking about).
                What I did remember clearly is that Josephus reference to Jesus is questionable at best and this is why I did not mention him.

                I will definitely read more on this at the first opportunity. Until the issue was brought up here, I was not even aware that the historicity of Jesus was seriously challenged (This is kind of strange, with my background, but I guess that life is full of surprises). Now I am aching to learn more on this.

            3. Ben Goren
              “I hope you see where I’m going with this… ”

              I understand and agree. From my side I only say that an existing Jesus who’s life was altered and “coloured” later is not _less_ plausible than a totally made-up Jesus.
              We have no way to know, but neither it is an important question once we know the significant part: the scripture is a fairy tale.

              1. Agreed.
                The question isn’t important in the sense that it will change anything of value, but I still find the subject intriguing.

              2. Ah, but we do have reasonable ways to know.

                First, I think you’d agree with me that the various other Pagan demigods — Perseus, Dionysus, Bacchus, Bellerophon, many more — had no human precedent. Even many Greeks of the Classical Era that Christianity was invented in would have agreed with this, as would have at least some of their forebears from at least a few centuries earlier. You’d certainly presumably agree that there was no historical Adam and Eve or Prometheus and Pandora. So, Jesus belonging to that same class of fictional characters that he so closely resembles isn’t at all an outrageous suggestion.

                Next, go read Justin Martyr’s First Apology, or at least scan it for references to “Jupiter” and read just those chapters. His whole thesis is that Pagans have no right to mock Christians, because Christian beliefs about Jesus are exactly the same as Pagan beliefs about Pagan gods — and he’s most thorough and exacting and precise and logical and believable in that part of his analysis, an analysis that stands on its own merit. He only goes off the rails when he attributes the similarities to evil daemons with the power of foresight who planted the Pagan stories centuries in advance in order to lead honest men astray when Jesus finally came on the scene.

                Remember, this is the earliest Christian defense of the faith that there is, written roughly the same time as the Gospels were being written and / or edited, and less than a century after the alleged date of the Crucifixion. Right there at the very beginning of it all.

                Now go read Lucian’s satire of Peregrinus for a description of how this syncretism was practiced within Christianity itself.

                Briefly skip back to Martyr to see what he has to say about the relationship between Mithras and the Eucharist, take a side trip to Plutarch to learn that Tarsus (as in, “Paul, of”) was the home port of the Cilician pirates who spread Mithra worship, and finish with a fresh reading of 1 Corinthians 11 to read the earliest Christian record of the Last Supper.

                There’s your smoking gun, with plenty of other bullet holes to be investigated should you so desire.



    2. This post has now fallen far off the front page and gathered over 130 comments. The earlier post was a day earlier and has over 500 comments.

      And yet, not one single attempt to meet this challenge. I even pressed Eric MacDonald, hard, and he flatly refused.

      Jerry, if you’d like, I think it would be beneficial to run this challenge above the fold as a post of its own. We can then all point to it in the future for how nobody can even describe Jesus, let alone demonstrate that he existed.



  3. I once read the Karen Armstrong whitewash of Muhammad, which he comes across as a really cool, misunderstood guy. Sounds very similar to Aslan’s book.

  4. WRT to Jenny W’s assertion, I think the majority of people – even non believers – think that Jesus was an historical person. I’ve had this discussion with atheists, who often start out “I can accept that Jesus was a man who lived…” when I interrupt and say, “well actually I don’t accept that Jesus was a man who lived based on lack of evidence that holds up to scrutiny – real scrutiny – scientific scrutiny”. The non-believer is often shocked that Jesus not existing at all is a thing.

    1. I think over time this will gradually change. Real scholars who have studied this question seriously are still a tiny minority and the work is pretty recent. Also there are so many crackpot theories, that serious arguments get lost in the noise. I don’t think most atheist have heard any arguments any more than believers.

      1. Also, the people who have the ability to think through this stuff are typically Classicists and many have no interest in the Jesus stuff. Then there are the theology guys – who have lots of interest in the Jesus stuff but, in my opinion, tend to lack the necessary background.

        1. That is one major problem, you need to study the minutia of the Bible text plus ancient Palestine to be competent to study the subject. Who’s typically interested in that – religious believers, the last people who are going to say their raison d’etre is nonexistent.

          1. That rings a bit much of the Courtier’s Complaint.

            Even the most naïve superficial reading of the Gospels is enough to note that they’re full of unabashed fantasy — lots of zombie snuff pr0n, in particular. Nor does it take a great deal of sophistication to observe that the only discernible difference between Christianity and all the other ancient religions is that Christianity still has believers. Even relatively uneducated people know that Bacchus turned water into wine, Bellerophon rode Pegasus into the heavens, Mercury was the messenger of the gods, and that snake on the doctor’s lapel pin is the symbol of some god with an unpronounceable name who healed the sick and raised the dead. People of a certain age know Krishna as the blue-skinned Indian Jesus lookalike whose saffron-robed adherents harangued people in airports.

            Nobody thinks of any of those other gods as really real; is it really that much of a stretch to put Jesus in the same category as well?

            And how much study and sophistication does it take to come to that conclusion?


            1. Agreed, but for better or worse, you have to play the competence game, to publish with the lingo of biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman to be taken seriously at least in academia. You still won’t be taken seriously probably, but at least you will show that you can refute the common arguments made and assumptions behind them, that Jesus did exist.

              1. That depends on your audience. For scholarly publications, yes. For mass market publications, probably. But in casual conversation or for posts on random Web sites?


    2. Indoctrination is an extraordinary affair. Take abortion; Catholics speak as if Church policy has been a total ban on abortions forever and ever- which is absolutely untrue. For most of church history they went back and forth with various theories (and time restrictions) of foetus animatus/foetus inanimatus etc.
      A number of ‘infallible’ Popes actually endorsed abortions 😉

        1. In the 5th century St. Augustine revived the Aristotelian concept of ‘delayed soul’. Males got theirs by the 40th day of pregnancy and females by the 90th day. St. Jerome agreed that if the fetus didn’t yet look human there wasn’t a problem.
          From then to Sixtus V (1500’s), that’s basically the church’s position. He’s the one who changed course and banned abortion, making it punishable by death. This caused huge controversy within the church, so his successor, Gregory XIV went back to the delayed soul concept and said abortion was okay up to the 116th day of pregnancy.
          From that point no other official position is taken until the late 1800’s when two consecutive Popes move to prohibit any form of abortion. Interestingly that period was a time of a record number of Papal decrees and coincides with the Garibaldi revolution (aka loss of church power including the loss of Papal states). Papal infallibility itself is only decreed in 1871. Immaculate conception is only decreed in 1854.
          If you’re interested in the period look up Pius IX 🙂

          1. Did the various Popes and theologians specifically address the issue of abortion or were they only addressing the date at which the “soul” enters the body?

            1. In a number of cases termination of pregnancy is mentioned specifically- the important factor being that it’s in the late 19th century that the Vatican decides to put into writing a blanket ban with penalty of automatic excommunication.
              Historically speaking, the church was very precise and tedious with its many regulations (and penalties for not obeying), so they can’t get around that fact as much as they may try to dissimulate.
              1588: Automatic excommunication
              1591: No automatic excommunication
              1850’s: Still no automatic excommunication
              1880’s: Automatic excommunication

              The difference is extreme for believers. In civil society we can equate it to misdemeanor vs. felony, or probation vs. being sent to prison.

    3. Diana:

      Wasn’t that the case of the theologian/historian Bart Ehrman, who proclaimed himself astonished to have been recently informed by his students and readers that the historicity of Jesus was being questioned, and that there existed in fact a vast literature on the subject, to him unbeknownst?

      Now this is something I was never able to believe, and which made me suspect that not everything is kosher about Ehrman. He might have wanted to answer the recent avalanche of questions and tap the wide market with an appropriate book, sure. But I could not swallow his claim that he had never heard of the debate, which had been raging for more than 200 years by then, with hundreds of books on the subject in Germany, Britain, the US, France, and even Italy.

      Anyway, Ehrman explained that it was the discovery of this vast anti-Jesus’s existence literature that led him to review it at full speed (over the space of one summer! At the beach, perhaps?) and produce his book “Did Jesus Exist?” (2012). (With a title borrowed from the famous book by George A. Wells “Did Jesus Exist?” (1975, 2d ed. 1986), which is the modern source of all the argumentation against Jesus’s historicity, used and copied by all subsequent Jesus deniers.]

      And this brazen proclamation from Ehrman came out after decades of studying the history of early Christian literature, in which the question of historicity was raised often enough to become noticeable.

      In particular, one would innocently believe that a scholar of his background and prominence would have been exposed at least ONCE in his life (for instance when a student of theology) to the famous book by Albert Schweitzer, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” (1906, 2d ed. 1913), in which the question of historicity is beaten to death, with a thorough examination of the main questioners or deniers (David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, John McKinnon Robertson, Arthur Drews, William Benjamin Smith, etc.)

      Ehrman’s claimed surprise about his sudden discovery of “Die Frage nach der Historizität Jesu” always looked staged to me, probably for theatrical effect to his fan base.

      This theatrical posing, I found annoying, because I would have liked to believe this scholar to be entirely genuine. Which I find now impossible.

      1. As I recall, Ehrman’s professional carer has been mostly theological at seminaries and in divinity departments. You’re right that his protestations of surprised ignorance ring most hollow, but I believe his motivation for such theatrics is easily explained by his academic background.

        That is, he might not any longer accept the divinity of Jesus, but he’s still very much the same Christian apologist he’s always been.


        1. My thoughts as well – the fact that he’s a Theology guy kinda biases him and I could even buy his shock that people didn’t see Jesus as historical because in his circles, everyone probably either did or didn’t bring it up if they didn’t. Sure, he may have come across some scholarship that said otherwise but he could easily just dismiss it and go back to his theological echo chamber.

        2. I’m not sure that is entirely true. He’s written some pretty devastating critiques of many aspects of the origins of Christianity, textual errors in the Gospels, etc. Even if he won’t go all the way, I don’t think its fair to think of him as a Christian apologist, especially because he explicitly disavows Christianity and considers himself an agnostic. From what I’ve read, the faithful are definitely not big fans of his.

        3. Ehrman is currently an North Carolina but his background is mainly in seminaries and divinity departments. He made a career putting scholarly consensus (the kind that is taught in Divinity departments minus the belief aspect) into plain language ordinary readers can digest.

          I believe he is sincere on this point. Not because he’s never heard of the arguments but because in the circles he runs in no one bothers to question historicity. When Ehrman has no evidence he likes to point to academic consensus. He dismisses people like Carrier by arguments to authority. You have to be an academic at a university or seminary to be taken seriously by Ehrman. He puts everyone else into the Internet wacko conspiracy theorist category.

          The question is whether Ehrman will be intellectually honest enough to reconsider this issue. I suspect not because there is too much baggage involved and Ehrman will likely double down on his previous stance. I wish Carrier had taken a different tone with Ehrman (for example, yes Ehrman lied but Carrier didn’t need to call him a liar) that might have invited Ehrman to engage in this topic. Carrier’s tone in his published works and his speeches his fine but he can get really nasty and personal on his blog, which is counterproductive since it just reinforces the “angry crank” stereotype.

    4. “who often start out “I can accept that Jesus was a man who lived…” ”

      Some of that is a desire to grant a bit of territory to your adversary, as sort of an olive branch.

      An atheist who brings up the subject also runs the risk of conveying that this is an important reason for being an atheist. It certainly isn’t for me, and I expect it isn’t for most.

    5. I am a secular Israel Jews who knows one Christian, who probably believes in Jesus’ divinity less than me. Believing in Jesus as anything of religious significance has never been an option to me.
      I am not even sure why, but until reading the two posts on this on this blog this week, I have always took it for granted that Jesus was a real person, in the sense that there was an actual person who lived in the 1st century and was the basis for the New Testament stories.
      I guess that for people from Christian families, who are surrounded by Christians and Christianity, it has to be even more obvious.

      Anyway, I find this topic very interesting and thank everybody who contribute from their knowledge on the subject.

      1. “I find this topic very interesting and thank everybody who contribute from their knowledge on the subject.”
        I second the motion.

  5. I’m one of those who thinks it’s possible Jesus did exist. I also think that most of the stories surrounding him are made up and the contention that he’s divine is, imo, ridiculous. I also agree there’s absolutely no verifiable evidence for his existence. The reason for my position is that Paul based his ministry on someone, albeit someone he never met. I think that someone was a nobody elevated in Paul’s mind by his extreme guilt about doing nothing to help a stoning victim.

    1. Possible? Possibility is a rather low standard. No? It’s not one that should be used alone if we’re being rigorous.

      When I research the authenticity of a painting I start with possibilities, but then I need real evidence to attribute it to anyone. That can be documented provenance, certain tests, a study of style and manner- something.

      On the possibility alone I can’t say this is by X artist. And I’m only talking about a painting. I don’t see how the standard could or should be so much lower regarding anything else.

      1. My position isn’t trying to be academically rigorous, and I agree it’s not. If I was to address the subject academically, my arguments would line up with Ben’s, although my knowledge on the subject is nowhere near his. The position of Christians is that Jesus is divine, and without that their religion falls apart. There isn’t any question in my mind about Jesus’ lack of divinity and it’s obvious to me most of the stories surrounding him are myths. I just think it’s possible there was someone who, in Paul’s mind, was the inspiration for his cult, whether or not that person was worthy to inspire anything. The political climate at the time drove many to eschatological preaching and Jesus could have been one of the many.

    2. If you read through the genuine Pauline corpus there is very little about a historical person. Paul talks about a preexisting son of God and never refers to an earthly did or saying of Jesus. When he refer’s to a saying of Jesus he usually explicitly says that he received that saying by revelation or found it in the scriptures.

      This silence is more striking in the original Greek, often translations obscure this. For example the verb Paul uses in the phrase “born of a woman” could also be translated as “made” so the phrase also reads “made of a woman”. And he talks about the coming of Jesus, not the second coming, simply the coming.

      And similar silence about and earthly man named Jesus, exists in all of the early Christian literature. In Hebrews there is even a phrase that says “If Jesus was on Earth” without any reference to what he actually did while he was in Earth.

      This silence in the writings of Paul and other early Christians is actually one of the strong arguments that there never was a historical Jesus, IMO.

  6. Twitter’s telegraphic format does not leave room for nuance or explanation. Mr Dawkins will get every utterance twisted against him by religious trolls.
    I’m thinking about his previous tweets more than today’s.

    1. Professor Dawkins’ every utterance is twisted by trolls religious and otherwise regardless of its length or content. His first book “The Selfish Gene” started the pattern and it has remained unaltered ever since. He may as well do as he pleases, it will change no one’s mind about him.

    1. He was the son of the Carpenters? Whoa, did he sing too? That explains the 70’s outfits he’s always wearing.

  7. I wonder if there is an internet law (like “Godwin’s law” and the like) for when someone thinks they increase their credibility saying things like “Jesus did exist. That’s proven” but really their credibility takes a total nosedive but they don’t realize it. Somebody think of a name for that law.

          1. They could call it Ben and Jerry’s 32 flavors law except it wouldn’t make any sense for a name and plus I think they have more than 32 flavors nowadays.

    1. At least Reza was so ambiguous in his tweet that he didn’t take a complete nosedive into it. Points for ambiguity I guess.

  8. Readers should check out Word Reference.com,
    switch to the Spanish English translation
    mode, and see what El Puto means.

    1. I don’t have to – I grew up in an Italian neighbourhood where the boys learned from their racist parents to call non-Italian girls puttana. I was cat called that regularly.

      1. The word puto refers to various vulgarities
        referring to male prostitutes and homosexuals
        as well as the sex act and the word goddamn. Puta refers to the female equivalent. Maybe Carlos was trying to use El Puto Amo as meaning
        the beloved pussycat or the beloved “puttytat”?

          1. The best translation is “The fucking master”. “Amo” is a noun (master), besides a verb form of “amar” (to love). In this expression, “puto” is not intended to convey its real meaning, it merely adds a positive/narcissistic connotation.

            Just to clarify the linguistic matter, I know my Spanish… (I am Spanish, in fact) XD

  9. Everyone who hasn’t read Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus” needs to just shut up. (Or maybe start with his “Proving History”.) There’s a lot of “mythicism” out there that’s nearly as bad as the historicism, but Carrier isn’t it. Bear in mind that it’s a historical and historical-methodological question, not primarily a religious one. Armchair speculating never got anyone anywhere, nor did appeal to the consensus of (mainly Christian-apologetic) Biblical “scholars.”

  10. I absolutely think there was some unique historical person the Jesus myths are based on. Why would they concoct a weird story about a census that required everyone to go back to the city where they were born to get Joseph to bring the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem? Jesus was born in Nazareth, the census story is a cover up.

    And what about John the Baptist. The whole story in the Gospels that John is the cousin of Jesus and that he baptized Jesus reads like a comic book retcon. But this would be necessary only if there were rival John and Jesus factions in conflict. The Jesus faction clearly won and the John story was retconned into the gospels to make nice.

    But some John followers never gave up. The Mandaeans of Iraq believe John is the savior and Jesus is a false messiah.

    1. Why would they concoct a weird story about a census that required everyone to go back to the city where they were born to get Joseph to bring the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem?

      Because the writer of Luke thought prophecy couldn’t be wrong, so “reasoned” that this had to have happened. The most readily available evidence for Jesus at the time was the gospels that preceded his, so it’s hardly a stretch to assume he was paying attention to such awkward details while he was plagiarizing the forerunners.

      It isn’t the first time he garbles history: the first two chapters alone would require Mary to be pregnant for ten years. Not to mention the writer couldn’t possibly be able to write about the details of the conception and birth six or seven decades later, when he didn’t witness it and when it wasn’t even recorded by anyone before Matthew (Mark, the first gospel, completely omits Jesus’s birth).

      There was “evidence” to massage: other people’s stories.

      And what about John the Baptist. The whole story in the Gospels that John is the cousin of Jesus and that he baptized Jesus reads like a comic book retcon. But this would be necessary only if there were rival John and Jesus factions in conflict.

      In Luke, maybe, but again, the earliest Gospel it copied from, Mark, makes no mention of the issue, which is damning in itself.

      If you think Jesus was based on a true story, I’d invite you to consider Ben Goren’s challenge above, Comment 3.

  11. I like criticizing Reza Aslan as much as the next guy but I didn’t quite follow the link between the chain of Dawkins tweets re: the historical Jesus and Aslan’s book about Mohammad. Seems to be two different topics mashed into one post.

  12. Maybe it is me, but I got distracted by the use of the, in my eyes, anachronistic term “deflower” here.

    Especially when it was a rape rather than a social devaluation (or whatever the term originally is supposed to describe), as we define the notion in modern terms [in Sweden] with a 15++ year old person taking sexual advantage of a 15- year old one.

  13. There probably was some crazy end times preacher who got executed around mid 1st century for claiming to be the King of the Jews. I read Aslan’s recent book (Zealot) and he names about a dozen other apocalyptic preachers that meet the same fate (most well known is probably Apollonius of Tyana).

    Still, in this young adult’s life (Jesus) we only have, at best, a handful of 10 minute scenes. We know some tiny tiny details that are probably true:

    1) Born in a town so small it didn’t appear on the map until hundreds of years after Jesus’ death. Population maybe a couple hundred. Of that maybe 10 or 15 people were literate.

    2) Jesus never wrote a thing down cause he was most likely illiterate and also thought (incorrectly) the end of the world was about to happen.

    3) Was probably baptized by some dude named John.

    4) Did a bit of travelling to preach JUDAISM. Probably knew a little bit about the Old Testament and was a faithful hardcore Jewish preacher.

    5) Was executed as a young adult.

    6) Had a few blood brothers, most notably James. This is believed to be true because Paul writes about him in his letters, Mathew/Mark write about James in their gospels, and the author of Acts (same author as Luke) again mentions Jesus’ brother James. He’s also mentioned numerous times outside of religious texts.

    Unfortunately Paul never met Jesus (although he did meet Jesus’ brothers). And none of the eye witnesses/disciples wrote a thing down.

    The earliest gospel was written about 4 decades after the young adult was executed. (However, the earliest COPY we have of Mark dates to 250 CE!)

    But, since some of the things are independently verified in other gospels, the writings of Paul, and most importantly other non-Christians (such as TACITUS) it’s assumed that there is some truth in there, if you dig around!

    Finally, there is a consensus among Historians that Jesus of Nazareth existed.

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