Dec 192015

mythicismThis book is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of various interviews, mostly with people who identify themselves as “mythicists” regarding Jesus. It’s also a translation; at times it shows, but the translation is fairly good overall. It couldn’t do much better at doing what it set out to do, which is to collect a large number of brief interviews with notable figures (and less notable figures) promoting mythicism or researching aspects of ancient history otherwise, which is why it deserves a good review. The book doesn’t advance the state of the question on this subject, nor does it set out to do so.

Another question to ask might be whether the book is worth reading, and that depends on who’s asking. If someone is keenly interested in the personalities that are discussing the historical existence of Jesus, the book is worth reading. If one is stimulated by a broad-strokes overview of many different ideas regarding the origin of Christianity, the book is worth reading. Otherwise, the book might be passed over with little lost.

None of the individual authors interviewed really get the opportunity to develop their ideas in a very convincing way, primarily because of the requirements of space. Personally I enjoyed reading the interviews with Robert Price, with Earl Doherty, with Richard Carrier, and with Maria Dzielska, an expert on Apollonius of Tyana (and some others). But I would certainly not recommend reading these interviews instead of reading the books themselves. What’s presented here is simply a small literary morsel for those still left with an appetite after enjoying the main course found in such works.

Other comments regarding Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction online.

Dec 182015

latasterThis volume contributes to the burgeoning literature regarding the historical existence of Jesus. It is welcome to have more such books coming from academics, and Lataster has a good point to make when he says that a non-specialist point of view has its own advantages, particularly in being less bound to traditions and vested interest. Hopefully, with time, the discussion will make its way back to specialist circles, as something more than a subject to hack away at half-seriously (which is the attitude that Ehrman, Casey, McGrath, and others unfortunately have adopted, to a man). It is, after all, rather foundational to the study of the New Testament and Christian origins.

The strengths of this book lie with the author’s uncompromising analytic approach. Lataster is able to identify the weak points of other’s arguments quickly. And, in this respect, the book excels. The author also prescinds from the excesses of acerbic polemic, which is welcome in and of itself. If someone were interested in a basic outline of what is deficient with the arguments for the historicity of Jesus as they have been presented by academics in the 21st century, one couldn’t do much better than Lataster’s book.

In terms of the presentation of a hypothesis of the non-historicity of Jesus, the book is derivative. That is not, of course, an issue in and of itself, as novelty for its own sake is far too often pursued in this field, to disastrous results. So it is good that Lataster sticks to a defense of what seems to be the best non-historicity hypothesis available. However, in virtually no particular case does the book advance the state of discussion on any of the questions of interpretation of texts or questions of historical criticism generally. There is generally either a reference to the analysis of Doherty and Carrier or a brief reference to a particular “mainstream” scholar who agrees, almost as if an opinion that is both “mainstream” and congenial to the non-historicity thesis need not be probed further. For a book about a historical question, advancing a thesis academically (rather than just summarizing current opinion), the degree to which it skims on the surface of the historical issues is a little disappointing.

Nonetheless, it is still a good overview of the subject. Lataster hints in the beginning of the book that he intends to withdraw from this discussion, for professional reasons and because of the overt hostility he has seen, and that is regrettable. It’s regrettable that the academy in general does not currently sustain a level-headed conversation with earnest researchers such as Lataster, who ask important questions, and the loss is felt by anyone who is truly curious about the answers.

Other comments regarding Lataster’s book Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists online.

Sep 122015

ideasFor a while, I’ve been putting off writing this. However, instead of trying to make the perfect post, I’ve decided to make the minimal post necessary to explain the idea. The idea of making the perfect, long post is tantamount to attempting to control the outcome of the conversation, something that definitely isn’t going to happen anyway. I could instead just start it and hope that others generate ideas off it, perhaps better ones than I would have thought up alone.

Basically, it could be considered a spin on Doherty’s presentation, in two ways that make it significantly different.

(1) The “Middle Platonism” thought by Doherty to lurk in Paul’s writing is abandoned as an explanation of Paul. Instead, Paul does not have anything but a popular Jewish and/or Hellenistic conception of God, spirits, and the world. Paul’s beliefs about Jesus do not regard them as timeless and ideal but as occurring in time (even recently) and with a body, in places.

(2) Some bits of Paul’s writings are considered to be interpolated.

Let’s unpack this just a little.

(Nota bene: there could be many other differences with Doherty. This discussion focuses only on Paul.)

Continue reading »

Jan 222015

Buddy christFair’s fair. Let’s try to make the best possible case for the historical existence of Jesus. One never learns about an issue completely unless they are willing to look at it from more than one angle. I intend to write a few more posts on this blog taking up the view of the loyal opposition. Thus I will presently, with respect for the dispassionate approach of Thomas Aquinas, look at the objections first.

The standard disclaimers apply. By the historical existence of Jesus, we are observing the traditional distinction between any possible “Jesus of history” and the Christ of faith. We are interested in knowing if there is a man behind the myth.

Also, we are interested in evidence even if it is barely a whisper, just because that is the sometimes sorry state of our evidence for antiquity.

Continue reading »

Dec 262013

Immanuel: the incarnationRecently Neil Godfrey has been commenting on Brodie’s position that Christian theology does not require the historical Jesus. The whole series blogging through his book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus is excellent (almost, the book’s publisher might think, too good!).

I am not a Christian theologian, and, simply on a criterion of earnestness, I am ill-equipped to comment on what is or is not capable of being considered sound Christian theology. So that is not the point here. While it is easy to show that Brodie is not alone among Christian thinkers, it is also easy to see that there are some theological concerns in Christianity for which the historicity of Jesus (some might call it the incarnation) is at the center. Continue reading »

Dec 162013

Bertrand Russell’s “Celestial Teapot”

Okay, I’m sure some wonder why I would write a summary of Dharmakirti’s Logic of Debate in my last post. It’s primarily because I want to preserve this information for those interested in Dharmakirti and the history of logic. But it’s got a secondary interest here: Dharmakirti was one of the first philosophers, of whom I am aware, who takes on the question of whether one can make an argument for the non-existence of something, sometimes called proving a negative, even if such a thing isn’t inherently improbable or implausible. His answer is a highly-qualified “yes.”

The qualifications made by the Indian logician are that the object under consideration must be assumed to be nearby in space and time and, further, apprehensible by its self-nature to the one who wishes to know that it does not exist. This is a philosopher’s way of telling his reader to be humble enough to admit lack of knowledge about a specific claim of non-existence unless this reader is speaking of something that should be visible (or otherwise apprehensible) right then and there. If we agree with Dharmakirti, the relevance to the contemporary debate sometimes conducted over the historical existence of Jesus is twofold. Continue reading »

Dec 132013


We can distinguish between nine different and irreconcilable approaches to the subject of Christian origins, characterized by the amount of intrinsic weight given to the two main sources of ideas that could guide and limit the multiplication of hypotheses: (1) statements of tradition and (2) critical reasoning.

Minimal Regard for Tradition Moderate Regard for Tradition Maximal Regard for Tradition
Minimal Regard for Critical Reasoning Conspiracy Theory Novelizations Pious Imagination
Moderate Regard for Critical Reasoning Theories about no-HJ Theories about the HJ Pulp Apologetics
Maximal Regard for Critical Reasoning Minimalist History Bare Historicity of Jesus Academic Apologetics


To be clear, hypotheses derived from critical reasoning could include information derived from reading Christian sources and the tradition therein. It is privileging these sources that characterizes the regard for tradition. However, someone could also argue that “minimal regard” actually means antipathy, and I have left some room for that interpretation in the table above and in the discussion below. Continue reading »

Dec 052013

historical-jesusI have dusted off this old post to Usenet, with some parts whittled out, for republication.

“Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one.” – Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian” (1927).

I once railed against the ‘mythicists’ as being irrational to the point of absurdity. I am now willing to grant that it is reasonable for someone not to believe the historicity of Jesus.

As there are sometimes ambiguities, I have attempted definition of the “historical Jesus” (as distinct from the “Gospel Jesus”) and what constitutes “the historicity of Jesus.” It does not mean that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, or rose from the dead.  A believer in the historicity of Jesus may affirm these things, but that is not necessary to be a historicist.  Rather, for me to say that Jesus existed means that a sizeable subset of the core mundane claims in the Gospels are authentic with a single historical individual.  These “core mundane claims” include that his name was Jesus, he was baptized by John the Baptist, he was an itinerant preacher in Galilee, his message centered on the Kingdom of God, he performed acts deemed miracles by his contemporaries, and he was crucified by Pilate c. A.D. 30 (non-exhaustive).  I say a “sizeable subset” because not every “core mundane claim” must be true, only enough that we are talking about a person with more substance than, say, Hercules or Robin Hood. Continue reading »

Dec 022013

58423028_640This is not the post for arguing in favor of any of the metanarratives that frame thinking about Christian origins or, indeed, for their disposal. It’s just a little visual representation of the two most dominant ways of organizing Christian origins.

The first is quite ancient, going back to the mid-to-late second century struggle to define Catholic Christianity over against the schools (“heresies”) that were generally characterized as Gnostic. It continues to find adherents and can be considered the most popular metanarrative. Continue reading »

Oct 132013


I started out with a post that was long, verbose, and carefully calculated to impress the reader with its soft, moderate approach. I gave it the title “The Delights of Doubt,” explaining that doubt is a virtue in the face of evidence that doesn’t demand a verdict and pointing out the contortions people put themselves through when they try to claim knowledge when they have none.

Predictably, my browser ate the post, so let’s get right to the point. Tim Widowfield nails it on the head:

The public is the audience. We are receivers. It was never intended to be a two-way street. Our proper role is to buy their books, take their classes, write fan letters, applaud politely, and by all means shut up.

Jim West wears his heart on his sleeve (responding to a post that I found very admirable in its own approach, by Mark Goodacre) when talking about “claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.”

I’m glad Mark is keeping an open mind.  Personally, however, I think all such claims are a priori absolutely idiotic.  Produce ONE SHRED of ancient (1st century CE) evidence that Jesus took Mary to wife.  Just one shred; then, I’ll have an open mind to the possibility.  But until you do, there’s nothing for me to be open minded about.  Simcha’s claims are proof of nothing.  Period.  Show me the evidence or don’t make the claim.  First century, authenticated, provenanced archaeological or textual material, or shut up. Continue reading »

Oct 082013

notovitchOver at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath brings our attention to a sensationalist (to put it mildly) press release from Joseph Atwill to the effect that “ancient confessions recently uncovered now prove, according to Atwill, that the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.” Could this just be nonsense trumped up to sell a book documentary? Say it isn’t so!

Certainly I have to agree with McGrath that the popularization of outlandish made-for-media headlines “makes the work of scholars that much harder, as we try to come up with scholarly reconstructions, float new ideas to their peers, critically evaluate evidence, and offer nuanced conclusions.” Or, at least, that it does make it harder for that work to penetrate the public consciousness.

One can read the subtext, however, made explicit here, that such nonsense “has many similarities of approach to that of Earl Doherty and other mythicists,” meaning to tar any writer disbelieving in a historical Jesus with the same brush. With a book from Richard Carrier forthcoming On the Historicity of Jesus, we can expect that a wide range of polemics will be applied liberally to him as well, with similar injustice.

Certainly, however, any number of books have come out of la-la land under the rubric of the study of the historical Jesus. And I’m not just talking about the apologetics industry (e.g.,  the tombs of Jesus and the Shroud of Turin). There are books telling us that Jesus sojourned in India or that Jesus faked his death and lived on in Rome. Or the latest oeuvre from Bill O’Reilly, as a simple case in point. Continue reading »