Peter Nothnagle: No evidence for a historical Jesus

January 3, 2017 • 10:15 am

Reader Peter Nothnagle sent me the transcript of an Easter talk, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?”, that he gave last March to a joint meeting of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City and the Secular Humanists and the Secular Students at Iowa. I was much impressed with Peter’s success at distilling all the scholarship around the historical “Jesus” (he’s read all the relevant stuff) as well as his ability to present it in a reader (and listener) friendly manner.

Peter’s conclusion is that there is no evidence for a historical person around whom the Jesus myth accreted—something I’ve thought for a long time. But he knows a lot more than I do about this, so I’ll let you read his paper—and you should. He’s put it up at a Google Drive link given in bold below, and you can download it and print it out.

Peter wrote an introduction for me to post here; you should read this before his paper:

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the question of who, or what, lies at the root of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. About a year ago I was asked to give a talk on the subject for a local Humanist group, and I had a great time doing a lot of research and formulating my own thoughts on the question. I see that a lot of people share my interest, since every time Jerry posts anything about it, he gets at least a hundred comments.

I shared a copy of my talk with Jerry, and he thought other readers might be interested to read it, so Jerry is kindly allowing me to link to a PDF which may be downloaded here.

The too-long, didn’t-read version: When lined up in the order in which they were composed, the accounts of the life and works of Jesus reveal that he was originally worshipped as a celestial being who never had a body, never had a ministry or disciples, and never appeared in person to anyone. Later writings brought him “down to earth” in physical form, adding increasingly fantastic story elements as time went on, in tales which were carefully set in a time and locale conveniently inaccessible to verification. While Christian writings all show signs of continual reworking as the theology evolved (an activity that continues to this day!), there are no independent accounts of Jesus or any of his supposed disciples from the entire century during which the religion supposedly began.

I conclude that the figure of Jesus was invented by one faction in a diverse religious landscape in an effort to create an “apostolic succession” of authority – “our priests were taught by priests that were taught by followers of Jesus Christ himself, in person”. But even if I’m completely wrong about that, it is undeniable that the only evidence that exists for a living, breathing, walking, talking Jesus is weak, contradictory, or simply fraudulent. Therefore no one can be justified in believing that such a person existed.


JAC: One of the things that’s always puzzled me is the rush to judgment about the historical Jesus by Biblical scholars, nearly all of whom, including Bart Ehrman, are eager to say that a historical (not a divine!) Jesus is probable, despite the woeful lack of evidence. This includes Biblical scholars who aren’t religious. It often seems that they’re being tendentious: trying to arrive at a conclusion that splits the difference between secularists and religious people, trying to offend neither group. Peter mentions this toward the end of his paper, and I wanted to give one of his quotes. But again, you’ll be greatly edified by reading his whole talk.

So much for how Christians answer the Christ-mythicists. How about secular historians? I have to say, their answers really aren’t any better! What I have seen is that time and again, their rebuttal is something like “The overwhelming majority of experts agree that Jesus was a real person.” And that’s true, most of them do say that, but why? They go on, “The evidence for a historical Jesus is so abundant that we shouldn’t even have to defend our position.” And strangely, most of them stop at that point, with that assertion. Most historians dismiss Christ-mythicism as crankery and fringe pseudohistory, but if pressed for their evidence that Jesus was a real person, we’re back to the same suspect and contradictory sources that I have already refuted in this brief talk – the gospels, the epistles, tradition, authority – in other words, they take it on faith. They also have some obscure and technical arguments like the “criterion of embarrassment” and the fact that Paul refers to the apostle James as “the brother of the Lord” – which I can get into if you want, but I assure you, I can defeat those, too, and I’m just some guy with a hobby! Also, strange as it sounds, some historians rely on sources that don’t actually exist. For example, they say that when Matthew and Luke were adding to the narrative of Mark, they might have used a collection of Jesus’ authentic sayings which has since been lost – therefore this missing document is evidence for a historical Jesus. Well, maybe, but that goes both ways, you know – I could stand here and counter their hypothetical documents with my hypothetical documents. But if I did, I would hope you wouldn’t think that I was persuasive! It really does seem bizarre to me.

We wouldn’t be having this kind of controversy over any other demigod from a distant land 2,000 years ago. Nobody obsesses over the historical Hercules, after all. Jesus gets a pass on the way history is normally done, even among most secular historians. It’s as if there’s some psychological reason why, in spite of all the accumulated evidence and clear-headed modern arguments, they still seem unable to move from “we can be certain” to “we can’t be certain” – like, they would have to admit that they and their beloved mentors might have been wrong all along. Or maybe some of them think their careers would suffer if they published something their universities’ big donors didn’t like.

189 thoughts on “Peter Nothnagle: No evidence for a historical Jesus

  1. Of course there’s a psychological reason to not deny a historical Jesus existed – its called self-preservation. For a couple of millenia denying the existence of Jesus was a capital offense in much of the western world and it would be again if hardline believers had their way – again.

    1. These days, I think the term “self-preservation” applies more to things like “tenure”, “post”, “discipline” (i.e. of the very concept of biblical scholarship that keeps its practitioners in employment, a discipline that Hector Avalos is so rightly keen to dismember) and “commitment” (i.e. those colleges that demand adherence to statements of faith as a condition of employment. Ain’t that just the acme of an objective, scientific approach to your subject?)

  2. To me, it has always seemed that the version of the story that someone like Bart Ehrman tells is just as devastating to Christianity as there having been no historical Jesus would be.

    It’s a description of how an elaborate religion and theology was put together around the kind of preacher you can see even today in significant numbers and of which there must have been many back then too, and the way the religion developed was through the natural process of word-of-mouth embellishments in a oral culture combined with deliberate falsifications and dogma established by the winners of political infighting battles within the nascent cult and later in the context of Roman imperial collapse.

    So while it does matter whether there was a real Jesus or not with respect to establishing the historical truth, with respect to the conflict between science and religion (which is, let’s face it, what is primarily driving the discussion) it really isn’t that important.

    1. RE your last paragraph, I agree that it isn’t important in an unbiased, logical and rational assessment of the issue. But, I think it does matter in real life. I think many believers will pick out the “Jesus was a real person” part and be able to ignore any of the rest of it that doesn’t support their beliefs. They do that sort of thing all the time, particularly with their own Bible.

      I’m sure many believers would also not be convinced by biblical scholars and historians reaching a strong consensus that Jesus was 100% myth. But it seems likely that this would be more effective at planting seeds of doubt in believers’ minds than the current strong consensus among experts that Jesus was based on a real person.

      1. It is extremely unlikely that Jesus-believers
        would ever read a Bart Ehrman book, or any of the many other books written on this topic by others, or books about a mythological Jesus. Many of them have read only the Bible. Many of them have not even read the Bible.

      2. You are correct in the sense that “Jesus did not exist” is a simple one-sentence statement that packs a punch and everyone can grasp. Carefully reading several thousand pages of ponderous prose by Bart Ehrman to figure out which passage of the Bible is what sort of forgery is not something many will do.

        I concede that point

        1. I don’t find Bart Ehrman ponderous, even if I disagree with him. His books are pretty concise and plain-spoken.

  3. Nothnagel, as in “Notnagel” in german means “stopgap” or “fill-in”. Found it funny, given the context.

    I noticed that Jesus plays a far more important role in American Christianity than he does in Northern Europe. He’s only marginally more important than the Holy Spirit, and then closely connected to the more infantile, mythological part of belief, which seems overall less pronounced in Northern Europe. Lutherans, Anglicans and garden variety Protestants are more invested in Ground of Being deism, with a veneer of Christianity. It’s consistent with other typical features of US Christianity, such as its strong embracing of literalism and creationism. Americans seem to want their beliefs more tangible, reality-grounded.

    I wonder if this has to do with cultural history and the omni-presence of cathedrals and churches in Europe, often hundreds of years old, who tower over every village. Maybe that makes Christianity “real” enough, and its presence can be felt through culture as anchored in architecture.

    1. “Anglicans…are more invested in Ground of Being deism”. Hmm…I don’t think so. The CofE has become increasingly evangelical and Biblical in recent years. Archbishop Welby has boasted that the Bishops in the House of Lords (another anachronism, but OT) is the most “orthodox” in 70 years. I personally think that the CofE is enthusiastically digging its own grave, but it will take a few good years to finish.

      1. There might be a difference between the clergy and the laity here, with, on the one hand, the former fighting to show what’s distinctive about Christianity (of the Anglican variety) rather than a vague deism that can appropriate the veneer of any and all religions. On the other hand, as an example of Aneris’s claim, an old schoolfriend, who I had known as an atheist/agnostic became a regular Anglican churchgoer later in life. When he was exposing his beliefs, I remarked that it sounded very much like deism, and he agreed. (Anecdotes are not data, of course!)


        1. … and of course there’s pantheism, which is fairly close to deism and also to mild new-age mysticism…

          In other words, diluted enough that an agnostic would have to be quite dogmatic to find it unacceptable.


        2. Just thinking of my rellies in Cornwall, who are very much C of E ‘cultural Christians’. That is, they have a social life centred around the village church, but they’d be taken aback by an evangelical preacher, vaguely disconcerted at too much Jesus-worship and probably quite offended at the suggestion that unbelievers might go to Hell.


  4. The key question is: If you were to call for evidence for the existence of someone other than Jesus, and received the sort of documentation used to bolster Jesus’ existence, would you accept it as reasonable?

    Just to recap: that includes a handful of non-independent documents written by non-witnesses with obvious religious agendas and propaganda-based motives, written for fellow religionists, by people who seem indecently eager to attribute magic powers to this individual, who in any case weren’t professional chroniclers of history but story-tellers. The only professional chroniclers whose writings haven’t been tampered with, and who bother with the matter at all, mostly describe either this figure in a small-paragraph parenthesis – sometimes not even spelling his name right – or the nuisance believers themselves.

    And this is in the context of the twenty-first century, when we’ve discovered that eye-witness testimony in any case is shockingly bad and people without adequate education are especially prone and blind to a huge number of cognitive biases.

    Any jury that called all that “reasonably certain evidence” would not be a jury I’d want within ten feet of a court of law.

    1. I think you put your finger on the nub of it by adding “with obvious religious agendas.”

      If someone came to me and claimed Johnus Doeus lived in the Roman Empire in 20 AD, and cited merely a few tertiary source mentions of Johnus Doeus made by people living in 120 AD, I’d probably shrug and say “okay.” To be very specific: I *would* accept that very low level of evidence as reasonably credibleas long as nobody is making any spectacular claims about Johnus Doeus. But if that same claimant then says JD was Caesar’s secret son, or a heretofore unknown Roman general, or a religious leader of major significance at the time, then I’m going to ask for more evidence that a person of that historical significance existed if he was unknown up until now.

      So, IMO, its not so much the claim of a person that requires a high burden of proof, its the claim to historical significance than ratchets up the requirement.

      1. But the historical Jesus supported by historians was not a historically significant person, in and of himself. A major religious leader might be expected to be more broadly attested. A minor peasant preacher who only became famous through the historical accident of having particularly evocative stories made up about him would not.

        1. Seems to me you could probably both be right. Just on general probability, it seems highly likely there were a number of preachers named Jesus (common name, after all) running around at the time. And that later on stories about Jesus (or maybe several) plus invented myths could have aggregated around a sort of composite figure of ‘Jesus’.

          Historical significance is not necessarily the same as mythical prominence. Most likely the myth became far more historically significant than any of the presumed Jesi were at the time.


          1. Of course there were also several David Crocketts in the US in the early 19th century but only one of them inspired the Disney series which contained a bucketload of inaccurate legend.

          2. Of course there were also several David Crocketts in the US in the early 19th century but only one of them inspired the Disney series which contained a bucketload of inaccurate legend.

  5. I have just read Mr. Nothnagel’s essay and found it clear, comprehensive and convincing. (three-fold alliteration = high praise) I will certainly recommend it to anyone who wants an introduction to the question of a historical Jesus. But I would add that Ben Goren’s posts here on the same topic have already made the definitive case for the ‘mythicists.’ This is not to deprecate Mr. Nothnagel’s work; rather, to acknowledge Mr. Goren’s–along with praise for his mind, which, sadly, I’ve missed the presence of over the last several months.

    1. I agree with you on both counts. I would simply add thanks to Peter Nothnagle for pulling it all together in one concise easy-to-read essay which I have now saved for future reference.

  6. I would like to see the same level of research that is done into an historical Jesus done into an historical Muhammad.

    As far as I can work out, there is no more evidence for Muhammed than there is for Jesus. And at least Bethlehem and Nazareth existed when Jesus is supposed to have lived. There is no historical or archaeological evidence that Mecca existed until well after Muhammad is supposed to have existed.

    Also, his clan was supposed to have traded with the Romans, but those meticulous record keepers have no records that the Quraysh ever existed. The Quraysh are supposedly descended from Adam via Ishmael. That’s as dodgy as Jesus’ lineage back to Adam.

    We all know why this isn’t discussed. I think it’s about time it was.

    1. “I would like to see the same level of research that is done into an historical Jesus done into an historical Muhammad.”

      I think this kind of work would demand serious hazardous duty pay.

    2. Start with ibn Warraq, The Quest for the Historical Mohammad/ Ohlig and Puin is interesting but technical. Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword is a good intro too, but only dels obliquely with this issue. And there is a book by Robert Spencer.

    3. How well-preserved do you think Roman records are? Whatever records did exists have almost all been lost. Besides, what is the probability that if they ever did mention the Quraysh and we found that record, they would do it in a recognizable form? They might just write that they traded with some barbarians.

    4. Not Nazareth: no evidence of human habitation until the late 1st century. “Jesus of Nazareth” is likely a mistranslation: it should be “Jesus the Nazarene” or “Jesus the Nazarite”. As in the mistranslation of “young woman” as “virgin”, a tower of fiction has been constructed on a flimsy base of misunderstanding!

      1. Yes! That had stuck in my mind from the previous post on this issue: One of the sources Jerry quoted said that we “knew” that Jesus was from Nazareth, but, of course, we really know that he couldn’t have been.


      2. The claim that Nazareth didn’t exist is most famously championed by René Salm, who has degrees in music, but not in archæology. Archæologists seem generally to disagree with his conclusions. Being myself unqualified to evaluate the debate, I will provisionally assume that the Israeli archæologists are more reliable on this matter than the American musician.


    5. Nazareth did not exist during the time of Jesus as it turns out. Check out Rene Salm’s 2 books on the subject. Evidence for Nazareth at the time is all lying for Jesus.

    6. As far as the evidence for Nazareth is concerned it certainly did not exist during the supposed mortal life-time of Jesus and from my reading, Mecca had been a pagan holy site centuries before Muhammad’s lifetime.

  7. I don’t think that Bart Ehrman is adamant about the reality of Jesus. As I recall, he refers to certain statements or events attributed to Jesus that he thinks could possibly be true.

    For those who do not believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God, as depicted in the Bible and interpreted variously by many Christian churches, it matters little whether you prefer to believe him nonexistent, mythological,
    a Jewish Rabbi, or something else entirely. So many stories all over the spectrum have been written about him: Jesus was a magician, Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had children, Jesus went to Rome, Jesus became a missionary and went to India, etc. There is proof for none of this.

    I recently read a book by Bill Bryson on Shakespeare and was reminded yet again how little data exists about this man who lived in the Elizabethan period, not as far removed in time as Jesus. There have been hundreds of books written to indicate that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written the plays and poetry of Shakespeare. Marlowe and deVere are two of many who some think wrote Shakespeare’s material. I think of this when I think about historical certainty for the existence of a man who supposedly lived 2000 years ago.

    Thank you for sharing your research, Mr. Nothnagle, and to Dr. Coyne for providing the forum.

    1. I have read with considerable interest much of the current Shakespeare authorship question and have noticed similarities to Jesus mythicism. I am no scholar, but parsimony and coherence lead me to Oxford and mythicism at this point.

      And I am open to contrary, concrete evidence should it ever arise. A glove-maker and a divine being doing such great works would be truly amazing.

      What amazes me most is literate, science-oriented, reality-based friends and colleagues who get apoplectic at the thought the Stratford man might not have been the author of the works. Most often on the basis of very thin and often non-existent “evidence”… “he might have read…,” “he must have traveled to…”

      The parallels to the life of de Vere with the work are such that at this point I would be more amazed if Shaksper was the actual author and not a theater man and play broker acting as a front for Oxford.

      Being open to fact and suspicious of faith positions gets one in trouble all over the place.

      1. I vigorously disagree on this one as well!!!

        Shakespeare’s plays have many earmarks of someone who is simultaneously widely read but not formally educated, with weird errors in European geography, and odd anachronisms.

        Shakespeare give Bohemia a Navy, and has a clock in the village square in Julius Caesar (thankfully omitted in all modern stagings. Broadly, he uses Italy more or less the way Gilbert and Sullivan use Japan and Star Trek uses outer space, an exotic place far, far away about which one could say virtually anything.

        Far more likely the product of the Bard from Avon than Edward de Vere.

        As far “parsimony”, that utterly baffles me. Parsimony would opt for a historical Jesus and Shakespeare being the author of the plays, not the other way around.

        1. Yes, I can that was incompletely stated.

          Using the definition of parsimony as: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected” …one could argue that the historicity of both Shaksper and Jesus are so riddled with and almost entirely dependent on assumptions as to be of not much use.

          Or not.

          1. I would not agree with that.

            The gymnastics that “Oxfordians” go through to explain why so many of WS’s plays were produced well after the Earl of Oxford’s death in 1604 is wild.

            Re Shakespeare’s authorship, you have what is called ‘consilience’, the convergence of documentary evidence, title pages, testimony by contemporary poets and historians, and official records. NO direct evidence exists for any other author AT ALL, even though the evidence for WS is fragmentary.

            The Oxfordians think the real author must have traveled a lot in Italy. I would argue there are many signs that the author of Othello, Romeo & J, Merchant of V, etc. had NOT traveled in Italy.

            If the Earl of Oxford were the author, the conspiracy to cover this up would have to be HUGE

            1. “The Oxfordians think the real author must have traveled a lot in Italy. I would argue there are many signs that the author of Othello, Romeo & J, Merchant of V, etc. had NOT traveled in Italy.”

              It would be interesting to know whether WS owned, or had access to, any Italian travelogue(s), if that sort of publication existed in those days. Though errors (depending what they were) do not necessarily indicate conclusively that the author had never been there, since authors often deliberately or casually mess with geography to further their plot. (Modern-day example – Dan Brown famously claimed to have researched his novels exhaustively, yet there were a number of geeky websites* devoted to listing the geographic and other errors in da Vinci Code.
              *not counting the Catholic-motivated ones!)

              The clock in Julius Caesar cuts both ways, since by Shakespear’s time doubtless as many Italian towns had clocks as English ones.


              1. So having a clock in Julius Ceasar is ahistorical and darkens the mirror of authorship but having Ceasar , et al, speak Elizabethan English is somehow historical?

                Someone’s literary licence must have been suspended.

              2. Well yes, the clock is ahistorical, but I can’t see that points either way in the authorship debate. I’m assuming that by Shakespear’s time, both English and Italian towns had clocks – so it isn’t really a pointer as to whether the author had been to Italy or read a guidebook or not. And also, either proposed author could well have changed details (i.e. introduced a clock) purely for dramatic purposes.

                As for foreigners speaking English, *every* author does that, so again it doesn’t point in any direction.


          2. I agree with JLH and disagree with you (SShort). The most parsimonious explanation for a large group of historical people claiming person X really existed is that person X really existed. “They are lying/mistaken” is certainly a possibility, but its not the simplest explanation for the claim.

            OTOH, once you start adding attributes to X that seem highly improbable, parsimony starts to shift over to the ‘lying/mistaken’ side. If someone then claims X could fly, or that X conquered all of Asia-but-we-just-didn’t-know-about-it-until-now, then that improbable characteristic IMO shifts the “most parsimonious” explanation over to mistaken/lying.

            1. Yes. Thank your for that. Very good point.

              I am certainly open to the orthodox view, i had it drilled into me in school. And it may well be the actual case.

              But just like with jesus, once you start investigating the claims… it gets a little weird. Too many to list here ( for de Vere has many) but, just for fun:

              – Why the dissimilar, barely literate signatures?
              – Why the illiterate family?
              – Why does no one in Stratford appear to realize he is a writer?
              – Why the early effigy near his tomb has him clutching a sack of grain then is revised to have him writing on a pillow with a quill pen?
              – Why is Hamlet a virtual biography of de Vere?
              – Why are the history plays abour the many Earls of Oxford and their service to the crown?

              Of course, Will could have mined all that good stuff for his plays. We know he frequently used other sources for plots and characters. Take his favorite source, Ovid, whose Metamorphoses was being translated by de Vere’s maternal uncle William Golding at Cecil House where de Vere was ward. And while Golding tutored young Edward in latin.
              Very likely using as practice text…Ovid.

              But, of course, Will must have been well tutored in latin and Ovid at the local school we have no record of him attending or during his lost years found a great library in England or traveled to Italy and read it in the original latin or overhead people discussing Ovid at great length in a tavern or on the street or somesuch. It is possible, of course.

  8. I am not surprised that new testament “historians”, even secular ones, are inclined toward a historical Jesus. Would anyone want to spend their life searching for an imaginary being?

  9. Why the focus on Jesus? If you don’t accept the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus there is lots of accepted history you should question. The historical evidence for Jesus is relatively good compared to many other persons whose historical existence is not questioned. Read the Wikipedia article on Pontius Pilate and note how the historical sources for his life are not much better than for Jesus, and he was a senior Roman official. (Largely the sources for their life are the same actually.)

    1. Except of course, that Philo – a historian contemporary of Pilate – writes an entire book about Pilate.

      And, we have a testimonial stone commissioned by Pilate himself, with his name on it.

      Curious about the irony of you writing about how good is the historical evidence of JC, here in the comments of an article about the complete lack of historical evidence for Jesus.

    2. Read the Wikipedia article on Pontius Pilate and note how the historical sources for his life are not much better than for Jesus, and he was a senior Roman official.

      However there is one contemporaneous source (Philo of Alexandria) and an inscribed stone dating from his lifetime. We have nothing similar about Jesus that is proveably within 50 years of his supposed lifetime.

      But more to the point, if one questions the existence of other people from ancient history then people accept the point, agree that they might not have existed, and then assess the issue on the evidence. That’s rather different from what happens if one doubts the historicity of Jesus.

    3. There aint any evidence for the existence of jebus!! So we discard the historocity of a jebus character!! Of course, the same goes for any figure who lacks any evidence of existence: pontious pilot, king david, yoda, bilbo baggins etc. Using scripture as evidence would be equivalent to using miracles as evidence.

    4. I would claim the evidence is significantly better for Pontius Pilate. In any case, the relevance of Pontius Pilate to a purported supernatural being is a testament to the blind faith of Christians.

      The mightiest theologians agree there is weak (but real for them) evidence for Jesus’ life. And this is a God that walked the planet? What a puny god.

    5. Where does Pilate have a book from early on that tells you that he was a celestial being that was never on earth? (Hebrews.) Why do approximately contemporary authors agree? (Paul, etc.)

      This was the biggest problem I had with the summary: it isn’t just that we *lack* evidence, but we also have a mound of evidence *which tells us the contrary* (to historicism) to deal with.

    1. Someone to hear your prayers.

      Humans are blessed with the ability to not only conjure voices in their heads but listen and believe them too.

  10. So I started reading the linked text, not expecting much, and indeed on page 4 there is a flat out howler: “Everything in Paul is perfectly consistent with a Jesus who was a celestial being who never came to Earth in a physical form, had no disciples and never had a ministry, and communicated with his earthly representatives solely through visions and by
    inspiring them to find esoteric meanings in Old Testament writings.”

    That is just not true, as anyone who reads the letters themselves carefully can verify. How about the fact that he was “born of a woman”? (Galatians 4.) How about the fact that he was of the “seed of David, according to the flesh”? (Romans 1.) How about the fact that Paul met his brother on earth? How about the fact that he came in the likeness of a man? (Philippians 2.5, where his death by crucifixion, an earthly punishment, is also mentioned.) How about the fact the according to everything I have ever read the Messiah, or Christ in Greek, which Paul calls him all the time, was expected to be a human, not a celestial being?

    This is real pseudo-scientific stuff that Jerry is promoting. This is not just some hyper-skepticism about the evidence, this is promoting an alternative theory about the origin of the Jesus story, based on a reading of Paul that is on the face of it wildly implausible and which is strongly rejected by experts. If you are so obsessed with the fear that the experts might be infected by Christian bias you should consult some Jewish scholars on Hellenistic Judaism whether they think the celestial Jesus-figure is a plausible reading of Paul.

    1. I recommend reading Geza Vermes, who is a Jewish critical scholar much published on early Christinaity, and he makes much of the character and practices of Judaism of the period.

    2. Thank you for your feedback, but I must disagree with you. Far from being a “howler”, the fact that Paul and the other early Christians only seemed to know the Christ as some kind of cosmic being, like Osiris or Inana or Prometheus, is the conclusion of serious scholars who have studied the matter carefully. I realize that’s an argument from authority, but you shouldn’t believe me, you should believe Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, etc. The objections you cite are familiar to all of us, and they have each been addressed. [For a quick précis you can see here, otherwise you’re just going to have to read the book.] To me, these clues from Paul could only seem somewhat persuasive in light of the gospel stories, which really do describe Jesus as a human being with a mother, etc. (or at least appearing as such) — but Paul clearly didn’t seem to know anything about Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, Nazareth, disciples, sermons on mounts, cleansed temples, or anything else that appeared in the gospels. It is telling that none of that was written down until long after Paul’s death.

      If there had been a Jesus anything like the figure described in the gospels, Paul would have encountered people who had seen him with their own eyes, heard him preach, known his disciples. Yet Paul adamantly maintains that the only way he knew Jesus was through his personal revelations.

      As I made quite clear at the beginning of my paper, I’m not talking about the Jesus of faith — I’m looking for a human being at the root of the myths. The letters of Paul can’t be used as evidence for such a person — and that’s a big problem for Christianity, because Paul should be the very best witness.

      1. Your last sentence is a flaming non-sequitur. It assumes that any document produced should have survived (and that early documents should have been produced at all). Paul survived partly by accident and partly because he was of *devotional value* to devotional communities. Stuff survives at random and because it serves the faith. There is no reason at all to believe non-devotional material would survive better than prayer books.

        1. I disagree, non-devotional material would likely come from independant sources that would be neutral or hostile. And believers would be quoting it like crazy to substantiate their case as they do with Tacitus and Josephus or would have written against it as they did with Celsus. So there is reason to think that had such existed it would have been preserved.

          1. This is an astounding comment. You realize we are talking about manuscripts that must be copied over centuries, right? Unless someone copies it and copies it and copies it, it disappears.

        2. Are there independent works from the same sources? It never occurred to me but I would think a significant case for historical Jesus would be a book written by anyone who provided material for the New Testament that was not part of the New Testament.

          1. There are such books, several gospels and other writings. Quite a lot. The Gospel of Thomas is the most well known, but also books attributed to Peter etc. And a gospel of Judas!
            Most are dated relatively late by critical scholarship.

            1. There are *lots* of non-canonical gospels. In my view, this is in the baalance of the mythicist case, since they *are so variable*. In fact, the Thomas gospel which everyone loves so much as an addition, last I checked, has no “life” at all, just sayings. (I have to check this.)

        3. It assumes that any document produced should have survived…

          Yet aren’t we told by fundies that the religion must be true because nothing else explains the remarkable preservation of the bible across thousands of years?

          They can’t have it both ways. Once someone claims an omnipotent God intervened to ensure his written message was preserved across eons, then it becomes fair game to point out that the lack of preservation of critical parts of the story is pretty damning counter-evidence.

          1. Well of course God is omnipotent. Everything happens according to his plan. The parts of the story that survived are exactly those that he wished to survive. He allowed some parts to fade away as a test of faith. He didn’t want to make it so obvious that nobody had any choice but to believe it. You’re perfectly at liberty to disbelieve it and go to Hell if you want to.

            (Or some such blather like that.)


      2. Paul was:
        a) simply writing letters to individual churches to deal with their specific problems- he was not trying to lay out a systematic catechism/treatise covering all of Christianity
        b) quite probably still regarded as a maverick outsider by the Christian community in Jerusalem when he wrote a lot of this stuff to his own followers in Rome, Galatia, etc.

        There is no reason for him to have discussed Jesus teachings, death, or deeds in any great detail.

          1. Here is the problem with John Nothnagle’s thesis. It rests on Doherty’s idea of Hebrew cosmology, the idea that there is a middle world in the air where Paul’s description of Jesus’ ‘life’ takes place. This middle world is largely a myth and of a different order to the angelology of contemporary Hebrew thought. Doherty provides little evidence for contemporaries believing that this upper world was a place where fleshly beings and spirits met. It looks to be his interpretation and is one reason why I find his overall thesis less than convincing.

            Nor are the many attempts by mythicists to impute to Paul the idea that Jesus inhabited this middle world convincing. As an example, Paul mentions the flesh several times and I would be surprised if we had multiple well-attested references to it in Jewish literature from, say, the C3rd BCE to 100CE in as much as it ever discusses the middle world.

            As a historian, all you can say is Jesus the man either didn’t exist, possibly, or probably existed. Given the amount of Jesus-types wandering around 1st century Judea it is just probable that some preacher in Galilee existed on whom the Jerusalem Christians and, later, Paul and the evangelists, the writer of Hebrews, that of the Didache, and that of the Gospel of Thomas based their religion.

            But Doherty’s middle world is largely a chimera, not much of a hook on which to hang one’s interpretation of a sky-god.

            1. Yet Jews at the time had no problem with Enoch or Elijah/Elisha going physically to heaven and walking with Yahweh even though they hadn’t died and had physical bodies.

              Religious compartmentalization has no limits.

              1. Yes, Keith, I’ve read all of the Bible, all the Patristics, a lot of the non-canonical gospels, Justin Martyr, a lot of Philo, Josephus etc.

                Hebrews 2:2 to 2:14 is about Jesus as a real human: yes, it’s wrapped in references to angels, but it takes a convoluted and less than parsimonious reading to ascribe the action to Doherty’s middle world.

                The idea of the action in the middle world prefiguring earthly matters in some sort of perfect drama is barely there in Hebrew cosmology. For them, God intervenes in the world sometimes using angels as his tool: Doherty has to do a huge amount of work to try and prove his case. It’s just a stretch and as I said I find it unconvincing. There are just too many references to Jesus as a real human littered through the early accounts: which means that they believed that he really existed.

                The early works have too many references to the human Jesus being ascribed messianic properties: the stories do not look as if they were written the other way round – a Jesus in some sort of semi-Gnostic syncretized Pleroma playing out a death story which then becomes the new cult.

              2. And by the early works I take it you include the various gospels written to pretend that Jesus had some historical existance even though they contradict one another and even themselves at times.

              3. Yes I do, busterggi, and of course the gospels contradict themselves. I would not include John’s Gospel, contra Robin lane Fox, among the early works, or rather as a less unreliable testimony.

                Nevertheless, we have early works generally working from a low Christology in which those writers were working out who Jesus was – merely a slave of the Lord as in the Didache, the Messiah (remember, a human figure), an apocalyptic Jew as in Mark or something closer to divinity as in Paul.

                The earlier works share some common stories and we have pericopes from non-canonical sources which tell similar stories in different wording. This by no means proves that a Jesus existed but the most parsimonious explanation is that these theological meanderings cohered around a charismatic Jewish preacher.

              4. And by the early works I take it you include the various gospels written to pretend that Jesus had some historical existance even though they contradict one another and even themselves at times.

            2. I can’t agree with any of you on that point.

              Peter seems to overstate (though I haven’t read Doherty). And for no good reason, his later analysis is fine.

              And you overstate when you say it is a problem for his analysis, though it is clearly a superfluous claim, and in a later comment that analyzing the basis for the religious myth is no good for atheism (and I then assume skepticism). But the latter is the basis for atheism, so we have to accept that it happens and that it is useful.

              I don’t know about the existence of this myth figure except that a) reasonably the null is non-existence (especially since it is a constructed myth, but even if not) and b) when I work through a simple description of the historical method [ ] – and notes the absence of biblical historical ‘methods’ – I find that there is no such historical person:

              “1. If the sources all agree about an event, historians can consider the event proved.

              4. When two sources disagree on a particular point, the historian will prefer the source with most “authority”—that is the source created by the expert or by the eyewitness.”

              So we have no sources outside the myth.

              Either we accept Paul’s authenticated letters (6 of the 13, IIRC) and his eyewitness is that this is a persona excerpted from earlier myth (see Peter’s analysis); rule #4.

              Or we have the many conflicting accounts of the persona from birth over actions to death, from which we have to conclude that there is no proof; rule #1.

              What annoys me is that on this particular point historians seems to abandon historical method. Isn’t it interesting and publishable that there were no such “historical person”? I think it is, and I’m not even a historian.

              1. But see my response to Keith below, I know have to accept Peter’s analysis on this point as well.

    3. Paul did *not* meet his brother. He met *a brother of the Lord*. The others are very misleading in English – Doherty, for example, goes through them all. Also, “according to the flesh” – doesn’t even that phrasing in English confuse you? Why doesn’t he just say “born” simplicter – well, actually, he doesn’t? He says *created*.

      1. Come on, Keith, this is really poor. This story, as I suspect a lot of WEIT commenters know, refers to the story in which Paul talks about meeting “Cephas and James, the brother of the Lord”. So in any reasonable reading James is the familial, not comradely, brother of Jesus.

        It really doesn’t do any good to atheism to make claims like this. We need to remember that history is probably what happened, not what we want to have happened.

        We will never prove one way or the other whether Jesus the man existed: but it doesn’t do to misrepresent the source.

        Paul makes the claim that he met Jesus’ familial brother. It’s plain.

        1. No, it isn’t plain like that.

          He refers in the same text a bit later of “false brethren”, who are not familial. It is the opposite claim that is plain, unless you want to cherry pick.

          1. I beg to differ, Torbjörn. You refer to a piece 9 verses later referring to an event 14 years after Paul’s reference to James as ‘brother of the Lord’ in contrast to Cephas as an apostle. And of course Paul reports that he argued with James. The most likely reading is that indeed Paul thought that James was Jesus’ familial brother. You can just about make the case that it’s a reference to James only as a fellow-believer but you have to do a lot of work.

            This is why the whole topic is quixotic: frankly, I have better things to do with my time – and I bet you do, too – than to discuss the minutiae of Galatians.

              1. Thanks.

                I’ve just found him in Wp (which I could have done in the first place), but the actually familial relationship with Jesus seems … confused. There seem to be at least three Jameses who might be the same person … and maybe only a cousin or step-brother of Jesus. It doesn’t seem to add very much to Paul’s mention of James (especially as that came first).


              2. But those can’t be Jesus’ real biological brothers – Mary was a perpetual virgin remember?

                Or are you going to use the apologist excuse that these were step brothers even though that’s not what the book says.

              3. Steady on, busterggi, there’s no need to invest so much emotional capital into this.

                On balance, I think it probable that a Jesus existed: it’s a perfectly defensible proposition. And not dependent on apologetics – which Mary’s perpetual virginity is, and vaguely interestingly dating from about C2nd CE.

              4. But those can’t be Jesus’ real biological brothers – Mary was a perpetual virgin remember?

                The notion that Mary was a perpetual virgin is a Catholic dogma that isn’t in the Bible at all. There’s nothing in the Bible itself to suggest that Jesus couldn’t have had biological siblings.

                Moreover, the earliest gospel—Mark—doesn’t even record a virgin birth belief, nor do the even earlier letters of Paul, who says that Jesus was born of woman, but does not indicate that there was anything special about the woman concerned. Thus, we have no reason to think that Paul (who mentioned a brother) thought that Jesus couldn’t have had brothers. (And, on the contrary, a reason to think that he thought that he did: viz., that he named one.)

              5. This would be much less confusing if Christians could agree on what their religion says.

  11. If you want to see how the gears of biblical scholars work who are supposedly secular or non-religious, ask them whether it’s more likely that Christianity is literally true or that Jesus didn’t exist.

    Even if they think both are wrong, Jesus not existing requires fewer things about it (which they undoubtedly think are wrong) than Christianity being literally true: the correct answer is that mythicism is less wrong than Jesus coming back from the dead. But I bet they’d contort into all sorts of mental gymnastics to have it look the other way around.

  12. As an historian of the American Civil War period, a relatively recent one in human history, I know that it is often difficult to separate fact from speculation or fiction. For example, much of what we know about Abraham Lincoln’s formative years comes from interviews held after his death with people who allegedly knew him in his youth, some 40 years earlier. Undoubtedly, many of these people embellished their reminiscences of young Abe. But, when you read many biographies of Lincoln, the authors give no hint how speculative are their descriptions of his early life.

    Historical writing on ancient history is many fold more speculative than histories of the 19th century. With extremely limited primary source material available to them, historians are necessarily dependent on materials that may have been composed centuries later. I remember watching a documentary on Alexander the Great. Several of the talking heads were historians in the area. They spoke with the confidence as if they were actual eyewitnesses to events that took place over 1,300 years ago. I actually laughed when they were talking. I think that many historians, particularly those of ancient history, care not to admit that much of what they write is speculative narrative to fill in the many gaps of understanding created by the dearth of primary sources. This is why so many historical debates go on and on, never to be resolved. Such, also, is the case of the debate over the historical Jesus.

        1. I am talking about about Alexander the Great who presumably lived from 356 B.C. to 323 B.C. per Wikipedia.

    1. Abe was the Man! But he was just a man. Jesus has equal footing with Perseus but with tax exemptions.

      There should be nothing to resolve. We are talking about a god, not just any bloke with a beard. The bar has to be the highest ever for historical Jesus. There should be stone carvings describing the color of fungus in his sandals.

      1. “There should be stone carvings describing the color of fungus in his sandals”

        I like this imagery. Why not?

      2. The debate is not over whether there was a Jesus a god, but whether there was a Jesus a man, who was some time late elevated to deity status.

  13. I must say I found the excerpts above deeply unconvincing. Consider the criterion of embarrassment (aka dissimilarity). It is NOT repeat NOT an argument that something embarrassing to a groups’ doctrine is true. It is an argument that the embarrassing thing was *inherited* by the group and thus is *older*. I do not believe from what I read above that Nothnagle understands this.

    That is not the only criterion used in getting a relative date. Another is textual copying. If two sources have extended identical passages thane either one is the source for the other or they share a source. And the source must be older. Thus the conjectural source or sources Q. He seems to get this wrong too.

    And all that may explain why his putative chronology seems backwards to me and to the vast majority of critical scholars. The parts that scholars infer are oldest, using what Nothnagle dismisses as “obscure and technical arguments” are the ones Nothnagle asserts came last.

    So let’s look at this from a bird’s eye. His basic argument depends on misunderstanding the arguments for dating the source material, and then rejecting historicity because the dating is crazy!

  14. Thank you for this article.

    I have spent years trying to ascertain whether Jesus ever actually existed. The bulk of the literature supporting his existence is sheer apologia. Further, I find that the core christian beliefs – Adam sinned.. Jesus saves.. everlasting life…etc. – are daft.

    Eventually I let the search go because I concluded that there is no real evidence for the existence of the god figure here – so why waste my time on the Jesus question.

    Life is so much simpler without god and all the other attendant stuff.

      1. Mainly Western Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox churches have quite a different reading of Jesus’ death, which I would like more if they didn’t tie it in with the story of Abraham and Isaac, which there is no way to salvage.

  15. Re Johan Richter’s comment, Nothnagel will probably respond himself but I suspect the letters Richter quotes from are among the ones Nothnagel asserts are forgeries or composed by other church leaders.

    1. Hi Richard,

      Such a response would be tempting, but circular — “everything that agrees with my position is authentic and everything that contradicts it is forged” — so I don’t go there. But I must say, when Paul goes out of his way to insist that Jesus was “made of a woman”, it’s such a weird thing to say that one does suspect a scribal interpolation. However, Richard Carrier has a perfectly reasonable explanation for that, which you can find in the links I included in my reply to Johan, above.

        1. That’s what it might look like to us, but Richard Carrier, studying the passage in the original Greek, and with a deep knowledge of the cultural context, explains it this way:

          Paul never says Jesus had an actual “woman as a mother.” He says he was made “from a woman,” not “born,” and then says we are all born of the same woman: this “woman,” he says, is an allegory for the physical world of flesh, not a person.

          1. Does anyone else agree with Carrier? What I mean is, is his interpretation of the original Greek accepted by others who also know the story in the original?

              1. I have to assume your authority here, which means Peter’s hypothesis of Paul’s construct make so much more sense!

  16. Thanks for addressing this, Peter. Just like to say how impressed I was by your essay. I always tended to think there likely was a real person around which the legends accumulated, but your research convinces me otherwise.

  17. Well, Jesus might be a mythical being but the statement
    “that he was originally worshipped as a celestial being who never had a body, never had a ministry or disciples, and never appeared in person to anyone. Later writings brought him “down to earth” in physical form, adding increasingly fantastic story elements as time went on, in tales which were carefully set in a time and locale conveniently inaccessible to verification.” is IMO flat out false!!!

    Paul states that Jesus was “born of a woman” and a descendant of David, and all of Earl Doherty’s workarounds have tremendous artifice around them.
    Here is the area where Bart Ehrman cogently argues that Paul thought of Jesus as a pre-existent angelic being who came down to earth, but never as someone who “never had a body”.

    The “criterion of embarrassment” may be over-used by Biblical scholars, but surely applies to the assertions in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus expected the end of the world to come within his own lifetime.

    It is clear that the author of Mark knew some expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. The key argument here is that unless Mark was honest he would not have mentioned this more many other examples of Jesus appearing to mistaken or ignorant. He recorded the wrong prediction about “this generation” after the passage of time had shown this to be wrong.

    This is NOT a “obscure and technical arguments”(!!).

    The argument for the hypothetical Q document comes from the fact that the shared parts of Matthew and Luke that are not found in part are the only shared parts of are Gospels that are word-for-word identical down to the smallest turn-of-phrase(!!!), ergo this is more likely to come from a written source than an oral tradition. It remains a controversial hypothesis, but it isn’t just ad hoc.

    1. Yes. I made similar points earlier but maybe an a simple example of dissimilarity (embarrassment) will clarify.

      A sect preaches Jesus had black hair. This sect left several stories that describe his lush raven hair — and one where he is called “old carrot-top”.
      You suspect this sect fabricated some of its stories.
      Which story are they least likely to have fabricated?
      It’s carrot-top. That’s dissimilar to the raven-haired doctrine. People preaching raven hair don’t make up the carrot-top nickname.
      So where did that story come from? Earlier.

      Is that obscure and technical?

      1. This sect left several stories that describe his lush raven hair — and one where he is called “old carrot-top”.

        What colour do you assume “carrot-top” refers to? Nowadays this generally means ginger, but orange carrots didn’t exist 2000 years ago.

    2. Which author of Mark?

      Yes, there are versions that end before the post-resurrection appearance! These are sometimes, from what I gather, called “Secret Mark”. The canonical one might have a new author! Note that this is precisely where Matthew and Luke diverge a lot, so it seems plausible that Matthew and Luke are riffing on the shorter Mark.

      (I have used the traditional names: they traditional, not scholarly – all the gospels are anonymous.)

      1. Scholars generally agree that the post-resurrection ending of Mark (and the snake handling and what not) are later additions, but the shorter/earlier version, ending with the “for they were afraid” bit, is not the same as Secret Mark.

        The gospel referred to as Secret Mark is an expanded version of Mark with Gnostic elements added. It may or may not ever have existed at all: it’s only mentioned and quoted in one letter, the Mar Saba letter, which some scholars believe is a forgery. Even if it’s genuine, we don’t have it, just a couple of quotes in a possibly-forged letter.

        At any rate, I’ve never heard anyone claim that Mark has more than one author, except that someone later added a post-resurrection sequence. As Ehrman put it, it seems that ancient scribes copying the document were as uncomfortable with its abrupt ending as modern Christians.

          1. Are we sure there’s one author? I don’t see how we can be sure, but I think we can be quite sure that if scholars had found evidence of it, they would write about it—and it’s not like they’re averse to sussing out mixed authorship in the New Testament. Presumably, therefore, Mark reads like a single, coherent narrative, and is stylistically uniform. You’d think that multiple authors would lead to an inconsistency of style.

            Moreover, as it is apparently written in fairly simplistic Greek, multiple authors requires either all the authors to be similarly less-educated than the other gospel writers, or to perform a very excellent work of mimicry.

            The parsimonious explanation is that it was written by one guy. Still…if we can’t be sure, so what? I’m not sure what implications you’re seeing of this conjectured mixed authorship. Is it your argument that Mark is of mixed authorship widely separated by date of composition, s.t. the failed predictions predate the events, and a later redactor, who wrote other parts of the gospel, decided to keep the failed bits when he mixed in his own material?

  18. “it is undeniable that the only evidence that exists for a living, breathing, walking, talking Jesus is weak, contradictory, or simply fraudulent. Therefore no one can be justified in believing that such a person existed.”

    That does not appear to follow.

    Of course there is no direct, material evidence. But then again, there is no direct, material evidence for the existence of most humans who have ever lived. If, for example, we find traces of settlement in Australia from 50,000 BCE and then another set of remains from 48,000 BCE, is it sensible to conclude that no humans existed there in the intervening 2,000 years? No, even without direct material evidence for that time we can plausibly conclude that many people will most likely have lived then and there.

    For people like Jesus and Mohammed we have only two guides: what people wrote about them and comparison with how other religions get started. And when I look at these writings, and when I look at religions created in the last 200 years, where we really know what happened, it just does not seem plausible that a divine being would be turned into the suffocatingly parochial itinerant preacher who curses a fig tree and that all his followers experience complete amnesia regarding the fact that he never walked the earth.

    And why would anybody even invent those stories?

    “I conclude that the figure of Jesus was invented by one faction in a diverse religious landscape in an effort to create an “apostolic succession” of authority – “our priests were taught by priests that were taught by followers of Jesus Christ himself, in person”.”

    Okay, but how on earth would they get away with that if all other factions know that they are blatantly lying? Has any cult founded in the last 200 years experienced the same? Is it not easier to just claim that your god spoke with you from the celestial realm instead of making up an elaborate story that degrades him to a human?

    I cannot believe that this scenario is considered to be more plausible than a religion being founded by a founder who is subsequently deified. After all, we see the latter all the time.

      1. Could you please explain that? Are you arguing that Joseph Smith did not exist?

        Because the analogy is between him and Jesus; the analogue of Moroni is something like archangel Gabriel.

          1. How does that work? Smith is the founder of LDS, Moroni is an angel. In Christian mythology, Jesus is the founder of Christianity. The discussion is about whether he existed, yes, but the background is that in the stories he behaves just like a cult leader walking around with his followers, not like an angel appearing to his followers.

              1. That is begging the question. If Jesus was the cult founder, then he said stuff that was ultimately written down by his followers (with embellishments and twisted to serve agendas, obviously). Mohammed, Buddha and Socrates did not write themselves either. Is every human who did not leave behind extant writings invented?

              2. It’s not in the least petitio principii.

                Jesus is the divine figure in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Smith is the author of the testament; Moroni is his Q.


              3. The whole point of concluding that a historical human was at the origin of Christianity is that that human was Christianity’s Joseph Smith. I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.

              4. Why just assume that Christianity must have a “Joseph Smith”?

                Who is the Joseph Smith of the Melanesians cargo cult?

              5. Along with the numerous editors, redactors, interpolaters, translators – all with their own agendas.

              6. No doubt. But the question everybody is discussing is, was the guy this sect worships as its founder really the sect’s founder? It is not, did people later twist the founder’s words to suit their own agendas? Not least because the answer to that latter question is not in doubt.

        1. Your comment concerned whether factional splintering could happen in less than 200 years in a recently founded religion.

          I showed that it can.

          Now please quit trying to pretend the subject was something else.

          1. That is a misunderstanding then. The relevant part of my comment concerned whether it is plausible to expect one faction to expect to get away with such a complete fabrication; something like a subgroup of Muslims suddenly deciding that Allah was actually born as a human in Cairo and walked around for a bit in that general area, and all the other Muslims saying, “ah yes, that could have happened and does not completely contradict all our previous teachings”.

            Splintering over less fundamental issues is no problem of course. Of course, humans being so varied it is possible that somebody might make a suggestion like the above, but not without everybody else declaring them to be completely out of their minds and laughing them out of the room.

    1. Why 200 years? Seriously, why pick that time frame?

      As to your contention that it doesn’t make sense for those cults to just make up the stories of the lives of their gods, why wouldn’t many of the gods of the ancient world (whether Roman, Greek, Norse, Egyptian or whatever) fit that bill? Many of them were considered by the believers to have been real people with entire narratives about how they were born, lived their lives – and often about how they changed into gods or vice versa. If they could make up “elaborate stories” about their god(s), why do you find it so unbelievable in this case?

      1. 200 doesn’t matter; you can go back as far as you like as long as we can actually know what happened.

        As for the gods of the ancient world, I would be interested in details about the “vice versa”. Are there other examples where, just to construct a hypothetical scenario: (1) people believed in Thor sitting in Valhalla; (2) somebody wrote fantasy novels about Thor being born to a human mother, walking around Norwegian villages doing stuff like predicting the end of the world for a date before the publication of that novel, cursing elm trees, being cranky with his mother, raving at villages that don’t accept his teachings, etc.; and (3) the Norse then forget that he was originally NOT born to a human mother and never did all those things?

        We are not just talking origin stories for constellations or explanations for thunderstorms here. We are talking about a god being turned into such a convincing human that several early Christian factions believed that he was, well, a human. We are not talking Jesus defeating the Ice Giants, we are talking Jesus having dinner with friends and visiting weddings. Again, it seems much more plausible to me that a cult founder gets deified.

        1. Well, I don’t know much about Thor, so I don’t know of many stories around him, but the greeks had many gods who were deified mortals, including Heracles, Io, Sisyphus, Psyche, Helen (of Troy), etc. All sorts of real people, of course, have claimed to BE gods, including the Roman Emperor Commodus who claimed to be Heracles re-incarnated.

          Are you suggesting that no Grecian thought Heracles was a human who turned into a god? Heracles, who was born Alcides to human parents, who tended cattle on his father’s farm as a youth and as a man did those famous twelve labors under King Eurytheus, who was ultimately rescued from his execution and given immortal life by Athena. That Heracles?

          It is my understanding that Heracles was one of the most widely worshipped of the Greek gods. Indeed, I once lived in Tunisia and near my home was the ruins of a temple to the Roman version of Heracles; Hercules.

          Look, I get what you’re saying here, but I must confess it sounds a little like a very common human failing; the disbelief that others could simply make up a story we want to be true.

        2. Osiris was widely viewed as a historic figure — one of the first Pharoahs. Yet we know from Plutarch that insiders in the cult of Isis and Osiris regarded the stories as allegorical rather than historical.
          On the other hand Plutarch wrote of Heracles as a historical figure, providing such details as the names of some of his many lovers.
          Even Paul explicitly described the Old Testament story of Sarah and Hagar as an allegory (Galatians 4:24).
          Clearly the boundary between history and myth was rather porous.

        3. mikeyc, Scott McKellar,

          I also get what you are saying. (Except for the “we want to be true” part – the assumption here is certainly that the average commenter is an atheist.)

          But again, the point is not that people invent stories. Of course they do. It is about plausibility. Look at what Hercules or Osiris or Jesus did in their stories and consider if, in each case, they are more likely to have been real existing humans who were subsequently deified, or if they are more likely to have been fully invented. Maybe Hercules had a human at his core, maybe Osiris didn’t, don’t know.

          But then step back and consider: wait a second, we are not even only talking about Jesus being invented. No, the mythicist hypothesis is considerably stronger than that and accordingly less plausible.

          In a sense it has to be, because it has to explain more than “Poseidon created this spring by ramming his trident into the mountain” or “our dynasty goes back to the gods themselves”, it has to explain what reads like a human doing many very mundane things and the authors scrambling to make prophecies work for him in ways that just don’t. Which is most parsimoniously explained by assuming that they had constraints to work with that they wouldn’t if they had just made stuff up.

    2. We have historical accounts showing that major religions wasn’t founded by any one person, Christianism is a good example and Peter’s account of how the religion grew is enough to establish that.

      Compare with your religions from after the printing press was invented, not only can we note that they are all scoundrels but that these founders invented more or less the whole myth package of their sect.

      The old argument that “we know humans lived at that time but they are anonymous, therefore a non-anonymous person must have existed” doesn’t work. Besides the jump from “can” to “must”, it would mean every fictional human would have existed from Enkidu to Harry Potter.

      It doesn’t even mean that we can attribute a likelihood of 1/100 million (or whatever the world population was 2000 years ago). The problem is that this myth is not a historical person. So why would he exist, seeing that the null must be non-existence ?

  19. There was a recent VIce article describing young Jesus stories that were created in the middle ages. Many of these stories were taught in churches at the time. Brandon Hawk, who is mentioned in the article has some more information in the link.

    Turns out that Jesus had some issues that he had to work through in his youth.

    Anyway, this is tangential to the topic here but I think it is yet another example of how people make things up as they go along.

    1. “Turns out that Jesus had some issues that he had to work through in his youth.”

      Didn’t he have the first half of eternity to get that out of his system?

  20. Is there a Bio available on Peter Nothnagle? I have searched, including his website, but found none. Full disclosure, I am not a good web searcher. Thanks. dj

  21. As the day is drawing to a close, I’d like to thank everyone who read my talk, or at least the excerpt which Jerry posted, and I’d especially like to thank all the commenters — even the mean ones! I haven’t changed my mind, though, and I don’t suppose you have changed yours…

    There’s one parting observation I’d like to make. Jesus-mythicism, like atheism, is not an extreme position. It’s a position of neutrality! To say that there never was a living, breathing teacher at the root of the Christian religion is to be unconvinced of any of the myriad Jesuses that have been proposed, debated, and warred-over for so many centuries: love-thy-neighbor beatnik, firebrand revolutionary, fictional creation of crafty Romans, space alien, Buddhist missionary, holographic avatar of Jehovah… If you hold the New Testament writings sideways and squint, you can find some evidence to support any of those concepts of Jesus, but at the same time there is lots of evidence against, so in my opinion (and I really have been working on this!), we shouldn’t believe in any of them.

    Good night, and good luck.

    1. Hey, Pete:

      In your essay, this passage jumps out at me:

      “Not only were there plenty of fictional characters that look a lot like Jesus, there’s a long list of documented historical ones, too, who had many followers and were said to perform miracles. Many of these people were executed by the Romans or the Jews, and a few even supposedly ascended to heaven after their deaths.”

      Could you talk about that in more detail, either here or in a follow-up essay? I’m guessing that Romulus and Apollonius of Tyana would be on the list, but I’m not sure who else.


        1. The irony there is that it was the *Christians* who were insisting that Brian = Jesus and the Pythons who were insisting that he wasn’t…


      1. I think you’ll find that Romulus, as the semi-divine founder of Rome, is generally considered never to have been an actual person (so, quite a bit like Jesus in my estimation), whereas Apollonius of Tyana is satisfactorily attested by independent sources (even though his life story acquired a lot of supernatural myths over time). There’s a list of 19 real, historical, so-called Messiahs in and around Palestine from about the time of the gospels here. There’s also a very good discussion of the four mentioned by 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 67-73.

    1. My local library has it! Except they couldn’t find it when I tried to check it out. Really.

      They bought the movie, but I suspect that a theist, either a patron or staff member, disappeared the movie. I suspect staff because they never replaced it even after I made written inquiries about it.

  22. Thanks for the share, Peter.

    I would only add – in a sequel – the antievidence, like what Hebrews tells us about what early Christians believed and Doherty’s “smoking gun” passages, which tell us plain as day that they believed in a “celestial Jesus” and explicitly *not* on Earth.

  23. “there are no independent accounts of Jesus or any of his supposed disciples from the entire century during which the religion supposedly began.”

    Flat-out false. Josephus’ Antiquities was composed around 93 CE. This falls within the parameters he specifies. Two references to Jesus are found in this work, one of which (XX.9.1) is nearly universally acknowledged among historians to be authentic, and another (XVIII.3.3) which most scholars believe to be partially authentic with partial interpolation.

    1. Daniel,

      I’ll have a lot to say about this, your later comment below, but I’m cooking for company tonight so it will have to wait until tomorrow. Don’t go away! You’ll learn something!

    2. Much as I’d like to answer this in a short paragraph, that’s really not possible. So for the really curious…

      Much soy-based as well as digital ink has been devoted to two supposed references to Jesus — the Jesus we’ve all heard of, the one we’re talking about here — in Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, 20 volumes covering the history of the Jewish people from Adam and Eve down to the author’s day, the late 1st century AD.

      Just like with the gospels, we don’t have Josephus’ original writings to study, we have only hand-copied copies of hand-copied copies of hand-copied copies, all of which are slightly different; and even where all the copies agree, these could all be accurate copies of a corrupted earlier copy, now lost. So we should approach these sources with some measure of skepticism, but if we prod them a little we might see what secrets they can give up. So we come to the two “Jesus” references in Antiquities.

      In volume 18, all the surviving manuscript sources have Josephus suddenly interrupt his account of outrages committed against the Jews in Jerusalem by the Romans, and insert a short paragraph about the wonderful words and deeds of Jesus, whom he even calls “the Christ” — the anointed king. Then he goes back to talking about Roman pogroms. This passage about Jesus is so strikingly out of place that it is an obvious Christian forgery (and there are other problems with it as well). Some modern Christian scholars of ancient history would like us to believe that only part of it is a forgery, there having been some authentic remark about Jesus in Josephus’ original, but alas there is no evidence to support such a wishful theory.

      Particularly embarrassing to Christians is the fact that no Christian writer commented on that extraordinary endorsement of Jesus for centuries after it was supposedly written — and the first one who did mention it was the 4th-century bishop Eusebius, prominent “liar for Jesus”, “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity” (to quote 19th-century historian Jacob Burkhardt).

      In volume 20 of Antiquities, Josephus is recounting the shenanigans surrounding the high priesthood of one Ananus. He’s talking about someone named James, and his brother named Jesus, who are sons of someone named Damneus. Not the Jesus of the gospels, obviously. But it seems likely that at some point, some medieval monk saw that name “Jesus” in his copy of the book, and wrote the equivalent of “that’s our guy!” in the margin (what he actually would have written would be three words in Greek, tou legomenou Christou, i.e., “the one called Christ”). A later copyist would have taken that addition to be a correction and inserted it into the new copy — from which the subsequent copies were made.

      Those are the mythicists’ theories for how these supposed references to Jesus (the one we’ve all heard of) got into Josephus’ book. We can’t prove it, because the original manuscripts are all long gone, but it’s pretty clear that the first one is a clumsy forgery, and in the second, Josephus was writing about a different Jesus entirely.

      Now what Daniel Bastian has said in his comments is quite true, that almost all modern scholars maintain that these two Jesus references in Josephus are authentic. That is, of course, an argument from authority — a fallacious argument, but not necessarily an incorrect conclusion. But who are these scholars, and why might they be strongly motivated toward a particular conclusion?

      Who devotes a lifetime to the study of early Christian writings? Christians, that’s who. Who can make a living teaching and writing about this subject? Scholars employed by religious institutions, who often have to promise in writing to toe the institutional line in their teaching, their writing, and even in their private thoughts! You think I’m joking? I checked the website of the first religious college I could think of, Wheaton College in Illinois. Here’s an excerpt from the document every Wheaton faculty member must “reaffirm” annually:

      WE BELIEVE that God has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.

      And it goes on and on like that. So much for the neutrality of experts in Christian origins who are professors at confessional institutions. That leaves scholars employed by secular colleges and universities. But even there, I strongly suspect (and I have heard in private conversations) that Religious Studies departments are often supported by generous donors with a religious agenda, and faculty members with new and challenging ideas are, shall we say, not encouraged to think outside the box!

      One should be skeptical of experts who have an obvious bias! Atheism, as I have said elsewhere on this thread, is not an extreme position, it’s a position of neutrality, so if you’re looking for facts and analysis of questions pertaining to religion, you should seek out atheist scholars. Speaking for myself, I’d be delighted to find some clear, believable evidence that there really was a human teacher at the origin of Christianity! I would, of course, have to change my mind, but I’ve done it before (on this very question!). I believe that the same goes for most of the serious, atheist historians who have done so much good work in this area.

  24. Back to basics. History, like science, cannot achieve (and does not purport to achieve) absolute certainty. It is the task of the historian to discern what probably happened in the past, and build conclusions based on the best explanation of the available evidence. The claim of mythicists is that no historical Jesus underlies the New Testament gospels. The majority of relevant scholars reject this proposition in keeping with the methodological principles employed in the field. And if we accept the consensus of scholarship in other domains (e.g., climate change, evo-bio), on what basis do we reject it in this one? We cannot claim to value scholarship in one breath and then dismiss an entire field in the next.

    Here’s the main issue with “mythicism”: the very first believers were Jews, in Judea, who came to the strong conviction that Jesus was the “conquering Christ” of God despite his death by execution. There is no debate over the origin of this movement within Southern Judaism at least ten years before Paul wrote his epistles (around 40-60 CE). The probability of this eruption of that conviction is almost zero on the hypothesis that the man in question never existed.

  25. The original gospel (not-extant, thus a “hypothetical document”) was composed at a time when between 10-30 different Jewish sects existed (thus a very fragmented Jewish culture), some were breaking away from the mainstream and and denigrating the mainstream temple cult as being corrupt, i.e. countercultural proto-Christians.

    The gospel of these proto-Christians proclaimed that by mystical visions, Jesus (the first born angel) had revealed that he had tricked Satan (the second born angel) by becoming incarnate and then had subsequently been crucified by Satan. Thereby atoning for all of their sins, thus the temple cult was no longer relevant and there was no need to pay taxes or participate in the secular world, etc. since a river of fire was on its way to burn up all the damned sinners and all proto-Christians coincidently. But the proto-Christians (those previously dead and buried & those newly burnt up) would be given new bodies and a new world, to go forth and gambol like new calves turned out from the stall.

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