The Celestial Jesus theory also seems increasingly plausible, given all we are now learning about early Christian diversity and pre-Christian Judaisms, with all their varied views about celestial beings and the Messiah.
By Raphael Lataster
University of Sydney
Just days after The Bible and Interpretation published my “Questioning Jesus’ Historicity” (a mere summary of Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse), Christian scholar James McGrath published a response piece, on the same website. Given the amount of errors McGrath makes in his response, I decided to respond, and the The Bible and Interpretation team have kindly allowed this.
Firstly, I wish to leave the rhetoric to one side. It is often unfair, and leads to unending accusations about the ‘other side’ being more polemical and many misinterpretations. For example, McGrath points to my mentioning that I am a secular scholar, as if I say that to seem superior to everybody else, when I primarily mentioned it to highlight where I agree with prominent secular historicists like Ehrman and Casey. We all generally agree that Jesus was not divine, God does not exist, miracles do not happen, and so forth. What we disagree on is whether there did exist a purely human Earthly Jesus, effectively making this a ‘debate among atheists’. McGrath also points to my earlier espousing of the ‘Aramaic primacy’ hypothesis, indicating that I obscure my spiritual and intellectual journey. This is just silliness; I held to that view as a teenager, and am always happy to acknowledge that I believed many untrue things back then, such as that God exists and that Jesus rose from death. I also once believed in Santa Claus. How things have changed! I have revised my conclusions as I have been exposed to more evidence, which is something we hopefully all do. It is also absurd to imply that I pretend that there is no difference between a Bart Ehrman and a William Lane Craig, especially when one is familiar with my body of work. So, let us stick to the meat of the arguments; though with the polemics put aside there isn’t much to address.
McGrath takes issue with my noting that the sources for Jesus tend to be biased and problematic, claiming that the existence of Socrates and Confucius are generally not disputed. These cases are not equivalent, with the state of the evidence being quite different, and all of the earliest sources concerning Jesus portraying him as a supernatural being. One thing I didn’t mention in the article that I explained at length in the book (as such, I urge McGrath and anyone else to read the book that my article was a mere summary of) is that Jesus is portrayed in a way that is consistent with non-existent characters, which certainly does not help the historicity thesis.
More importantly, McGrath asserts that “Historians do not depend on the Gospels, much less hypothetical sources behind them, for their conclusion that there was a historical Jesus.” He then points to Paul, and extrabiblical sources. This is very surprising, since even Ehrman and Casey thought little of the extrabiblical sources (as we all should; they are typically unimpressive and/or ambiguous and/or tampered with). And Paul, well, my book goes into a great deal of detail about the ‘Problem of Paul’. Apart from the many reasons he gives us to doubt his claims, he says little to nothing about a Jesus that was recently on Earth. He seems to always refer to a celestial messiah (as with other Jews of the time), and to revelations of this figure that are occurring ‘now’, decades after they supposedly happened if we adhere to the Gospel accounts. The few passages which historicists and Christians will often cling to tend to be ambiguous, or even interpolations. For example, any verse indicating that Jesus had flesh and blood does nothing for the Historical Jesus theory, as it also works on the Celestial Jesus theory. For a more important example, the ‘James is the lord’s brother’ verse can be variously interpreted (with even Christians arguing about its meaning), and it may well be an interpolation – historicist champion Ehrman also is quite aware that much of these have been tampered with by early Christians engaging in doctrinal battles with the non-orthodox, such as the Marcionites, who had very different views about Jesus. And to those familiar with the best cases for Jesus’ historicity, namely the recent popular books by Ehrman and Casey, they do in fact rely on the Gospels, and then, realising that they are terrible sources, rely on the vast numbers of hypothetical sources behind them. Even McGrath relies on the basic story of the Gospels in how he interprets the Pauline Epistles, though the Gospels are the later documents.
Another point of contention is my quick dismissal of the use of hypothetical sources, which obviously would rankle many in the field since without them little can be said about Jesus. As is to be expected, McGrath was unable to explain why we should trust such sources, and why we should trust, say, his own hypothetical sources, instead of a conservative Christian’s, or a fringe mythicist’s. McGrath also focuses on the ‘Jesus crucified by sky demons’ issue, apparently unaware that my reading is certainly plausible, so much so that even some Christian scholars have endorsed it, and that it is not vitally important for the case for mythicism, and not needed for my case for agnosticism (keep in mind that scholars like McGrath so often ignore that very reasonable ‘middle ground’). There is much more to be said for the Celestial Jesus theory, and I do say it, in the book. There is the belief, for example, of pre-Christian Jews in celestial messiahs (some of whom sound very much like Philo’s Logos and Paul’s Christ), which even Ehrman now acknowledges, though McGrath seems unaware of it.
And that is pretty much it. Apart from the rhetoric, McGrath had little to say, and indeed, seems to still have not published an academic book or journal article centred on a case for Jesus’ historicity. Carrier published his academic book in 2014 and I have published mine in 2019. We are still waiting for a proper refutation of my case for agnosticism and his more ambitious case for outright mythicism. I suspect that this will never occur, because ‘at least agnosticism’ is very sensible. The sources are terrible, with the best ones being anonymous, and portraying a character reminiscent of earlier non-existent figures. The Celestial Jesus theory also seems increasingly plausible, given all we are now learning about early Christian diversity and pre-Christian Judaisms, with all their varied views about celestial beings and the Messiah. Hopefully, like Davies, Avalos, and Crossley, more scholars of the New Testament will eventually come to admit that nothing like a case for certainty about Jesus’ historical existence can be offered, and that questioning Jesus’ historicity is very reasonable indeed.
What do you think about Earl Doherty's books about mythicism? How is your book different?
Ah, I accidentally wrote a reply to your Questioning Jesus post that I meant to post here.
Anyway, yeah, the whole business about Q, oral traditions, and other such hypothetical sources is nonsense. But its not simply nonsense because those sources are hypothetical. It's nonsense because we have better explanations for how the Gospels were written than the use of those hypothetical sources.
I address some of this on my website here: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/on_q.html
Every aspect of how the Gospels were written is better explained by other facts that don't include the use of Q or oral traditions, that's why those explanations fail, not simply because they aren't demonstrable, but because alternatives ARE demonstrable.
To Kenneth: I think Dothery's work is very important and raises many significant issues and gets a lot of things correct, but he also gets some things wrong, especially his analysis of the Gospels IMO.
There are plenty of instances in which an academic article provides less detail than a book resulting from the same research. In such instances, the book may be more persuasive than the article. But the book rarely turns out to be phenomenal and persuasive when the article is totally unimpressive, uninteresting, and frankly disappointing in the way that your article was and your response is. Nothing that you wrote here suggests that my assessment was wrong or that my criticisms were off target. Indeed, if I may give one example, the fact that you decided to throw in "Christian" before scholar suggests that my criticisms of your first piece were on target, and that I was right about the rhetorical game you were playing with readers in your effort to couch your own views as "secular." I appreciate your having been willing to confirm this in this way!
Identifying a scholar as "Christian" is relevant, because it is unavoidable that all Christian scholars are biased. Yes, much of Western university tradition descends from Christians institutions, that's true. The fact that the university system has descended from Christian institutions is really about the only way that specifically Christian fields have been able to endure in the system and to be treated as legitimate.
But let's face facts, "theology" is not a legitimate field of study on par with other secular fields of study like biology or physics or anthology, etc. Theology is inherently biased, with a predisposed foregone conclusion at its core.
Unlike real sciences and fields of academic study that start with open ended questions seeking unknown answers, theology starts with an assumed answer and then works to fit evidence to the assumption. This is a central fact that has to be acknowledged because when you look at the field of biblical studies, which is dominated by Christian theologians, you can see the impact of this approach quite clearly.
Time and again, over and over and over and over and over (I could keep going), Christian theologians discard or even fail to consider solutions to problems that result in answers that don't support their starting assumption.
In the field of Christian theology every answer has to ultimately be compatible with the conclusion that Jesus is the real, one and only, son of God. If you ever come to an answer that contradicts that ultimate conclusion then it must be rejected. And as such, Christian scholars have done an excellent job of training themselves to avoid all paths that lead toward answers that put the legitimacy of Christianity in question.
Christian theologians don't put forward scholarship that seriously undermines the legitimacy of Christianity, period. As such, Christian scholars are incapable of ever engaging in honest research or analysis, point blank. That is simply the truth of the matter.
And look at the history. "Christian scholars" have basically been wrong about every single thing. Biology was the last major field to remain under the domain of Christian scholarship until Darwin came along took that away.
The existence of atoms? Christians said impossible, they were wrong.
Biological evolution? Christians said impossible, they were wrong.
The age of the earth? Christians said it was not older than human existence, they were wrong.
The nature of disease? Christians said it based on spirits, they were wrong.
The history of civilization? Christians relied on the Old Testament as real history, they were wrong.
The existence of the Patriarchs? Christians said they were real, they were wrong.
Indeed you can't really come up with any subject Christians have ever been right about.
Now it turns out that Christians have entirely misunderstood the very writings that they based their whole religion on. The reality is that Christians fundamentally misunderstood the writings of the Bible and have been confused about them from the very beginning. The origins of Christianity are based on Roman misunderstanding of Jewish stories.
Christians have completely and fundamentally misunderstood the writings of the Bible so thoroughly that Christian scholars to this day can't find their way out of the hall of mirrors they've built for themselves.
To Raphael Lataster or R.G. Price ?:
I think that anybody can be right about the Bible even if they are biased because the Bible itself was written by biased people. Who would understand it better than other biased people? It seems strange, but in court you have a prosecution and a defense to present their sides. You don't have unbiased people, each side has a goal, and it is not necessarily the truth, but it works in the end because each biased person has to deal with the other side's arguments. I think unbiased people are also less motivated to come up with ideas because they are not worried about the topic as much. Biased people are constantly trying all kinds of new usually crazy and desperate arguments to defend their beliefs or attack other beliefs, but sometimes they might be right. I know that religious Bible scholars are not open-minded, but I also think atheist Bible scholars are not open-minded. We are all closed-minded, but we don't know it. That is why we have to accept bias in this subject.
I would be interested in whether a religious scholar used to be a believer. Ehrman has been quite explicit in describing his background at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. I have no idea the nature of Lataster's religious background.
Greifer: Doherty did well in introducing many of us to the Celestial Jesus theory. It did not originate with him (being at least a century older), but thanks to his efforts, people like Carrier and myself are talking about it today. My book is not just concerned with that theory, but makes a case for agnosticism, and critiques the best cases for historicity and ahistoricity thus far presented.
Price: Yes, the reliance on hypothetical sources here should be very surprising to scholars of any other field.
McGrath: Thank you for being here. Okay, let us focus on the substance of the arguments, rather than our identities or personal histories. I know you've been skirting around this issue for a while (I still remember the unhelpful book you recommended to me - well it was a little helpful in undermining your aim), but if you could finally explain to us all why we should trust your hypothetical sources rather than anybody else's, I might finally be convinced.
There is a major issue here with Christianity, because Christianity is actually an extremely unusual religion. Christianity is a religion founded upon a specific reading of a bunch of documents of unknown provenance. That's it. Christianity is not "founded by Jesus", Christianity is founded by 2nd-3rd century Romans based on written stories about Jesus. And so when it comes to understanding what these documents are that the Romans founded their religion on, ultimately all Christian scholarship comes back to defending the conclusions of those 2nd-3rd century Christian scholars. Even when Christian scholarship disagrees with points of those scholars, Christian scholarship has to conclude that, in the end, those 2nd-3rd century Romans got it right. Because if those Romans didn't get it right, then the whole institution is a fraud. So, of course, Christian scholars are boxed into a very hard spot.
To get back to the issue of historical sources, I'll quote from my book's website: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/on_q.html
"What we find in mainstream biblical scholarship is a major bias against the recognition of literary dependencies within the extant texts. So what we see in mainstream biblical scholarship is a major reliance on imagined “lost sources” to explain the similarities between texts. As we see here, biblical scholarship is full of imagined lost sources, both oral and written, used to explain the commonalities across the texts of the New Testament. Yet in reality, virtually all of these relations are far better explained as dependencies among the extant texts. The problem with recognizing dependencies among the extant texts, however, is that everyone recognizes that none of the extant material comes from direct witnesses to Jesus. It is recognized that none of the extant material represents primary sources, and thus imagined potential primary sources are the favored explanation for textual similarities. Thus, what we see in mainstream biblical scholarship is that not only do biblical scholars jump to the conclusion that textual similarities must be the product of the use of a common lost source, but also that the lost source itself is likely an “original” primary source. This is the rational behind Q, and the rational behind claims like those that we see Bauckham making here."
And as for the dependence on Paul, the irony of that is just how at odds such a position is in relation to biblical scholarship itself:
“Accordingly, the gospels may be understood as corrections of this creedal imbalance, which was undoubtedly derived from the view espoused by the apostle Paul, who did not know the historical Jesus. For Paul, the Christ was to be understood as a dying/rising lord, symbolized in baptism (buried with him, raised with him), of the type he knew from the hellenistic mystery religions. In Paul’s theological scheme, Jesus the man played no essential role."
- The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus really Say; Funk, Hoover, The Jesus Seminar (pp 7)
As I said in my post that I accidentally cross-posted on the Questioning Jesus Historicity thread, 20th century mainstream biblical scholarship has been all about pushing Paul out of the way and claiming that the Gospels are ultimately based on pre-Pauline sources. The model of mainstream biblical scholarship has been to position the Gospels as records of pre-Pauline traditions.
But of course that is nonsense, and as the work of Tom Dkystra, David Oliver Smith and myself shows, the Gospels are based directly on the Pauline letters. The Pauline letters and the Jewish scriptures are the sources used for the derivation of the Gospel narratives. And this is ultimately why claims about hypothetical lost documents are nonsense and disproven.
We *have proven* that these hypothetical lost documents don't exist because we *have proven* that other known sources better explain the content of the Gospels than the proposed hypothetical sources. What is so infuriating about mainstream scholarship, and scholars like McGrath and even Ehrman, is the refusal to engage in addressing these facts.
It is infuriating that we still have major names in biblical scholarship talking about "oral traditions" and "Q" when in fact those sources have been completely and entirely disproved. Yet, the scholars talking about "oral traditions" and "Q" and other such lost hypothetical sources simply refuse to address or even acknowledge the work that clearly shows such sources weren't used. That's the real kicker. The evidence and facts are there and have been laid out plain as day, but Christian scholars refuse to look at it.
We still have people like Bauckham talking about how it's inconceivable that the writer of Luke would have used the letters of Paul, and thus similarities between Luke and Paul can "only" be explained as evidence of "lost original sources". I mean seriously, Bauckham is a highly respected biblical scholar. How can this be. When your most respected scholars say obvious nonsense like this and they are treated as legitimate authorities what else can be said. The whole field is just nonsense.
And don't get be started on Ehrman. Let's not forget that Ehrman's entire post-secondary education comes from Christian seminary schools. Ehrman has zero formal training in anthropology, ancient history, historical methods, anything. His entire education is in theology, and you can see in his work that all of the tools he employs are those of conservative Christian theology. Ultimately Ehrman is defending his education. He's always out defending the tools of mainstream biblical scholarship, but in fact the entire methodology of mainstream biblical scholarship is what's wrong.
What's wrong with mainstream biblical scholarship is the same thing that was wrong with Christian Naturalism (the field of Darwin's study). Prior to Darwin there was no field of "biology" as we know it today, there was naturalism, which was the theological study of "God's Creation". The study of life on earth was under the purview of the church, which is why Darwin got his degree from a seminary school. But the difference between Darwin and Ehrman is that Darwin recognized the fundamental flaws in the methodologies he was taught, where as Ehrman does not. Ehrman considers his education valid. Ehrman is constantly employing "the criterion of embarrassment" or the "criterion of multiple sources" just as uncritically as Meier or Bauckham or anyone else.
But those fundamental criterion are all entirely wrong. The whole approach of the five criterion is deeply flawed. That Ehrman can't see that is at once shocking and a testament to the counter productive influence of theological instruction.
And so when we talk about who is "qualified" to engage in biblical analysis, the reality is that a "theology" degree, or a degree in divinity, is not a real qualification for forensic biblical study. This is the core issue. We have a field called "biblical studies" that is dominated by Christian theologians, when in fact a theology degree is not a real qualification for the forensic study of ancient sources and history.
What "biblical scholarship" means is not what "biblical scholars" are doing. "Biblical Scholarship" as per a degree in theology is really about the study of "Christian interpretation" of the texts of Bible. But what happened is that theologians have tried to position themselves as real historians and forensic scientists, when in fact that is never what they were, and never what theological studies was equipped to provide.
The big farce here is the idea that theologians are qualified in any way to assess the sources and historical validity of the Bible. In realty theologians and people like Bart Ehrman are no more qualified to assess the historical validity of biblical stories or to understand the provenance of biblical sources than the average person off the street. In fact they may even be less qualified because they have been specifically instructed in biased methodologies that are designed to lead to invalid answers.
The tools of theological biblical studies are fundamentally flawed and invalid, period.
And I know that to be a fact because as a data analyst with experience in text mining and pattern recognition algorithms (actual qualifications for breaking down and understanding the relationships between documents) I can see the multitude of flaws in the approaches of mainstream biblical scholars. Biblical scholarship as it is taught as seminaries, and likely even universities that pattern their programs on seminaries, may as well just be teaching dowsing or phrenology. The whole field is just entirely and fundamental off course, because, of course, it is guided by Christian beliefs, not by facts.
What we need in the field of "biblical studies" is a revolution in the fields of scholarship that are directed at the issue and a revolution is recognizing who is qualified to actually study biblical texts from a historical perspective, and this also requires recognition by non-theological scholars that theologians aren't qualified and shouldn't be treated as authorities on this subject.
These issues can only be addressed by real scholars, not theologians. These are questions to be address by historians, anthropologists, and data analysts, not priests and pastors.
I think Bible scholars should analyze the Bible and tell people what it says and what it means and if there are agreements and disagreements between the different books, and they should do textual criticism of difficult quotes. I don't think they should tell people these events really took place because that is not their role. They can't prove that Rome really had a census where I guess millions of people had to go to the land of their ancestors or birth to be counted. That is for historians. If the Bible is true or not is not for anybody to say based on any evidence, except that people believed it.
They also act like psychologists saying only people who really believed something was true would be willing to die for their beliefs. The Bible mentions many false prophets in Jeremiah, and the punishment for being a false prophet was death. They were false prophets even though they knew they were going to die for their beliefs. No one says they were willing to die for their beliefs, so they must have been telling the truth.
All of these issues stem from the fact that "Christian theology" has been a pseudo-intellectual field of feigned academics from the outset. That's the problem and that's what has made all of this so difficult.
Christianity was founded upon and founded by pseudo-intellectual false academics. And all of Western civilization from the 4th century through to the 20th was dominated by Christian pseudo-intellectualism. And this is the last gasp of Christian pseudo-intellectualism. "Christian scholarship" has been run out of every field of study that exists, and study of the Bible is the last domain they have left.
But the problem with Christian scholarship in biblical studies is exactly the same as the problem with Christian scholarship in every other field, be it astronomy (geocentrism), geology (6,000 year old earth), biology (creationism), psychology and medicine (demonology), etc.
"Christian scholarship" is rooted in Christian theology, which is rooted in 2nd-4th century flawed irrational philosophy. The methods of all Christian scholarship are still traced back to 2nd-4th century Roman quacks. It's inescapable, that IS the core of Christian belief. You can't avoid the flaws of Christian thought and remain Christian. Christian thought and scholarship is a fundamentally flawed system that is incapable of coming to terms with and comprehending reality. When a Christian theologian does come to terms with reality they are no longer Christian.
"If the Bible is true or not is not for anybody to say based on any evidence"
This is incorrect. The Bible makes a number of objective historical claims and determining if those claims are objectively true or not is absolutely for anybody to do. Christians have no exclusive domain over fact checking the Bible (though they like to pretend they do). Christaisn didn't even produce these writings, they just collected and (mis)interpreted them.
But this is the issue, because as much as Christians like to talk about "faith", the reality is that the Christian religion is founded upon a set of objective claims about historical events. What Christians want is the exclusive right to define the history first through fourth century Palestine and Rome and they don't have that right. Not only do they not have that right, but they are very wrong about the real history.
What these theologians understand is that the validity of their religion rests upon the legitimacy of the historical claims made in the Bible. Those historical claims can be, and must be, objectively assessed by real scholars, not just by Christian theologians. Just look at Christianity's track record. Literally, Christian scholarship has been wrong about every single objective claim that they've ever made. Christianity is a worldview build on a fundamental misunderstanding of reality and history and is, essentially, wrong about everything, including where the writings of the Bible came from, who wrote them, why they were written, their credibility, and even what they mean.
Christianity was a misguided Roman cult started by people who found some anonymous Jewish stories that they totally misinterpreted and failed to comprehend, and its just been a flawed intellectual pursuit that's been wrong about everything ever since... and that's a provable fact.
I think my biggest problem with the discussion from mythicist perspectives, here and elsewhere, is the inability or unwillingness to discuss at the level of very minute details and specifics. If one paints with a broad brush, saying that Christians are all incredibly biased and completely untrustworthy (whereas atheists supposedly have no ax to grind and are unbiased), it might just seem plausible to some who've had an experience of particular kinds of dogmatic Christian faith. If someone looks at the details and the history, then what one finds is that whenever atheists (scholars and laypeople) are citing classic scholarship about the Bible as part of their arguments against fundamentalist Christians, they are mostly citing Liberal Protestant scholars, who were of course the ones who pioneered the methods of historical criticism of the Bible in the mainstream academy. If one uses William Lane Craig as an example one gets one impression, and understandably so, given the fact that he isn't even mainly New Testament, teaches at an Evangelical school, and so on. If one asks about Dale Allison, one is still dealing with a Christian, and this time a New Testament scholar, but in this case only the most dishonest individual - or someone who hasn't read what Allison has published on the subject - could pretend that he is simply someone who follows his biases and imposes them on the evidence.
One of the things that makes mythicism seem particularly implausible to me is precisely the claim that Christians just think there was a historical Jesus because they are biased in favor of his existence. The historical Jesus, a figure who (among other things) was mistaken about the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God that he predicted, who fostered hopes that he would restore the dynasty of David to the throne but was executed by the Romans, is not much of a comfort to the majority of Christians. Mythicists imagine Christians saying "Well, he was mistaken and a first-century figure that we can scarcely relate to, but I take great comfort in the fact that he existed." That just doesn't strike me as plausible.
"inability or unwillingness to discuss at the level of very minute details and specifics."
I have a hard time with this comment.
I've read a lot of Doherty's work and correspondence, including all the old listserve material. He didn't in any way avoid specifics; indeed the opposite. He was trying to engage in specifics but rather it was the mainstream scholars that avoided the specifics.
I've seen the same with Carrier, and Robert M. Price. I know that both have endeavored to engage in specifics.
I'm happy to engage in specifics, indeed that's what I want is to get into the details.
Now, it can be true that there are times when it appears a biblical scholar may be trying to hide behind irrelevant details, especially when it comes to things like translations because perhaps the biblical scholar knows how to read ancient Greek and the mythicist they are engaging with doesn't, so they try to then take the conversation to a place where its all about whether or not the other person can read ancient Greek or not. I've seen that happen, but really that's just a tactic to avoid the real issues.
What I've seen from mythicst opponents is doing stuff like calling out one detail, making it all about that one detail, and then ignoring 10 other points. Carrier's book is the perfect example, because in his book he makes about 500 points, so its easy to cherry pick 2 or 3 questionable points, hammer on those, and then ignore the rest. And I've seen this happen a lot.
But I think the perspective on the mythicst side is that we can't get mainstream scholars to actually fully engage with the material and actually address all the details.
I have an example on my website that I'd love for you or any other biblical scholar to address: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/examples.html
This example is just a simple example of the cleansing of the temple, comparing my analysis of the scene to that of Ehrman's and Meier's. That's a very simple straight forward example.
Let's see the details. My conclusion is that the temple cleansing scene in Mark is a literary fabrication and I provide the evidence to support the conclusion. In fact the evidence laid out in this example is really just a fraction of the evidence, but its a very strong and clear portion of it.
Let's get into the details.
I don’t know what sort of case Raphael Lataster presents in his latest book, but I have read his previous book, Jesus Did Not Exist, which I found completely unconvincing. His interpretation of Paul strikes me as so implausible that only the most solid evidence would suffice to establish his view. Needless to say, such evidence is not to be found, and particularly not in 1 Cor. 2:8. The most that could be said is that the “rulers” *might* be supernatural beings. But would even that pose a serious problem for a historicist interpretation? If one or more actors in a drama are supernatural beings, does it necessarily imply that the other actors are also supernatural beings?
We need only look to Paul himself to see that this isn’t the case. Paul tells us that he was prevented from going to the Thessalonians by Satan (1 Thess. 2:18). Presumably, this does not imply that Paul himself was a supernatural being. While we are on the subject of individual Pauline passages, it might be worthwhile to comment on Gal. 1:19. I find Lataster’s comment on this curious: “with even Christians arguing about its meaning”. Does Lataster imply that the meaning of the passage is in doubt because Catholics have disputed its meaning? I’m not sure how this squares with Lataster’s desire to have a debate “between atheists”.
I am also perplexed by Lataster’s apparent obsession with “hypothetical sources”. Firstly, the case for historicity in no way depends on the assumption that written sources underlie the Gospels. Secondly, these sources are far less hypothetical than Lataster’s speculations about Christian origins. After all, Luke tells us that many accounts had been written about the life of Jesus.
In view of some of the comments on this thread, I would like to offer a general observation about theories of Christian origins. When we speculate about the causes of things, we should always try to keep our speculations simple. The more elaborate the speculation, the less likely it is to be true. Anyone who has an elaborate theory about the writing of the Gospels which involves detailed speculation about the creation of individual scenes in the Gospels, bears a very heavy burden of proof.
This is probably not the place for an extended debate, so I shall restrict myself to making this one comment.
Firstly let me apologize for my prior double post. It had been over 12 hours and I didn't see my comment go through so I made another.
This is still a bunch of talking past one another.
Let's start by just taking a step back from the claim that "Jesus didn't exist", and approach the issues step by step in terms of what interpretations of various texts are plausible and not.
"I am also perplexed by Lataster’s apparent obsession with “hypothetical sources”."
"Hypothetical sources", such as Q, are used to claim that certain features of writings can only be explained by the existence of some older shared tradition or source. This is, in essentially, every case, not true. In fact, most of what scholars claim to be "evidence of a lost shared source" is much more easily explained as direct literary dependence between extant sources.
"After all, Luke tells us that many accounts had been written about the life of Jesus."
Certainly. And what the evidence shows is that the prior accounts Luke was referring to are Mark, Matthew, Paul, and possibly even John, as well as other potential non-canonical derivatives of Mark.
"When we speculate about the causes of things, we should always try to keep our speculations simple."
This is exactly true, and this is exactly where mainstream scholarship falls on its face.
When you actually get down to the details you see that the mainstream explanations are convoluted and impossible. Take Q for example. Q sounds "simple" on the surface, but when you actually work out all the details you see that is an impossible Rube Golderberg machine.
I address that issue here: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/on_q.html
The far simpler explanation is simply that Luke used Mark and Matthew and gave importance to Mark over Matthew because he knew that Mark was the older source. That's actually a very simple explanation and it fully explains Luke, as Goodacre himself states. Trying to account for Q is impossible. It requires a whole series of highly unlikely events, as I state in the link:
"If Q is what so many scholars assume it is – the earliest account of Jesus, then Q would had to have existed as a collection of documents for somewhere between 40 and 90 years without anyone making reference to it, then both Matthew and Luke would had to have independently gotten possession of copies of it, they would then had to have both integrated it into the Markan narrative in exactly the same way across dozens of scenes, and then they would both had to have lost all of the Q material such that it completely disappeared from the historical record. Note that there are not even any accounts from early Christian scholars of the second through fourth century that give any hint of the existence of Q. This would mean that, essentially, the most important document(s) of Christianity went unreferenced by all but two people, and both of those people lost their copies of the most important document(s) of Christianity."
And the reality is that Q is totally unnecessary to begin with.
And let's just get to a basic summary here.
Lets take my explanation for the development of the Gospels:
1) Some set of Paul's letters are produced prior to the First Jewish-Roman War.
2) After the war and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, some follower of Paul makes use of Paul's letters to write an allegory about the destruction of the Temple. The Jesus character in that allegory is based directly on Paul himself. The character of Jesus matches the character of Paul. The associated of Jesus match the associates of Paul. The teachings of Jesus match the teachings of Paul. This is all because the writer of Mark is uses Paul's letters and is actually paraphrasing directly from them, as can be demonstrated.
The scenes in the Gospel of Mark are ALL based on scriptural references, largely following the story of Elijah and Elisha. Many are also references to scriptures about God's punishment of the Jews, which the author relates to the recent war.
3) Once this story is written copies of it are made. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John all descend from the Markan story. Ever non-canonical account also descends from the Markan story. This is easily demonstrated with clear evidence.
There is nothing at all implausible about this scenario. In fact it is far simpler explanation of the evidence than the complex theories conjured up by historicists about "oral traditions" and lost sources. Now, we haven't necessarily proven that Jesus doesn't exist here, but that's not the point. The point is that this explanation for the development of the Gospels is demonstrable with evidence and it is also not accepted by mainstream scholars, despite the fact that it is actually a much more straight forward and plausible explanation of the evidence.
And let's be clear about the case I lay out. he case I lay out is that the Markan narrative is an entirely postwar narrative that is only relevant in light of the war. No aspect of Mark make sense in a pre-war context. The whole narrative was entirely fabricated after the war. Also note that this type of prophetic allegorical writing, especially in relation to wars, was extremely common in Rome at this time. There are DOZENS of examples of stories like this, which everyone agrees are all entirely fabricated, just like Mark is. The story of Publius from the Book of Marvels is a prime example.
The reason it isn't accepted is, of course, because in this scenario none of the information in the Gospels is traced back to reliable sources about a real person. But the reality is that we can 100% prove that the Gospel of Mark isn't based on information about a real person, because every aspect of Mark can be traced back to Paul's letters and the Jewish scriptures.
There is no "real Jesus" in Mark, and once you realize that there is no real Jesus in Mark it is inescapable that there is no real Jesus in any of the Gospels, because its clear that they are all just copies of Mark with additional fabricated flourishes. This is the reality that mainstream scholars have been fighting against for decades now. The Gospels are all just copies of Mark, and Mark is a fictional story. It really is that simple.
And if the Gospels don't contain a single ounce of information that is based on the life of a real Jesus person, well then....
"inability or unwillingness to discuss at the level of very minute details and specifics."
I have a difficult time with this comment, because I find it hard to believe that this perception could be true. I know that Doherty was very specific and tried to get mainstream scholars to address many specifics with him, but the opposite seemed to be true. Critics simply dismissed his points with broad strokes and didn't engage in details. Same largely goes for Carrier and Robert M. Price.
And here is the issue I have. Established biblical scholars act like their conclusions are unassailable when basic flaws in their methodology and conclusion are obvious.
Here are some SPECIFIC examples: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/examples.html
I'd love to see those specifics addressed.
But clearly when you have the biggest authorities in the field making claims that can easily be disproved with just a modicum of effort this is a significant problem. The field can't claim credibility and that doubting the mainstream positions is entirely without merit when many major claims can be disproved with simple analysis.
And much of this goes back to what I said previously, that there are far better explanations for many of the relationships between NT texts than the mainstream claims of "lost common sources". And now with the use of computers and more sophisticated algorithms the evidence is quickly mounting showing exactly how these texts were all derived from one another. The NT is clearly very incestuous and there is no place for "lost sources" anymore. We can see exactly who borrowed from who and its provable and concrete and it totally overturns the 20th century models of Q and "oral traditions". Those hypothesis are disproved, they are clearly wrong and without merit, and established scholars aren't keeping up with the research and the facts and where the evidence is pointing.
Clearly what we see is that the first Gospel is derived from the letters of Paul and the LXX and every other narrative about Jesus is derived from the first Gospel. That's been proven, its a fact. Yet, the vast majority of established biblical scholars refuse to acknowledge it.
McGrath: Once again you refuse to properly argue for the use of hypothetical sources apparently underlying the Gospels that are necessary since you interpret Paul with Gospel tainted lenses and the Gospels themselves, as you know, are very problematic texts. If someone can explain to me why this is justified, and why we should prefer McGrath's or Ehrman's or Casey's hypothetical sources, and not a Christian apologist's or fringe mythicist's hypothetical sources, I might finally be persuaded.
There is no need to read the letters of Paul through Gospel-tinted glasses. Indeed, what mythicists seem to do is make it an unquestionable methodological principle that what Paul wrote cannot converge with what the Gospels say no matter how natural it might be to interpret them as doing so. Otherwise it is difficult to explain the convoluted efforts to make Paul’s reference to Jesus as “of the seed of David according to the flesh” mean something other than that he believed this man was the awaited anointed one from the line of David who would restore his dynasty to the throne, as such language widely meant in Judaism. And of course, that Paul maintained this belief despite Jesus’ apparent disqualification through crucifixion is one of the signs that he is not merely concocting a belief system, but participating in one that was struggling with the cognitive dissonance caused by real-world events and religious expectations clashing.
In short, one doesn’t need to read Paul through the lens of the Gospels to conclude that there was a historical Jesus, one merely has to pay attention to the details and understand them in their historical context.
(And, in response to a related point above, Earl Doherty pays a lot of attention to details in much the same way that Michael Behe does in genetics and microbiology: selectively, and with attention dedicated to bending over backwards to interpret evidence differently than the consensus of experts in relevant fields. I grant that denialists and proponents of fringe views do indeed pay a lot of attention to details in this very specific sense. It should tell you something when all that attention to detail does not seem at all persuasive to the majority of experts working in those academic fields.)
Okay, McGrath, then you are different to the historicists like Ehrman and Casey, who do rely on the Gospels, and actually, the hypothetical sources underlying them. You seem to find the Historical Jesus in Paul. But all the passages from Paul that are used to demonstrate historicity are ambiguous at best, easily applying on the Celestial Jesus theory. For example, anything referring to Jesus' flesh, blood, and the simple fact that he died and resurrected. To address your example, these mentions of 'seed' are allegorical - Paul himself even indicates this (saying it outright with 'mother verses'). This should be obvious since he says Christians are of Abraham's seed, which obviously cannot be the case in a literal sense. Furthermore, Carrier opined that even the seed of David mention could be literal, but applying to a Celestial Jesus. As I show in this book, which I suppose you are yet to read, such ideas are quite common in ancient religion (Zoroastrianism, anyone?), and even in Jewish-Christian thought. Don't get me wrong, however, neither Carrier or I believe in the 'cosmic sperm bank'. From all the possibilities, we both prefer the allegorical reading.
The real irony here is that McGrath is essentially acknowledging that he is in major disagreement with the majority of those in his field, but at the same time trying to say that being in disagreement with the majority opinion in his field is without merit.
How can it be without merit when McGrath himself is in disagreement with the majority view in his field?
McGrath is essentially saying, "I know Jesus was real, but not for the reasons that everyone else claims."
LOL, such a statement has all of the same problems that McGrath attributes to "mythicism."
When we look at the field of biblical studies, what we find among historicists is basically total disagreement on how to solve the problem, but agreement on the answer.
It's like having 30 people work out a math problem and each of them is unable to actually who all their work and take show step by step how to get to the answer, but they all agree that the answer is 42. Yeah, that's a sign of a problem...
Lataster: Do you think that the New Testament could have been written by people with different beliefs? Could some of them have believed in everything happening in heaven, while others believed in every thing happening on earth? Maybe those different books were put together in the New Testament as if they all had the same beliefs.
It Strikes me that in Romans, Paul also refers to Adam and Abraham as “of the flesh”. Both are now considered mythical, to my knowledge.
Greifer: Yes, and I think all NT scholars (at least the secular ones, and many Christian ones) believe that the NT was written by many different people, at different times, and with different (sometimes wildly) beliefs. And we know they were edited to harmonise them somewhat, by later Christians. I do think that the earlier NT books betray the belief in a purely Celestial Jesus, while the latter Gospels and books written after the Gospels clearly portray a Jesus that lived on Earth.
Kenneth: Not only were the books of the NT written by people with different beliefs, its clear that the writers didn't even understand each others beliefs and that the later Roman scholars who actually founded what we call Christianity misinterpreted most of these writings.
Furthermore, it's pretty clear that vastly different agendas were at play, with some writing expressing genuine belief while others display overt deception. For example, the "Gospel of John" was clearly written with the express intent to misrepresent the work. This is clear because the author makes multiple claims like, "I saw this with my own eyes, I swear". But obviously they didn't see these things with their own eyes.
This is very different from Mark which makes no effort at all to portray the narrative as literal history, and in fact drops a multitude of clues that its all symbolic allegory. So whereas it appears that "Mark" was making no attempt to writing what would be considered a biography, later writing built on Mark's story to intentionally try and construct what appeared to be a biography.
This should be no surprise really, because in fact this was extremely common in Rome at this time. There was a actually a huge semi-underground market in anonymous prophetic literature. Stories like the Gospels, as well a writings from supposed real prophets, were produced anonymously and sold to middle-men who made copies of them and sold them to wealthy patrons who would study them, believing them to actually be divine literature that could be used to predict the future. This wasn't small-time either. In fact senators, governors and emperors were among the patrons.
This market is likely how the Gospels came into Roman hands. In fact, the most sacred texts in Rome, the Sibylline Books, came from this market and were housed in the temple of Apollo until they were accidentally destroyed by a fire, and then a new set was reacquired. These texts were consulted by special Roman priests under the direction of the Senate to advise on Roman policy.
So, there was a market for prophetic texts of unknown provenance in Rome at this time, and generally the people who produced such works were presumably just using it as a way to make a living. It was similar to how Indian gurus work today, doing things like magic tricks to fool people who donating money to them. It's not for some grand plan, its just their means of making a living. I suspect strongly that's why the Gospels of Matthew and John were written. Luke appears to have been written by one of the scholars who was commissioned by a wealthy patron to investigate the Gospel stories, thus he produced for him what he thought was a revised and corrected account, having worked from Mark, Matthew and the letters of Paul.
So, I suspect that the writers of Matthew, John, and possibly Luke weren't actually even Christians, they were just professional producers of prophetic literature who were trying to make a buck on the market. It's hard to say about Mark exactly what his intention was.
What R. G. Price is saying that I am saying is not what I am saying. I'm just referring mainly to the monographs, articles, and other detailed treatments of the evidence, and not to things written to simplify and at times sensationalize things for a non-specialist audience.
As far as I know, the majority opinion is not that one can conclude that Jesus was a real person based on the letters of Paul alone. That is a minority position. If you claim that we can be confident that Jesus was a real person based on the letters of Paul alone, that is a minority position, outside the mainstream. That doesn't make it wrong, but you have to recognize its a minority position.
And as for such a claim, the case is not simply whether or not Paul claimed that Jesus "had become flesh". Indeed virtually every person in the Jewish scriptures is portrayed as a real flesh and blood person, yet today it is widely accepted that the majority of figures from the Torah were purely mythical. Moses, Abraham, Noah, etc., etc., all mythical. We don't conclude that they were mythical because we found documents claiming that they were entirely spiritual, but rather because of the nature of the stories and how the stories are now known to have been written.
Do you think that Paul's claim that Jesus was "in the line of David" is legitimate? Why would Paul make such a claim? Why would someone think that a random homeless preacher from a poor family in Galilee was "in the line of David"? The claims that Paul makes about the nature of Jesus, when he does make them, are clearly being made on a scriptural basis. Jesus is "in the line of David" because the scriptures that revealed Jesus say so.
Let's also not forget that Enoch was described as a flesh and blood person too. Do you think that Enoch was real? Enoch was claimed to have traveled up to the heavens and his flesh was dissolved before it was revealed to him that he was "the Son of Man". So was Enoch a real person then? The Book of Enoch, also, of course, is just one example of a text that tells us explicitly the "beings of flesh live in the heavens".
Virtually every hero and god of Hellenistic culture was claimed to have either lived on earth or to have taken the form of flesh at some point. Many of them were believed to have been real literal people. Some even had graves. That doesn't make them real. Do you think Hercules was real?
When people talk about real people they don't say stuff like, "He was of the seed of David," they say stuff like, "He was a great guy and a wonderful teacher. He taught us so many important things. He helped people and he's going to come back and save us all." Paul never says anything like that.
R.G. Price: It makes sense to argue based on facts like the existence of ancient books written to sound like they were prophetic as proof that the NT could also be a fake prophetic book, but to argue what people should have said is just your opinion and a very weak argument.
Kenneth: Fair enough. The point being that Paul provides no descriptions of Jesus that come from the real world. He provides no first-hand observations of Jesus, nor does he pass on any second-hand information about Jesus. The only statements about Jesus made by Paul are sourced from prophecies, revelation and the scriptures. Statements about Jesus being, "of David's seed", come from scriptures, they aren't information that comes from any real-world knowledge of a real person. There is nothing like, "So and so told me about the time that Jesus did X or said Y."
Every description of Jesus provided by Paul comes from prophecy, revelation or scripture and that's it.
Pofarmer: Excellent point. The 'OT' characters are referred to as if they existed. We know better now!
McGrath: I believe Price hit the nail on the head, emphasised by you completely ignoring my response. You say you don't need the Gospels and their hypothetical sources, you just need Paul. But Paul is ambiguous at best and you effectively need to interpret him with the Gospels in mind. I suppose that is why scholars who have actually written books on this topic focus on the Gospels and the hypothetical sources apparently underlying them. When you can thoroughly defend those sources, you might finally have something worthwhile to contribute to this discussion.
I'm re-posting this here because it appears my posts on McGrath's site may be being blocked now:
James F. McGrath:
Resurrection is certainly something eschatological (from Paul's perspective) and non-historical (from a historian's perspective). But being dead does happen in real life, whereas it is not common for entities that dwell exclusively in the celestial realm. And saying that virtually all Paul's references to crucifixion are "metaphorical" is mere assertion, as well as seeming to acknowledge that not all his statements on this subject fit your Procrustean paradigm
The issue is not “what Paul said”, the issue is Paul’s sources. What are the sources of these claims? The sources are scriptures and revelation. Certainly being dead only happens to people that are alive, but there are literally thousands of stories from antiquity about people doing all kinds of things that only living people do, about fighting, dying, and dying and coming back to life, etc., and it is widely accepted today that the vast majority of those stories are about people who never existed.
The story of Orpheus is that he was a prophet who foretold all manner of things, but the people of his village grew angry at him and killed him. Sound familiar? During the first century it was universally believed that Orpheus was a real person. But today historians conclude that there was no Orpheus at all, he never existed. Why? Not because Orpheus was never described as a real person. In fact Orpheus was always described as a real person. Indeed there are even dozens of documents attributed to Orpheus that were widely believed during the early Christian era to have actually been written by Orpheus. A mystery cult existed in the first century that revolved around supposedly prophetic Orphic Hymns, that we now conclude were likely 1st century BCE forgeries.
The issue is not whether or not Paul or anyone else described Jesus as “being flesh”, the issue is whether those descriptions come from reasonable sources, i.e. from sources that trace back to real world observations.
What we find when we investigate the sources for all accounts of Jesus, whether they be from Paul or the Gospels or any other materials, is that every single account or description of Jesus originates purely from three sources: scripture, prophecy, revelation. There is no account that appears to have come from any real observation.
That’s largely what my book Deciphering the Gospels is about – showing that the sources that underlie the Gospels are really just the Jewish scriptures and the letters of Paul. These ideas about Q or oral traditions,etc, are all bunk, because we can actually determine the sources for all of these narratives and statements about Jesus, and all of the sources trace back to scripture, prophecy, revelation… every… single… time…
R.G. Price: I agree with you that every story of the New Testament is based on things they read in the Hebrew Bible and that it is all fake, in my opinion, but that doesn't prove their messiah man never lived. I also accept your claim that some people back then believed it all took place in heaven, but that doesn't mean everyone believed that. They have all kinds of excuses for every story in their books, and they ignore other possible explanations that are also logical. I think mythicists do the same thing as everyone who believes strongly in something. They ignore other possible explanations and accept the ones that fit their beliefs. I am not putting you down for that. I am just saying that your evidence can be explained more than one way and not just to prove mythicism.
It seems that McGrath has left the discussion. Which usually happens when I shift the focus from mythicism to agnosticism. I merely ask him to prove the reliability of his sources, hypothetical or otherwise, and he scampers off.
I guess it depends on what is meant by "prove" and what is meant by "Jesus" and what is meant by "evidence" and what is meant by "existed".
I think what we can prove is that the Gospel narratives are entirely post-First Jewish-Roman War literary inventions, and that the Jesus character in those stories is derived entirely from scriptures and the letters of Paul. The personality, associates, and teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark are all based on Paul as described in the collection of letters ascribed to him.
Thus, it is proven that the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is someone who "never existed". That is something that can be proven. That Jesus is not based on the life of any real-world Jesus. And it can be proven that every other story about Jesus is derived from the Gospel of Mark. Thus we can prove that all "Gospel Jesuses" are really just fictional characters and that nothing about the Jesus of the Gospels is based on anything real. None of the events described in the Gospels really happened, and none of the teaching relayed as coming from Jesus really came from a person called Jesus.
Whether you think that has been proven or not, all of that is theoretically provable, and my book basically makes the case that it has been proven, though I will say that I don't go into detail on every single sentence and every single word of every Gospel. I provide over a dozen examples with some lists that highlight dozens more examples, but, yes its true you can still find sentences among the Gospels that I haven't shown explicitly come from some known literary source. So I guess one could always say that some phrase whose provenance hasn't been traced to scripture or an epistle may have "been real words of Jesus". But anyway.
So once we've proven that the Jesus of the Gospels is a fictional literary invention, there really isn't anything left, because the Christian Jesus is the character described in the Gospels. It's like saying that maybe Harry Potter is real, but he wasn't a boy, he wasn't named Harry Potter, he wasn't a wizard, he never went to Hogwarts, etc. "He" was actually a little girl who lived in Africa and died when she was 10 years old. I mean at that point its all just nonsense.
So we can prove that the Jesus of the Gospels isn't based on the life of a real person, and we can prove that Jews in the 1st century were engaged in interpreting scripture in ways that conceived of eternal heavenly beings who had all of the attributes of Jesus, and that we find no examples of Jews ever worshiping a real living person as a powerful being the way he is described in the earliest writings about him, and that the earliest writings about Jesus are not consistent with descriptions of a real person. The earliest writings about Jesus share many consistencies with writings about other "mythical" Jewish figures, such as Enoch, Melchizedek, Isaac, etc.
The best model for how a real person would be become worshiped by Jews is far less reasonable than models for how the worship of a heavenly messiah would have developed.
And the key issue really is that all historicist arguments go back to claiming that the Gospels are the documents that provide the evidence that Jesus was real. Once it is proven that those documents actually don't provide any evidence for Jesus, there is nothing to base claims of his existence on.
Indeed! People like McGrath love pointing to the apparent 'ridiculousness' of concepts like the cosmic sperm bank, no matter if it is not at all crucial for the case for *mythicism*, conveniently forgetting that they actually have to make a good case for *historicity*, and if they can't, which they can't, the *agnosticism* I espouse is entirely reasonable. Still waiting to hear why we should trust their hypothetical sources behind the Gospels rather than a conservative Christian's or a mythicist's...