Let me begin with a disclaimer:
I am not a Bible scholar, which means that everything I say here should be taken with a grain of salt. It also means that if any New Testament genuine authority on the matter criticizes my position, and that criticism agrees with the consensus, the weight of the argument of that scholar should be taken as greater than my position. I do not claim to be an authority of that which I am not. I’ve been instructed in Philosophy of Science and Epistemology, not Bible scholarship.
Having said that, let’s proceed with my comments regarding the Bart D. Ehrman vs. Robert Price debate on whether Jesus existed or not. For those who wish to see it in its entirety, here is the video:
Initially, I planned to write a review. Yet, some New Testament (NT scholars) have made some reviews and commented on it. I recommend looking at James McGrath’s review (including some audio comments).
So, I will limit myself to talk about some impressions I had about it, and comment on some of the arguments presented. I say in advance, that despite very few disagreements, I’ve been and am on Ehrman’s historicist side of the discussion. Robert Price is the only NT scholar I know who holds on to mythicism. If we broaden the realm of qualified scholars of Antiquity in general, the only other person who qualifies is Richard Carrier. Virtually no one else who have the expertise in NT scholarship or Antiquity shares the mythicist view. Watching the debate my historicist convictions were reinforced, and some of the reasons will be explained below.
To be honest, I thought that Ehrman was going to make a tad worse job and Price a better one (don’t know why I believed this, maybe a pessimistic mood I’ve had in general for the last few months). Yet, to my surprise, Ehrman made Price’s failure to account for mythicist views far more transparent than I expected, and Price’s position seemed very weak.
In fact, I think that in the case of Price, I should feel far more disappointed. As part of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), I am a bit puzzled at the fact that so much forum is being given to Price regarding this issue, given that for (whatever reason) he also supports the most science-denialist, anti-reason, pro-fundamentalist, war-mongering, presidential candidate Donald Trump; and Price also subscribes to Right-Wing conspiracy theories, among them those having to do with climate change, which he qualifies as a hoax. As with the case of mythicism, I don’t cease to be skeptical of certain skeptics. Don’t get me wrong. A skeptic may legitimately be liberal, conservative, or neither. Yet, I’m clueless as to how some people who say that struggle for truth, reason, and science would choose to vote for Trump … but that’s besides the discussion!
Despite what I just said, I can say some positive things about Price. First, he is far more civil debating than Richard Carrier, for whom anyone who disagrees with him or has not read his book, or a liar, an incompetent, an ignorant, or an idiot. Second, I think that he is being honest and sincere with his answers, even when he is trying to stretch some of his arguments. If I say that he uses a sort of “sleight of hand”, I don’t want to be understood as saying “he is trying to deceive his listeners …”, but rather that he may be unaware that his arguments are misleading.
Having said that, let’s comment!
One of the things I loved about the debate was that Ehrman mentioned most of the elements that convince me about Jesus’ existence. He was right on target when he elaborated more on the positive aspects of the proposals than the negative ones. The latter consists merely on the fact that certainly Nazareth existed and that this is no longer debated in Bible scholarship. The archaeological evidence shows exactly what scholars predicted for years, that Nazareth was a bit more than a hamlet of few rural houses. He also stated that the fact that the Gospels are modeled according to literary patterns does not automatically mean that Jesus didn’t exist, and he gives several examples of historical figures whose lives were adapted to literary patterns. Examples of the positive evidence he mentioned are:
- When we consider first century Palestinian Jews, Jesus is best attested after Josephus, the latter who wrote several books. When we go to external sources, Jesus is better attested than Josephus, in the case of the latter, no one else in the first century refers to Josephus. In contrast, Jesus referred to by Paul in his letters, Josephus himself, Mark, Q, M, and L.
- That we can find passages in the Gospels that seem to make better sense in Aramaic than Greek as a way to establish a better probability of pointing at a passage as possibly coming from Jesus.
- Paul’s seven undisputed letters contain historical references about Jesus: a teacher who was born of a woman, a Jew, a teacher, who carried out the Last Supper, and was crucified under political authorities, that he had twelve disciples, that he had brothers (and mentions James), that Cephas (Peter) was Jesus’ disciple, etc.
- That Jesus actually had a brother, meaning a family brother, not in the sense of being a “brother in Christ”.
- That it would be non-sense to suppose that some Jews were willing to make up a crucified Messiah. The only thing that explains the reason for such doctrine is because Jesus was factually crucified by Romans. As expected, Jews ridiculed that Christian idea (and Paul complains about it).
These are not the only arguments for Jesus’ existence but shows why (with only two exceptions) no historian of Antiquity in every reputable institution in the Western world doubts that Jesus existed.
Then Price argued many of his points. Yet, I find that much of his arguments suffered from different slights of hands that seem as if all relevant points had been addressed for mythicism, when in reality they were not. I will only show two or three cases to illustrate the problem, and why non-experts (especially those who have an ideological beef with mythicism) might have had the impression that the debate was won by Price, or that at least that it was a draw. Reality is that at least at the level of solid arguments Ehrman won the debate. These problems of Price’s line of thinking were far more transparent in the Q&A section.
Here are some of Price’s arguments that exemplify some of the problems of his whole exposition.
1. Making an analogy between Matthew and Josephus
The problem of the Testimonium Flavianum is one of the most heated regarding the historicist v. mythicist tension. The reason is that in the pertinent section we are talking about, in the textus receptus, Josephus seems to be talking like a Christian when he gives some information about Jesus. The whole traditional passage says:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
Of course, no one doubts that it is inconceivable that Josephus wrote the sections we have placed in bold. Yet, scholars have discovered that if we remove these passages, we achieve a set of sentences more like what Josephus would have said. The text in question would appear more like this:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
The issue is a lot more complicated than this, and personally, I lean more towards Fernando Bermejo’s views, who favors a construction of the Testimonium in a way that is unfavorable to Jesus. Yet, for the sake of the argument, let’s stay with this simplification of the issue.
Price compares this to the Gospel of Matthew, whose author reproduced some of Mark’s stories redacting some of the content to suit his Christology. For instance, Jesus got angry at a person with skin illness who wanted to be healed by him (Mark 1:40-45). Yet, in Matthew’s version of events, he eliminates the inconvenient anger from the story (Matt. 8:1-4). Isn’t what scholars doing with the Testimonium what Luke actually carried out? Ehrman apparently didn’t have the time to respond to this particular argument, but the clear answer to it is “No”, it is not the same. Why?
During his exposition of his objection, Price skips a criterion used my scholars in order to accept the tentative historical core of the passage, namely, if the style of the resulting text (after the redaction) coheres with the rest of Josephus’ style and arguments. The answer is a resounding YES! Furthermore, aspects of the core passage also appears in Syriac and Arab versions of the text, in a way that we can reconstruct something very close to what Josephus actually said. As a matter of fact, if the passage weren’t there, we could not explain Josephus’ later reference to Jesus when talking about the execution of his brother, James. Matthew took out all material regarding Jesus’ anger for Christological reasons, wanting to make the text coherent with his Christological views. In Josephus’ case, scholars want to redact the pertinent clearly Christian texts given that Josephus did not convert to Christianity, and given that the rest of the passage is fully consistent with Josephus ideas and style…. in other words, the passage agrees with the text itself!
I won’t go to the issue of whether Eusebius actually created interpolations in the texts. It is enough to say that many scholars believe that the interpolations were created before him. So it is not a case, as Price seems to imply, that scholars are adapting the text itself arbitrarily like many other non-experts who want to allege interpolation at the slightest hint of the passages not fitting their theological views.
2. Jesus Christ and Clark Kent-Superman
Am I the only one to notice that this analogy is bogus? Neither Clark Kent nor Superman existed, they both form part of one and the same story line. Its origins are completely known as being pure fiction by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. As a Naturalist, I can agree that the strict verbatim versions of Jesus in the Gospels are purely fictional, but their stories point at the fact that the historical substratum is not. Superman is a hero as twentieth and twenty-first century people expect a hero to be, Jesus was not the sort of heroic Messiah that Jews expected in the twentieth century. That’s the point! Jesus belonged to a historical scenario where he was not the only prophet, Messianic pretender, or king wannabe.
There were many of them, and Josephus tells us a lot about these apocalyptic prophets that sprung from Egypt to Samaria, to Galilee itself, all of them preaching the soon to end Roman regime and the arrival of the Messiah or similar Messianic figures. The apocalyptic literature from the time, both inside Palestinian territory (e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls) and in the diaspora (the Syllibine Oracles, Paul’s own letters) reveal this nicely. Yet, there is no Metropolis, there is no Zod, there is no Lex Luthor, no Krypton, no Daily Planet, etc. There were no superhero-kind beings in recent centuries similar to Superman: no Wonder Woman, no Green Lantern, nothing!
No Superman fits in any historical context, nor texts, nor movies (Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman were such messes that made no sense!) Yet, Jesus’ views and deeds can be partially rescued from the layers of fiction that were elaborated above him and would be in full agreement in his proper historical context.
3. Luke trying to Make Up Paper Trail
One of the arguments used by Price is his reference to some scholarly allegations that M and L have some traditions that seem to go back to Jesus himself. He says that when Luke claimed to be based on earlier sources, it seems that he was making it up in the text. In some cases, scholars would agree with him (for example, when in the infancy narratives, he seems to imply that he obtained information from Jesus’ mother, Mary; Luke 2:19, 51). Yet, in other cases it seems that he is actually using some genuine sources. For example, he uses Q in a way that seems to resemble better the original attainable text that appears in modified form in Matthew’s Gospel: for example, some passages where Jesus talks about the Son of Man, where Matthew changes the text to refer unequivocally to Jesus (Luke (Q) 12:8-9; Matt. 10:32-33); or the shortest form of the Lord’s Prayer, which appears with added verses in Matthew (Luke (Q) 11:2-4; Matt. 6:9-13), and so on. Some material in L also quotes original traditions: for example, some passages where Jesus predicts the arrival of the Son of Man (Lc. 21:34-36). In the Acts of the Apostles, with all of its huge historical problems, we can find early traditions that seem to go back to the earliest forms of exalted Christology (e.g. Acts 5:30-31; 13:32-33). No one is arguing that “all” of L goes back to Jesus, but there is no question that at least some of it seem to do it.
4. Jesus’ Sayings in John
Price says that Jesus’ sayings in John seem to have been mostly made up, and that Maurice Casey says that none seem to go back to Jesus. This is true. Scholars accept this fact in general terms. Hence, they use the Synoptics because they are better sources. This is a non-issue that only serves as a filler against historicism, but really contributes nothing to the debate.
The Q & A Section
In the Q & A section, it is obvious from Ehrman’s questions that Price has conveniently chosen the more doubtful and less plausible interpretations of ancient texts in order to win mythicist arguments: his reading on Trypho v. Justin dialogue, the fact that it is highly improbable that early Christians held the crucifixion of Christ in the sublunar heavens by demons (which Price openly admits is purely speculative), that Mark seems to know about Zoroastrianism, that Gnostic beliefs as pre-Christian, that Andronicus and Junia were Paul’s family, that Paul did not write Galatians, etc.
It also shows that Price freely ignores the consensus when it pleases him: he freely believes that Mark is later than current consensus. Why? His answer: “Because you never know why there is a consensus?” WHAT?! But most of what Ehrman says, with few exceptions (such as his view of the empty tomb, or that for Paul, Jesus was an angel), actually expresses mostly scholarly consensus and the reasons behind such consensus!
Now, I want to be clear that I don’t mind if a scholarly authority such as Price differs from scholarly consensus. Maurice Casey, Dominic Crossan, and Mark Goodacre are great scholars with very unorthodox views that challenge the current consensus on different subjects. Yet, I have never heard any of them say: “The consensus means nothing to me”! In fact, perhaps there is a consensus because other scholars may be right about being skeptical to such unorthodox views. It is not exactly that the consensus is adopted dogmatically by people with low IQs, you know! For example, there are valid reasons why the consensus formed since the times of Albert Schweizer that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, and has not adopted, let’s say, Crossan’s view of Jesus as something like a Cynic sage; one of the reasons for such rejection is that Cynicism stopped being fashionable long before Jesus.
That the word “Pharisee” alluded to “Persian” beliefs? The etimology of the word has been very clear for scholars. But I guess, that doesn’t matter to him either.
It seems to me that from a scholarly standpoint, Price seems to use the most implausible interpretations of the texts, sometimes seeking refuge on the fact that “x” or “y” scholar said this or that, not even bothering to qualify the assertions in light of the response of other scholars to such claims. Ehrman is more on target providing reasons for Jesus’ existence that seem to be far more plausible, consistent with the reality of Palestine and the diaspora (in Paul’s case) than Price’s view. Virtually all of the key arguments that are the pillars of Price’s views are pure fringe. Given this fact, I’m clueless when I try to understand how can skeptics who uphold scientific consensus have such a hard time supporting NT scholarly consensus: that Jesus actually existed!
Like ghosts that constantly come back to haunt the public’s intellect, so does mythicism show up its infamous presence again and again, especially during the Christmas season and Lent. There are two camps in this realm, one which is made up of non-experts who have absolutely no authority in the area, and will claim that Jesus’ life is crafted after Horus, who was crucified died and resurrected, as well as Krishna, Mithra, Buddha, and so on. Of course, any historian with the most basic knowledge of Antiquity can dismiss all of these claims as totally untrue.
Yet, there is another sector of mythicism that is more respectable and is being held by authoritative historians and scholars, such as is the well known cases of Robert Price and Richard Carrier. Of the two of them, Price is the only one with a Ph.D. in New Testament scholarship, Carrier is an expert in general Antiquity, not Bible scholarship. This doesn’t mean that these are the only two academics who hold a mythicist view. For instance, there is also Raphael Lataster, who wrote an article for the Washington Post about two years ago regarding his view that Jesus didn’t exist. I will use this article to show why this academic mythicist view is simply wrong. Of course, I cannot respond to all of their claims, but I will give enough in this post to show why this is an extremely minor view held by academics, and why the overwhelming majority of specialists in the area reject it.
Before I begin, I want to accept that Lataster’s is an article with a limited space to argue his position with all due nuance. I will try my best not to take him out of context. I’m also aware that he is unable to respond to all of the objections presented against this mythicist view.
Oh! And another thing. I am not a Bible scholar with a degree in the field. This means that you should take my assertions with care, and talk to an actual professional Bible scholar about the issue. All I can promise you here is that my statements will abide as best as possible by the best Bible scholarship that I know.
What I Agree with Mythicists
Surprisingly enough, there are areas where, from a historical standpoint I can agree with mythicists. From a methodological naturalistic point of view assumed by history, it is very unlikely that there was a virgin birth, or that someone ascended “to the heavens” defying the laws of gravity. Most probably there were no miraculous healings in the strictest sense of the word, and most probably Lazarus didn’t rise from the dead. So, from a historiographical standpoint, I agree that there was no Jesus who was miraculously conceived, carried out miracles, died, resurrected, and ascended to heaven, etc. A lot of this is a product of fantasy.
I also agree with one very important point brought constantly by mythicists. There is no smoking gun that proves without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus existed. If you want to argue that there is no archaeological discovery of the first century that talks about Jesus, or that there is no text written by him, or that the information that we have from them is contradictory, written decades, even centuries later, etc., I would be forced to agree.
Yet, as historians of Antiquity know very well, if these variables were the sole determinants of the existence of an ancient person, we would have to wipe out almost all of the information that we have gathered from Antiquity, and stay with a minutia of what we do have evidence for. We would have to erase from history, Thales of Miletus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Apolonius of Tiana, Spartacus, etc. Your 20 volumes of an encyclopedia of history would be reduced to a 20 pages pamphlet (I’m exaggerating, but you get the point), because besides claims made by documents, we have next to no evidence of a lot of claims that they make. History is not an exact science like Physics, and it can only suppose provisionally what documents can tell us after they have been rigorously qualified by the available evidence using the best methods that historians have available.
One of the things that most people don’t know, and mythicist continually exploit this ignorance, is that virtually all ancient documents do have agendas. None of them are neutral. Do you think that Julius Caesar was “100% objective” regarding his recount of his conquest of Gaul? No, many of his claims have been found to be false! Do you think that Josephus was “100% objective” with no agendas tied to the Roman Empire? That Aristotle was “100% objective”, especially with his tendency to demean other philosophers to make himself look greater? That Herodotus was “100% objective”? NO! None of these authors were “agenda-free” historians or thinkers! If this is the case … what does it mean when mythicist claim that you should never believe ANY information provided by Paul’s letters or the Gospels, because they have agendas?! If every historian behaved this way, we would know next to nothing about history. Of course, an “agenda” is something to keep in mind, but it does not discredit historical claims automatically.
Whether there was a historical Jesus beneath this fiction, I agree with the overwhelming consensus among scholars of Antiquity and the New Testament: YES! Most probably a historical Jesus did indeed exist in the past.
Mythicists often argue that the reason why such consensus exists is because most of them are believers. Yet, this is overly simplistic, given that a lot of the most renowned scholars had trouble with their respective churches for holding such controversial use. The classic case of Rudolf Bultmann should be recalled, since he held in the nineteenth century that most of what the Gospel say didn’t happen. The Catholic priest, Raymond Brown, who has become a must-read for every New Testament scholar today, had huge problems with the Vatican due to inconvenient scholarship regarding his scholarly stance on Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as well as controversial statements regarding John’s Gospel (see his Community of the Beloved Disciple as an example). The priest John Meier has often differed scholarly from the dogmatic positions of Roman Catholicism (e.g., he holds from a scholarly view that Jesus had brothers and sisters who were the sons of Joseph and Mary, against the Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary).
Yet, briefly, for the sake of argument, let’s take believers out of the equation. The vast majority of non-believers in the field also hold that Jesus did indeed exist. In this case, mythicists argue that the problem is that the minds of these scholars have been manipulated and conditioned (they were brainwashed?) by previous Christian scholars. Yet, this claim has no more credibility than the allegation from the political Right-Wing that the anthropogenic view of climate change is held by most scientists as part of a conspiracy by the U.N. and Al Gore to take away the sovereignty of the countries of the world and steer them towards socialism; or the political Left claims that most scientists favor GMOs because they have been bought by Monsanto. It basically supposes that Bible scholars who agree with Jesus’ existence have no actual agency of their own, despite the fact that virtually all of them have studied Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, have had historiographical education and instruction, and more often than not they learn to defy convention.
So, it is not surprising what Lataster says in his article:
Numerous secular scholars have presented their own versions of the so-called “Historical Jesus” – and most of them are, as biblical scholar J.D. Crossan puts it, “an academic embarrassment.” From Crossan’s view of Jesus as the wise sage, to Robert Eisenman’s Jesus the revolutionary, and Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic prophet, about the only thing New Testament scholars seem to agree on is Jesus’ historical existence. But can even that be questioned?
And yet, of all of these listed above, Ehrman’s views corresponds better to the consensus, and most scholars reject Crossan and Eisenman’s views, even though these are still in debate. This is an idea defended by the some of the most hard core scholars such as John P. Meier, E. P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Lüdemann, Antonio Piñero, among others. The reason why scholars gravitate towards the view that Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet is due to the whole primitive Christian movement was apocalypticist (as we shall see), and this can be inferred from Paul’s authentic letters as well from the Synoptic Gospels (the most primitive documents on Jesus we have). Yet, Jesus did not carry out any revolution nor was he thinking about an armed revolt. The most common view today is that Jesus was awaiting the Son of Man, who would dispense justice and place him as king of Israel with all twelve tribes ruled by the twelve Apostles (Mt. 19:28). Eisenman’s effort to present this “revolutionary Jesus” is based solely on his reading of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls which he holds some are Christian documents (especially the Habakkuk pesher; carbon-14 put that matter to rest for good, as well as analyses made by the vast majority of experts in these ancient documents). Also his exotic views on James and Paul are not embraced by almost anyone in the field. Regarding Jesus as a sage, scholars have realized that Jesus’ wise views can only be understood within an apocalypticist context and framework, so, again, it is more reasonable to suppose that he was an apocalypticist prophet.
So, the situation is much less “embarrassing” than Lataster wants us to believe. Pointing out the discrepancy among three scholars hardly constitutes a case against Jesus’ existence.
The Early Sources
Lataster tells us:
The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify. Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.
This is a non-sequitur. Even if the Gospel authors fail to name themselves, that by itself does not mean that they are not using earlier sources and traditions. Quite the opposite, all of the analysis made by scholars in the twentieth century have identified in the four Gospels many early sources that form the basis of their writings.
Also the fact that they want to promote Christianity doesn’t mean either that Jesus didn’t exist, or that the traditions lack any validity. At best, this argument is a red-herring, and tells us nothing about Jesus’ historicity or lack of it. Julius Caesar was heavily promoted by a lot of the literature of his time, including his own. They all present, strictly speaking, a fictional Caesar reconstructed as a form of propaganda in his favor. Does that mean that he didn’t exist? Through Virgil, we learn that Caesar Augustus is divine because he was a descendant of the hero Aeneas, who had Venus as his mother. Does that mean that Augustus didn’t exist? A divinized Jesus is nothing strange in Antiquity, and follows the tendency of turning eminent historical people in his time to become divine. Bart Ehrman wrote an excellent book about this subject.
Even though we have no smoking gun-proof of Jesus’s existence, the question historians ask is where does the evidence tends to point at? Towards his existence or non-existence?
Criteria for Historicity
This is perhaps the weakest argument from mythicists. The criteria of embarrassment, multiple attestation, and others are not perfect, yet they are not exactly useless either. It is overly simplistic to see one case where these don’t work, and then throw them to the waste basket. Each of these criteria has its own limitations, sometimes they need to be combined in order to work, in other cases they are not enough to decide whether a passage reflects history or not.
Yet, they are important and still extremely useful. Lataster discusses the three. I don’t have time to discuss all of them, but I will respond to this one to show how short-sighted are his (and other mythicists’) views on this subject. He says:
The methods traditionally used to tease out rare nuggets of truth from the Gospels are dubious. The criterion of embarrassment says that if a section would be embarrassing for the author, it is more likely authentic. Unfortunately, given the diverse nature of Christianity and Judaism back then (things have not changed all that much), and the anonymity of the authors, it is impossible to determine what truly would be embarrassing or counter-intuitive, let alone if that might not serve some evangelistic purpose.
And yet, anyone who has taken into consideration literary analysis of the Gospels and letters in the New Testament, can identify pretty accurately, regardless the anonymity of the authors, what he thinks, what he believes, what his public is, what is the literary message of the writing, and so on. Whoever establishes this as a problem simply does not know how to read a text. From the context itself we can know what the author is embarrassed about. I can use lots of examples, but for the sake of argument, I’ll use one particular case: Jesus’ baptism. All I require my reader to do is to actually read the passages I’m going to discuss in their New Testament (Don’t take my word for it! Read them yourselves!)
We know today (and few academics challenge this view) that the Gospels were written between 68 and 100 CE in this order: Mark (68-70 CE), Matthew (80-90 CE), Luke (80-90 CE), John (90-100 CE). This is provisionally accepted by virtually all Bible scholars. So, regarding Jesus’ baptism, we see a gradual effort to distance him from John the Baptist’s ministry, and at the end negate the event of his baptism.
Let’s look at the passages carefully:
- Mark 1:1-15 – Let’s note that this is our earliest Gospel, and says nothing about Jesus’ miraculous birth, nor early life in either Bethlehem or Nazareth. It limits the information to the fact that Jesus came from Nazareth, and that’s it! But that’s not the actual beginning of the story. It begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, and establishes the reason why he was baptizing. He was inviting people to confess their sins and submerge them in water as a sign of being cleansed of the dirt of sin. It is a sign of conversion from a sinful life (Mark 1:1-4). Then Jesus appears, gets baptized, and sees the heavens open up with the Holy Spirit declaring him Son of God (Mark 1:11). After that, we are told that Jesus spent time in the desert, and only began his ministry after John was arrested (Mark 1:14). The whole episode feels rushed: Why did Jesus baptize? We are never told. Did Jesus become the Son of God after “repenting from his sins” or did he do it for any other reason? We are never told. Why did he spend time in the desert? We are not told. Why did he begin his ministry after John’s arrest? We are never told. It is as if the Gospel writer wanted to skip all of this information related to John the Baptist to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
- Matthew 3:1-16 – This story assumes the framework established by Mark, but apparently includes material that presumably comes from the text that scholars call Q. Yet, there is another difference between Mark’s and Matthew’s account: John stops Jesus briefly to ask him why is he going to be baptized, if John himself should be baptized by Jesus. After that, Jesus gives John a non-answer: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15) That’s it! Again, no explanation whatsoever. It is as if the author of this Gospel was trying to explain away the reason why Jesus was baptized by John. Unfortunately, Jesus’ answer doesn’t explain anything, except to say that it is God’s will.
- Luke 3:1-22 – The story presented here is more curious than the preceding ones. Here, we find the same Markan framework, it includes Q material, plus more statements from John the Baptist. Yet, something curious happens. Question to you: In this Gospel, is Jesus baptized by John? Pay attention to the text! In vv. 19-20, we find that John was arrested and imprisoned. THEN, Jesus appears baptized! (vv. 21-22) What?! Who baptized Jesus? Was it John the Baptist before being arrested? We don’t know. The text says that he was already baptized and that when he was praying, he saw the Holy Spirit descend declaring him Son of God.
- John 1:19-34 – Of all of the Gospels, this one is the most interesting! Why? Well, I’m going to ask you a question: “Was Jesus baptized (by John or ANYONE)?” Feel free to roam around the passage or the whole Gospel. Your answer is negative. There is NO story at all about Jesus being baptized! And as specialists of John’s Gospel will tell you, usually when a text is notoriously silent when it should not be, usually that’s the author negating the event. (For example: Jesus goes through no agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and totally refuses to ask God to avoid his suffering. John 12:27; 18:1-12). As a matter of fact, in the Gospel of John’s version the story of John the Baptist, it is not Jesus, but John who sees the Holy Spirit revealing Jesus as the Son of God. It is as if, Jesus already knew he was the Son of God anyway. Why need the baptism? (John 1:33-34)
So here’s the scenario. Mark is extremely brief about the John the Baptist’s activities and tells us nothing about why Jesus went to be baptized (in the context where baptism clearly implies repentance from sin). In Matthew, there is an “attempt to explain” how the sinless and righteous Jesus needed to be baptized by John, although it doesn’t give us much to go on. In Luke, the author purposely dissociates Jesus’ baptism from John’s activities; it is as if Jesus’ baptism is different from the rest of the baptized. Finally, the Gospel of John, the last of the Gospels to be written in the first century, completely denies that Jesus was baptized by John.
That gives us a pattern, which can only be explained by the criterion of embarrassment. No historian today doubts the historicity of John the Baptist, since Josephus gives us clear testimony that he existed and tells us about his activities in many ways that are clearly not based on the Gospels (which means that the story was not created or interpolated by Christian hands). The Synoptics show John as being an apocalypticist typical of the era, calling for conversion, for the one to come (the Son of Man?) is close.
What explains these New Testament passages? Why is there a pattern towards a gradual dissociation of Jesus from John? The reason is historically simple. Here it is:
Historically, Jesus went to John to repent from his sins to confess them and be baptized. He became John’s disciple. We don’t know if historically he went through the desert. What is clear from Mark (our earliest Gospel) is that once John was arrested, Jesus decided to begin his ministry by preaching an apocalypticist message (Mark 1:14-15), which basically said that the time for God’s Kingdom was very close and that the Son of Man was going to appear soon to judge the living and the dead, that the Messiah was going to rule this Kingdom. It is important to note that when John the Baptist heard about Jesus’ deeds in jail, he was particularly skeptical about it, another embarrassing fact revealed by the Gospels and based on Q (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-19).
After Jesus died and his disciples began to proclaim his resurrection and that he was the Son of God, they had a problem! They were saying that the Messiah and Son of God … was baptized by John!!! He was baptized because he repented, because he wanted to be John’s disciple. That seems embarrassing! Jesus, not John, was the Messiah. So our earliest Gospel only dwells just a bit on the story, and apologetically implies that Jesus was chosen Son of God after he was cleansed of his sins. Matthew went a bit further, and implied that Jesus was already sinless and righteous, but because “God wills it”, he chose to be baptized by John. Luke went further still and dissociated Jesus’ baptism from John’s. And John’s Gospel, the last of the Gospels, represents the culmination of all of this process: John did not baptize Jesus.
Now, we have two ways of looking at this: either Jesus existed and what is stated above is true, or Jesus did not exist, so, we are left wondering why the earliest portrayal of Jesus includes a story that reflects a notorious embarrassment for all four Gospels, If Jesus existed, the explanation is pretty simple: Jesus’ baptism was an undeniable fact known to everyone in the movement, including to followers of John the Baptist. Each of the authors had to explain or negate in some way what actually happened. This information was very inconvenient for Christians.
So, if Jesus existing gives us the simplest and most plausible explanation for these attitudes regarding Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels, (voilà!) the criterion of embarrassment pointed out an actual historical event that apparently did take place: Jesus’ baptism.
Lataster’s view that this story was included in the Gospel because it was “convenient” for the authors or their churches does not even begin to make sense of the data we have just discussed. You will really have to do mental gymnastics in order to “save the mythicist theory” to then explain these attitudes reflected in the Gospels.
Paul’s Jesus: The “Heavenly Christ Crucified by Spirits”?
One of the unresolved issues in New Testament scholarship is the attitude of indifference by Paul of Tarsus regarding the life and deeds of Jesus. I provide my reasons for this in my book Pablo el Emisario, although I don’t claim to have hit the jackpot regarding this matter: basically that his letters were not gospels or expositors of Jesus’ biography, but arguments to address very specific problems of the Christian communities in gentility. Yet, even when I accept that this is not wholly satisfactory, it would be misleading to then to take this factor and pretend that for Paul Jesus was a celestial being with no past presence on Earth, or that the crucifixion took place “in the heavens” (sublunar realm to be more exact) and was “carried out by demons”.
Quite the opposite, Paul does remind us about Jesus’ humanity. He was actually born from a woman under the dominion of the Torah, the Law (Galatians 4:4). According to Paul, where did the Torah rule? In the sublunar regions of the heavens? No! It ruled right here on Earth, particularly on the Jewish people. In other words, Jesus was born a Jew according to the flesh (that is, in a physical body), an idea he states clearly in his letters (Rom. 9:1-5). From this theological framework, we can understand perfectly Paul’s view on the soteriological dimension of Jesus’ crucifixion. Basically, Jesus was ruled under the Torah and was crucified, making himself damnable under the Torah — just like all gentiles are—, so that Jesus would assume the sins of the gentiles, and finally defeat death with his resurrection (Gal. 3:13-14; 1 Cor. 5:20-21; Rom. 5:20-21; 6:1-14). In other words, contrary to what Lataster and other mythicist claim, Paul did believe that Jesus existed as a historical and physical Jew born of a woman who was actually crucified on Earth. His theology would be incomprehensible if he believed otherwise.
He also states very clearly, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus had brothers, and one of them was called Jacob, who was the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and whom he met personally (Gal. 1:19; 1 Corinthians 9:5-6). This agrees perfectly with the list of names and references to Jesus’ own brothers and sisters in the Gospels and other writings (Mark 6:3; Jude 1). May I remind you, that in the earliest Gospel, there is no miraculous birth story, and portrays his relationship with his family as less than ideal (they believed that he was out of his mind), not a celestial status by any means, and completely consistent with his apocalypticist views (Mark 3:20-21,31-35; Luke 14:26). Paul didn’t tell us anything miraculous about his birth either, and by the adoption of the Greek word “adelphos“, he did believe that James and Jesus were brothers from the same mother and father.
But what about the passage mentioned by Lataster about Jesus being killed by demons (1 Cor. 2:6-10)? Actually, this issue is debated. Some scholars think that these powers are demons (spiritual powers). Other scholars think they refer to earthly powers (political powers). In my view, they are both. The problem is that he misses one basic fact about Paul … he was also an apocalypticist. Even when you can point out Hellenistic influence in his thinking (since he was formed in a Judeo-Hellenistic environment as most scholars agree), he was nonetheless an apocalypticist, just like all Christians at the time. You can see evidence of this in his genuine letters (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:28; 1 Cor. 7:25-35; 15:1-53). For apocalypticists, there is an interplay between spiritual and earthly powers, all of them are acting simultaneously as forces of good or evil, forces of light and darkness. Those who believe are the sons of light, and those who disbelieve are in darkness. This is exactly what Paul believed (e.g. 1 Thes. 5:5-8; Rom. 13:12-13). Hence, what does 1 Cor. 2:6-10 tell us in this context? Very simple, that the spiritual powers acting in the world (through political and religious forces) led to Jesus’ crucifixion. That they did not know that he was the Messiah and Son of God , so they crucified him.
If we add up all of the passages we have thus considered, one thing is clear: Paul did believe that the crucifixion took place here on Earth, not in the sublunar heavens … period!
About Carrier’s Views about a Gradual Descent from the Celestial Christ an Earthly Jesus
Richard Carrier and two or three other people hold that Jesus was originally conceived in Christianity as being a celestial being (an angel and Logos) to an Earthly Jesus who walked on Earth.
Yet, this is not the case. Carrier’s argument rests on his belief that Paul conceived Christ as a sort of Logos as held by Judeo-Hellenistic philosophies of the time. Only then he gradually started being portrayed as having walked this Earth (the “historization” of Jesus). With the exception of an extremely reduced number of academics, no New Testament scholar buys this for a second.
First, he mentions that for Philo of Alexandria, whose philosophy was written before Paul’s Letters and the Gospels, the Logos was called “Jesus” (“Joshua” to be more precise). This claim has been refuted again and again by experts and knowledgeable non-experts alike, and they never cease to call Carrier’s position a big stretch, because he ignores on purpose the meaning of Philo’s text in order to make it fit his mythicist views.
But let’s go even further. The earliest writings we have of Christianity are Paul’s genuine letters. This is taken by mythicists to mean that Paul’s writings, which according to them present a “celestial Christ” and Logos, are the earliest form of Christology in early Christianity. They forget, for instance, that there are some traditions that Paul quotes in his letter that are even earlier, and whose content Paul didn’t share. For example, in his letter to the Romans, he is writing to a church established apparently by a Palestinian branch of Christianity, probably associated with the Church in Jerusalem. Paul has not visited this Church, but plans to do so after going to Jerusalem. In order to do that, the purpose of this letter is to gain its sympathy and explain his novel theological views about Christ. For this reason, he quotes the following creed:
… the gospel concerning [God’s] Son,
who was descended
according to the flesh
and was declared to be
the Son of God [in power]
by the Spirit of Holiness
by the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:3-4)
Due to literary criteria, some scholars have pointed out that this is an ancient creed of Aramaic origin (it contains Aramaisms such as the unusual “Spirit of holiness”, instead of Paul’s usual term “Holy Spirit”) in a poetic style where ideas from some verses match with others. The only element that does not fit the scheme is the term “in power” placed there by Paul in order to make it agree better with his incarnational Christology (Philippians 2:5b-11).
This creed was most probably of Palestinian origin, due to both the Aramaisms and the circumstances of the community Paul is addressing in this letter. Note that according to it Jesus became Son of God, not before his birth, not at the moment of his baptism, but at the time of his resurrection. This is consistent with the primitive belief that we find in our earliest Gospel (Mark) where Jesus refused to call himself Son of God in public, which is “Mark’s” way of explaining away why Jesus never called himself “Son of God” during his ministry (another historical revelation from embarrassment). The creed quoted by Paul is also preserved and repeated in another different way in the book of Acts (Acts 13:32-33).
What do these small creeds mean? Simple, mythicists are purposely ignoring that there are even more primitive traditions in Paul’s writings: ones where Jesus was an earthly man who was to be the Messiah, and only became Son of God after his resurrection. The incarnational Christology held by Paul and others was elaborated later by Judeo-Hellenistic Jews, and which Paul adopted (as the Judeo-Hellenistic Jew that he was). This is not explained by Carrier’s model.
As a matter of fact, for New Testament scholars in general, the tendency is exactly the opposite than pointed out by Carrier:
- The initial Palestinian Christology preached a Jesus who was earthly, died crucified, and became Son of God when he resurrected; then a variety of Christologies branched, such as …
- The adoptionists who believed that Jesus became the Son of God at the moment of his baptism (as we saw in Mark)
- Incarnational which made Jesus Son of God because of the intervention of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:20b-23; Lc. 1:31-35)
- Or that he was a pre-existent divine creature or angel who incarnated and was Son of God from the beginning (Philippians 2:5b-11)
- Or that Jesus was a pre-existent Divine Wisdom, also God’s prime creature (Colossians 1:15-16).
- Or that he was the divine Logos, sharing oneness in divinity with God (John 1).
If you look at the whole process, the texts where Christ is clearly identified as God’s celestial Wisdom or Logos are later Christologies: Colossians was not written by Paul, and it is dated approximately to 70 to 80 CE. John’s Gospel was written from 90 to 100 CE.
The same can be said about the Gospels: the most “human” Jesus appears in Mark, the earliest Gospel; the most celestial and deified Jesus as the Logos appears in John our latest Gospel.
In short, Carrier has zero evidence that the belief in Jesus began as a divine Logos and ended up historicized. The tendency is the opposite: the belief in Jesus began as a flesh-and-blood historical actual Jesus on Earth who was born from of a woman and died on the cross, who was later divinized in different ways by Christians as time went by.
All of this has been shown again and again by scholars. The mythicists are the ones who refuse to see that the best explanation for all of the documents we have of Christianity is that Jesus existed. In order to save their theory, they need to either distort the original meaning of the documents or ignore clear evidence that place this content in a particular literary context.
I end up with Bart Ehrman’s own statements about mythicism. Please, pay attention to his words.