The Passion of the Christ-Deniers

he recent uptick of interest in the historical Jesus is fueled partly by a new interest in a movement that was laid to rest about seventy years ago, but has received a new lease of life  from a clutch of historical Jesus-deniers.  The rallying point for the group is a site maintained by a blogger by the name of Neil Godfrey, an Australian university librarian who, like many others who have assumed the position, comes from a conservative Christian background.

In the broadest terms, the movement feeds and thrives on the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never really existed.  There are various permutations of that basic position: (a) That he was concocted lock, stock and cross by a second century religious movement that (also) produced the documents of New Testament; (2) He is a composite of semi-historical characters, but no one in particular; (c) He is the reworking of an assortment of ancient dying and rising god myths, a little from here, a little from there.  There are sonata and fugue-like variations of these variations, but the central premise is that it is easier to explain the origin of Christianity without an historical founder than with one, and easier to explain the development of the New Testament as the work of garden variety story-makers, working out and reworking the myth of Jesus as the crowds began to come to the church door.  If the gospel-writers were Hertz, Paul was Avis: he tried harder and finally won the competition to get the wobbly faith off  the starting block.  (The fact that Paul failed miserably even to secure his own reputation into the second century is an inconvenient bit of business for the mythicists.)

Much of their  argument gets down to details, if not back of the fridge leftovers,  and much of what I have had to say about the topic so far has been in clarifying these details.  There will be plenty of scope to discuss the flaws and crevices in the “logic” of mythicism in my forthcoming book, though the book itself is about what we can reliably know about Jesus, not an assault on the Nichts da ist, und es gibt nichts zu wissen school.

I increasingly regard the “mythers” or “mythtics” or (more traditionally) “mythicists” as belligerent yahoos who behave like sophomores at an all-city debating contest. They are out to score (or claim to score) points against anyone suspected of what they label “historicism.”  In case you are interested in what that word means when they humpty dumpty it, it means anyone who believes in or defends the proposition that Jesus was real.

I have grown to dislike the mythtics because they are fighting for a cause they don’t fully understand, based on evidence they can’t cipher  for an objective they can’t reach.  I know that in  other contexts this might make them idealists or romantics, like Byron’s dying for Greek independence.  But idealism and romanticism are usually defined in relation to objects and intentions.  What are the objects and intentions of the mythicists? Why do they regard what they are doing as important?  Is it out of some desire for truth—to get to the bottom of a case and see historical justice done.  That would qualify as idealism.  Or is it simply to make their opponents look mean-spirited and wrong by pursuing immoderate ends in the rashest way.  That wouldn’t.

I regard them as hurtful because they are turning the serious question of Jesus of Nazareth’s existence into a farcical one.

Which raises the question I want to address here.  Why is it so important to certain people that Jesus did not exist?  Is it just the flip side of the importance of the premise that he did?

Before I get to that, however, a story.

The Roman historian Tacitus writing of the year 57 CE in his Annals (XIII.32,in about 114) discusses the trial of a certain Pomponia Graecina  a Greek woman married to a Roman solider–Aulus Plautius who was decorated for his bravery in the British campaign.  Pomponia had embraced what Tacitus calls a “foreign superstition” and was handed over to her husband for trial. Plautius found her innocent, together with some members of her family.  Interestingly Tacitus does not directly mention that the foreign superstition was Christianity.  The strong surmise that it was comes from later, third century inscriptions commemorating members of the gens Pomponia, who apparently led an austere life and like Pomponia dressed soberly (by the standards of the post-Neronian period)–“as though  they were always in mourning”   Tacitus says.  Importantly the date of her trial and her (presumably earlier) conversion corresponds to the average dates for Paul’s missionary activities and his earliest letters but predates any  involvement in Rome, which is thought to date from the late fifties or early sixties of the first century. Paul knows churches like the one Pomponia may have founded, but so did lots of missionaries preaching many different “gospels” during the same hyperactive period.  The trial of Pomponia simply illustrates the heterodox and competitive environment in which these stories were fashioned, and Tacitus bears indirect and inadvertent testimony to it.

Seven years later, in Tacitus’s discussion of the Neronian persecution (Annals, XV, 44), the same xenophobia sets in: for a major fire probably caused by accident Nero blames a foreign sect “hated for their abominations, called Christians,”  and then continues:  “Christus, from whom their name is derived was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.”  He goes on, “Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out not only in Judaea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome, that cesspool of everything that is sordid and degrading.”  He then describes the process by which people accused of belonging to the sect could be tried, a process for which there is strong evidence in the famous letter of Pliny the younger to Trajan some fifty years after Nero’s rule.  The fire was real enough: four of the fourteen districts of Rome escaped the fire; three districts were completely destroyed and the other seven suffered serious damage.  Christian forgers later tried to blame Nero; and in the second century Dio Cassius accused Nero of playing his lyre during a production of his favourite epic, the “Sack of Ilium” while the city was burning.  It is Tacitus’s sober report that Nero was not in the city at the time and that when he saw the damage, paid for the relief efforts out of his own pocket (Annals, XV.39).

Mythtics spend a lot of time denying or countering evidence while always demanding more of it.  Thus for example, they might want to say the following about the above passage: (1) It only goes to show that there was a movement called Christianity; (2) the fact there is a third century cult named after someone named Pomponia does not prove it was the same Pomponia; it might have been anyone; (3) Tacitus could have got the very basic information about the historical “location” of Jesus in relation to Tiberius and Pilate from Christians who had come to believe this (though probably not from literary sources); but why bother since (4) how do we know Tacitus really wrote this? Weren’t the Christians master forgers and interpolators?  Didn’t they mess with purported references to Jesus in the work of Flavius Josephus? The best proof of which is that they made Jesus up.

Most historians would regard this treatment of sources not just absurd and flatfooted but dizzying in its circularity,  especially as Tacitus died only a few years after the younger Pliny’s famous letter, written ca. 111 (Pliny jr. was a great admirer of Tacitus)  and was born, according to the best evidence, in a year when Paul would have been missionizing the provinces and prior to any “first edition” of the gospels.  That makes his scant but direct reference to Jesus significant, not least because it is entirely lacking a theological motif and seems conservatively Roman in its denunciation of the Christ cult as a “superstition” (lit. a new religion).  His distaste for the actions of the faith will be echoed by Celsus, by Porphyry  and even after the legitimation of Christianity under the final pagan emperor Julian.

Take a breath: and note well.  No one is suggesting that a reference in Tacitus written at the end of 116 CE about events of 64 CE can be considered a clincher for the historical Jesus.  However neither Tacitus nor Suetonius later, nor Celsus, nor Josephus if he mentions Jesus at all, raise the slightest doubt that Jesus was a flesh and blood character from their recent past.  I repeat, their recent past.  We have often established the irrefragable historicity of persons in the ancient world with much less to go on. In fact, the circumstantial proof for details of Tacitus’s own life are pretty scant; and they come from Pliny, who was soft on Christianity.  What might we want to conclude from that?  Please don’t write in with suggestions: it’s called irony.

The reason that the mythtics are determined to hide the evidence under their bed  and then ask where it is seems to come from the darker regions of intentionality.  So let me be direct.

It is important to them that Jesus should not exist.  It is important to them in a way that the existence of Proclus or Anacreon or Alcibiades or even Socrates is not. The mythtics don’t want history, they want a victory. They don’t want serious discussion or best interpretation, they want to score points.  Almost every discussion I have seen on their sites or mythtic-friendly atheist sites resembles nothing so much as the citizens of Lilliput trying to pin down a sleeping Gulliver with sewing thread, with lots of back-slapping and cheer-leading points presumed to be won against mainstream scholars with more…conservative ideas.

They don’t want there to be a historical Jesus because they think that if there wasn’t they have somehow zapped the “foul superstition” Tacitus describes right out of existence.   No historical Jesus  no son of God, no resurrection,  no salvation, no final judgement, no heaven above or hell below.  Christianity (do you hear me brothers and sisters?) is fucked. It is a lie built on a myth, sustained by dishonesty and fed to the ignorant.  The historical Jesus is the key to exposing the falsehood of it all–including the deceit of the grandly glorious Roman Catholic church and the backwater Pentecostal assemblies who have made their reputation by poisoning minds and ruining lives with their fakery and dogma.  The stakes are high, so the tactics have to be mean.  This Jesus (myth) must die.

The agenda for the mythtics is as theological–or maybe better, evangelical– as the agenda of the Christian apologists: it’s a winner- take- all game based on the idea that Christianity is vulnerable on this score in roughly the same way that most atheists believe the existence of God is buggered by the classic problems of theodicy.

I anticipated the confusion of ends and means in a couple of essays in the collection Sources of the Jesus Tradition.  The essays were primarily intended as orientation rather than scholarship, but I have reason to think that the mythtics didn’t give them much time.  To make it easy, an early and less refined version of the lead essay, “Of Love and Chairs,” is available at The Bible and Interpretation.  Ideally, it should give rise to discussion–but I am pessimistic that it will.   It offers very little: it makes the pretty obvious point  that the existence of God and the existence of Jesus are two different things unless (a) you believe Jesus is God or (b) you believe that a Jesus who did not exist cannot have been God, which might also have some impact on some ideas of God as well.

A serious discussion of the historicity of Jesus does not arise from either of those beliefs.  The existence of Jesus is not a theological problem.  It should not be motivated by events in our own religious biographies and experiences.  It is not a case in metaphysics.   It is an historical question that should be free of theological ends and metaphysical implications.  Otherwise, it cannot be answered.

110 thoughts on “The Passion of the Christ-Deniers

  1. Hi Mr. Hoffman, you wrote:

    “Which raises the question I want to address here. Why is it so important to certain people that Jesus did not exist?”

    Because the human race has been duped into atrocities from the beginning that changed the course of history for the worst–this will continue with an HJ. Because some of us aren’t superstitious and know that we have been held back as thinking, questioning, and reasoning beings because others aren’t using their fullest capabilities. We could be so much more as a human community, not cognitively stulted and stifled with no spark for looking outside the box. Because people who think for themselves rather than just suck up culture mindlessly know that faith is blind, wishful thinking.

    Because some of us are concerned about the human race’s cognitive development, well-being, and progress. We’ve lost too many minds that could have been fine instead of superstitious.

    • Clarice, I understand your concern. However, I don’t think ridding the world of a historical Jesus will make the problem of atrocities completely disappear. It’s not religious communities like the Christian church which have the exclusive patent on crimes against humanity. Even if it can be proven that there is no historical Jesus and that there never was a historical Jesus, that wouldn’t prevent atrocities, period. It may have prevented many crimes against humanity and may have prevented the loss of life and have fostered scientific progress. But even if there was never an historical Jesus, there will always be atrocities. There will always be people like Joseph Stalin. There will always be Stalinists who will commit crimes against humanity regardless of whether a historical Jesus existed or not. Proving that Jesus never lived wouldn’t stop such people from murdering others.

    • As an infant species, Clarice, it may be too early to be judgemental? The imagery of our forefathers isn’t bullshit, any more than painting is. It’s a continuum that depends on solidarity.

    • Hello Clarisse,
      I think a very minimal HJ existed and I am not superstitious, nor a Christian.
      Your rant seems to be targeted towards Christianity rather than HJ. If it is so, I approve most of it. But what does that have to do with a dead poor Galilean?
      I also think the multitude of competing & vastly different no-HJ theories for the beginning of Christianity are a subject of ridicule. Many of them have little so-called evidence for support, plenty of weird thinking, quasi cultist beliefs & dogma, a lot of far-fetched notions, many hidden problems, plain sillyness. Most are without any reconstruction (with approximate dating of early Christian texts, sequence, explanation for any deemed interpolations, etc.) and way too far outside the box. They look as agenda driven parodies of historical studies.
      Some of the adherants of these no-HJ schemes are quasi-sectarian, almost religious in their belief and spend a huge amount of time arguing & fighting each other on the internet. Mythicism, in its many facets, has become a religion of many sects, where almost anything goes.
      Cordially, Bernard

    • That is an impressive agenda, but unfortunately has nothing to do with the historical question: I doubt that in 2013 the discovery that Jesus was made up will rectify the errors that his propagation hath wrought. But, you do prove my point about the agenda.

      • True story: I once asked a creationist why he was so adamant on denying the last few centuries of science. The answer was, essentially, because were creationism true, it would incontrovertably prove Christianity true.

        James McGrath’s observation that mythicists are the creationists of history is very, very apt. My agenda requires X to be true, therefore X is true.

        Reality tends to be complicated, nuance-ridden, and full of inconvenient detail. Whatever your particular prejudice, reality almost never supports it unambiguously, and no amount of wishful thinking can make it do so.

      • Pseudonym, But what is the agenda? You operate under the assumption that there is an agenda, say, for example, to undermine Christianity. Yet, how is the belief that Christianity was founded by a deluded would-be messiah on a suicide mission and his delusional cult followers any less damaging? As I have said, if it were true that early Christians believed in a celestial intercessor that revealed himself to them in very personal ways, how is that so different than the belief of modern Christians? I submit that it is the same. The agenda is not to undermine Christianity. The agenda, for me, is to excavate the origins of this extraordinary religion and belief system. Holding onto the HJ thesis is limiting in that regard.

      • Yes Ken,
        That’s what I think also.
        At first (in Paul’s generation), that HJ was known as someone of little historical importance, who had the misfortune to be crucified as king of the Jews, due to a set of (historical & religious) circumstances. No wonder Paul and the author of Hebrews concentrated only on a (human & earthly) Christ crucified (and believed resurrected), and nothing else about the man Jesus.
        Then came the gospels, canonical and others, plus all kind of associated stories, some about the enfancy. They were full of myths and contracdictions, but stuck to that HJ.
        No wonder that, with exceptions, most “fathers” of the Church and Christian Gnostics avoided most or all of this mythical HJ in favour to a pure religion based on Platonism and Logos. More so when these Christian writers were ridiculing myths about the pagan gods.
        Cordially, Bernard

      • Clarice, because an historical Jesus is going to be a normal human being who couldn’t turn water into wine, and for most Christian churches today, Jesus still comes with a bit of baggage like the epithet ‘divine’ for example. To demonstrate that Jesus was a normal human being is potentially devastating to [conservative] Christianity. Mythicists on the other hand, are not a threat to their beliefs. They merely dismiss/ignore them as neither has evidence to disprove the other.

      • Steph is exactly right about why I said that. A real, human Jesus has to be a real human, and no real human can help but be a disappointment.

        If we could somehow, hypothetically see videotape of the real Jesus walking and talking (provided by aliens or a time machine or whatever other device would serve the hypothesis). I think a lot of people would be crushed. He couldn’t possibly live up to expectations, and I think that might even be true of a lot of rationalists who would not expect to see anything supernatural or miraculous. It seems to me that they still tend to idealize him.

        I think there are assumptions, almost unconscious assumptions a lot of HJ scholars make about Jesus which I’m not sure are warranted.

        For example. they generally assume that Jesus was self-possessed. That he had a plan and knew what he was doing. That he had consistent and specific goals or intentions and that his actions reflected a coherent agenda, even if he may not have anticipated that agenda not working. Can we say that for sure, though? Do we know that Jesus always had a plan, or an agenda,
        or that he wasn’t just rolling with external events or maybe suggestions from others?

        I also think they usually assume that Jesus was incorruptible or that there couldn’t have been a valid reason his followers turned on him. Maybe Jesus started letting things go to his head. Started going Hollywood. Started liking the parties with the rich guys and loose women, Started getting a little fancy with the wardrobe maybe. Both Mark and John say that Judas was unhappy with Jesus for spending money on ointment instead of the poor. Maybe Judas was right.

        No real Jesus could be ideal. Personally I think seeing any real Jesus would be necessarily fascinating, no matter what he was like. The most ironic thing about him, in my opinion, was that the poor guy had no idea who he was.

  2. Dr. Hoffmann,

    I am looking forward to your book. I am especially looking forward to your discussion of myth and legend. I was thinking about the problem of “Social Memory” and story-telling in the gospels. I am curious about something: is propaganda a form of social memory? I got to thinking of the postmortem appearance stories of Jesus in the gospels and wondered if they can be considered propaganda. I recall seeing Maurice Casey discuss Richard Burridge’s fascinating book on gospel genre and I wondered if ‘bios’ could be considered propaganda or if propaganda is a subgenre of ‘bios’. Even if miracle stories like the postmortem stories of the risen Jesus aren’t legends or somewhat legendary, then they could qualify as propaganda.

    Your post is excellent. The problem with mythicism is that it has become the Angry Apostate’s weapon against the Christian Church. I, too, went through a Angry Apostate phase in my life but I never could give up the historical Jesus. Jesus always seemed way too plausible as a historical figure to me and I couldn’t, for the life of me, imagine how anonymous groups managed to merge together, for what unkown reasons to craft a historical Jesus from preexisting myths. I have always believed that there was a historical Jesus for the sole reason of parsimony. A historical Jesus explained the most data with the fewest assumptions and unanswered questions.

  3. As our agent in the Middle Kingdom, is there a parallel existence conundrum around Confucius, that might that inform us?

    Class project: Discuss the historicity of Confucius and Christ as humanist philosophers.

  4. I come from a background of being a devout Roman Catholic, to deciding that the evidence suggests that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t God, but was a real, historical human being, to being a “mythicist”. The reason? The best explanation of the available evidence. I don’t have a “need” for Jesus to be a mythical figure – it is the evaluation of ALL of the evidence (not just bits and pieces picked up from various writings) that convinces me that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist.

    A sober approach to the Pauline Epistles sets out a Christ Jesus who is not seen as having lived on earth in the recent past, but one who seems to fulfil his soteriological role in the heavens. The gospels in my view are best explained as a developing literary construction of a figure discovered by re-reading and re-interpreting scripture. None of this would prevent there being “Christians” in Rome in the 50s and 60s CE – it merely means that we may have to redefine the meaning of the term “Christian”, just as Theophilus of Antioch gives a different definition of the term to that of a “follower of Christ”.

    There is nothing wide-eyed and raving in my approach to the subject, even if I am an amateur. I am working on developing my skills in NT Greek and other elements of the subject simply with the view of putting myself in a better position for deepening my appreciation of the evidence. I am always open to rational argument putting the other point of view (something you have never brought to the arena as far as I am aware, Mr. Hoffman). I am always prepared to listen to other arguments, and give them due consideration. So far, none have come close to explaining more of the problems with the traditional construct of Christian beginnings tham Jesus Mythicism.

    Jim Farrell

    • That’s quite an achievement, greater than that of any other person I know. So now that you have “evaluat[ed] ALL of the evidence” you have found the best explanation to be that Jesus did not exist. So what is the best explanation of the myth?

      • As you will see, I was quoting Jim and you were not addressed Clarice. In any case you have not provided an explanation for a the stories about Jesus being written. You haven’t said anything except give your brief definition of a ‘myth’. Explanations need to engage with the evidence and argument and are demonstrated in books, not in short blog comments. Try Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth perhaps published in 2010. Try Geza Vermes and EP Sanders on the historical Jesus. Try Justin Meggitt and James Crossley on issues to do with Jesus.

      • The best explanation is that given by “paul” himself. In re-reading the scriptures, he re-interpreted the “Messiah” or “Christ” figure to be, not a human king of the Jews, but a spiritual “redeemer” of all of humanity.

        It is striking that nowhere does “paul” feel the need to explain that Jesus flesh, if he was “born of woman” was different from the rest of “flesh”, or humanity, “flesh that “Paul” notes in many places is weak and sinful. How could God send his “Son” in actual flesh if that flesh is weak and sinful? “Paul” never tries to tell us what was diofferent about Jesus’ flesh that made it not “sinful”. However, at Romans 8:3, he does tell us that “Gos sent His Son in the LIKENESS of sinful flesh” (emphasis mine), which clearly suggests that “Paul” didn’t see Jesus as being ana ctual human being at all.

      • Jim – If I say you are like the man who tells stories this doesn’t suggest you aren’t a man but it doesn’t say whether or not you tell stories as well. So Paul believed God sent Jesus like a sinful man but Jesus didn’t sin, and he sent him in order to condemn sins of men through his own son who was a man. You are thinking in twenty first century terms. You are in the wrong culture (and language). It is not at all ‘striking’ that Paul wouldn’t feel it necessary to describe Jesus’ life, little about which he would have known in any case. Without post enlightenment mythicists denying his existence, there was no need for Paul to write ‘yes he did’. His life wasn’t contested, it was assumed. He was not writing about the life of Jesus. He was writing letters to communities concerning the future, not past, of the church, relating to the members’ of those churches behaviour and conduct. Paul does not give ‘the best explanation’ for mythicism. You give the most common mythicist reason for mythicism being that Paul doesn’t talk about Jesus in his letters. He never knew him Jim. Perhaps the church members did and they shared their stories with Paul but Paul taught them how to behave.

      • To Jim,
        The word “likeness” (Greek homoiōma) is used in Ro 8:3 & Php 2:7, likely to indicate that “sinful flesh” or “man” is not the normal condition for the Son, which is “heavenly”. And “in the likeness of sinful flesh” or “in the likeness of men” is meant to imply just that.

        Ancient writers used “likeness” when a god becomes human on earth, either in a docetist (instant) way or **through childbirth**.
        Here are two examples for god to “born of woman” incarnation:

        a) Herodotus, ‘Histories’, Book 7, Chapter 56 “When Xerxes had passed over to Europe, he viewed his army crossing under the lash. Seven days and seven nights it was in crossing, with no pause. It is said that when Xerxes had now crossed the Hellespont, a man of the Hellespont cried, “O Zeus, why have you taken the **likeness** of a Persian man and changed your name to Xerxes, leading the whole world with you to remove Hellas from its place? You could have done that without these means.”
        Certainly Herodotus and any other person would know Xerxes was a real man. Furthermore, the comment is not prompted by the nature of the Persian king’s body, but because of the enormous size of his army. Anyway, it shows that “likeness” can be used for an incarnation from a god to a “born of woman” human being.

        b) ‘The Ascension of Isaiah’ 4:2 “After it is consummated, Beliar the great ruler, the king of this world, will descend, who hath ruled it since it came into being; yea, he will descent from his firmament in the **likeness** of a man, a lawless king, the slayer of his mother: …”
        This relates to emperor Nero, who had his mother Agrippina killed. Once again, the author used “likeness” about the alleged incarnation of a heavenly deity to a real man.

        Cordially, Bernard

      • On the contrary Bernard. Ancient writers used homoios in a number of ways. Meaning ‘like’, and ‘resembling’ synonymous with the Latin ‘similis’ as is clear in the entry of Liddell and Scott linked to below. Birds of a feather flock together, like minds agree, always the same, that in which a person is like another. All these use homoios. For accurate references see Liddell and Scott:

        In particular the central point is that Paul thought Jesus was in the likeness of sinful flesh because he was not sinful not because he was not in the flesh. This should be especially clear in the comments immediately following on Romans 8.3. Bernard, you have done just what these mythicists love to do and taken two passages, including Philippians 2.7, out of their context in Paul and interpreted them against a pagan background instead. This demonstrates no understanding of culture or history (or historical literary interpretation) at all.

    • “A sober approach to the Pauline Epistles sets out a Christ Jesus who is not seen as having lived on earth in the recent past”

      Does this “sober” reading include reading the bits where Paul says Jesus had a “human nature”, says he was “born of woman”, says he was descended from the human King David and mentions chatting to his brother in Jerusalem? Let me guess – you wave all that away via something like Earl “self-published polemicist” Doherty’s ad hoc contrivances. Very “sober”. “Sober” as a newt.

      • Regarding his brother, need I quote RJH to demonstrate that it is not a foregone conclusion that Gal 1:19 is referring to a sibling of Jesus of Nazareth? I could, of course.

      • See above response to Steph. The “sober “reading of “paul” includes those elements, as well as the elements where “paul” says specifically that “God sent His Son in the LIKENESS of sinful flesh”, not as actual flesh (Romans 8:3, emphasis mine).

        So much more sober than your approach, it would seem.

  5. Hi Joe. After reading your blog the only thing that I can offer to the discussion is that you have every right to be a Christ denier denier.

    • The subject under examination is a first century Jewish Jesus. “Christ”, (anointed one – by God) is the result of storytelling around a historical figure.

      • From the beginning to the end of the story in Mark, the earliest gospel, there is evidence which, supported with arguments, develop a very Jewish, human Jesus. These arguments are laid out in books. Such books have been published by Casey, Vermes, Sanders and Allison. Mythicists dismiss them all because they deny everything complicated. The story in Mark, the earliest gospel, has John the Baptist baptise Jesus. Later redaction in later gospels gradually subordinates John because a godman wouldn’t be subordinate to anyone. A very humanlike struggle is apparent in Jesus in Mark’s Garden of Gethsemane, which decreases through the gospels until by John the whole story is completely written out. The cry on the cross is one of despair in Mark. A godman story wouldn’t be made up with despairing godmen. Later redaction in later gospels writes this out and Jesus is more than willing to give up his spirit, because tradition was considering his divinity. The term Christ occurs only 7 times in the Gospel of Mark. This is the oldest of the Gospels. Most of the seven occurrences are obviously secondary. The picture of Jesus which emerges from considering the oldest traditions in Mark is clearly that of a human being. Furthermore, the arguments are corroborated by external evidence when it is developed into a whole coherent argument. The mythicist head bursts as he expects all answers to be sufficiently supplied in soundbites and complains when he’s told he has to consult books with arguments of cumulative weight which he declares must be wrong as he fires forth predictable and rapid responses from the sure-fire atheist cookbook.

      • Facts, Geoff? What facts? You have presented part of the later accretion (in English) from the story in Mark. This is redaction which has been demonstrated in the secondary literature such as that which I directed you to. They present argument supported by manuscript and other evidence to explain the process of storytelling attached to a historical figure. The story which emerges from Mark beneath the later redaction, is of a human being and this is more clearly available in Mark than the later gospels which have been developed further.

        You are in the wrong culture like all mythtics. In first century Judaism a heavenly voice saying to Jesus ‘You are my beloved son in you I am well pleased’ means that Jesus is having a vision in which God is telling him that he had an important task for him to do. All faithful Jews were supposed to be sons of God which is the same thing as Christians saying today ‘children of God’. As a first century Jew, this would be what the historical Jesus thought. He was not a deluded Messiah either as this term was not yet in normal usage. Of course the development of Christology is an important aspect of scholarship which you show no sign of having read. I operate on the process of method. I have presented an outline, not an argument. There is no tautology. Your description of it as tautological also shows that you are not familiar with the main secondary literature. Your assumption that the original Jesus did not exist and is presented from nowhere as Jesus Christ, demonstrates a twenty first century mentality, not a first century cultural process of tradition retelling. The Jesus ‘project’ whatever that is, is not ‘suspect’. However your comprehension skills and demands are suspect.

  6. Next they’ll be telling us that Haile Selassie didn’t exist. It seems to my poor brain to be simpler to posit a historical figure who becomes the centre of myth and legend. Not that it matters a hill of beans; proving there never was a Yeshue isn’t going to change human nature.

    • The historicity of a Jewish male in the first century, does not prove the existence of any god. And in this particular case it would demonstrate that a god-man is not historical reality but mythmaking. It is a question of history, not theology. Your ‘poor brain’, I suspect has found it ‘simpler’ to deny everything and say ‘myth’.

      • That is hardly what I wrote. I would think it clear that just as Haile Selassie was a real person around whom many myths and legends grew up, so was Yeshue bar Yussef. I do not “deny everything and say myth” at all!. Perhaps you should reread my original post.

      • This is to sailor, not steph. But couldn’t you also say, just as Robin Hood or King Arthur are characters of questionable historicity around whom legends and myths have accreted, so is Jesus?

      • To Geoff: You could certainly say that. I don’t know anything about Robin Hood. Arthur on the other hand is possibly based on a real figure – the ‘comes britanniae’, a war leader in late and post-roman times in Britain. But there wasn’t anything written for centuries and the wildest of legends had plenty of ime to accumulate.

        In the case of Yeshue we have documents, based possibly on slightly earlier documents or verbal history or both, circulating within a few decades of Yeshue’s alleged death. I think it likely, that as in the case of Haile Selassie, the stories all gelled around an actual figure rather than that a number of different sources of complete myth suddenly arose for no good reason. Could be I’m wrong, but the historical figure just seems more plausible to me. And there’s always the stories about that bald-faced liar Saul of Tarsus actually meeting people that had known Yeshue…….

        In any case historical figure or not, it’s not going to change human nature.

  7. Is there really one category into which both G A Wells and Neil Godfrey can meaningfully be placed? If we’re going to call one of them a mythicist, shouldn’t we use a different description for the other?

    As far as Godfrey is concerned, and many other of the usual suspects at Vridar and FTB, you’ve certainly nailed them, but so what? Why mass your artillery against fleas? Unless perhaps it’s just because there are so many of them. But really, how much is there to say, in the last analysis, about such simplemindedness? (I’m reminded somewhat of my brief time commenting on those sites, when I asked people like Carrier and Myers why they bothered to debate fundamentalists. Then tended to ignore me when I asked this. You’ve diagnosed some of their reasons for going after the fundies above, and in other recent posts. You and others, describing the phenomenon of “fundamentalist atheism.” Only very recently did another motive for Carrier and Myers to debate the fundies occur to me: they get paid to do so. Not much, probably, but everybody has to make ends meet: )

    Back to the mythicist label: its application really has been quite imprecise. I wouldn’t mourn the term if it went away altogether. Sometimes it’s used to describe anyone and everyone who is less than absolutely certain of Jesus’
    historical existence. Which of course includes you.

  8. On post-Easter Jesus traditions:

    Our sole sufficient evicence for knowledge of the Jesus of history is the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles. This apostolic witness began with the event of the key disciples returning to Jerusalem soon after the execution (within weeks) purposing to again take up the sayings of their revered Master. This marked the beginning of post-Easter Jesus traditions with the Jerusalem Jesus Movement from which we obtained the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt: 5:3-7:27) our most cecrtain source containing apostolic witness to Jesus. This is not found in the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT. The reason: soon after the beginning of the Jesus Movement, a second movement began with Jerusalem Hellenist grooup who took up the notion that the significance of the Jersus event was the salvific efects of the death and resurrection. Soon we find Paul, first as persecutor, then joining this group from which he obtained his Christ myth kerygma, takikng it to the Gentile world to become Gentile Christianity, meeting with ready success. As winners in the struggle for dominance over against the Jesus Movement, they were able to declare it heresy to wipe it from the pages of history. The writings of the NT were written by followers of Paul,not followers of Jesus. As Eric Zuesse’s Christ’s Ventriloquist said it: The religion of the NT had nothing to do with the person Jesus of history.

  9. “It offers very little: it makes the pretty obvious point that the existence of God and the existence of Jesus are two different things unless (a) you believe Jesus is God or (b) you believe that a Jesus who did not exist cannot have been God, which might also have some impact on some ideas of God as well.”

    I agree with this statement. One of the issues I see though is that there is confusion regarding the “agenda” of so-called mythicists. You repeat it here and it is implicit in the title of your post. Mythicists argue that early Christians believed in a celestial Jesus, not a non-existent Jesus. Jesus to the early Christians, like modern Christians, lived in heaven. No different than modern Christians today. I would argue that ancient Christians believed that Jesus had been crucified on earth in some mythical past. I would argue further that to the vast majority of Christians, ancient Jerusalem of the Gospels is also a mythical past. The belief-systems are the same and the question is not “Did Jesus Exist” which is irrelevant. The question, here, is Did the earliest Christians believe in a martyr figure of the recent past? Answering that with an uncritical yes is to put blinders on to the other possibilities.

    • What is the HJ (presumably Historical Jesus) thesis and why is it limiting, since the postulation of human existence is a pretty usual thing. I have never met you and know you only from your cyberscribble, but I have no reason to doubt your existence. Perhaps you mean the theories imposed on that existence by theology? But That is a different matter and not at all what is under discussion here. Even in debate one begins with defining the terms to be discussed; and I find no such willingness among mythtics to do that– just demands for evidence (also undefined) that will satisfy their false assumption that we possess the kind of bedrock empirical material that would prove the case of the historical existence of a figure for whom such material would be available. I know that sentence will take some reading, so read it twice. I have found that reading things comprehensively is a general weakness among mythicists, as well as among hardcore believers. You do “get,” do you not, that an argument for an historical Jesus eo ipso excludes Christology, but cannot exclude the way in which Christology developed?

  10. I notice Clarice O’Callaghan asked doctor Hoffmann:
    “I’ve wondered for a long time why it is so important to certain people that Jesus did exist?”
    First, I think that was partly answered on this blog by Matthew:
    “A historical Jesus explained the most data with the fewest assumptions and unanswered questions.”
    And also, on Clarice’s own forum (JesusMysteries) by GR Gaudreau:
    “I’ve been thinking a lot about Occam’s Razor lately, and when I see all of
    the complicated twists and turns some have to take to explain why Jesus
    didn’t exist, it just sours the cream for me.”

    As a non-believer, non-religious, non-Christian, yes, I am ashamed that some other atheists goes into all kinds of ridicule non-sense in order to sketch theories with no HJ in order to explain the beginning of Christianity.

    But I think these “absolutely_no_HJ” theories are largely motivated, not only by anti-Christian feelings, but also by repulsion of most HJ descriptions. Even if some of them came from non-believer like Ehrman, they are, even expurgated (but with their charismatic teacher outlook and a HJ presented as the real founder of a sect/movement/religion) way too close of a Christian HJ (and false, according to my studies). They are inviting non-believers to accept non-HJ schemes as the only option away from these “loaded” HJs.

    I feel bad that my option of an ultra minimalist HJ, NOT a teacher, NOT charismatic, NOT the creator of Christian beliefs, is not considered, sometimes not even known. However, it does explain the lack of external evidence, many silences from Paul and the so-called messianic secret in gMark, among many others things. But because of the immediate context, and using the OT as authority, and claiming revelations from above, and looking at Philo’s works, it was easy, from a poor uneducated Galilean executed and mocked/charged as “king of the Jew”, to start a new sect. Then the myths started to come …

    Cordially, Bernard

  11. “CARR” ….. you’re in the wrong culture like all mythtics. Ideas evolve, so does language, language is translated… possible exception: mythtics’ ideas and language, which begin and remain rooted firmly in the twenty-first century along with the extent of their views of cultural environment.

  12. The question of the historical Jesus is strictly important to a fundamentalist atheist. For those who would examine the structural context behind the message, it becomes important what the original function of that message resonates. In the words of Jesus we find things that are expressed at the very core of who we are as human beings. Making water into wine at the request of his mother, creating food for people to eat, raising friends from the dead. We can debate ad nauseam the historical accounts of Jesus, but in the end the real question is what you do with the claims of Jesus. Islam and Judaism share the same question. Judaism wants you to embrace ethical living and eschatology of a future Messiah. Islam wants you to embrace the teachings of Mohammed, and the future Mahdi. At the core of what Jesus wants us to embrace are essential love for God, and a nonsectarian love for others. Whether you passionately deny Christ, you cannot deny the passion of his message. You can only deny its origin.

  13. Pingback: Hoffmann on the Mythicists’ Irrationality | Unsettled Christianity

  14. LOL. Oh Hoffy, you are hard up for material, aren’t you. Firstly, I was brought up in a very liberal Methodist church and was most happily in an even more liberal Anglican one before I decided to abandon faith altogether. So what is my theological agenda now that I have posted and support the views of Thomas Brodie who is one of several Catholic scholars who have acknowledged that Christianity can indeed survive without an historical Jesus? Sorry to disappoint you if I am not an angry atheist hell bent on attacking Christianity as you seem to need me to be doing.

    • From minimal research into various Christian cults I would describe the WCG (Worldwide Church of God) as a particularly terrifying fundamentalist Christian cult and one which would take great strength and support to get out of, even leaving one quite bereft and possibly emotionally injured. I would not include ‘happy’ and ‘liberal’ if describing a devotee.

      • The Worldwide church of God is many things. “Liberal” is not one of them. Perhaps Mr Godfrey in his senescence has forgotten his past. We all know what a cranky old customer he is.

      • “The Worldwide church of God is many things. “Liberal” is not one of them. Perhaps Mr Godfrey in his senescence has forgotten his past. We all know what a cranky old customer he is.”

        Well if he’s forgotten his WCG experience I’d say that’s a pretty good sign he’s long over it and evidence that he has moved on — even a long time ago.

        Interesting all the need to focus on psychoanalysis of someone who seriously questions the historicity of Jesus — Isn’t that how they treated dissidents in the Soviet Union?

  15. I must say I’m struggling to conflate this article with the introduction to Wells’ The Jesus Legend… Do they truly stem from the same pen? :-)… Seriously though, whilst many ancient historical figures have been posited on even thinner evidence than exists in support of the historical Jesus case, this is not itself an argument for the soundness of the latter. Is it not the bottom line that the only non-Christian sources for the existence of Jesus, brief passages in Tacitus and Josephus, were written decades after his proposed death and come to us through much later Christian transcriptions, ergo probably interpolated to a greater or lesser degree? It therefore does not seem unreasonable to suggest that the question ‘Did Jesus exist?’ will never be satisfactorily answered either way, and therefore that in a study of the emergence of Christian thought it can be interesting and useful to seriously consider both possibilities.

    • I get the feeling that R. Joseph Hoffmann is feeling bereft now he no longer believes in his old religion. I could be wrong. I am sure Dr Hoffmann will volunteer any necessary corrections. But what continues to echo in my mind through all this discussion are the pronouncements of protestant Schweitzer and catholics Bousset, Kähler, Herrmann et al that any historical conclusion — even that of nonexistence — regarding the “historical Jesus” is irrelevant to faith. They all acknowledged that an enduring spiritual faith rests on something other than a purported historical event.

      (I sometimes think our Hoffmann confuses “the historical Jesus” with “a historical Jesus” here, and sees too much in the past record of faith as a result. Of course the church has not believed in Hoffy’s HJ, but if that’s what bugs him then he’s missing the larger point of the whole discussion. But we know he’s a cranky old sod so what can we do?)

      • I have always thought that the Christ of faith theology was a hedge to disguise the negative effects of the multiquests. I’ve said so more than a few times. My point was simply that Catholicism subsumed (pun?) the historical Jesus into the real presence doctrine of the Eucharist and could thereby live without him. The poor protestants didn’t have that choice; they were stuck with the paper Jesus, until the paper began to disintegrate. But do fill me in on this larger point of the whole discussion. Not sure why you would hold me to account for things I have been saying with equal crankiness since I was 28.

      • “It is no longer possible to dismiss the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed… [The] methodological sophistication and the self-assurance which seems to characterise [the modern Historicity genre’s] approach to the ancient texts seems at odds with the depressing lack of clarity that has emerged from over a generation of contextual studies… Wells’s questions are the ones that need to be answered at this juncture of Jesus research.” – R. Joseph Hoffman, The Jesus Legend (Illinois: Open Court, 1996), p. vii-xii.

        Of course, Wells doesn’t posit anything as unfounded as the complete imagining of Christ in the 2nd century AD, but he remains the leading living proponent of the “mythtic” school as you now call it. Therefore I’m interested in the journey between these words from the mid-90s and your present stance. Have Wells’ questions now been answered? On what grounds would “most historians” consider skepticism towards Christian references in Josephus and Tacitus (as Wells puts it, that “there is no pagan or Jewish evidence that is independent of Christian tradition and which could function as external confirmation of it” – The Jesus Legend, p.38) absurd and flatfooted? Might not the criticism that “mythtics [are] fighting… for an objective reality they can’t reach” be more aptly applied to those on the Quest?

      • It is a good point. But the style of the mythtics is very different from Wells’s, don’t you think? His argument is purely academic, which meant he was always prepared to take on criticism and not respond to it with ridicule. The “alliance” between mythtics and new atheists is not a theological or atheological one but a sympathy of approach. Mythicism is to the serious study of the historicity question as new atheism is to philosophy of religion. it’s a matter of tone.

      • Yes, fair enough, yet one is reminded of Meier’s desperate dismissal of Wells: “a representative of the whole type of popular Jesus book that I do not bother to consider in detail” – A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1 (NY, London: Doubleday, 1991) p.87. It seems the Mythicists are not alone in resorting to ridicule.

    • Sebastian

      The hour is very late on this side of the Pond but before I succumb to the arms of Morpheus I wanted to point out that the root of your problem is that you are totally ignorant of the way in which the intellect is used in scholarship.

      Scholarship is always provisional; it’s about evidence and our access to evidence changes over the years. We often get further and particular evidence; that evidence is appraised for its value and used within the body of scholarship.

      So Joe, who is a scholar, is reappraising his views in the light of the evidence. That’s what historians are supposed to do. It is only people committed to ‘the one true way’ who think that a comment written 10 years ago by a historian, must be chiseled onto tablets of stone, and if Joe isn’t carting tablets of stone around with him, reciting the stuff chiseled onto stone, then he’s an apostate…

      • Precisely Stevie. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” writ Yeats in the Second Coming. There has been a well of new evidence, argument and scholarly collaboration since Wells. You can reject it, ignore it and pretend it hasn’t happened, or as a critical scholar you can actually want to take it into account and reassess your own ideas.

    • Hi Sebastian, I hope you had a blessed Christmas, although the feast continues.

      One avenue of thought seems more probably true than its alternatives–Jesus existed. It is useful to consider the opposite insofar as it remains parsimonious with the data. The mythtic band can have legitimate criticisms, and do in fact in some areas, but it is their failure to provide an alternative that is more parsimonious and compelling than its rival that leads to its inadequacy. Combine this failure with a blind zeal equivalent only to the “learned” gents who think John can give us a serious historical portrait of the life of Jesus, and you birth a sinless son who thinks he can “correct” hundreds of years of serious scholarship on early Christianity in a 500-word comment on some popular atheist blog. It is ignorance mixed with hubris. And it is disgusting. But, most importantly, it is just irrational.

      • Another common weakness of Christian scholarship – the appeal to authority!

        To say that Jesus never existed would indeed by hubris, but then this is not the position of Wells, or Carrier, or Dawkins or any other serious atheist academic. The general position, based on cold and simple logic, is that without corroborating evidence outside the Christian texts it is impossible to draw a definitive conclusion either way.

      • Nb. To be clear, my intended meaning there was scholarship on the particular subject of the historicity of Christ, as opposed to scholarship in general (please feel free to edit/delete).

      • It would not make any difference what any of those three think anyway; none are specialists in the field. Of them Wells has done the most amateur work and Carrier has shied away from non-historicity because he is afraid of being further discredited after his absurd Bayes theorem debacle. Dawkins’s pronouncing on anything biblical is merely risible. In short, why should anyone care what they think? And what is a “serious atheist academic”?

      • A “serious atheist academic” would be a serious academic with atheist beliefs (proposed in response to Peter Smith’s assertion that atheists are inherently non-serious, practicing “preconceptual scholarship” and suffering from “intellectual bipolar disorder”).

        We should care what Wells says because his arguments are thorough and well reasoned, indeed some of the most convincing of any in the field. Having published professionally, he is by definition not an amateur. Whether or not he holds a theological PhD is another question, albeit an appeal to authority which to my mind is of little consequence. To turn your accusation around, does a conflict of interest not arise when those with PhDs and grants from religious institutions attempt to address a historical issue that could potentially challenge the core ideology of that institution (a problem raised by Akenson in Surpassing Wonder, p.539)? Is it not the ‘specialist’ of whom we should be most wary when it comes to this particular topic?

      • I think Peter said new atheist. I can’t imagine Peter thinks all atheists are “inherently non-serious, practicing “preconceptual scholarship” and suffering from “intellectual bipolar disorder,” seeing as he, from what I have gathered from other comments Peter has made on this blog, has a great deal of respect for Joe, who is, after all, an atheist.

        By your logic, we should be wary of every science department in the world. Is that, really, your stance? Also, Wells is the best non-historicist out there, I agree, but I have never found his argument compelling or particularly well-argued. Moreover, didn’t he change his position? He accepts that some wandering Galilean preacher was the basis of the Q gospel, right? He may not think too much of the Pauline epistles, but that is a different story.

      • Appeal to authority? You’re the one naming Wells and Carrier and Dawkins. In fact, I think you have mentioned Wells in every comment on this thread. What was that you said? Pot, kettle, black.

        Dawkins, really? Oh, I forgot, he is a respected NT scholar. Mentioning Dawkins in this context is like mentioning Hovind in a discussion about evolutionary biology–don’t do it.

        So, what was Paul doing in the fifties of the common era? Making shit up whole cloth. What about the oral tradition? This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories. What do you suppose happened over the years, as they were told and retold, not as disinterested news stories reported by eyewitnesses but as propaganda meant to convert people to faith, told by people who had themselves heard them fifth-or sixth-or nineteenth hand? But, for you, the whole thing is fabricated–every single piece. If it is not, then your argument doesn’t make sense, right? Mark, M, L, and Q are all just made up whole cloth by their respective communities. But who would make up a story that the Savior came from Nazareth, a little town no one had ever heard of? In Mark, our earliest account, John baptizes Jesus. Would Christians have made this up? Remember, in the early Christian tradition, it was believed that the person who was spiritually superior baptized the one who was spiritually inferior. Furthermore, John, as Mark tells us, was baptizing Jesus “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1.4) Would someone want to claim that Jesus needed to be forgiven for his sins? Why wouldn’t they change these things at some point–the oral tradition was the Wild Wild West of storytelling?

        In no first-century Greek or Roman source is Jesus mentioned. You are right. Pliny the Younger and the Roman historian Tacitus are late and brief, as you say. I suppose you think the Jewish historian Josephus’ two references to Jesus were inserted by a Christian scribe. Both entire references though? You don’t think Josephus knew at least something about Jesus?

        Of course, your alternative must fit the context. Since Jesus was a Jew who lived in first century Palestine, any tradition about him has to fit in his historical context to be plausible. What is your alternative? Jesus did not exist, evidence please. If the alternative is: maybe, maybe not, then what are you going on about. Ancient history is hard. You want more external sources? Sorry, we don’t have them. If you don’t think the methodological principles devised that, if followed closely and rigorously, can give us some indications of who Jesus really was, then devise new ones or don’t use them. But, please, step away from the conversation, while the scholars try to do their work, if the only thing you have to offer is: maybe, maybe not.

      • Wild honey – a little off topic but I am always intrigued when people identify others with labels that they have not imagined for themselves. I’ve never believed in human religions or the biblical depictions and many stories and ideas of ‘God’ or gods, or ‘characteristics’ human beings have chosen to impose on these ideas, but I’m not an ‘atheist’ but I’m not exactly a theist either and I’m definitely not an agnostic. I am not a mind reader but I’m not absolutely certain that Joe would currently identify himself as an ‘atheist’. I never have and never would because to me that would limit ideas and critical inquiry… I’m a fruvegrian and haven’t eaten pancakes since I was little, but I can still make good ones, more like crepes, and serve them up rolled with lemon and honey. We have Manuka here for the best honey bees in the world. Save them bees.

      • Hi Steph, I hope your Christmas was blessed and that you had a happy new year. Otherwise jumping right in.

        Strangely, at least it would be strange if you knew my background, I was a self-identified atheist for about three years of my undergrad. To my everlasting shame, during that period of unbelief, I strongly identified with many elements of the new atheism movement. So, I’ve done more than imagine lol, but I do understand the sentiment.

        Where are you? Because that sounds lovely. And I agree–save them bees. It is a great shame, and a great danger, what is happening to our bees. One other point, I should make clear that my handle comes from the Gospel of the Ebionites. Since this particular group of Ebionites no longer believed in sacrifice–people would only eat an animal if it had been ritually slaughtered by a priest–they became, on principle, vegetarians. This choice of food is reflected in the way they told their Gospel traditions. For example, in this Gospel, John the Baptist’s diet apparently changed. In the canonical Gospels he is said to have subsisted on locusts and wild honey. By changing one letter in the Greek word “locust,” which is a meat, the Ebionite Gospel stated that John the Baptist was eating pancakes and wild honey–a much better choice, wouldn’t you agree lol? Hence, my handle.

      • Hi Adam (taking a stab because I’m just guessing you’re ‘a man’ LOL that’s what it says in the Bible eh. Christmas and New Year are just summer days blessed as the ones before and following as long as I can swim in the sea. My remarks were in really only alluding to how Joe doesn’t, to my knowledge, label himself as an ‘atheist’ and not really how you identify yourself because you made an assumption whereas I made none about you. I know a lot of people who label themselves and many who don’t and others who change their mind every day and never quite pin point anything. I wondered if your non de plume had anything to do with the Baptist and his diet given this context and it did, with the variant. Thanks for the delightful tale.

      • I feel that I need to backtrack a little. I came to this subject out of personal, potentially creative, curiosity, not holding an ideological stake in the issue either way. Before starting to read, I presumed like most that there was indeed a historical Jesus who lived in the 1st century and was crucified my Pilate and simply wished to know more about that real historical personage.

        Having read a dozen or so books on the subject, it was in fact with some dismay that I found G. A. Wells making by far the most cogent and rational case. First of all, he conclusively dismantles the idea that non-Christian corroborating evidence for the existence of Jesus exists. As there seems to be some confusion on this matter, I will summarise in brief: the Testimonium found within our existing copies of Josephus’ late 1st century history ‘Antiquities of the Jews’, with its references to Jesus ‘the messiah’, is clearly interpolated to a greater or lesser degree, as even the Catholic priest Meier concedes; it is first referenced in the 4th century by Eusebius, before which Wells identifies over a dozen Christian scholars who have referred to Josephus’ Antiquities without mentioning the Testimonium at all – a remarkable silence if the Testimonium was part of the original document; our only existing copies of Josephus’ Antiquities itself are Christian transcriptions from centuries later – the discovery of an “Arabic” version of the Antiquities containing the Testimonium sounds promising, until one realises that this is an Arabic quote within a Christian text, and dating to the 10th century; finally, we know that similar interpolations were made to at least one existing version of Josephus’ The Jewish War, so the idea that a scribe would not ‘create entire references’ is evidently misguided; conclusion: the Testimonium is most likely a Christian interpolation inserted into the Antiquities sometime in the 4th century CE. Without the comfort of Josephus, Tacitus or Pliny (the latter two being too late and too scant, as Meier concedes), what we are then left with is the Christian canon and its apocrypha with all the obvious problems of bias and intention that presents.

        Looking then at the earliest documents from that canon, Paul’s epistles, Wells highlights that Paul not only provides scant detail on Jesus’ life, even on the numerous occasions when it would have served his argument to do so, but that there is no confirmation Paul’s Jesus even lived in the 1st Century, Wells leaning instead towards a dating of the 2nd Century BCE, a time period for which Paul would have had no direct evidence. There are then no more existing references to Jesus before the theological nuclear bomb that was the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70CE, with the gospels almost certainly written in response to this terrible event as all the strands of the Judahist religion frantically attempted to reinvent themselves. Here, Akenson is useful, detailing the ingenious ways in which the gospels respond to and explain this disastrous event for their contemporary audience – the Jesus of the gospels now clearly lives in the 1st century AD, he predicts the fall of the temple and is then persecuted by the Jews of Jerusalem, his crucifixion neatly coinciding with a well known eclipse and earthquake that we know to have occurred between AD29-34. Jesus’ prediction of course then comes true and his persecutors are ‘punished’ by the sacking of Jerusalem in AD70. This narrative provides for people at the time what many here still seem to be seeking – this being certainty and comfort. The gospels present a definitive theological answer to the pressing existential quandaries of the time: Why did Jerusalem fall? Why, because it was God’s will as predicted by Jesus, in retribution for Jesus’ persecution. How can we replace the lost temple of Jerusalem? With the temple of Christ’s body and sacrifice. On this basis then, it is hard to take anything in the gospels as literal fact, serving as they do such a clear theological purpose, and – crucially – without any sources outside the Christian canon to back them up.

        I should add that Akenson does make one interesting observation in support of the opposing argument: that utilising the criteria of embarrassment one can make a case that most Christians of the period would likely already have known about, or believed in, the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. This is because the baptism is theologically problematic, has no precedence in other Judahist writings of the time and yet is referred to in all four gospels. Perhaps – although this remains a supposition, and it would in any case be impossible to discern whether Christian followers of the time actually knew or simply believed in the baptism, and there would still be the unanswerable question as to whether the Jesus of Paul and the Jesus of the gospels are the same personage. ‘Pancakes’ here insists that such uncertainty is not “scholarly”, a proposition I must say I find bizarre. To take an example, given the wealth of evidence, historians (for it is history we are discussing here, not theology) may conclude with confidence that Napoleon did indeed exist. Father Christmas, by contrast, we may firmly conclude to be a myth. When it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, as with many other hypothesised figures of ancient history, it seems there is simply not enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion either way. This is hardly surprising in relation to a figure whom even many Christians consider to have been a “marginal Jew” during his lifetime.

        Arguing against Well and other “mythtics”, Peter Smith then insists that “new atheists” (a pejorative term I am reluctant to acknowledge) approach this subject with problematic a priori assumptions, and yet he makes it far from clear what these assumptions are supposed to be. A non-Christian historian will surely approach this question as they would any other point of history – assessing the evidence that exists and drawing a conclusion based on that evidence. By contrast, a Catholic priest like J. P. Meier is a man who has devoted his entire life and career to the strongly held personal conviction that not only did Jesus of Nazareth exist but that he is divine. To expect someone with this kind of conviction, with such a gigantic stake in the conclusions drawn, to lay it all aside and adopt a “neutral” stance is surely asking too much, and indeed we can see the problems emerging in Meier’s insistence that the Testimonium is authentic, in denial of the strong evidence to the contrary.

        To come back to the beginning, when I read this article and noted that Dr. Hoffmann had so radically changed his perspective (having supported Wells back in the late 90s) this peaked my interest and I came here to find out more – to find out if a cogent rejection of Wells’ arguments had formed in the intervening years. Instead, all I’ve encountered so far, I’m afraid to say, is much hot air – with even Dr. Hoffmann himself seemingly satisfied to rest on ad hominems (Dr. Wells is apparently an “amateur” and therefore to be ignored, case closed!) – underscored by the dubious implication that you need decades of learned scholarship and specialism to be able to comprehend an appraisal of what are in fact a very small number of existing historical sources. Steph and Stevie most promisingly speak of a “ton of new evidence” post-Wells, in which case please point me towards it as this is something I would genuinely love to see, and have no reason not to revise my view if this is what the new evidence suggests. By the word “evidence” I presume you mean newly discovered 1st century sources?

      • Just a clarification: George Wells is a scholar of immense integrity. I do not call him an amateur in a pejorative sense; I mean that he is an amateur in relation to Biblical studies just as I am an amateur in German philology and literature, which is George’s field. I have known him since 1984 and have never said an unkind word about him and find his conclusions eminently interesting. You imply that I have engaged in an ad hominem attack on responsible scholarship: show me where? I think it is important to call the risible risible, and that is what most mythticism is. Finally, I wrote in my preface to The Jesus Legend and I continue to maintain that the question of the historicity of Jesus can no longer be shoved aside by theological interests or theology posing as scholarship. I still believe that. If you are paying attention, you will realize that my point is that not only are mythicists doing the job they want to do badly but they are discrediting the case with their language, tactics and style. They are taking an interesting question and making it absurd.

      • ” it is first referenced in the 4th century by Eusebius, before which Wells identifies over a dozen Christian scholars who have referred to Josephus’ Antiquities without mentioning the Testimonium at all ”

        Really? Can you list these dozen ante-Nicean scholars who refer specifically to “Antiquities”, according to Wells? Because Michael Harwick’s “Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius” details at least 12 who refer to Josephus’ works *generally*, but that’s not the same thing. I can only identify five ante-Nicean Christian writers who even *possibly* refer specifically to “Antiquities” (ie where the TF is found) and four of those are just maybes. The only one that is clear is Origen and his two references to how Josephus “did not accept Jesus as Messiah” actually indicate that he DID know of an early recension of the TF. So, details please.

        “the discovery of an “Arabic” version of the Antiquities containing the Testimonium sounds promising, until one realises that this is an Arabic quote within a Christian text, and dating to the 10th century”

        Yes. So? It lacks precisely the elements of the TF that seem most likely to be the later Christian additions. So why would a later Christian recension of the TF take *out* the very elements that turn the TF from a non-descript passing mention of Jesus into Christian apologetic? Then you skip over Michael the Syrians Syriac version of the TF, which also lacks the same elements and which seems to be based on the same early recension of Josephus via an earlier recension of Eusebius (see Whealey). Then there is Jerome’s Latin variant, which also has “was believed to be the Messiah” instead of the *textus receptus*. The textual evidence stacks up heavily in favour of an earlier version of the TF that said Jesus was “believed to be the Messiah” and “was reported to appear to them”, which is why this is the consensus opinion of Josephan scholars. Perhaps Wells was not up on the relevant material.

        “Paul not only provides scant detail on Jesus’ life … ”

        A weak argument. Look at 1Clement and 2Clement and tell us how many details of Jesus’ life you find in them. Does this mean their authors didn’t believe in a historical Jesus or is this a matter of theology and *genre*?

        “… here is no confirmation Paul’s Jesus even lived in the 1st Century …”

        Paul’s comments on the relationship between the timing of the crucifixion, the resurrection, the resurrection appearances (including his own vision) and the fact that Jesus’ resurrection was “the first fruits” of the coming apocalyptic general rising of the dead all indicate precisely that. Wells needed to read more carefully.

        “A non-Christian historian will surely approach this question as they would any other point of history – assessing the evidence that exists and drawing a conclusion based on that evidence. By contrast, a Catholic priest like J. P. Meier is a man who has devoted his entire life and career to the strongly held personal conviction that not only did Jesus of Nazareth exist but that he is divine. ”

        False dichotomy. What about all the non-Christian scholars who have no dog in the theological fight but still accept a Jewish human peasant historical Jesus? There’s no shortage of them – Casey, Fredriksen, Vermes, Ludemann, Ehrman – even that Hoffmann bloke.

        We’re seeing the usual rehearsal of weak Myther arguments again. though thankfully dished up without their usual side servings of conspiracist gibberish and pure bile.

      • To point to the Caseys and Vermes and Hoffmanns and Fredriksens and co as evidence that historical Jesus studies are free from theology is a simplistic black and white view of reality. Firstly, they are very much a minority in a field dominated by the faithful of some stripe. I am sure Hoffmann will testify to that.

        Maurice Casey is as much in a love-hate relationship with Christianity as is our friend R. Joseph Hoffmann. Casey was the son of a parish priest and studied theology as his first degree. He lost his faith, however, so turned to Classics apparently in order to enhance his employment prospects. Note how incensed he becomes at anything so slight and innocuous that he can somehow interpret as a slight on Christian piety! His little bio and subsequent habits help explain why he is antagonistic towards certain atheist criticisms of the Church. (I can hate my family but if you do I’ll defend them to the death!)

        Biblical scholar James Crossley (another non-Christian) points out a little habit found among meetings of Biblical scholars that is unique — the number of such meetings that open with prayer!

        Further, trying to argue that the likes of Crossan, Allison, et al as some do in this context, are not orthodox or conservative Christians is quite beside the point. All Christianity, of whatever stripe, is defined by its fundamental doctrine that God acted in history in the person of Jesus. Take away that teaching and Christians have nothing really distinctively Christian to talk about.

        John Spong and Marcus Borg and Dale Allison and John Crossan base their faith squarely on the belief in an historical Jesus as surely as do the Josh McDowells do for their own brand of Christianity. In further support of this I suggest that anyone who has read any of their works on Jesus will notice their own confessional faith statements somewhere in their works, if not in the preface than surely in the concluding chapter(s).

        Recall, also, our recent observation of John Meier’s confession that the “quest for the historical Jesus” really is, in effect, a theological quest in disguise.

        Then there’s Part 2 of Hector Avalos’s The End of Biblical Studies, “The Infrastructure of Biblical Studies”. That section alone ought to be enough to put to rest any notion of that biblical scholars are as free from theological bias in their outputs as we would expect any other researcher in any other field to be.

        You do not have to be religious or a Christian to grow up with the culturally conditioned assumption that Jesus is our leading icon for whatever cause people place on his shoulders, or to join in the theological quest.

      • Thanks Tim, this is the kind of response I was looking for.

        Wells cites Feldman’s Josephus & Modern Scholarship, p.695, claiming that Feldman “names two Fathers from the second century, seven from the third, and two from the early fourth, all of whom knew Josephus and CITED FROM HIS WORKS (my emphasis), but “do not refer to this passage, though one would imagine it would be the first passage that a Christian apologist would cite”. The Feldman is a text I haven’t sourced yet, it seems I must.

        What the Arabic and Syriac versions may point to (if anything), is an earlier, less extreme version of the Testimonium that may have originated with Josephus but may equally have been the first stage of a Christian interpolation.

      • “all of whom knew Josephus and CITED FROM HIS WORKS”

        Yes, his *works*, plural. But, as I said, if you then break down which ante-Nicean fathers knew the *particular* work in question – *Antiquities* – the number drops to five who *may* have and just one who clearly did. And given that one is Origen and Origen does give us an indication that he knew Josephus said something about Jesus, this argument from silence promptly collapses.

        “What the Arabic and Syriac versions may point to (if anything), is an earlier, less extreme version of the Testimonium that may have originated with Josephus but may equally have been the first stage of a Christian interpolation.”

        That second option makes little sense. If this “first stage interpolation:” didn’t talk about Jesus rising from the dead and didn’t state he was the Messiah, what apologetic utility did it serve? There were no Jesus Mythers in the second and third centuries, so simply having Josephus state Jesus existed wasn’t necessary. So what exactly was the point of this interpolation? If, on the other hand, a mention of Jesus got doctored to change “he was reported to have appeared to them alive on the third day” and “he was believed to be the Messiah” to the apologetic forms we find in the *textus receptus*, the utility of the amended passage is clear.

        Over and over again the interpretation that points to a historical Jesus is simply the most parsimonious. The Myther alternatives always require suppositions and unlikely assumptions to keep themselves propped up.

      • Given the fact that i have never pinned a case for the historical Jesus on Josephus or the ‘external” sources and in fact in my very fist book said the external sources were unhelpful, I am having trouble understanding the relevance of this thread.

      • Steph, well said. (Is that Emerson?) And keep swimming, I say, keep swimming.

        Very true. I suppose I always assumed, based on my readings, that Joe was an atheist. So, mea culpa.

        You’re welcome.

      • Hi Sebastian,

        Let me be clear: skepticism, in doses, of course, is a healthy thing, always. Now, I don’t think uncertainty is unscholarly. How could I? I should emphasize that with respect to Jesus, or indeed any historical person, the historian can do no more than establish probabilities. In no case can they reconstruct the past with absolute certainty. All that they can do is take the evidence that happens to survive and determine to the best of their abilities what probably happened. Thus, scholars will always disagree about the end results of their labors. But nothing can be done about this–this is the important part, listen up–the past cannot be empirically proved, it can only be reconstructed.

        What’s the difference between what you said I said and what I actually said? I’ll tell you. The scholar doesn’t throw her hands up in failure when the question of the historicity of Jesus comes up. The scholar burns the light at both ends. What should the scholar say: “Reason is no good here, critical scholarship is not trustworthy, the question is just unanswerable.” Although, wouldn’t this position be an implicit confirmation of that persons own personal convictions; that is to say, by accepting the unanswerability of the question that person has become just as dogmatic as the fideist who does the exact same thing when talk of God comes up.

        You are being incredibly arrogant with this ambitious form of agnosticism by suggesting, rather explicitly, that no one can know the answers to these questions. I believe that it is possible that one could know about these things or at least possess an answer to a portion of the problem. In fact, I think one should always retain a certain reserved optimism about these things that someone may know what they think no one can know, wouldn’t you say? Otherwise what’s the point of scholarship?

        As for Josephus, I agree that his description of Jesus in Book 18 of The Antiquities has been beefed up a bit by a Christian scribe who wanted to make Josephus appear more appreciative of the “true faith.” But take out the Christianized portions of the passage, as Meier did in one of the more convincing studies on this subject, and see what you are left with. Here again, though, what approach is most economical with the data, yet deals thoroughly with all of the evidence available?

        As for Paul, that’s pretty out there stuff. One obvious question: why would Paul have Jesus crucified? (1 Cor. 2.2) A great deal of effort was put into convincing non-Christian Jews that the Messiah had to suffer and die, that Jesus’ crucifixion was according to the divine plan. It was difficult for them to persuade others in part because, prior to the Christian proclamation of Jesus, there were no Jews, so far as we know, who believed that the Messiah was going to be crucified; on the contrary, the Messiah was to be the great and powerful leader who delivered Israel from its oppressive overlords. Chrsitians who wanted to proclaim Jesus as Messiah would not have invented the notion that he was crucified because his crucifixion created such a scandal. Indeed, Paul calls it the chief “stumbling block” for Jews (1 Cor. 1.23) And why did the Gospel writers involve Nazareth, a small nobody town? Why force yourself to create these elaborate birth narratives with flights to Egypt and an empire-wide census and so forth? Because of a misinterpretation of nazoraios for Nazareth? Ask yourself: what approach is most parsimonious?

        Btw, didn’t Wells say that there was a HJ as the basis for Q? Just curious.

      • A couple of minor qualifications and what’s to disagree with? Not much. I too agree with most of Neil’s post regarding biblical scholarship, conferences, etcetera. Clear as the light of day.

  16. As a current hasidic Jew and formerly “Messianic” since birth – to me it does not matter whether Jesus actually did exist or not. We have Toldoth Yeshu which indicates there was someone upon which the Jesus narrative was based. However, the fact that Roman paganism is such an engrained part of Christianity, I cannot believe otherwise with what I’ve seen so far that there was not any thing mixed, created, and added in the whole narrative. It appears obvious to me that Rome had some interest in the establishment of this religion.

  17. Despite having the writings of three contemporaries, classicists seem to be generally pessimistic about the possibility of recovering a historical Socrates. There is simply no way to eliminate the possibility that the words attributed to Socrates actually came from Plato. The best that can be hoped for is a theoretically possible Socrates rather than a historical one.

    Despite having little more than anonymous religious propaganda based on unknown sources which are removed an unknown number of times in decades of oral transmission from the original storytellers who may or may not have had any personal knowledge of the events in question, New Testament scholars generally confident that they can recover the historical Jesus. They believe that they can identify the things that Jesus must have really said and done which led his followers to have visions of him returned from the dead as well as identifying those things that were invented later to help convince others that Jesus was the anointed one who God chose to raise from the dead.

    I am currently inclined to think that there was a specific historical first century victim of crucifixion associated with the visions of Paul and his predecessors. However, given our highly problematic sources, I don’t see much chance of separating the Jesus of Nazareth who produced those visions from the Jesus of Nazareth who was the product of them.

    I think that mythicism is at least in part a reaction to the absurd degrees of certainty that NT scholars are wont to express about the life of the historical Jesus. If they were as circumspect in their conclusions as other historians of the ancient world, I suspect that the possibility of Jesus’ non-existence would not attract much more attention than the possible non-existence of Socrates or Buddha.

  18. Joe
    Thank you for putting together pieces to re-read; we are inundated with interminable reviews of 2013, so it is particularly pleasant to look at your much wider perspective. My only quibble is that your book shows no signs of appearing somewhere where I can buy it; am I overlooking the blindingly obvious, or is it still in the throes of the publication process?

  19. RJH said ‘Mythicism is to the serious study of the historicity question as new atheism is to philosophy of religion. it’s a matter of tone.
    You are being much too kind to people who are anything but kind.
    Mythicism and new atheism are not about truth, enquiry or scholarship.
    They have five broad characteristics:
    1) their life view is based on hatred; hatred of religion and hatred of religious people,
    2) they practice preconceptual scholarship; evidence is filtered and beaten into shape until it conforms with their metaphysical prejudices,
    3) they are aggressively intolerant; they will attack countervailing points of view with the intention of silencing their voices.
    4) they suffer from intellectual bipolar disorder; all arguments are reduced to partisan extremes that ignore nuance, context and historical detail,
    5) they have tin ears; they are so convinced of their intellectual superiority that they see no need to listen to other points of view.

    They have become the new face of fundamentalism.

    • Peter, pot – kettle – black?

      One might equally argue that Christians are fundamentally unsuited to historical bible scholarship given that they are approaching the evidence with a set of conflicting a priori assumptions. Quite simply, how is it possible to conduct a neutral investigation into the existence of Jesus of Nazareth if you are already convinced that he lived in the 1st century, was crucified by Pilate and rose again? We can see this conflict manifest itself in the way that even a reputable Catholic scholar like J. P. Meier is unable to let go of the Testimonium Flavianum, despite its credibility as the only non-Christian corroborating source for the crucifixion having been thoroughly and definitively dismantled by G. A. Wells (even Meier admits that Tacitus and his friend Pliny the Younger are too late and too scant on detail to be of use in this regard).

      • I think you rather miss the point. As you point out, we all bring a priori assumptions to any matter we investigate. It is simply a matter of being human. A good scholar will nevertheless show an even handedness, an openness, a willingness to examine and evaluate opposing points of view in neutral terms. Knowing the a priori assumptions, we look for evidence that they do not unreasonably dominate the work under consideration.

        Good scholars differ much of the time on all sorts of issues but the essential element of good faith characterises their differences.

        When someone brings polemic or rhetoric to the discussion and makes use of emotional or tendentious language or demonizes his opponents, we have good reason to suspect the quality of their research and conclusions. It becomes apparent that they are not arguing in good faith. New atheism has gone so far along this route, with their avowed aim of destroying religion, that they now closely resemble the fundamentalists they denounce. They have become the pot and the kettle.

        To be absolutely clear about it, I think any brand of fundamentalism is wrong, whether that be Christian fundamentalism, atheist fundamentalism (aka New Atheism), economic fundamentalism or Islamic fundamentalism, etc, etc.

        To be even more clear, I think we urgently need to embrace an ethic of tolerance, of respect and of love. We need to abandon intolerant absolutism and replace it with the recognition that honest, intelligent people can honestly differ.

  20. WOW. Amazing post. When I first read this, I thought “Dr. Hoffman is right, but perhaps coming down a bit too hard on the mythicists.” Then I read the comments. It would take years just to understand, much less to deal with, all the comments, but they make Dr. Hoffman’s case more elegantly than the original blog.

    There is a core problem which drives mythicism, and that is those who can plausibly claim to be scholars (professors at universities, etc.) are so far apart on the characteristics of the historical Jesus. Jesus is apocalyptic, or a wisdom teacher, or a Pharisee, or a zealot, or a conservative, or liberal/radical, etc. etc. etc. This makes it politically easy for someone to say “they’re all wrong, Jesus never existed.”

    But these dramatic differences in historical interpretation have nothing to do with the actual case for or against the historical existence of Jesus. They have their own historical reasons, probably something along the lines of (a) the shattering of the primitive church after the destruction of the temple, and (b) the fact that this is still, for a little longer, a “Christian” (majority Christian) nation. (How would the debate over whether there was a historical Jesus look in a tolerant, but majority Muslim or majority Buddhist, country?)

    Or something like that.

  21. I am puzzled by Sebastian’s assertion that I had asserted that there was a ‘ton of new evidence’.

    I didn’t.

    Really, if you are reduced to making up entirely false statements which you attribute to others then you have demonstrated your inability to advance any rational arguments of any kind to support your hypothesis.

    Admittedly, the problem with new atheism is that it parted company with intellectual analysis in the interests of selling lots of books to people who wanted to believe that buying the books provided irrefutable evidence of their intellectual superiority, without them ever doing anything to develop their intellectual abilities, but they really cannot expect the rest of the world to buy into the myth…

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