In this absorbing video, the Atheist Debate project, represented by creator Matt Dillahunty, interviews Robert Price, a former Baptist minister and now an atheist theologian and philosopher at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary. (Price’s latest book is Blaming Jesus for Jehovah: Rethinking the Righteousness of Christianity.) The topic is the historicity of Jesus, which I’ve written about several times, facing considerable dissent from some readers who argue that there’s good evidence for a real Jesus-Man.
I’m pretty much of the opinion that there’s no strong evidence for the claim that Jesus was a historical person around whom the Jesus myths (obviously false) accreted. In other words, I’m a mythicist. I don’t claim that we know that a Jesus-man didn’t exist, only that we don’t have good evidence that he did. In the same way, I think the same lack of evidence prevails for the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, and UFO abductions.
This puts me outside the bailiwick of modern scholarship, but I still claim that those scholars, like Bart Ehrman, who claim that mythicists are dead wrong, are themselves operating from psychological motives rather than from empirical evidence. They are, as Price mentions in this video, adherents to the “Stuck in the Middle with You” brand of scholarship, believing only those in the center with critical but conservative views, while placing both fundamentists like William Lane Craig and mythicists on the outside. In other words, these scholars, even though there’s no evidence for a historical Jesus, adhere to that view because it makes them look reasonable.
Price, as you’ll see from this video, is pretty much a mythicist: he sees no strong evidence, and no extra-Biblical evidence, for a historical Jesus. As he says, “The evidence supports the Christ-Myth theory.” He asks why there’s no secular biographical information about Jesus, and no “extra-Biblical historical mentions.” And you can’t dismiss him: Price really knows his stuff. He was once a strong believer, and has considerable theology under his belt.
Price’s claim? That the Jesus story in the gospels makes sense if it’s simply a rewritten update of the Old Testament story and perhaps also a melange of earlier myths, perhaps including those of Homer—stories that have similar elements. He argues that the whole distortion starts with the epistles of Paul, which he claims is “a story that effaces, ignores, or denies the historical existence of Jesus.” The Jesus-person, says Price, is “a savior god who gets historicized.” Towards the end, Price argues that religious scholars are in a kind of conspiracy to dismiss all Jesus-person-agnostics as misguided mythicists.
They’re not. The evidence for a historical Jesus simply isn’t there. Watch the video:
Price avers that Bart Ehrman, for instance, spends more time appealing to authority than dealing with the lack of evidence that he (Ehrman) admits in his earlier work. At the very end of the video, Price mentions that he might have a debate with Ehrman on mythicism. Now that would be something to see, and I hope it takes place. Get the popcorn!
100 thoughts on ““Jesus floats free of history”: Robert Price on the (non)historicity of Jesus”
Brilliant! Bob Price makes apologist arguments look very, very silly. Thanks for posting.
But he really doesn’t do justice to the secular historicist argument. He says there is nothing left over in the gospels after the mythical stuff is taken out. That’s not true. For example,there seems to be a real constraint that Jesus was from Nazareth, which didn’t fit OT prophecies. The gospels work hard, and in contradictory ways, to have Jesus born in Bethlehem as needed by the OT prophecies.
If the mythical prophecies demanded the “Jesus” persona born in Betlehem, the NT strives to deliver that. So I think Prize is correct.
You may well ask why there was a piece added that “Jesus” was born elsewhere, but the reason may be as simple as that the first texts made a mistake, which the endless revisions tried to fix.
Sorry, I don’t understand your comment. I agreed with Price that the gospel writers made Jesus be born in Bethlehem to match the prophecies. My point (which was also made very well by other commenters on previous threads) is that the writers had to go through major contortions to do that, as if they were constrained by real history—that the real Jesus was from Nazareth.
The whole senseless gospel reasoning behind the death of Jesus also smells of post-hoc invention around a historic constraint. It’s as if they had to find some explanation for an inconvenient real event.
No, there is no historic constraint. Mark was the one who came up with the birthplace of Nazareth. Matthew and Luke were then apparently faced with the constraint that Mark’s gospel had become at least somewhat widely accepted, and had to deal with it. For their problem it makes no difference whether Mark’s statement was based on fact or not.
Add to this the fact that the OT prophecy was not that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but that he would be born to the tribe of Bethlehem, and it becomes clear that there are multiple layers of confusion and invention.
What’s the evidence for your claim that Mark came up with the Nazareth story? Is it just because Mark is the earliest gospel? If so then your theory is no better than the historicist’s.
And why would Mark choose Nazareth? That just causes problems for the Bethlehem prophecies.
I thought that there was an NT line about Jesus being a Nazarene which, in the OT was a kind of priest or prophet. This was later taken to mean that he was from Nazareth but this was a misunderstanding of the word Nazarene.
I don’t know about that. If true, that would certainly be a good point.
To make him fulfill one more prophecy:
Matthew 2:23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Some (I can’t recall who now, perhaps Randi) claim that there is no evidence that Nazareth actually existed at the time Jesus was supposed to have been born. IIRC Ehrman discusses it in Did Jesus Exist? but I don’t recall details. There is evidence that it may have existed centuries before, and that it existed some decades into the 1st century, but not around Year 1.
It’s not conclusive evidence of anything really (absence of evidence not usually being evidence of absence), but it certainly throws more doubt on Jesus’ historicity.
By that logic, fanfic writers prove that fiction is fact every time they write around an inconvenient detail in canon. Just because the writers of the Gospel of Luke – who, I might add, were writing second-hand at best, and high as a kite on miracles and moralizing while doing so – felt the need to massage a prophecy into a pre-existing narrative, doesn’t mean the pre-existing narrative actually happened.
Of course, the Gospel writers presumably thought they were historians and chroniclers, but between the heavy-handed preaching, their unreliable historical triangulation, and their liberal invention of miracles and over-the-top claims, they don’t make for particularly compelling “witnesses”.
I’m not saying historicism is wrong; mythicism evidence is largely circumstantial. But then, so is the historicism, and the latter strikes me as being way too overstated. The strength-of-confidence-to-strength-of-argument ratio – especially with “evidence” as pathetic as this – makes the near-unanimity look frankly suspicious. Again, especially with such flimsy “evidence” as “the embarrassment principle”.
Turning that around, a fictional novel based on a real person does not erase the existence of that person. But sure, we could say that the real person is not the same as the fictional person.
“[T]he Gospel writers presumably thought they were historians and chroniclers”
IMHO that is far from certain. They were writing primarily apologetics, one gospel for gentiles, another for jews, and so forth. Furthermore the gospels were written, and later selected, to establish canon. Given that they were so comfortable weaving in older prophecy (for example) suggests that writing history was not their intention.
Based on Isaiah 53, they may have thought their Messiah had to die.
Are you suggesting that there was a functioning town/village/farm called Nazareth during the time some itinerant Rabbi went walkabout through Galilee?
I know that the existence of Nazareth at that time is disputed by some mythicists. I’d like to know more about that claim. Citations in the Wikipedia article on Nazareth show that the question is not simple, but that there clearly was an ancient settlement, long predating Jesus’ time, at the current location of Nazareth.
Yes, very ancient. But archaeology has apparently revealed nothing from the early part of the 1st century besides a few funerary lamps and some coins * which were dated later)
And as it was supposed to be a mile or down the road from Yapha (Sephoris) you’d think someone like Josephus would have made mention of it.
Besides, the geographic details as related in Luke are all wrong, not to mention the nonsense of the ”crowd” that wanted to sling him off a cliff.
And the etymology of term Nazarene is also in dispute.
In my part of the world there are many small settlements, even those next to large important cities, whose names rarely or never make it into print.
Agreed. But as we are talking about a man that Josephus ( supposedly) mentioned or his ”brother” (James) at least then one would expect a reference to Nazareth, even in passing, yet it is not mentioned in any pre-Christian Jewish literature.
But Jesus was called a Nazarene. In Greek grammar, that does not mean that he was from Nazareth. Nazarene means someone from Nazara, not from Nazareth.
As an analogy, if someone said Jesus was an American, you wouldn’t think that he was from Armenia. Sure, America and Armenia sound somewhat alike, but that still makes no sense for native English speakers.
Mark only writes “from Nazareth” once at Mark 1.9, all other instances that say “Jesus of Nazareth” in Mark are actually translators pulling the wool over your eyes; they all say “Jesus the Nazarene”. There’s evidence that Mark didn’t even write that one Nazareth part, since its Synoptic equivalent in Matthew doesn’t have the “from Nazareth”. And Matthew usually copies Mark word for word unless Mark made a mistake.
You can even see this grammar yourself: In Mark 5, where Jesus encounters the legion demon, the area that Mark calls it is the area of the “Gerasenes”, which is Gerasa.
In the Greek text of Matthew/Luke, they even follow the normal Greek grammar of what Nazarene means by saying that Jesus was from Nazara in some places. Again, this is glossed over by translators and they replace it with Nazareth.
So it doesn’t seem like Jesus being from Nazareth is all that solid. It looks like a game of telephone where things literally got lost in translation (remember, people were hearing these stories read out loud in house churches, they didn’t read them themselves; and other writers seemed to be writing from memory, not with a previous gospel at their side).
There’s Jesus the Nazarene, Jesus the Nazoraios, Jesus from Nazara, and Jesus from Nazareth all in the four gospels. None of these things mean the same thing. But translators simplify this by translating them all as Nazareth. At one point, in a Gnostic gospel, they even go so far as to say that Nazara means “truth”, ergo Jesus is from “truth”.
Those are interesting points. The Wikipedia article addresses some of that complexity, but you have more details.
One reason I’m arguing the historicist position here is to squeeze out these kinds of details. Thanks.
It should be pointed out though that you seem to be relying on the bible as some sort of historical text, i.e. that it is historically accurate. The bible is obviously incorrect in many historical details and it is inadvisable to rely upon if for any historical “facts” that cannot be independently verified. It is virtually worthless as a historical source, which is a major justification for mythicism.
I love listening to Price, but I’ve found his books poorly written; I don’t recommend them.
I’m about to listen to an audio book by Price where he critiques chapter-by-chapter Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.” I’m hoping that since he’s following Strobel’s organization, his own presentation will be more organized than his own books.
I only have one Bob Price book, The Reason Driven Life, and it is terrific!
Strobel’s The Case for Christ
That has to be the second worst book I have ever read.
Ehrman I think in his book said that he was 90% sure Jesus did exist. Obviously much of what is written in the Bible (NT) is of the imaginations of later authors.
Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” is not a great book. I found Ehrman unconvincing. Although I don’t recall the details now (I intend to reread it soon) it seemed to me that he relied on methods that he had previously (in the same book) dismissed as unreliable, and as Price points out he uses the bible as evidence of Jesus after trashing its trustworthiness. (It’s possible that my memory has simply failed me and that the latter is the same as the former.)
Scott, as editor of Blaming Jesus for Jehovah, I’m hopeful you will find this latest work of his more organized and clearly presented. At the very least, you will see Bob’s gigantic paragraphs broken up into more manageable size!
I also thought it was a particularly compelling look at how Jesus has his share of moral failings, even if you grant his existence as a historical figure.
I hope you are correct. My thought with his previous books was that he needed a good editor.
I think Price’s problem is that he attempts to tell you everything he knows when addressing a topic, which leads to rabbit trails and esoteric references. Good teachers don’t do that. They know they have to tailor the message to the knowledge-level of their audience. Bart Ehrman is exceptional at this.
I found Price’s book on Paul organized and accessible.
Price is also good on Cthulhu who is of course an actual historical figure
This June 2013 essay on my blog describes Bob’s viewpoints on the Christ Theory theory: http://blog.edsuom.com/2013/06/myth-method-and-will-to-believe.html
It references a speech he gave, “Myth, Method and the Will to Believe,” to an apologetics conference. One quote from the speech I believe sums up his thinking pretty well:
“I do not promote the Christ-Myth theory as a dogma; I merely prefer it as the best reading of the evidence. Even so, I have committed professional suicide by advocating the theory, so let no one think I am gaining anything by it. As far as I know, my conscience is clear on the matter. I retain from my Christian period the desire to understand the Bible as best I can, without cheating and making it say what I want it to say.”
It reminds me of the humble and honest approach that science takes to the facts it finds before it, which Jerry nicely laid out in Faith vs Fact. And of course it is a stark contrast to the dogmatism of the Jesus-Industrial Complex, which seeks and requires one particular answer, no matter how thin the evidence to support it. My belief is that even non-religious scholars of Jesus and the Bible are somewhat captive to this dogmatism, because they rely on institutions, culture, and readers with religious needs for that particular outcome of their scholarship.
Just read your post on Dr price. Awesome. Thanks for sharing
I’m with Mr. Price and Dr. Carrier, a mythicist.
Perhaps the writer from your Friday post: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/i-get-emails-and-i-get-lazy/ who could only manage to “cursorily scan” FvF to seek answers for why anyone would think that Jesus is just a myth, might be able to listen to Robert Price’s exposition.
Fascinating video. Many thanks.
It’s fitting that a nonexistent god should have a nonexistent son: after all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
What puzzles me most about Robert Price is how someone as smart, inquisitive and informed as he is could possibly be a political conservative.
That was a wonderful “interview “. Delahunt was the spark plug and Price was the engine.
I think a debate between Robert Price and Bart Ehrman will be like a chainsaw versus a butter knife.
It was wonderful where Price said “I’m not trying to convert anybody, I’m not trying to switch teams, I’m trying to get out of the stadium”
When asked if he was looking forward to debating Price, Ehrman said:
”No, not at all, actually. But Bob’s a good guy, so it should be fun. But I’m just not that interested in arguing about mythicism….”
It’s the five thousand dollars, the Ehrman speaking/debating fee, that has got him to this debate….money for his charities.
You’re not a connoisseur of single pot motorcycles by any chance?
Great interview. Christians or historians have never demonstrated anything that would make me accept a real person, with or without superpowers. As such, this debate looks patently absurd.
I found the part on the “relationship with Jesus” excellent: what does it even mean? Is is just some sort of slogan? There are too few scholars who pay attention to sign, and language and ask “what does this even mean?”
The New Testament is filled with contradictions, false prophecies, exaggerations, false stories, interpolations, miracles and other absurdities. It is therefore quite impossible to extract from this mess anything to be relied on. Nevertheless the New Testament and its exegesis have more than proven their worth as money-grabbing stratagems.
What is the Johnnie Coleman Theological Seminary? Is it a real school?
Since you’re using a computer, you should just Google it.
I did. It looks like a diploma mill
Thanks for the link to Price’s latest book, the forward to which introduced me to Valerie Tarico, a prolific writer on religion and reproductive rights. Visit her blog only if you have some time, because you’ll spend it.
As someone whose atheism predated the so-called “New Atheism” movement and as a student of ancient history, I’ve been fascinated by the way the Jesus Myth meme has swept through the atheist community. One would hope this was the result of a disinterested love of knowledge about the subject but alas it appears mostly to be a polemical point seized upon to attack an ideological opponent.
If you want to talk about mythology and the formation of early Christianity and the New Testament literature you are going to have to do more than just watch a Robert Price video. Sorry about that. That expertise thing really sucks.
The first thing I would ask myself is, do I know enough about the subject to even have an opinion one way or another? (But that’s just me.)
The overwhelming consensus among mainstream historians both religious and secular is that Jesus was a historical figure. To note that the folks who know the subject best have reached such a consensus is not an argument from authority. If you wish to challenge this scholarly consensus there is a way to do this. HINT: It’s not by posting Youtube videos. And it’s certainly not by psychoanalyzing the the people whose opinion you are challenging.
Of course it is, and if it were actual consensus, it would be a valid argument to make.
I don’t know if there still is consensus among ancient historians. There certainly is consensus among theologians. My experience, purely anecdotal, is most ancient historians are uninterested in Jesus and Christians and much more interested in Romans, Greeks and other Mediterranean cultures.
So, in other words, I think we need to understand your definition of consensus (who are these people reaching consensus and what is the number that feel Jesus was an historical figure)?
However, even if there is consensus, I think it’s a bit sloppy….it seems to me that Jesus gets a lot of leeway that other historical figures don’t and isn’t it time to reopen this debate if this is the case? It is entirely possible that university departments were operating on the idea that saying such “blasphemous things” would be bad and it is very possible that these many experts were believers themselves….doesn’t this seem a bias worth exploring? Don’t you remember that awful “noble savage” phase anthropology went through? They even misinterpreted the people of Ancient Crete as loving and peaceful and ignored archaeological evidence that showed otherwise.
Among those secular scholars (ones that don’t believe in miracles and resurrection) who accept the “consensus” of an historical Jesus, there is no consensus as to anything else about him other than that he existed. Cynic, revolutionary, mystic, apocalyptic and on and on. They assume him into evidence and then attempt to write history.
Also, there are many scholars from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st century who think it Christ a myth.
Richard Carrier has written powerful books on the subject.
Look up “Christ myth theory” in Wikipedia for details.
My admittedly ~20 year old textbook of general “Western” history (Perry’s) does not cite anything other than Acts (!!!) about early Christianity. There’s no there there.
There has never been consensus about the historicity vs. mythology of Jesus, just as there has never been consensus on the essential components and tenets of Christianity. Studying Middle Eastern and Western Civilization histories will not provide grounds for consensus. You’d have to “cherry pick”, same as is done with Biblical proofs. Which of the world’s mythologies should one acquire expertise in? Greek and/or Roman mythologies only, or Egyptian, Norse, and all the others from the Americas and Islands, etc.?
When the Jesus Seminar used to meet at OSU in Corvallis, Oregon to determine which quotes from the New Testament really were Jesus’ words,the majority ruled. There was no consensus. Consensus is a myth.
If you’re going to bring up Oregon State’s lamentable past connection with the Jesus Seminar, don’t forget that it is the Holy Ground for Bobby Henderson’s 2005 annunciation of the FSM and Pastafarianism.
I see your ‘expert’ requirement and play this excerpt from a recent comment of mine:
“As you may well know, historians have to steer clear from the area due to the controversies with pre-existing interests.”
“Here there is no historical evidence that everyone agree on. [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus1%5D Except, claims the above source, two things:
“There is widespread disagreement among scholars … the only two events subject to “almost universal assent” are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate”.
But that is the obnoxious ‘biblical scholarship’ raising its inane points again. ‘John the Baptist’ is part of the myth, and so is ‘crucifixion’. (The latter has never been observed by historians or is evidenced by archaeology. The nearest historical evidenced event is when Alexander raised tree Xs and put up ~ 2000 victims from a resisting Phoenician town early in his conquest to lower resistance. The trauma of that and the whole Hellenic Conquest is likely mirrored in the rise of the many sects at the time, and the myths of early ‘crucifixions’ that Josephus relates.) There is no archaeological evidence at all. (Which is not surprising, it is only from ~ 1.5 kyrs ago when evidence of executions makes an archaeological impression (galleys in Europe).) FWIW I had to waste hours in search for the historical evidence. The usual but mistaken suspect is a later Roman war history, but the historical accounts conflict so there is nothing to take away from that.
It is utterly clear from the general lack of actual historical evidence that none of the large religion mythical founders are historical individuals …”
This isn’t rocket science.
“I’ve been fascinated by the way the Jesus Myth meme has swept through the atheist community.”
I’ll also add this:
The reason why the Christ-Myth Theory is so successful is that:
a) it is the null hypothesis
b) there is no evidence against it.
Test successfully passed.
The predilection of its critics to rely on a fabled “consensus” that they have dreamed up is helpful, of course, since it shows that they haven’t really cared about the evidence before (and still doesn’t).
[You know the drill, “this isn’t rocket science”.]
I find this odd, because to me the null hypothesis is that cults have founders.
But really this is not a simple hypothesis test, it is a question of balance of circumstantial evidence; and here the crucial step appears to be how to classify Jesus. Pretty much what Richard Carrier calls the “reference class”.
He (along with much of the commentariat here) puts Jesus into the class of mythical heroes. Mythical heroes are usually mythical, problem solved.
Some of us put Jesus into the class of second-rate failed doomsday preacher. Those tend to exist in real life.
I think Paul is the best candidate for the title of ‘cult founder’. The mythologizing of Jesus took on a life of its own (as it always does) after Paul founded the churches throughout Mesopotamia.
I suspect there were two cult founders – Peter and Simon Magus. Peter’s line ended up Catholic, Simon’s Gnostic. The victor rewrote history and sacred texts.
Then should we refer to the Angel Moroni as the “founder” of Mormonism? Or the Angel Gabriel as the “founder” of Islam? The focus on the person of Jesus as historical/mythical needs to be seen in context for the broader historical question of how Christianity originated, which seems to me to be best answered with regard to the general (and much more interesting question) of how religions originate. They usually grow from myths, not from “founders.” There was considerable pressure on Judaism to free itself from the Temple cult once the Romans had control of (and then destroyed) the Temple. The development of a Jewish mystery religion, given the religious context of the times, seems almost inevitable.
They usually grow from myths, not from “founders.”
Really? I can understand people arguing that Paul was the founder, but that doomsday cults don’t have founders? Sorry, that is just twee. They are all over the place even today!
Dig the sly Stealers Wheel allusion there. Does that mean Ehrman and his ilk see mythicists and literalists, respectively, as the clowns to their left, and jokers to their right?
The consensus seems to be based on over a millennium of unquestioned (without dire consequences, that is) acceptance of the existence of Jesus. The burden of proof should lie with those who claim he existed.
Yes, it seems to be that all historical figures, save for Jesus, start out with the null hypothesis that they didn’t exist. Jesus is the exception; his null hypothesis is he did exist. Even poor King Arthur got his due and he was a beloved mediaeval king! And it was assumed Troy never existed until we found the location.
“I think the same lack of evidence prevails for the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, and UFO abductions.”
I wrote a lot on the last post about this subject, so I’ll stay out of this one, except to say that the burden of proof is very different regarding the existence of a real Jesus than a real Bigfoot, Nessie, or UFO abduction. A real,ordinary Jesus is a perfectly mundane claim with a high prior probability: just read Carrier’s Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire.
The fantasies of the gospels are completely irrelevant to the validity of this claim. The secular Jesus-is-real claim is just that Jesus was a real preacher who had real followers, some of whom Paul met. And most who hold that position would also claim that this Jesus had a brother named James, whom Paul also met.
No miracle claims or anything else. This is such a benign and probable scenario that I think the burden of proof has to be on those who claim that the reference in Paul does not imply that Jesus had a brother named James. It doesn’t matter where this Jesus, or the followers of Jesus, drew their myths from.
But all Paul says is that James was “the brother of the Lord”. That is, a baptized Christian. Paul certainly didn’t think that James and Jesus were children of the same parents, since for one thing he had no concept of Jesus as having been a man walking on Earth in the first place.
We think “brother of the Lord” means “blood relation of Jesus” because we also know the gospel stories — but remember, the gospels weren’t written until decades after Paul died! As so often happens, even as an atheist you accept too much on faith!
“But all Paul says is that James was “the brother of the Lord”. That is, a baptized Christian. Paul certainly didn’t think that James and Jesus were children of the same parents, since for one thing he had no concept of Jesus as having been a man walking on Earth in the first place.”
In the same sentence, Paul does not use that phrase to refer to Peter/Cephas, who was also a baptized Christian. The sentence reads exactly as if he was referring to kinship. I don’t think that from reading the gospels, I get it from reading Paul.
Might you be interpreting its plain words through the lens of your belief in the mythicist theory?
Possibly! But it seems clear to me that Paul didn’t think that Jesus even had a body, so he wouldn’t have thought he had a brother.
Someone with in-depth knowledge of Paul’s writing could probably shed light on the right way to interpret this important passage. How often does he use the singular “brother” to refer to “baptised Christian”? Why does he not say “Cephas and James, brothers in Christ?” I’m prepared to change my opinion about this passage if someone could present a detailed argument.
Then you need to read Richard Carrier, who presents a detailed argument.
Can you give a citation for his best presentation of that argument? If you are familiar with one, could you also give a contrary citation from a good secular NT historian?
Be careful what you assume about Christianity based on what you read in the New Testament. None of it was written by Jesus or any of his disciples/contemporaries before, during or after his purported life. Then you have the problem of certain of the books being written
to meet the beliefs and needs of different cultures at different times, so interpretation of purported events changed. Notice that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not agree on the life of Jesus or what happened when. Also, when reading the New Testament, we are reading translations of translations. We’re not reading in the original language, but interpretations intended to express ideas from one culture in a form that conveys meaning to another culture. Mary wasn’t a “virgin” but a young, unmarried girl. James was not the only sibling of Jesus. Jesus’ life until his ministry is fabricated and mostly unknown. The New Testament is a compilation of writings not all by any means) selected by the Church hundreds of years after Jesus died (if he lived). It is odd to base one’s beliefs on
such iffy materials regarding life here now, and hereafter.
If these comments are addressed to me, they miss the mark. Can’t you tell from reading my comment that I, like you, are sure that most of the NT is purely myth?
“Mary wasn’t a “virgin” but a young, unmarried girl.”
I believe you have garbled this. The New Testament does indeed say that Mary was a virgin. The translation error comes in because Isaiah 7:14 says (in Hebrew) that someone will be born of a young woman. This was mis-translated in the Septaguint, a Greek translation of Jewish scriptures, as “virgin.” The NT clearly does depict Mary as a virgin, see Matt 1:23. This is a clear clue that the gospel writers read the OT in Greek, not the original Hebrew. Since there is no evidence of Mary existing outside of a character in a story in the New Testament, you have no business telling us about her ‘actual’ sexual status.
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14 KJV)
“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” (Matt 1:23)
As an added bonus, nowhere else in the NT is Jesus referred to as “Emmanuel” or “Immanuel.”
In case that wasn’t clear enough, it is not the modern reader who makes a translation error about Mary’s virginity, it was the authors of Matthew (1:23) and Luke (1:27) who were misled by an earlier error translating the OT to Greek.
I don’t think it was an error per se as παρθένος can mean virgin or maiden. It’s technically correct but could be seen as wrong since it depends in context and interpretation.
“I don’t think it was an error per se as παρθένος can mean virgin or maiden”
Precisely the problem. You give the Greek word, and not the original Hebrew.
“A real, ordinary Jesus is a perfectly mundane claim with a high prior probability”.
Really!? A myth on the same footing as Bigfoot, Nessie, and UFO abductions has somehow a different prior?
I think you have to work on this one. Since I haven’t read Carrier’s Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire, I would like to have a distillation.
I suspect it revolves around the historical fact that there were a lot of religious street preachers at the time. That would be analogous to having the existence of rockets increasing the prior of UFO abductions.
How hard can it be to differentiate between a religious myth and its social template? I.e. the existence of 200 “rockets” isn’t increasing the likelihood that one of them is a UFO.
And what would the existence of street preachers, which frequency was highly increased due to the many similar myths circulating at the time, have to do with the Christ-Myth null hypothesis?
Observing their behavior, the “Jesus was a real preacher” adherents seem to speak of a different subject altogether.
“the reference in Paul”.
Another myth persona it seems from checking the source. Where is the historical evidence of “Paul”?
You seem to misunderstand the historicist position. If there were hundreds of self-proclaimed delusional messianic preachers in the region at the time, then yes, the odds that one of them had disciples and got mythified is quite high. Your rocket/UFO analogy is inaccurate.
Again, I don’t know why so many people arguing here can’t understand that the historicist position is not an endorsement of any supernatural claims about Jesus. The existence of many rockets may not imply anything about the existence of UFOs, but it does mean that there is nothing unusual or unexpected about the claim that a particular garden-variety rocket exists. That’s all a historicist is claiming: there was a messianic preacher named Jesus who had followers (and probably a brother) that Paul met.
To be fair, I think part of the problem is that “Jesus Christ” is so strongly identified with the Son-of-God, Second-Coming, miracle-working, death-defying figure of myth and legend that even to claim he was based on the Roman equivalent of “Mad Apocalypse Guy ranting on the street” sounds more radical than it really is.
Or I suppose a better example would be one Ben Goren liked to use: as if DC Comics claimed that Superman was based on a real-life Clark Kent, who has none of the trademark attributes – superpowers, adopted orphan status, journalist career, extra-moral character – we associate with Superman. The question arises: if fewer and fewer of the fictional version’s characteristics can be traced to a real-life precursor, to what extent are they even the same person, and at what point can we just say that the real Clark Kent inspired Superman rather than is Superman, or even that he just happened to resemble Superman rather than inspired him?
I think a similar situation holds with the claims for a historical Jesus: only the blandest and least interesting details can sensibly be wrought out of the heavily mythologized texts, to the point that saying “Jesus was a real figure” seems downright leading.
And there is the logical point that the non-existence of Jesus means an easier anti-religious case than the existence of a Jesus described – however ridiculously – in spectacular terms, so some degree of wishful thinking is probably creeping into a few mythicist objections.
You’re right on all counts. A secular historicist is making a completely mundane claim: “Jesus was a real, perfectly ordinary person named Jesus who had real followers and a brother, whom Paul met, and who was transformed into (or inspired) Christianity’s superhero.” Ben and many others here want to argue against a stronger claim: “Christianity’s Jesus was a real person.” Disproving either of these claims would deliver a knockout blow to Christianity, but it is hard to knock out the first claim, easy to knock out the second claim. Ben and others here therefore seem to try to shift every argument over to the second claim.
They are right to wonder in what sense this putative historical Jesus “is” the Christian Jesus. And I don’t really care how they resolve that question. But they should not wrongly deny the banal claim of secular historicists just because it doesn’t conform to their polemical needs. The historicists’ claim (whose core I just gave) is either true or false, and quite definite, if uninteresting to Ben. There is some evidence in its favor, and some against, and maybe we can’t decide, and maybe it doesn’t matter. But we should not be misled by our distaste for Christianity into believing that this mild historicist claim is obviously false.
Price himself said in this interview, “…I don’t see how anybody could be confident they know, one way or the other….it would be absurd and cultic and fanatical for me to say Oh yeah, Jesus didn’t exist, there’s no way he did, that would be absurd” I wish Ben and some of the others here would take that to heart; this guy has studied the question in far more detail than them.
We *have* Paul’s explanation of who Jesus *was* to consider. And that’s where the evidence for what Christianity was about *begins*, as Paul’s work is the earliest which survives.
We also have the fairly early book of Hebrews, which *also* says that Jesus was only in the heavens, etc. etc.
And so on.
Again, I don’t know why so many people arguing here can’t understand that the historicist position is not an endorsement of any supernatural claims about Jesus.
Black-and-white thinking? Same thing happens whenever free will is discussed: there is either superstition or One Very Specific Naturalist View; any other naturalist opinions apparently collapse into superstition.
“I don’t know why so many people arguing here can’t understand that the historicist position is not an endorsement of any supernatural claims about Jesus.”
I think you mischaracterise the mythicist position. I think most mythicists (myself included) are well aware that the purely historicist position does not accept any supernatural claims. The point is that virtually ALL “evidence” for this Jesus is from religious appologetic writings which are completely unreliable as anything but appologetics. They are not history, they usually do not even pretend to be. The bible is so obviously wrong on many points of history and geography, and is so obviously written to testify to prophecies, that to rely on it as a source of fact is simply foolhardy to many mythicists.
One of the very curious features of the bible is that Paul nowhere (AFAIK) quotes Jesus, does not talk about anything Jesus did, and yet he is the source of the earliest christian writings, although he supposedly met with Jesus’ disciples and one of his brothers (if you can believe it).
To be clear, although I am probably a mythicist I do not claim that Jesus absolutely never existed, merely that the best reading of the evidence is that it is unlikely that he existed except perhaps in a trivial sense. I have come to this conclusion because it seems to me that there is almost no reliable evidence, and there are very powerful counter explanations.
“The fantasies of the gospels are completely irrelevant to the validity of this claim. ”
Not quite. Which sort of recorded history would favor a truly influential actual human – one with multiple eyewitnesses, with consistent facts and schedules and with venerated and carefully-preserved artifacts? Or one with zero eyewitness accounts, a nearly perfectly incoherent and self-contradictory story; and which is based largely on pre-existent prophecy?
Here is the basic problem: Historicity requires the smallest Jesus possible: a real man with a following so small it was not even noticed by local historians who actually noticed at least ten other similar profiles of men also named Jesus.
But Jews of that time would never follow such a man as a self-described Messiah. They would not deify a mortal. They would need proof, ie miracles. And a true miracle-worker would inspire great crowds of followers – just as described in the Gospels. Except – these never occurred, because if they had actually occurred, they would have been recorded by historians. And, of course, actual people do not produce miracles.
The historicist Jesus just doesn’t fit. It has to inhabit an impossibly small 4-dimensional landscape. Which is why if you have 10 Historicists in a room, you have 15 different historical Jesuses described.
History provides many counterexamples to your thesis, even in our own time: Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, Rev. Moon, many gurus from India, etc.
Curious that you only name “counterexamples” from our times (or close enough) who coincidentally are attested by independent sources. One of the most outstanding features of this Jesus is the almost entire lack of reliable independent evidence for his existence.
“This is such a benign and probable scenario that I think the burden of proof has to be on those who claim …”
By what measure is it probable? I think you’re confusing probable with possible. Anyway, ALL claims require evidence (and exceptional claims require exceptional evidence). Part of the debate is that what you might think is evidence is questioned by others.
Of course there were many people called Jesus in those times, and some were probably carpenters and some were probably preachers. The problem is that once we strip away all the fantastic and unreliable claims about this Jesus in the bible what are we left with? “There once was a guy called Jesus, who was a carpenter, and later in life a preacher.”
This is an unremarkable story of little or no import, and what’s more doesn’t really provide evidence to the notion that the bible was written about a person who actually existed.
If we strip Harry Potter of all his wizarding powers and magical adventures, and banish Voldemort, Hogwarts, witches, wizards, etc to non-existence, Potter doesn’t become a real person.
Info on the upcoming debate:
Friday, October 21, 2016 – 6-9 pm
Did Jesus Exist?
Dr. Robert Price and Bart D. Ehrman
Turner Hall, 1034 N 4th St, Milwaukee, WI 53203
The Price-Ehrman debate will be in Milwaukee on Oct 21.
To say there is “no evidence” for an actual Jesus is to ignore the little bit of historical evidence that DOES exist. To attribute “psychological motives” to scholars who have done serious research in the area, or to attach humorous labels to their findings [“Stuck in the Middle with You,” which I have to admit IS funny] is not the way to refute the results of 200+ years of historical research.
I have read Price’s work, and find him to be by far the strongest advocate for mythicism. However, if he or anyone else really made the better case, many in the scholarly community would acknowledge that fact. No one has yet made that case, and so those who prefer the mythicist position are reduced to calling names–as has been done here.
And BTW, I would agree that Bart Ehrman DOES overstate the case for the historical Jesus, as do most of his colleagues. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that there’s some sort of conspiracy among Jesus scholars, who’re just trying to protect their turf.
The name-calling reflected above is not the sort of approach that I would have expected from a respected scientist. Furthermore, an appeal to Robert Price (regardless of his admittedly excellent credentials) is no less an appeal to authority than Ehrman’s appeal to the longstanding critical consensus about the historicity of Jesus.
Name calling? Thanks SO much for telling me how a respected scientist would behave!
Now go frequent some other website, as you’ve violated the Roolz. You did notice, didn’t you, that I didn’t just mention his backgorund, but GAVE SOME OF HIS ARGUMENTS?
The Mythicists of Milwaukee are hosting a debate with Price and Ehrman in October. It’s a reasonably short drive for you Jerry. I’m thinking about going and I live in Michigan.
But would it not be just more probable that there was a real historic person at the beginning of what later became Christianity, than – yes, what?
How do you measure or calculate that probability exactly?
As Richard Carrier shows, one way to interpret Paul’s writings (which, btw are the earliest christian writings in the canon) is that the entire Jesus story did not occur on earth, that Jesus never set foot on earth (IIRC), that it all occurred in the heavens somewhere (perhaps between the earth and the moon).
Thanks again for great posts! I would highly recommend anyone interested to read Richard Carrier as well. He is what I would regard as the most articulate rationalist when it comes to this debate and as almost all “evidence” to Jesus existing fits much more to him being euhemerized there really isn’t much of a debate on his actual existence.
And Raphael Lataster. I think he collaborates with Carrier (and others). Try “There Was No Jesus, There Is No God”, available for Kindle and on paper. It is much smaller and more concise than Carrier’s work, although I have to say that Carrier’s two books on historicity (“Proving History” and “On the Historicity of Jesus”) are much more comprehensive. Although I couldn’t always follow his Bayesian reasoning I found much of the evidence he presents (and there is quite a lot of it) rather eye-opening.
I’m an atheist, but the historical Jesus hypothesis is the only plausible explanation for where a certain 1st-century Jewish apocalyptic sect came from. Price can’t answer basic questions about Christian origins because he’s not considering the evidence objectively.
Here’s atheist-friendly evidence for a historical Jesus: http://bit.ly/tweetjesus