AS275: Did Jesus Exist? With Tim O’Neill

Joining me for a second appearance is Tim O’Neill! Tim blogs about history here. After Tim’s very successful first appearance on the show, many listeners asked for a follow up on Mythicism and Tim was nice enough to oblige! Here’s an article that I used to try to grill Tim a bit on the counter arguments, for your reference.

Thank you so much to all my new patrons!

59 thoughts on “AS275: Did Jesus Exist? With Tim O’Neill”

  1. Not much meat in the first half, mostly him writing off ” non-mainstream ideas as laughable”. He also seemed to lump people like Carrier and Price in to the category with cranks. At least you kind of called out the comparison between holocaust deniers and Jesus mythicists, whether he meant it or not he was poisoning the well.

    All the “evidence” is from a religious perspective, what sources of information do we have that are not Christian? For example, there are tons of documents and non Mormon based evidence that Joseph Smith actually existed unlike Jesus. It seems like i could use his arguments to show that harry potter was real but he was based on a guy named Daniel Radcliffe.

    I think he also mentioned Josephus as evidence when its most likely a forgery.

    ——————– http://www.truthbeknown.com/josephus.htm
    Despite the best wishes of sincere believers and the erroneous claims of truculent apologists, the Testimonium Flavianum has been demonstrated continually over the centuries to be a forgery, likely interpolated by Catholic Church historian Eusebius in the fourth century. So thorough and universal has been this debunking that very few scholars of repute continued to cite the passage after the turn of the 19th century. Indeed, the TF was rarely mentioned, except to note that it was a forgery, and numerous books by a variety of authorities over a period of 200 or so years basically took it for granted that the Testimonium Flavianum in its entirety was spurious, an interpolation and a forgery. As Dr. Gordon Stein relates:

    “…the vast majority of scholars since the early 1800s have said that this quotation is not by Josephus, but rather is a later Christian insertion in his works. In other words, it is a forgery, rejected by scholars.”

    So well understood was this fact of forgery that these numerous authorities did not spend their precious time and space rehashing the arguments against the TF’s authenticity. Nevertheless, in the past few decades apologists of questionable integrity and credibility have glommed onto the TF, because this short and dubious passage represents the most “concrete” secular, non-biblical reference to a man who purportedly shook up the world. In spite of the past debunking, the debate is currently confined to those who think the TF was original to Josephus but was Christianized, and those who credulously and self-servingly accept it as “genuine” in its entirety.

    Sources:

    Anonymous, Christian Mythology Unveiled, 1842
    ben Yehoshua, mama.indstate.edu/users/nizrael/jesusrefutation.html
    Catholic Encyclopedia, “Flavius Josephus,” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08522a.htm
    Charlesworth, James H., http://www.mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/sources.html
    Doherty, Earl, pages.ca.inter.net/~oblio/supp10.htm
    Doherty, Earl, The Jesus Puzzle, Canadian Humanist, Ottawa, 1999
    Drews, Arthur, Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus, Joseph McCabe, tr., Watts, London, 1912
    Freke, Timothy and Gandy, Peter, The Jesus Mysteries, Three Rivers, NY, 1999
    Gauvin, Marshall, http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/marshall_gauvin/did_jesus_really_live_/html
    Jerome, http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF2-06/Npnf2-06-03.htm
    Johnson, Edwin, Antiqua Mater: A Study of Christian Origins, http://www.christianism.com/articles/1.html
    Josephus, The Complete Works of, Wm. Whitson, tr., Kregel, MI, 1981
    Kirby, Peter, home.earthlink.net/~kirby/xtianity/josephus.html
    Origen, http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-04/anf04-55.htm
    Oser, Scott, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/scott_oser/hojfaq.html
    Remsburg, John, The Christ, http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/rmsbrg02.htm
    Shirts, Kerry, http://www.cyberhighway.net/~shirtail/jesusand.htm
    Stein, Dr. Gordon, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/gordon_stein/jesus.html
    Strobel, Lee, The Case for Christ, Zondervan, MI, 1998
    Taylor, David, http://www.mmsweb.com/eykiw/relig/npref.txt
    Wells, G.A., The Jesus Legend, Open Court, Chicago, 1997
    Wells, G.A., The Jesus Myth, Open Court, Chicago, 1999
    ————–

    With the lack of real “evidence” for this man wouldn’t it make more sense to just say we don’t know if he existed? The default position shouldn’t be yes based on the mythological writings of a religious cult.

    1. “mostly him writing off ” non-mainstream ideas as laughable”.”

      Ummm, no, that’s not “mostly” what I say at all.

      “He also seemed to lump people like Carrier and Price in to the category with cranks. ”

      Where? I use the term “fringe theory” several times because Carrier and Price’s ideas are a fringe theory. That’s simply fact. Nowhere do I call them cranks and I don’t even discuss any of the real crank Mythicist theories because they aren’t worth the time. But speaking of which – you then link to a terrible piece from truthbeknown.com – the website of the late New Age crank who called herself “Acharya S” and who believed, among other things, in ancient alien stargates, that the Great Pyramid is a “celestial computer”, that the Pope is part of a global conspiracy of Freemasons who control academia and a prehistoric civilisation of advanced pygmies. So, you were saying?

      I deal with Josephus and why the majority of modern scholars *don’t* believe the Ant. XVIII reference is a wholesale forgery in Part Two. So that crappy Acharya S piece is garbage I’m afraid.

      Finally, Thomas did not “call me out” on my Holocaust Denier analogy – I was the one who quickly followed it with a clear assurance that I was *not* comparing Mythicists to Holocaust Deniers in any other way other than that they, like Deniers and many other fringe theorists, use the specific tactic I was referring to to explain away why they have an overwhelming consensus of scholarship against them. This is a fact – not “poisoning the well”.

      So either you didn’t listen to the podcast very well or you’re looking for reasons to dismiss what I say.

      1. I didn’t mean to say that that book was right about anything other than the TF being a forgery. I have other references for that it was just the first i could link to on my phone. If I’m wrong id be glad to get schooled and learn something new.

        If I misrepresented your position on carrier and price I’m sorry, that is how it came across to me. Let’s be honest about the poisoning the well though, once it’s said it’s said. Wouldn’t it of made more sense to say they are like heliocentrists and are the minority but make some good points that could be true at some point? To me it sounds like your implying they are using a “tactic” instead of just disagreeing and maybe bringing something to the table. You seem to like Bart and I was under the impression even he acknowledges that they raise some good points.

        When you get down to the nitty gritty there is no evidence this guy existed other than references in a mythological story book. Now that doesn’t mean he didn’t exist, but why would that support that he does exist?

        If I am wrong and there is some hard evidence out there I’m sure I’ll hear it in part 2.

        I’m looking forward to the second half, I’m just burnt out on all the in fighting and cheap stabs everyone is taking at each other. So I’m sorry if I took your tone incorrectly.

        FYI I actually enjoyed the first podcast you were in and I knew this would a more controversial topic.

        1. “If I’m wrong id be glad to get schooled and learn something new.”

          Again, I go into this in detail in Part 2. But you are completely wrong if you think modern scholars regard the reference to Jesus in *Antiquities* XVIII to be a wholesale forgery. The majority view is that it is partially authentic, with some Christian additions and adjustments. And then there is the second reference in *Antiquities* XX, which is regarded as authentic by virtually all Josephan scholars.

          ” Let’s be honest about the poisoning the well though, once it’s said it’s said. Wouldn’t it of made more sense to say they are like heliocentrists and are the minority but make some good points that could be true at some point? ”

          I have no idea what you are saying about “heliocentrists”, since unless you are posting down a time hole from 1603 they are not a minority. I chose the Holocaust Denier analogy specifically because I assumed (rightly I hope) that everyone listening would see they are wrong and are just making excuses for the overwhelming consensus against them. Mythicists are using the same tactic, which is why I went to some lengths to say my analogy was with *that* tactic and *only* that tactic. I could not have been more clear about that, so I’m amazed I’ve now had to repeat that point twice.

          “You seem to like Bart and I was under the impression even he acknowledges that they raise some good points.”

          He does? Where? I’ve never heard him say more than that it’s at least *possible* there was no historical Jesus, but that this is not the most likely thesis. I say exactly the same thing to Thomas.

          “When you get down to the nitty gritty there is no evidence this guy existed other than references in a mythological story book.”

          Wrong. There are the two references in Josephus and the one in Tacitus as well. And I went over how the texts in that “mythological story book” can be used with care to work out what may lie behind them historically. A hell of a lot of ancient sources could be described as “mythological story books” and if we threw out all sources with supernatural elements, magic and miracles in them we’d be left with few sources at all. This is just the nature of the study of ancient history.

          “If I am wrong and there is some hard evidence out there I’m sure I’ll hear it in part 2”

          Define “hard evidence”. I detailed with Thomas why we can only expect evidence for Jesus that we would expect for any other similar early first century Jewish preacher. To expect more is deliberately fixing the game.

          1. Hard evidence would be any that a non biased person can look at and say “yes, this makes it extremely likely that Jesus existed as a historical figure”
            Such evidence does not exist, it does not eve rise to the level of “more probable than not”

          2. I agree with gshelly. I don’t see how a religious text or any storybook is evidence. That’s where I was trying to go with the Harry Potter thing. I can cross reference places in the story with reality, but that doesn’t mean anything else in the story is true. Especially with the lack of any physical evidence or secular evidence in this case.

            Using the standards you are using for Jesus what prevents Zeus from being based on a real person? Not the good Zeus, the man Zeus.

          3. “Hard evidence would be any that a non biased person can look at and say “yes, this makes it extremely likely that Jesus existed as a historical figure””

            That’s precisely what the experts in all relevant fields do say. If you don’t, then perhaps you need to ask why people who dedicate their lives to this stuff and who are *not* Christians disagree with you. Perhaps the problem is that you’re not a “non biased person”

          4. “I can cross reference places in the story with reality, but that doesn’t mean anything else in the story is true.”

            Can you produce two historians who refer to Harry Potter as a recent historical figure and not a fictional one? Because we can for Jesus. Can you produce a letter from someone who mentions, in passing, meeting Harry Potter’s best friend and his brother? Because we have one of those for Jesus as well.

            “Using the standards you are using for Jesus what prevents Zeus from being based on a real person? ”

            Can you produce two historians who refer to Zeus as a recent historical figure and not a fictional one? Because we can for Jesus. Can you produce a letter from someone who mentions, in passing, meeting Zeus’ best friend and his brother? Because we have one of those for Jesus as well.

            Your analogies are failing all over the place.

          5. King of the gods and master of lightning. The ancient writer Callimachus calls Zeus “Lord of Dicte,” Dicte being a mountain in Crete. Bronze Age king-lists of Ancient Crete show King Minos as being the son of a king named Asterios, who ruled around 1447 BC, the Golden Age of the Mediterranean before the fall of the Bronze Age. Asterios was first of a Cretan Dynasty of Dorians, who came from mainland Greece:

            That was the human Zeus. If you don’t believe why not? Don’t you follow pagan historians?

          6. “being the son of a king named Asterios, who ruled around 1447 BC, the Golden Age of the Mediterranean before the fall of the Bronze Age”

            Yes, which is precisely my point. Tacitus refers to Jesus as being executed just 80 years earlier, giving us details of when (during the reign of Tiberius), where (Judea) and why this happened (at the order of Pontius Pilate). Whereas Callimachus is trying to set a mythic being in history and does so by putting him in the remote prehistoric past. Callimachus is writing around 270 BC and sets his “historical Zeus” a full 1200 years earlier, in a period from which no written sources survived. There’s no comparison.

            “Don’t you follow pagan historians?”

            I use all ancient sources with care and look at key elements before assessing how much weight to give them. You don’t have to be a trained historian to see that the references to Jesus are nothing like Callimachus’ speculation about prehistory. That’s obvious to anyone.

          7. I guess the point is that we are going to use the Bible to prove a biblical figure with no other evidence. I guess that seems strange to me. It doesn’t seem to meet any standards of evidence that I know of. It’s hopeful speculation to me. I understand most of ancient history is speculation, but this character seems to get special benefit of the doubt. Do people bend over backwards for any other possibly mythological figures?

            Even if he did exist, It doesn’t change how full of shit magic is. So I agree with you there.

          8. “I guess the point is that we are going to use the Bible to prove a biblical figure with no other evidence. ”

            This is wrong on two points. Firstly, no-one is using the Bible to “prove” anything. The texts in the Bible are just ancient writings like any others and can be used, with care, to work out what their writers *believed* about Jesus. And that in turn can be used, especially when those beliefs differ between gospels, to try to work out how their beliefs arose. And some of that analysis indicates a historical core to the stories about Jesus. To pretend that this can’t or shouldn’t be done just because these texts are in the Bible is clearly silly.

            Secondly, we *do* have other evidence – in Josephus and Tacitus.

            “Do people bend over backwards for any other possibly mythological figures?”

            Given that we have no other “possibly mythological figures” for whom we have references as human beings written just 20-80 years after their supposed lives, I can’t answer that. Perhaps that in itself should be telling you something about Jesus.

            “Even if he did exist, It doesn’t change how full of shit magic is.”

            That rather emotional point seems to be your main motivator here.

          9. I’m not really that emotional about it, it just seems lacking to me. We might as well add Jean luc Picard to the history books because in the future someone is going to think he is real and turn him into a historical figure.

            Coming from a astrophysics background, shit is not there until you prove it is. You can speculate, but until confirmed it’s all just conjecture.

            By the way i honestly could care less about Jesus its the method that’s bothering me. It seems like a ton of cherry picking, false dichotomies, and a host of other logical fallacies in an attempt to get to the end result desired.

            I also I think you may have missed my point or maybe I jumbled it a bit. You seem to not understand that I’m ambivalent either way on this topic. I could say that you seem fervent to defend the theological position while using ad homenem and vague dismissive language at times. Which in turn is blocking your reasoning, but that does nothing to address the issues and I don’t really think that’s your intent.

          10. Despite what you may think this discussion won’t shatter my world. I’m just curious about this topic after hearing how historians came to believe Jesus was real by you. I thought there was more evidence than just religious evidence, so if anything you have made me more skeptical.

          11. “We might as well add Jean luc Picard to the history books because in the future someone is going to think he is real and turn him into a historical figure.”

            Given that if this happened they would not be able to point to references to Picard dating to just 20-80 years after his supposed death, that’s not analogous.

            “Coming from a astrophysics background, shit is not there until you prove it is.”

            Then I’m afraid you’re not going to like any aspect of ancient history, on this or any other topic. History doesn’t deal in “proof” because it can’t. It deals in subjective but structured assessments of likelihood.

            “its the method that’s bothering me. It seems like a ton of cherry picking, false dichotomies, and a host of other logical fallacies in an attempt to get to the end result desired.”

            Please give examples of this “cherry picking”, these supposed “false dichotomies” and these alleged “logical fallacies”. Those slurs are easy to throw around but I think you’ll find them much harder to substantiate.

            “You seem to not understand that I’m ambivalent either way on this topic. ”

            That makes no difference. If you make weak objections, you’re making weak objections. The position you’re making them from is irrelevant.

            ” I could say that you seem fervent to defend the theological position while using ad homenem and vague dismissive language at times. ”

            I suppose you *could* say that, but it would be pretty silly.

            ” I thought there was more evidence than just religious evidence, so if anything you have made me more skeptical.”

            One of your major problems seems to be that you can’t get past your emotional reaction to the use of ancient texts that happen to have (much later) been made part of “the Bible” because they are “religious evidence”. This seems to be a knee jerk reaction, not something rational, because I’ve explained several times how these texts can be critically analysed and how historians of the ancient world use religious texts and texts full of gods and miracles all the time – pretty much all ancient sources contain that stuff.

            You also keep repeating that there is no other evidence at all, despite the fact that I’ve noted repeatedly that there is. You don’t seem to be listening because you don’t seem to want to hear. Again, emotion – not reason.

          12. Projection much? Well I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I don’t see how those two sources are rock solid in any sense.

          13. “Projection much?”

            Ummm, pardon?

            “Well I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I don’t see how those two sources are rock solid in any sense.”

            Which two sources? What?

      2. The Testimonium is a wholesale forgery. The whole thing can be shown to be based on Luke’s Emmaus story. All extant variations of it, including the Arabic version, stem from a single source. The passage breaks the context of the surrounding passages. Origen didn’t know about it. Really, you should update yourself on some of the scholarship on this. Try Gary J. Goldberg’s “The Coincidences of the Emmaus Narrative of Luke and the Testimonium of Josephus”, The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 13 (1995) ps. 59–77.

        All attempts to reconstruct an authentic core are hypothetical. JP Meiers probably has the most definitive reconstruction and he is a Catholic Priest. A well respected scholar, but one with a bias.

        The thing is, even if the TF were authentic, it still would not be evidence for anything but Josephus hearing a story decades later. He was not a contemporary of Jesus and knew nothing first hand if he knew anything at all.

        I don’t buy the James Passage either. I think the words “called Christ” are probably an interpolation, since it gives no explanation as to what that means, and the word “Christ” is the one word everybody agrees that Josephus did NOT use in the TF.

        Argument from consensus is fallacious. It’s not an argument. Consensus changes all the time. At one time, it was “fringe” to say that there was no Exodus, now that’s almost universally accepted.

        I’m not even a mythicist, but your arguments are amateurish, ad hominem and under-informed? There are much better rguments available to you then flailing with with tired old Jospehus and Tacitus arguments. Even Bart Ehrman admits those are insufficient to establish historicity. What is your academic training? Can you read Greek? Do you have any training in New Testament criticism? If were to read the TF and the Emmaus narratives side by side in Greek, would you be able to see the similarities? Can you dispute them?

        1. “The Testimonium is a wholesale forgery.”

          My, what a emphatic statement! Strange, then, if this is so clear to you it’s not so clear to most Josephan scholars.

          “Really, you should update yourself on some of the scholarship on this. Try Gary J. Goldberg’s “The Coincidences of the Emmaus Narrative of Luke and the Testimonium of Josephus””

          Thanks, but I’m, well aware of Goldberg’s paper and have read it many times over the years. I’m well aware of it enough to know that he *doesn’t* argue that the TF is a “wholesale forgery” and even concludes his article with a reconstruction of what he thinks Josephus may have originally written. Have you actually read his paper?

          “All attempts to reconstruct an authentic core are hypothetical. JP Meiers probably has the most definitive reconstruction and he is a Catholic Priest. ”

          Or then there is the one by Vermes, who was one of the world’s leading Jewish scholars. There are others as well, by several other Jewish and non-Christian scholars, including the one by your friend Goldberg. Yes, they are “hypothetical” – what else could they be? “Hypothetical” does not mean “pure fantasy” – they are based on reasoned argument and examination of the evidence.

          “He was not a contemporary of Jesus and knew nothing first hand if he knew anything at all.”

          And using that “logic” we could dismiss about 99% of all ancient sources about pretty much everyone and everything.

          “I don’t buy the James Passage either. I think the words “called Christ” are probably an interpolation, since it gives no explanation as to what that means”

          He often uses forms of the participle λεγόμενος (“called”) to identify or differentiate between things without explaining why the person, people or place is “called” this. I can give you multiple examples if you like.

          “and the word “Christ” is the one word everybody agrees that Josephus did NOT use in the TF.”

          Ummm, no that is not agreed at all. In fact the variants in Agapius and Jerome indicate that he did use this term in the TF but simply either said he was just “called the Messiah” (Jerome) or “was perhaps the Messiah” (Agapius). Again, your friend Goldberg disagrees with you.

          “Argument from consensus is fallacious.”

          Luckily for me I make no such “argument”. I simply note the consensus and explain why it should *be* noted. I say repeatedly that a consensus position is not necessarily right.

          “your arguments are amateurish, ad hominem and under-informed”

          Really? Then I’m in good company with a lot of “amateurish” and “under-informed” experts then.

          “Even Bart Ehrman admits those are insufficient to establish historicity. ”

          Luckily for me I don’t argue they are sufficient on their own either.

          ” What is your academic training?”

          I made that quite clear in the podcast. And yes, I can read Greek moderately well, thanks. Not that my background is really relevant because all I’m doing is presenting the reasons for that consensus of the actual experts. (As I explained in the podcast. Did you actually bother to listen to the podcast?) So I’m afraid trying to dismiss me on the basis of my qualifications etc isn’t going to fly.

    2. “All the “evidence” is from a religious perspective, what sources of information do we have that are not Christian?”

      Josephus and Tacitus. I go into detail on why scholars accept the Josephus references have validity in Part 2.

      “For example, there are tons of documents and non Mormon based evidence that Joseph Smith actually existed unlike Jesus.”

      Which is because Smith lived just 172 years ago, not 2000 years. I went into some detail on why arguments like this are not valid as they are not comparing apples to apples. You have to work from parallel examples from the early first century. And they show that we actually have slightly *more* evidence for Jesus than for analogous figures.

      “It seems like i could use his arguments to show that harry potter was real but he was based on a guy named Daniel Radcliffe.”

      You could? Okay – give that a try. Please show us the kind of anomalies in the HP books of the sort I note in the gospels that indicate the gospel writers were shoehorning a historical Jesus into their Messiah narrative and having some trouble doing so in places (eg his home town is wrong, his baptism was awkward and his death was not part of any Messianic expectation). Show us how you can do that for Rowling’s character.

      1. I figured you would get into it in part 2. I understand that Joseph Smith lived only 200 years ago, that’s why we have better evidence and I can believe he existed. That’s the problem here, we are discussing a 2000 year old figure that did magic. Not a guy who died in a shootout in Illinois. So shouldn’t there be a lot more evidence required for this?

        Most of the places Harry goes exist in reality. The town where he lived is a real place. There are groups of people that believe he is real and does magic. There are even books written about him in the millions. He can also heal the sick and fly. He was dead and rose from the grave.

        Im not trying to really compare the two, as I understand the serious scholarship that go into theological studies. But from the outside it looks like they started with the conclusion and fit the facts to it.

        1. Let me even correct my own analogy, heliocentrism is probably too generous. How about Martian canals? It was wrong but it was a serious idea.

        2. “That’s the problem here, we are discussing a 2000 year old figure that did magic. Not a guy who died in a shootout in Illinois. So shouldn’t there be a lot more evidence required for this?”

          For the “doing magic” part, certainly. But for the “guy” part, no. Just as we would need much more evidence for Joseph Smith actually speaking with angels than we need for Joseph Smith being killed in Illonois. Refer to what I said to Thomas about people having to separate the historical Jesus from the “doing magic” Jesus.

          “But from the outside it looks like they started with the conclusion and fit the facts to it.”

          But this is where your Harry Potter thing fails – the gospel stories actually contain elements that *don’t* fit the story well at all. And we can see the different gospel writers struggling with those same elements and trying to resolve them with their theological narrative in different ways. If they did as you state above, we would not find these awkward elements. But there they are. Why? Because they actually started with some elements which were historical and they had to try to fit them into their theological story, with each trying different things to achieve this. These elements stick out for this reason.

  2. I think a blog entry would definitely be better for reflection. There might be a lot to dive into, and I wouldn’t care for the podcast to focus on the specifics of inter-atheist conflict (i.e. drama). While I like keeping tabs on the major voices in atheist communities, I wouldn’t want to see the podcasts play out like reality shows.

  3. It would be nice for people claiming Jesus was based off a real person to be able to at least point to a person that existed and say, “Here are some parallels.” There is just no meat on that bone to claim he is based on an historic person. At best he is based off an historic persona, like most loosely fact based fiction.

    1. “It would be nice for people claiming Jesus was based off a real person to be able to at least point to a person that existed and say, “Here are some parallels.””

      Okay – here are some parallels:

      John the Baptist
      http://www.livius.org/sources/content/josephus-on-john-the-baptist/?

      The Samaritan Prophet
      http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants06.html

      Theudas
      http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants08.html

      The Egyptian Prophet
      http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants09.html

      Yeshua ben Anaias
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_ben_Ananias

      Honi Ha’Magel
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honi_ha-M%27agel

      The late esteemed Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, Geza Vemres, spent his whole career examining these parallel figures and putting Jesus back into his first century Jewish context. See any of his books, but you could start with *Jesus the Jew* (1973). Or you could read anything by Paula Fredriksen. Or pretty much any scholar of first century Judaism.

      “There is just no meat on that bone to claim he is based on an historic person. ”

      Ummm, the problem seems to be that you just aren’t aware of the immense body of scholarship on this question. Which scholars have you read on the subject exactly?

      1. I think there are two possibilities. They based writings on a real person but changed enough so that person could not be identified. Or it’s a persona that they wrote about. Of course the most likely story is they made it up like every other religious story since.

        1. ” They based writings on a real person but changed enough so that person could not be identified. ”

          “Identified”? What does that word mean here, exactly? How would we “identify” this person? It’s not like we have birth registers, census documents or local newspaper archives in which we could find them, so what exactly do you mean?

          “Of course the most likely story is they made it up like every other religious story since.”

          Really? We have plenty of “religious stories” about religions and sects being founded by … people. Muhammed. Zoroaster. Mazdak. Hamza ibn ‘Alī ibn Aḥmad. Adi ibn Musafir. Hus. Luther. Calvin. Joseph Smith. And dozens of others. This “religious story” says it was another one of these. How exactly are you ruling that very likely possibility out and on what grounds?

          1. Mohammed wrote a book with no stories, so that was either inspired by allah or just made up. Joseph Smith was a convicted fraud and used seer stones to to translate a book, he was illiterate, so what language was the seer stone translating to? That was made up. L. Ron Hubbard was a scifi author that made up a story we know is not true.

            We know many of the letters of Paul were fake. We know the gospels were copies of earlier versions and parts were added later.

            So when we talk about an historical Jesus what exactly are we talking about? Is it just based on a preacher who lived at that time? How much of a historical figure matches with the bible story? Do you just eliminate the magic claims and except the rest as matching a real person?

            Hannibal of the Silence of the Lambs was based of Ed Gein but no one would say Hannibal was a historical figure.

            Jesus of the bible is a fictional character that is at best based of a preacher of that time, basically inspiration.

            Even Jason Voorhees was based on a true story but he is not a historical figure.

            Maybe part 2 will be a compelling case but so far I’m still unconvinced.

          2. I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make with those comments about Muhammed, Joseph Smith and Hubbard. But you seem to have missed the point I was making. You declared that it was “most likely” that the stories of Jesus are made up wholesale. So I asked you why this was “most likely” and on what basis you have dismissed what would seem a highly plausible alternative – that they are telling stories about a man who founded their sect because there *was* a man who founded their sect. Given that we have many, many examples of men who found sects and then have fanciful stories told about them, you need to explain how and why you dismiss this completely. You haven’t done so.

            “We know many of the letters of Paul were fake. ”

            Yes, and we know that because they differ stylistically, linguistically and theologically from the core of seven letters that all scholars accept as genuine. After all, you can’t have fakes that are trying to get authority from the real ones if there are no real ones in the first place. And I make no reference to any of Paul’s letters other than those seven.

            “We know the gospels were copies of earlier versions and parts were added later.”

            We do. So?

            “So when we talk about an historical Jesus what exactly are we talking about? Is it just based on a preacher who lived at that time?”

            It seems so.

            ” How much of a historical figure matches with the bible story? Do you just eliminate the magic claims and except the rest as matching a real person?”

            If you eliminate the magic claims then most of what you’re left with is pretty unremarkable. It becomes a story of a guy who went here, preached a message about a coming apocalypse, told some stories that illustrated that idea, debated points of Jewish law with other people and then went somewhere else and did much the same. In other words – a Jewish preacher.

            Does that mean that the “story minus the magic bits” is historical? We don’t and can’t know. But it fits with what we know about the socio-religious context and so it’s entirely plausible.

            And given that we have Paul in Galatians 1 mentioning, in passing, meeting Jesus’ friend Peter and his brother James, this preacher seems to have been a very recent person when our earliest texts are written, not some vague distant memory.

            “Hannibal of the Silence of the Lambs was based of Ed Gein but no one would say Hannibal was a historical figure. ”

            See above. The Jesus of the gospels does seem to have been directly based on the Jesus remembered by the previous generation of his sect, including people who knew him directly.

            You seem to be working very hard to try to avoid the conclusion that there was a single historical Jesus figure about whom the gospel stories are told. Perhaps you need to ask yourself why.

          3. There is only one question to answer. If Jesus was a historical figure, who was it? Otherwise it’s just a guess that maybe he was based on some random dude telling stories of which there were apparently many at the time.

            Without a specific person to point to you are just guessing. The bible claims him performed miracles, so just by that we know this person wasn’t real.

            All you have is The life Of Walter Smitty. If feels like I’m arguing if Batman is based on a real person. Take away all the miracles and we are not talking about Jesus anymore, we are asking if Bill Smith was a real person.

          4. “If Jesus was a historical figure, who was it?”

            A Jewish apocalyptic preacher, called Yeshua, from Nazareth in Galilee who got crucified.

            “Otherwise it’s just a guess that maybe he was based on some random dude telling stories of which there were apparently many at the time. ”

            No, it isn’t a “random guess”. It’s based on (i) what we know about the historical context and (ii) the elements in the stories which the gospel writers include but seem to have trouble reconciling with their theological objectives. So he was most likely from Nazareth because the Messiah was meant to be from Bethlehem, so they have to come up with “explanations” for how a guy from Nazareth just happened to be born in Bethlehem. This makes most sense if they are trying to shoehorn a historical guy from Nazareth into the Messiah category. Ditto for the equally awkward stories about him being baptised by someone supposedly lesser than him and the very awkward fact that he was crucified.

            “Without a specific person to point to you are just guessing.”

            Wrong. We are doing what historians do – assessing likelihood based on the material we have.

            “The bible claims him performed miracles, so just by that we know this person wasn’t real. ”

            No, we just know that those stories aren’t real. People in the ancient world told miracle stories about historical people all the time. Augustus had a miraculous conception involving the god Apollo. Caesar ascended into heaven after his death. Vespasian healed the blind and the lame. Do these stories mean these men never existed? That would be an absurd conclusion.

            “Take away all the miracles and we are not talking about Jesus anymore”

            You really seem to be struggling with separating a historical Jesus from the Jesus of Christianity. Again, I go over this in my conversation with Thomas. Did you actually listen to the podcast?

          5. “A Jewish apocalyptic preacher, called Yeshua, from Nazareth in Galilee who got crucified.”

            You provided a link for this guy, he fought a war 33 years after after Jesus was crucified and was killed by a stone from a catapult.

            You wonder why we can’t take these claims seriously?

          6. “You provided a link for this guy, he fought a war 33 years after after Jesus was crucified and was killed by a stone from a catapult.”

            No, that was Yeshua ben Anaias. “Yeshua” was a very common name at the time and Ben Anaias lived a generation after Yeshua of Nazareth. Ben Anaias also didn’t “fight a war” – he was a preacher predicting the downfall of Jerusalem.

            “You wonder why we can’t take these claims seriously?”

            Pardon? Because you confused two different people with the same name?

          7. Yeshua of Nazereth just refers back to the bible as the reliable source. Guess we are back to square one. At least that’s what the wiki page says.

          8. “Yeshua of Nazereth just refers back to the bible as the reliable source. ”

            No, it just refers to *some elements* in the gospels as being most likely to be historical in origin. I’ve already explained why this element – his origin in Nazareth – can be considered historical. But to explain again – the fact that Jesus came from Nazareth was actually a problem for the gospel writers. This is because this origin did not fit with expectations about the Messiah, especially a passage in Micah that was interpreted as saying the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. So we find a story in gJohn that depicts people pouring scorn on the idea that Jesus was the Messiah for precisely this reason (see John 7:40-52 and also John 1:45-46).

            So two of the gospel writers tried to get around this by telling stories that “explain” how someone who was from Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and so fitted the Messianic expectations after all. Except they tell two different stories and contradict each other so much that it’s clear both stories are later fictions.

            Which leads to the question of why they were doing this at all. If there was no Jesus and they were just inventing everything about him wholesale to fit a mythic Jesus into a historical setting, why not just have him born and raised in Bethlehem? Why is Nazareth – a tiny village in far off Galilee of no significance – in the story at all? The most logical answer is that they were not making up the whole story and were actually trying to fit some well-known facts – such as the fact he was a Galilean from Nazareth – into their theological narrative.

            So we end up with these stories that preserve the awkward element – his coming from Nazareth – because that element is *historical*.

          9. I’ll accept that this is based off a real person very loosely. How many historical scholars agree that bible Jesus is a fictional character?

          10. “I’ll accept that this is based off a real person very loosely.”

            Then we’ve got somewhere. Good.

            “How many historical scholars agree that bible Jesus is a fictional character?”

            What do you mean by “a fictional character”? Do you mean “not based on a historical figure in any way at all”? If so, there are about five scholars in whole world who think that. Out of tens of thousands of scholars. Just five. And that’s stretching the word “scholar”.

          11. A fictional character in the same way Leatherface of Texas Chainsaw Masscre is a fictional character based of the real life of Ed Gein.

            We know Jesus didn’t walk on water and raise the dead or any of the other miracle claims. That makes Jesus a fictional character where authors took literary license on an original actual person.

            How many historians admit bible Jesus is a fictional character? I would hope that’s most of them, should be all of them.

          12. I think that’s going a little too far. It’s more like saying Lincoln is a fictional character because he didn’t actually chop down a cherry tree. Right? He’s still real it’s just embellished a lot.

          13. That was George Washington.

            Better example is Abe Lincoln to the story of Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter. While the latter is inspired by the former, it is clear that Honest Abe didn’t hunt vampires. The movie is clearly based on Abe but a completely fictional character.

        2. “That makes Jesus a fictional character where authors took literary license on an original actual person.”

          I don’t think “fictional character” is quite the right phrase here. When characters based on historical figures appear in fiction they are usually not referred to as “fictional characters”, though the completely made up characters appear beside them are. And forcing ancient genres like the gospels into modern categories like “fiction” doesn’t really work anyway.

          “How many historians admit bible Jesus is a fictional character? I would hope that’s most of them, should be all of them.”

          All of the non-Christian scholars (of whom there are many) and pretty much all of the more liberal Christian scholars would agree with your definition, if not your terminology (see above). Not surprisingly, the conservative Christian scholars (again, there are many) would not.

          1. (Pssst – It was Washington who supposedly cut down the cherry tree, not Lincoln. But yes, your point stands. The attribution of apocryphal stories to a historical character does not make them a “fictional character”).

          2. When I say I suck at history, this is what I mean. lol I thought it was Washington, but I started typing into Google “Abe Lincoln” and it auto completed cherry tree. Last time I trust that. I guess I need to realize lots of people are as ignorant as I am!

          3. Maybe the better term is legend. There may be a kernel of truth at the core but the story had grown over decades before being written down.

            Some might say the truth is all but lost and makes it a myth instead of a legend.

            I usually draw the line at divinity, I’ll grant existence just because it’s really not that important. Divinity is where my soul is at stake so I’ll battle there instead.

  4. Tim O’Neil,
    I really appreciate your well informed perspective on this topic. I would like to thank you and Thomas for showing me a different perspective than I am used to hearing. Listening to you and reading your replies, I have found myself to be emotionally attached to some arguments and to mythesism in general. I admit that some of the common arguments seemed very compelling from the mythesist point of view. I personally thought that Jesus being a conglomeration of different myths/people was a compelling argument. I perhaps am not as skeptical as I thought I was. Thanks for the new perspective.

    1. Glad you’re finding this stuff interesting Chad (though we really get into things in Part 2). I’m even more glad that you’re finding it *challenging*, as I suspect many people come to a Mythicist position largely because they find it emotionally appealling and get their information mainly from Mythicist polemicists. That’s something like fundamentalists who reject evolution based on information from Creationists, without any direct grasp of evolutionary biology.

      As I discussed with Thomas the idea that Jesus was an amalgam of various people is *possible*, but I simply can’t see any evidence that points that way. If we look at the figure of King Arthur we do see evidence that this figure is, at least partially, such an amalgam. In the High Medieval legends of Arthur there is a story where he receives an embassy from the Emperor of Rome who demands submission from Arthur. Arthur responds by crossing the English Channel, defeating a succession of Roman armies, killing the Emperor in battle and becoming Emperor himself before returning to Britain. Except we also find this story told about another legendary British figure, in the Welsh legend of Macsen Wledig. And Macsen in turn is based on the historical Roman general Magnus Maximus (355-388 AD), who did declare himself emperor in Britain and challenge the sittting emperor Gratian. So Arthur is, at least in part, an amalgam of Macsen/Maximus and perhaps some other figures (eg Ambrosius Aurelianus and perhaps a historical Artorius).

      But we don’t have anything like that in the Jesus traditions.

  5. I don’t mean to argue for mythicism (genuinely not invested), but I’ve noticed in a few of the comments, as well as in discussions I’ve had with theists, that there’s an argument that the best explanation for the absurd workarounds in the gospels which attempt to shoehorn Jesus into prophecy is that the writers/speakers were attempting to fit details from the life of a real person into an established narrative. Essentially, the argument seems to be, if the authors were just making up a story out of nothing, they would not have included details that contradict their main premise that Christ fulfills these prophecies, and as such, the most logical explanation is that the authors were consolidating details from accounts of an actual figure into their narrative.

    Is it reasonable to conclude that this is the most logical explanation? I am not a historian, so I definitely defer to the judgment of those who are better informed. That said, I have to wonder why the evidence isn’t just as likely to support an argument that given the nature of oral transmission of narrative, that these inconvenient details could have resulted from having multiple sources conveying this story (e.g., one says Bethlehem, one says Nazareth, etc.), and at whatever points these contradictory details were accounted for, the transcriber/editor may not have been responding to details from a historical figure, but rather separate myths that had diverged and accumulated contradictions?

    Apologies if I’m severely uninformed about the mechanics of oral histories, or if I’m not appreciating cultural/language differences that would make it spectacularly unlikely that locations could be interchanged as stories are retold.

    Additionally (and I don’t know if this is worth considering), I’m wondering if there could be contextual, story-telling reasons that would just as logically account for discrepancies and workarounds in the text. God, to the best of my knowledge, is not based on a real person, but his depiction in the Old Testament includes behaviors and motivations which contradict central claims about his omnipotence and omniscience. I think we agree that it is less likely that these contradictions point to there being a real entity than they do to limitations on the part of the authors to conceptualize and accurately portray a figure who is all-knowing and all-powerful. But, with that in mind, I think it can be argued that a God figure with motivations that listeners can relate to (e.g., anger, surprise, etc.) creates a more engaging story than one in which an accurate portrayal of an ideal God figure is presented (e.g., “God is perfect and everything happened correctly”). I recognize that to some extent “God” is the authors’ attempt to account for existential realities (e.g., suffering, death, etc.), but I think the point still stands somewhat that emergent details and characteristics can be the result of forming and sharing a narrative that, to some extent, depends on popularity and transmission to survive the passage of time.

    In the New Testament, purely from a story-telling standpoint, could the ambiguity of whether or not Christ fulfilled these prophecies unwittingly increase the dramatic tension, and in doing so, make this a more compelling story than one in which no seeming contradictions exist?

    I don’t mean to suggest that there were masterful post-modern suspense writers deliberately spicing up the story with intrigue and meta-textual self-sabotage, but that it seems possible that in the retelling, intriguing complications may have emerged based on selection bias and popular response. I’m not arguing that this is the most likely explanation, just that not only would it account for these discrepancies, but it could also suggest why a story with discrepancies would be more likely to survive than one without them.

    1. That’s a very thoughtful comment. I too am curious for what Tim thinks, but I’d certainly put it in the realm of possibility but I think it will come down to the difference in the timeline and how Jesus’s story might have evolved, vs your very apt comparison of how the old testament god might have evolved. I think the latter likely took place over a longer period of time, for one thing. But good points, worth thinking about. I bet it’s a combination of that plus the other evidence.

    2. ” I have to wonder why the evidence isn’t just as likely to support an argument that given the nature of oral transmission of narrative, that these inconvenient details could have resulted from having multiple sources conveying this story (e.g., one says Bethlehem, one says Nazareth, etc.), and at whatever points these contradictory details were accounted for, the transcriber/editor may not have been responding to details from a historical figure, but rather separate myths that had diverged and accumulated contradictions? ”

      Like many things, that is at least possible. But in historical analysis, something being merely *possible* only gets you so far. The next step is to look carefully to try to assess which possible explanation is most likely. Let’s take the Nazareth issue, since you refer to it above. If we simply had one story where he’s born in Nazareth and one where he’s born in Bethlehem we certainly could simply attribute this to a variety of traditions about where he was born and we wouldn’t be drawing any historical conclusions about any of them, unless we had some other evidence to do so.

      But we don’t have that. Instead we have explicit reference to people objecting to Jesus as Messiah specifically because he is a Galilean (John 1:45-46) and even more specifically because he comes from Nazareth in Galilee, in contradiction of the supposed prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem in Judea (John 7:40-52). And we also have an infancy story in gLuke that tells a story about how a guy who everyone knew as coming from Nazareth in Galilee came to be born in Bethlehem, thanks to his parents being there at the time because of a census in 6-7 AD. And we have another story in gMatt which also tells of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, but in this one there is no census and they are living there, except they have to flee KIng Herod and so settle in Nazareth. Not only is the gMatt story totally different to the gLuke story, but they are also set 10 years apart because Herod died in 4 BC. So both stories can’t be true.

      Given that both stories are, among other things, clearly trying to get around this issue of where Jesus was born, we have to ask ourselves – why?

      Now it could just be that there was another tradition that Jesus was a Galilean from Nazareth and this story is trying to deal with that, despite it being non-historical. Maybe. But it doesn’t look that way. All of the traditions are consistent in depciting Jesus as a Galilean, he is frequently referred to as “the Nazarene” and “Nazarenes” seems to be one of the earliest names for his sect. We even have a tradition of the so-called “Desposyni” – people who claimed descent from Jesus’ family still living in Galilee in the reign of Domitian and still working there as farmers and craftsmen, with Eusebius reporting that Julianus Africanus said they came “from Nazara and Cochaba”.

      So there are multiple vectors of evidence indicating both that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and that this was a problem for Christians who wanted to claim he was the Messiah.

      This in turn means that while it’s certainly *possible* that the whole Nazareth thing was a random element in the story or that it had some other origin, it seems much more likely that it’s in the story because he *was* from Nazareth. Thus the effort to “explain” how he could be from Nazareth and yet somehow still meet the expectations about the Messiah being from Bethlehem.

      “God, to the best of my knowledge, is not based on a real person, but his depiction in the Old Testament includes behaviors and motivations which contradict central claims about his omnipotence and omniscience.”

      Except those “central claims” were being made long after the Old Testament texts were written, so these contradictions of much later claims aren’t actually such a puzzle. The deity we see in the OT is very much in keeping with how people saw gods at that time, even if he is hard to reconcile with much later and modern conceptions of what “God” is supposed to be like.

  6. This was unpleasant for me. I was thrilled by Tim’s episode where he made me rethink all sorts of history claims I held dear. I was like “yay! He just saved me from making an idiot of myself”. It was an eye opening and really, I am nerdy enough to say, an exciting episode! But this one, eeek, makes me rethink my rethink. Jesus existed because the bible says so? Even if the TF isn’t a forgery, so what? Its second hand knowledge at best. I have second hand knowledge that Elvis is still alive

    1. ” Jesus existed because the bible says so? ”

      I don’t anything remotely like that. I simply note that there are discrepencies between the stories that the gospels tell about Jesus that indicate they were having trouble fitting elements of the story into their narrative about Jesus being the Messiah. Why? Because it seems these awkward elements were historical and they *had* to try to make them fit and had difficulty doing so. If you have some other explanation for these awkward elements, feel free to present it.

      “Even if the TF isn’t a forgery, so what? Its second hand knowledge at best.”

      We know about 95% of ancient figures from “second hand knowledge at best”. So if you want to rule out Jesus on that basis, you’ll also have to rule out most of the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean. Which is obviously absurd.

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