A while back, I wrote a brief commentary on William Lane Craig’s critique of Bart Ehrman on the probability of miracles. Matthew Ferguson recently weighed in. He agrees with my conclusions, but greatly amplified them by writing an entire essay expounding on supporting points. I highly recommend his essay to anyone interested in the topic of the probability of miracles in general and the probability of Jesus’ alleged resurrection in particular.
Some of Hinman’s discussions about his five principles of historical investigation provide needed clarification of a principle, and some of his discussions fail to provide clarification of the relevant principle. But even when Hinman fails to clarify one of his general principles of historical investigation, he often makes some significant or interesting points. I will examine many of those specific points in this post.
Hinman’s discussion about (P1) fails to clarify what that principle means. However, that discussion does make some interesting points, so I will comment on those points here:
One chief principle sorely lacking in the discussion with mythers, is that historians start from the sources we have rather than criticizing that which we don’t have. Historians don’t base their conclusions upon the documents we lack but upon those we possess.
If Jesus did exist, then obviously any details that we have about Jesus must come from existing documents that mention Jesus. However, the implication that historians ignore or don’t pay attention to “the documents we lack” is simply false.
One basic criterion used by historians is that of “multiple independent attestation”:
Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two. The more, obviously, the better. If there were only one or two sources, you might suspect that the stories were made up (although you would probably want to have some reasons for thinking so…). (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, p.40)
In other words, the more independent sources one has that agree on a particular event or detail, the more likely it is that the event or detail was actual or correct, other things being equal. But in order to consistently apply this basic criterion, one must in some cases notice the absence or dirth of documents.
What if there was only ONE independent historical document that mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth? In that case, historians would notice that we did NOT possess multiple independent sources of information about the crucifixion of Jesus, and based on this fact historians would (or should) be appropriately skeptical about any historical claims and conclusions about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The absence or lack of documents in such a scenario would not provide any specific details about the crucifixion of Jesus, but it would be a very important fact that would have a very significant impact on the thinking of historians about the alleged crucifixion of Jesus.
If there were just TWO independent historical documents that mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus, that would give historians greater confidence than having only ONE such document. However, a competent historian would still note the dirth of documents on this point, which would involve noticing that we don’t have three or four or five or six independent historical documents on this alleged event, and in such a situation a competent historian would remain somewhat skeptical and cautious about historical hypotheses and conclusions concering the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, based on the dirth of documents about this alleged event.
What if the only historical documents that we had about the life of Jesus were documents that were written in the second century? A historian would be completely incompetent if (in this circumstance) he/she failed to notice the absence or lack of any documents about the life of Jesus that were written in the first century, the century in which Jesus supposedly lived and died. This relates to another basic criterion of historical research:
Historians also prefer to have sources that are relatively near the date of the person or event that they are describing. As time goes on, things do indeed get made up, and so it is much better to have near-contemporary accounts. (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, p.41)
To be competent, an historian must notice when there is an absence or a dirth of documents that were written near the date of the person or event that they are investigating. An absence or dirth of documents written near the date of a particular person who is being studied does not, of course, provide any particular details about the life of that person, but it is an important fact for historians because it helps to determine the quality and strength of the evidence that they possess.
If there were no first-century documents about Jesus, competent historians would notice that fact, and would be more skeptical and less confident in the historical hypotheses and conclusions that are asserted about the life and death of Jesus. Since those of us who are skeptical about the existence of Jesus are very much concerned about the quality and strength of the available historical data concerning Jesus of Nazareth, it is absolutely relevant for skeptics to point out any abscence or dirth of historical documents that provide information about a specific aspect of the life of Jesus, and any absence or dirth of historical documents of a certain relevant kind (for example, first-century documents about Jesus written by non-Christians).
It is important to note that we lack some important kinds of historical documents in relation to Jesus:
We also do not have any writings from Jesus. (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 43)
…no Greek or Roman author from the first century mentions Jesus. (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 43)
we do not have a single reference to Jesus by anyone–pagan, Jew, or Christian–who was a contemporary eyewitness, who recorded things he said and did. (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 46)
Here is another bit of bad advice on historical research from Hinman:
What do the documents we have tell us? Don’t worry about what they don’t tell us.
There is an ambiguity in the phrase “what they don’t tell us”. In one sense of this phrase, the advice is obviously true but is uninformative. In another sense of the phrase, the advice is informative, but is very bad advice. So, it appears to me that Hinman is either saying something trivial and uninformative or else he is saying something that is substantive but clearly mistaken.
There are at least two different kinds of things that a document can “tell us”:
- Claims that the writer explicitly asserts in the text.
- Claims that we, as intelligent and critical readers, can infer from the text produced by the writer.
Historians usually deal with historical documents. In order to be a competent historian, at least in terms of dealing with historical documents, one must be able to read and clearly and fully understand what is written in historical documents. In order to read and clearly and fully understand what is written in a document, one must be an intelligent and critical reader. Therefore, in order for a person to be a competent historian, at least in terms of dealing with historical documents, that person must be an intelligent and critical reader.
One thing that all intelligent and critical readers can and must be able to do is to “read between the lines” of a text. In order to be able to read between the lines of a text, one must in many cases notice not only what is explicitly stated, but also what is left unstated in the text. Thus, in order for a person to be a competent historian, that person must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly stated in a text, but also what is left unstated in the text.
Here is an example of “reading between the lines” by noticing what is left unstated in a text. An undergraduate philosophy major was about to graduate with a B.A. in philosophy and was applying to get into a doctoral program in philosophy at a prestigious university. The student, let’s call him “Mr. Jackson”, went to one of his philosophy professors who was the most famous and most widely-respected philosopher at that college, and he asked the professor for a letter of recommendation. The professor, let’s call him “Dr. Schmidt”, agreed and submitted the following letter to the philosophy department at the prestigious university where Mr. Jackson was hoping to be accepted into the doctoral program in philosophy. The letter read as follows:
To whom it may concern:
Mr. Jackson has excellent penmanship.
Needless to say, Mr. Jackson was not admitted into the doctoral program in philosophy at the prestigious university. His application was rejected NOT because of what Dr. Schmidt explicitly asserted about Mr. Jackson (good penmanship is appreciated even by professional philosophers), but because of what Dr. Schmidt did NOT say, because of what was left UNSTATED.
In a letter of recommendation in support of a student seeking acceptance into a graduate program, one expects to read praise and positive evaluations of the student’s intelligence, knowledge, creativity, intellectual skills, writing ability, study habits, and other characteristics that are relevant to determining whether a student is likely to be successful in graduate studies in a particular field or area. No such assertions and characterizations are given in this very brief letter. We can “read between the lines” here and based on what was left unstated by Dr. Schmidt, we can reasonably infer that he was communicating this message:
Mr. Jackson has no praiseworthy or remarkable or excellent knowledge, intellectual abilities, anlytical skills, study habits, or other characteristics that are relevant indications that he would make a good graduate student in philosophy.
In order to be an intelligent and critical reader of texts, one must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly asserted in a text, but also what is left unstated in a text. Therefore, in order to be a competent historian, at least in relation to dealing with historical documents, a person must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly asserted in a text, but also what is left unstated in the text.
The advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.” is trivial and unhelpful if the phrase “what they don’t tell us” means “what cannot be inferred or derived from careful critical study and reading of the text”. If a text simply has nothing to say about issue X, then any efforts to try to get information out of that text in order to resolve issue X will be a waste of time. But this is a trivial and unhelpful bit of advice, because it just repeats the idea of the antecedent in different words in the consequent: “If you cannot get information about X from this document, then no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to get information about X from this document.”
On the other hand, the advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us” constitutes a substantive bit of advice if the phrase “what they don’t tell us” means “what is not explicitly stated in the document”. But if that is what this phrase means, then the advice is really bad advice, because it either implies the absurd idea that historians don’t need to clearly and fully understand what they read in historical documents or else it implies the absurd idea that one can clearly and fully understand the text in a document without being able to read between the lines, without being able to notice what is left unstated in the text.
An entire new branch of history came about because some historians began to “worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.” Social history is a new branch of history that is concerned with learning about, among other things, the everyday details of the lives of ordinary people, of laborers, workers, shopkeepers, school children, craftsmen, servants, slaves, and housewives, for example.
Traditionally, historians focused on big events, like wars, and famous and powerful people, like kings and generals and explorers. Traditional historians might have taken interest in some journals and personal letters, but only if those were written by famous or powerful people, or by friends and family members of famous or powerful people. Social history has a broader scope, or a different scope, and the journals and personal letters of ordinary people become important historical documents, because they can reveal everyday details about the lives of ordinary people.
If the founders of social history had followed the advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.”, then this entire branch of history would not exist. It was necessary for at least some historians to notice that details about the everyday lives of ordinary people were not provided in typical, traditional “historical documents”, so they had to figure out other ways to get this information about the past, and one of the ways this was accomplished was by expanding the scope of what documents are considered to be important historical documents. For example, the journals and personal letters of ordinary people began to be viewed as potentially important historical documents. Social historians also turned to statistical information, like what social scientists use to study different societies, in order to learn more about the lives of ordinary people in the past and about the processes and factors that shaped those lives.
The objection that we don’t have anyone who knew Jesus personally writing about him (supposedly), is bunk. Start from what what the documents we do have tell us about him.
First of all, it is true, or at least probably true, that we don’t have any writings by people who knew Jesus personally. Paul did not know Jesus personally, and probably never set eyes on the historical Jesus. Many leading NT scholars have concluded that none of the gospels were written by an apostle or someone who knew Jesus personally.
Second, an historian who ignored this basic fact about our documents that concern Jesus would be an incompetent historian, for this is crucial information for determining the strength and value of the historical evidence that we have about Jesus. I agree with the idea that we ought not to cast aside the Gospels and letters of Paul as irrelevant, but we also, if we want to think like competent historians, need to recognize the limitations of the historical evidence that we possess.
I have no objection to that idea that we ought to “Start from” the documents that we do have, but this does not imply that we should ignore important deficiences and characteristics of those historical documents (e.g. we have no eyewitness accounts of the life or death of Jesus).
Chitneis emphasizes internal and external aspects of the document. External is getting back to the original document itself: author, audience, why written. Internal aspects are inconsistency or consistency within the document.
These all seem like useful items to consider when studying an historical document. However, there are at least a couple of important considerations that were not mentioned in this scheme:
- What about comparing one book or text by an author with other books and texts by the same author? (e.g. comparing one letter by Paul with other letters by Paul and looking for consistencies and inconsistencies).
- What about comparing what the author of the historical document asserts, with what other authors of other historical documents assert about the same events or the same geographic area and timeframe? (e.g. comparing one canonical gospel with another canonical gospel, or with a non-canonical gospel, and looking for consistencies and inconsistencies between those documents).
The practice of history is largely about evaluating documents.
Because of the qualification “largely”, I cannot disagree with this statement. However, it is important to note that there are other kinds of historical data, and that we lack an important kind of historical data when it comes to the life and death of Jesus:
…there is no hard, physical evidence for Jesus…, including no archeological evidence of any kind. (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 42)
Also, an important part of evaluating historical documents is evaluating the quality and strength of historical evidence that a given document can provide, and that involves implicit comparisons with categories of documents that might not exist or might not be available relative to the subject or issues at hand. Competent historians will not only analyze the contents of the documents we possess, but will notice if there is an absence or dirth of documents of certain important categories (e.g. no documents written by Jesus himself, no eyewitness accounts of the life or death of Jesus, and no first century documents about Jesus from pagan authors).
In his discussion of principle (P3), Hinman quotes from John Crossan (from a web page that is no longer available):
Question 62 [excerpt]
Furthermore, in all the many ways that opponents criticized earliest Christianity, nobody ever suggested that it was all made up. That in general, is quite enough for me…
Question 71 [excerpt]
My very general arguments [for the existence of an historical Jesus] are: (1) that existence is given in Christian, pagan, and Jewish sources; (2) it is never negated by even the most hostile critics of early Christianity (Jesus is a bastard and a fool but never a myth or a fiction!); (3) there are no historical parallels that I know of from that time and period that help me understand such a total creation.
First, this does not appear to be a clarification of a principle of historical investigation; rather, this is the summary of an argument for the historicity of Jesus.
Second, this argument draws on more than just EXTERNAL evidence, so this goes outside the boundary of the topic of this debate, which is about whether the EXTERNAL evidence is sufficient to show that it is probable that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a flesh-and-blood historical person. Christian evidence, at least the earliest and best Christian evidence, is INTERNAL (i.e. biblical) evidence. One of the main problems with EXTERNAL evidence (both Christian and non-Christian) is the issue of independence. It is unclear, for example, to what extent Josephus got his information about Jesus directly or indirectly from Christians who were familiar with one or more of the canonical Gospels and/or the letters of Paul.
The fact that the existence of an historical Jesus was “never negated by even the most hostile critics of early Christianity” is not a strong reason that makes it probable that Jesus was an actual historical person, because proving the non-existence of a person was much more difficult to do in first century Palestine than it is in the USA in the 21st century.
If someone wanted to challenge my existence as a flesh-and-blood historical person, they could check: (a) birth records in hospitals in Santa Monica, California (where I was allegedly born), (b) social security records of the US government, (c) marriage records in San Luis Obipso (where I allegedly got married), (d) school records of schools in Healdsburg, California (where I allegedly grew up), (e) high school records in Cambria, California (where I allegedly graduated from High School), (f) drivers license records in California and in Washington, (g) college records from Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo), Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University (where I allegedly earned a BA in philosophy), University of Windsor (where I allegedly earned an MA in philosophy), and UC Santa Barbara (where I allegedly completed requirements for a PhD in philosophy, except for the dissertation), (h) voting registration records in Sonoma County, California, Santa Barabara, California, and King County, Washington, to name a few possibilities.
If none of these normal records showed up for Bradley Bowen, that would be very powerful proof that Bradley Bowen was not a flesh-and-blood historical person (who was born in Santa Monica, grew up in Healdsburg, attended high school in Cambria, went to college at Sonoma State University, got married in San Luis Obispo, etc.).
Jesus was not born in a hospital, and no governments in first century Palestine maintained official records of births, marriages, or deaths. There were no public schools or colleges, and no official records of education were maintained. There were no cars, and no driver’s licenses nor driving records maintained in first century Palestine. There were also no newspapers, no public libraries, no phone books, no fingerprint databases, no DNA databases, and no criminal prosecution databases.
So, if a first century pagan or Jew had doubts about Jesus being a flesh-and-blood historical person, it would have been rather difficult for that person to investigate whether Jesus had actually existed. Thus, it is to be expected that skeptics and critics of Christianity would not try to disprove the existence of Jesus, even if they doubted the existence of Jesus, but would instead focus challenges and doubts on the question of the divinity of Jesus, which could be argued on more theological and philosophical grounds, and would not require engagement in difficult historical investigation that was unlikely to produce solid proof of the non-existence of Jesus.
The fact that there are “no historical parallels…from that time and period” is also a weak reason that does not support the claim that it is probable that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person. Why must there be an historical parallel from “that time and period”? That seems rather arbitrary and even extreme. There has not been a World War in my lifetime, so should I doubt that there has ever been a World War? Obviously not. Some historical phenomena only occur infrequently. What this indicates is that the invention of fictional characters who are put forward as actual historical persons is a somewhat uncommon historical phenomenon. But this sort of thing does happen, so the fact that it did not happen multiple times in first century Palestine is a weak reason for denying that it happened at least once in that place and that period of time. This is not a sufficient reason to conclude that it is probable that Jesus existed.
In relation to principles (P4) and (P5), Hinman quotes from a post by James McGrath:
Response to POINT #7:
I have already commented on the claim that “We all have biases…” in my previous post on 5A. (Historical Methods); see my comments on principle (P4). I agree that use of scholarly methodology and peer review by other scholars in the field can “can limit the impact that individual biases can have”, but it is naive of McGrath to ignore the obvious fact that both the imposition of “methodology” and the use of peer review can also create and enforce widespread biases among scholars in a field. These two facts are compatible with each other. A group or generation of scholars can BOTH help scholars to avoid the impact of individual biases AND also create and enforce widespread biases among the scholars in that feild. It is McGrath who is being extremely naive here.
Response to POINT #8:
If someone literally claimed that NT scholars were arguing on the basis of “popular opinion”, then I suppose this point would make sense. But it seems much more likely that someone was claiming that NT scholars are biased in favor of some widespread Christian beliefs, such as that Jesus actually existed, and that this bias is, in part, the result of the fact that this is a widespread Christian belief. Such a view of NT scholars seems true to me, or at least probably true in general (i.e. concerning most NT scholars).
It would be a blatant STRAW MAN fallacy to characterize such a view of NT scholars as equivalent to the idea that NT scholars CITE popular opinion as EVIDENCE for any of their conclusions, including the conclusion that Jesus was an actual historical person. There is an obvious difference between being influenced or biased by widespread Christian beliefs on the one hand, and using the popularity of a belief among Christians as EVIDENCE for the truth of a belief. So, if the skeptic to whom McGrath is responding claimed, as I suspect, that NT scholars were biased in favor of certain widespread Chrsitian beliefs, such as that Jesus existed, and that the fact that these beliefs were widely held by Christians was, in part, the cause of the existence of this bias, then McGrath’s response commits a STRAW MAN fallacy by attributing an idiotic viewpoint to that Jesus skeptic, an absurd viewpoint not actually held by that skeptic.
Furthermore, if McGrath was responding to a Jesus skeptic who actually held the idiotic view that McGrath attacks, then although McGrath’s response would not, in that case, be a STRAW MAN fallacy, Hinman’s quotation of McGrath would, however, still be a STRAW MAN fallacy, because in quoting McGrath in this context, Hinman is suggesting that Jesus skeptics generally or frequently hold such an idiotic view, which is a false and slanderous suggestion, an attack on an idiotic view that is NOT generally found among Jesus skeptics.
Response to POINT #9:
McGrath here provides an interesting and substantial bit of reasoning in support of the conclusion that Jesus probably was a flesh-and-blood historical person. The argument is in need of clarification and further explanation, but there is enough substance here that I can see a significant problem with the argument.
The problem is this: an NT scholar can be fairly skeptical about particular events and details found in the Gospels while at the same time making the unquestioned assumption that Jesus was an actual historical person. Different scholars who have this sort of point of view can argue vigorously over different particular events and details found in the Gospels, and come to a general consensus that some events/details are more likely to be historical than other events/details. Given their agreed upon and unquestioned assumption that Jesus existed, those events/details that are thought to be the “most likely” of various Gospel events/details, will then be inferred to be PROBABLY HISTORICAL.
In other words, NT scholars can use established methods and peer review to arrive at some degree of consensus on which events/details are the “most likely” to be historical. Such comparative probability judgments (i.e. “Event A is more probable than event B”) can be combined with the assumption that Jesus existed in order to support the conclusion that a certain event/detail is probably true (e.g. “Event A probably happened.”).
But a scholarly consensus as to which events/details in the Gospels are the most likely to be historical, does not mean that those events are probably true or historical. If Jesus did not exist, then even the “most likely” details/events in the Gospels (i.e. the details/events that best satisfied various scholarly criteria) would generally be false. Sometimes the best car in the lot is a pile of junk. Sometimes the most likely detail/event in a story is just pure fiction.
So, the skepticism that McGrath speaks of here is compatible with the view that NT scholars generally have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus and that this bias leads them to conclude that certain details/events in the Gospels are probably historical, even though these scholars are “skeptically” applying scholarly criteria to the details/events in the Gospels and casting aside many of those details/events as being historically improbable.
Response to POINT #10:
This point by McGrath is clearly another STRAW MAN fallacy, as I argued in my previous post; see my discussion about principle (P5).
Response to POINT #11:
Obviously, someone who dedicates his or her life to the study of evidence about Jesus and the Gospels and other relevant historical data, will have some advantages over non-experts in terms of knowledge, skill, and experience, in dealing with historical questions related to Jesus. But to assume that non-experts are “unlikely to make sound judgements” about historical questions related to Jesus is a bit elitist and a bit extreme.
What about someone who spends half of his or her life studying the evidence about Jesus? What about someone who spends ten years of his or her life studying the evidence about Jesus? What about someone who dedicates just two years to study of this evidence? Obviously there are many degrees to which a person can dedicate time and energy to historical issues concerning Jesus of Nazareth. There are also many degrees of knowledge and education and intellectual ability that different people bring to such investigations.
Many people have college degrees in the humanities, and have developed significant skills in reading and critical thinking and argumentation, without ever having earned advanced degrees in the humanities or in New Testament studies. Some people have graduate degrees in history or literature or philosophy, but have not earned an advanced degree in New Testament studies. Such people are not without ability to study the relevant evidence and to make sound historical judgments.
The question “Did Jesus exist?” is too important a question to simply be handed off to a group of “experts”, particularly given that there is reason to believe that NT scholars have some significant biases related to this question. Philosophers may be experts in the field of ethics and morality, but are Christians willing to hand off the question “Is abortion morally wrong?” to a group of philosophers, and then live their lives in accordance with the judgment of “experts” on this issue? Obviously not, and I don’t know anyone, even among philosophers, who thinks this would be a good idea.
We ought to turn to experts for help in making better judgments about such controversial issues, but we also ought to formulate our own beliefs, based on the best thinking that we can manage given the limitations of one’s education, knowledge, and intellectual abilities, and we ought NOT simply hand off such issues to “the experts” to make these important decisions for us.
Finally, although NT scholars have some obvious advantages in terms of knowledge, skills, and experience in making historical judgments about Jesus, it seems fairly obvious that (a) most disciplines involve the transmission and reinforcement of various biases and prejudices as well as important principles, methods, intellectual skills, and knowledge, and that (b) NT scholarship is no exception to this generalization.
Joe Hinman’s fifth argument for the existence of Jesus is presented in three sections:
5A. Historical Methods
5B. Big Web of Historicity
5C. Jesus Myth Theory Cannot Account for the Web
I will comment on, and raise objections to, points in each of these three sections, but this post will only cover part of the section on “Historical Methods”. Specifically, I will cover the five high-level principles of historical investigation proposed by Hinman in his discussion of “Historical Methods”.
5A. Hinman on Historical Methods: Five General Principles
Hinman advocates the following five general principles of historical investigation:
P1. The document, not the people, is the point.
P2. Supernatural content does not negate historic aspects.
P3. What people believed tells us things, even if we don’t believe it.
P4. Everyone is biased.
P5. The historicity of a single persona cannot be examined apart from the framework.
Hinman’s first principle of historical investigation is this:
P1. The document, not the people, is the point.
I don’t know what (P1) means, and Hinman’s discussion of this idea does not make it any clearer. Hinman’s discussion of (P1) makes a number of assertions that are interesting and worth thinking about, but I will comment on those more specific points in my next post on “Historical Methods”. I won’t criticize what I don’t understand, so Hinman needs to clarify this principle before I will attempt to evaluate it.
The second principle put forward by Hinman is a bit clearer:
P2. Supernatural content does not negate historic aspects.
A comment by Hinman provides further clarification of (P2):
Historians do not discount sources merely for supernatural contents. Even when they don’t believe the supernatural details, they don’t just deny everything the source says.
This is certainly a true point about how historians work, and I have no problem with the basic point. However, there are some qualifications that I would add to this principle.
First, the Gospels don’t just have a few “supernatural details”. They are filled with supernatural beings and events, from start to finish. Here are a few supernatural elements from the beginnings of two Gospels (Matthew and Luke):
- An angel visits Mary to tell her that she will become pregnant by the power of God, not by the usual biological process of sexual reproduction (Luke 1:26-38).
- Mary miraculously becomes pregnant without first having sex with a man (Matthew 1:18-25).
- An angel appears to some shepherds near Bethlehem to announce the birth of the Messiah, when Jesus is born there (Luke 2:1-20).
- A multitude of angels appear to the shepherds and praise God (Luke 2:1-20).
- A star indicates to some wise men from the East that a great king has been born in Palestine (Matthew 2:1-12).
- The same star miraculously guides the wise men to the specific house where Mary and the baby Jesus were staying (Matthew 2:1-12).
- Joseph, the husband of Mary, has a dream in which an angel warns him to take Mary and the baby Jesus away from Palestine, and Joseph follows this warning thus saving the baby Jesus from being killed in a mass slaughter of infants in Bethlehem by king Herod. (Matthew 2:13-23).
We have at least seven supernatural events surrounding the birth of Jesus in just the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. After that the miracles and supernatural events just keep on coming: Jesus turns water into wine, Jesus heals the blind, the lame, and the deaf. Jesus raises dead people back to life. Jesus walks on water, calms a huge storm with a command, and feeds thousands of people with a few fishes and a few loaves of bread. Jesus is levitated to the top of the temple by the devil and argues with the devil. Jesus is transfigured and has a conversation with Moses and Elijah. Jesus reads people’s minds. Jesus miraculously causes huge collections of fish to congregate in the nets of his disciples. Jesus dies and then comes back to life less than 48 hours later. He then walks through a locked door, instantly vanishes from sight at will, and is able to levitate himself up into the sky.
The Gospels do not just contain a few “supernatural details”. They are filled with supernatural beings (angels and demons and spirits) and supernatural events (miraculous healings, resurrections, mind reading, and nature miracles like levitation, walking on water, and controlling the weather).
Second, the supernatural elements in the Gospels are often essential to the stories related in the Gospels. If we strip out all of the supernatural beings and events from the birth narratives, for example, there is not much left over. If 75% of the assertions in the birth narratives are fictional, then why believe the 25% that remains?
It is possible that the very minimal historical claim “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” could be true, but given the general unreliability of the birth narratives (due in part to their being filled with supernatural beings and events), this also casts doubt on the tiny bit of historical “information” that remains after stripping out all of the clearly fictional B.S. Given that Christians believed that the Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and given that most of the other assertions in the birth narratives are historically dubious, we ought to be very skeptical about the claim “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” even though this claim does not, by itself, involve any supernatural elements. It might represent prophecy that was used to formulate “history”.
What remains of the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana if we delete his miracle of turning water into wine? Not much: Jesus went to a wedding in Cana. What remains of the story of Jesus walking on water on the sea of Galilee if we remove the walking on water part? Not much: Jesus went in a boat with some of his disciples on the sea of Galilee. What remains of the transfiguration story if we remove the part about how Jesus began to shine like a bright light and if we remove the appearance of Moses and Elijah? Not much: Jesus prayed with some of his disciples on a mountain top. In a few stories the supernatural beings or events might be a detail that can be ignored, but in many cases the supernatural being or event plays an important role in the story, so that removing the supernatural element guts the story or seriously changes the meaning of the story or makes the story illogical and incoherent.
As David Friedrich Strauss argued long ago in The Life of Jesus, the attempt of skeptics to strip out all of the supernatural elements of the Gospels while still maintaining the basic historicity of the Gospel accounts makes no sense. It makes far more sense to admit that Gospels are filled with legends and myths and fictional stories, and that only a few bits and pieces here and there, at best, are factual and historical.
Third, the assertion of this principle borders on a STRAW MAN fallacy. There is the suggestion here that Jesus skeptics doubt the historicity of the Gospels ONLY because the Gospel stories contain supernatural elements. Skeptics do NOT doubt the historicity of the Gospels ONLY because of there are a few supernatural details in them, nor do skeptics doubt the historicity of the Gospels ONLY because the Gospels are filled with supernatural beings and events.
Take the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke for example. They include many supernatural elements, both supernatural beings (angels), and supernatural events (virgin birth, a star that guides people to a specific location). These supernatural elements are one reason for doubting the historicity of these stories, but there are other reasons as well. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke use Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus, but there is no birth story in Mark. When Matthew and Luke follow the narrative framework in Mark, they generally agree with each other, but when they provide birth stories, their stories contradict each other, indicating that when they depart from the information in Mark, at least one of the two Gospels provides a fictional birth story, and perhaps both birth stories are fictional.
There are also some historically improbable details in both accounts beyond the supernatural elements. The census in Luke is historically improbable for various reasons. The slaughter of the innocents story in Matthew is historically improbable. The relocation of the holy family to Egypt is historically improbable. The fact that both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in accordance with an alleged messianic prophecy, casts doubt on the historicity of that key shared claim between the two birth stories.
So, the rejection of the birth stories as legends or myths is not based ONLY on the fact that these stories are filled with supernatural elements. There are other good reasons that point to the same conclusion. Similar reasoning applies to skepticism about other parts of the Gospels.
Hinman’s third principle of historical investigation is a bit vague:
P3. What people believed tells us things, even if we don’t believe it.
I’m not sure what Hinman is getting at here, but taken straightforwardly, this principle seems obviously correct. Using an historical document to determine what early Christians believed about God or Jesus “tells us things”, even if the historian rejects some or all of those beliefs. At the very least, this tells us what early Christians believed about God or Jesus!
This information about the beliefs of early Christians can also help historians to better analyze and evaluate particular Gospel stories and passages. If early Christians believed that Jesus lived a perfectly sinless life, then historians could anticipate and look for places where the Gospels of Matthew and Luke modify some story or passage from Mark in order to make Jesus appear to be sinless, and to the extent that historians do find such modifications of Mark by Matthew and Luke, this provides further evidence that early Christians believed Jesus was sinless and also provides evidence that Matthew and Luke alter information from their sources to make the story or quotation fit better with their theological beliefs or the theological beliefs of their early Christian readers.
One of the things that the Gospels tell us is that early Christians were gullible and superstitious, at least if we assume that early Christian believers read the Gospels literally. They believed in astrological signs, in angels, in demons, in demon possession, in the devil, in faith healing, in prophetic dreams, in levitation, in mind reading, in spirits of the dead, in raising the dead, in prophecy. They believed all of these things without demanding strong evidence for claims of such events; they believed such things on the basis of hearsay and testimonial evidence, on the basis of contradictory reports in the canonical Gospels, and without conducting serious skeptical investigations into the facts. This is an important fact about early Christians that we can learn from reading the Gospels. We can learn of the gullibility of early Christian believers even if we reject some or all of the beliefs that they formed in gullible and uncritical ways.
We can also learn that the early Christians were either not particularly good at logical and critical thinking or else were generally ignorant about the contents of the OT, because they were not skeptical about Jesus being a true prophet and the divine Son of God in spite of the various contradictions between Christian doctrines and the teachings of the Old Testament (e.g. OT: God rewards those who obey his commandments with wealth, health, peace and happiness in this life, but provides only a dark and miserable afterlife for good and evil people alike. NT: God allows people who have faith in him and Jesus to suffer poverty, disease, hunger, and persecution in this life, but will provide a life of eternal bliss to those people in the next life.)
That early Christians were not particularly good at logical and critical thinking is also supported by their acceptance of various logical contradictions within Christian theology (e.g. For God so loved the world that God planned to send most humans to suffer torture in hell for all eternity). Of course it is possible that a few early Christians were bothered by such contradictions, but not enough were bothered so that there would be apologetic points on these issues built into the Gospels (or the letters of Paul).
That early Christians were not particularly good at logical and critical thinking is also supported by their apparent acceptance of unclarity of Jesus’ teachings and the teachings of Paul on central issues (e.g. “What must I do to be saved?” Protestants disagree with Catholics on the answer to this fundamental question, and Protestants disagree with each other on the answer to this fundamental question. These disagreements between various Christian denominations are the result of the unclarity and inconsistencies in the teachings of Jesus, in the teachings of Paul, and inconsistencies between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul.).
We can, however, also learn things that help the case for an historical Jesus. If the Gospels and other early Christian writings show that Christians viewed the crucifixion of Jesus as something that was very shameful, then that could provide evidence in support of the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus. Why invent a story about the death of Jesus that is so shameful? I don’t necessarily accept this argument from embarassment, but it is an example of how knowledge about the beliefs of early Christians can be used in support of the historicity of Jesus or of a particular event in the life (or death) of Jesus.
The fourth principle that Hinman advocates is quite brief:
P4. Everyone is biased.
Based on Hinman’s discussion of (P4) and (P5) it appears that this principle is given in part as a reply to an objection about an alleged bias of scholars on the issue of the historicity of Jesus. Here are two plausible claims about NT scholars along such lines:
- The vast majority of NT scholars have a significant bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus.
- Most NT scholars have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus.
So, one question to keep in mind is whether (P4) provides a strong reply to such criticisms about NT scholars.
The principle (P4) is a bit vague and ambiguous. Here are a couple of different possible interpretations of (P4):
P4a. Everyone has a bias on some issue or other.
P4b. For any given theory, everyone is either biased in favor of the theory or biased against the theory.
Principle (P4a) is no doubt true, but it is insignificant and unhelpful in this context, because it leaves open the possibility that some people have a bias when it comes to the issue of the historicity of Jesus and other people do NOT have a bias on this issue. Because (P4a) leaves this possibility open, it does not help us any in dealing with this particular issue; it fails to provide a strong reply to the above criticisms about NT scholars.
Principle (P4b) on the other hand, would certainly be of some significance to the issue of the historicity of Jesus, but, alas, (P4b) is a very broad generalization that is clearly false. So, principle (P4b) is of no use, and fails to provide a strong reply to the above criticisms of NT scholars, because (P4b) is false.
We could try to rescue (P4b) by narrowing the scope to focus exclusively on the issue of the historicity of Jesus:
P4c. Everyone is either biased in favor of the historicity of Jesus or is biased against the historicity of Jesus.
But (P4c) is still somewhat dubious. The issue of the historicity of Jesus is more controversial than many other issues, but controversiality is based on the feelings and attitudes of people in general, and there are almost always exceptions to such general psychological phenomena. In other words, although most people have strong feelings about this issue, it seems fairly certain that there are at least a few people who don’t have strong feelings or opinions about the historicity of Jesus. So, in order to rescue the (P4c) in terms of truth, we would need to either qualify the degree of bias that is being asserted or revise the quantification in terms of the proportion of people in scope:
P4d. Everyone is either biased at least a tiny bit in favor of the historicity of Jesus or biased at least a tiny bit against the historicity of Jesus.
P4e. Most people are either significantly biased in favor of the historicity of Jesus or significantly biased against the historicity of Jesus.
These generalizations are at least plausible. However, (P4d) leaves open the possibility that some people (e.g. NT scholars) have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus, while other people (e.g. Jesus skeptics) have only a tiny bit of bias against the historicity of Jesus. This would clearly not help Hinman’s case for the existence of Jesus, and fails to provide a strong reply to the above criticsims about NT scholars.
Also, (P4e) leaves open the possibility that some people (e.g. NT scholars) have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus, while a few people (e.g. Jesus skeptics) have no significant bias on this issue. Again, this would not be of help for Hinman’s case, and fails to provide a strong reply to the criticisms of NT scholars.
I have considered a number of different possible interpretations of principle (P4). The principle is false or dubious on some of those interpretations, and on the interpretations where the principle is true or plausible, it is either insignificant and unhelpful or appears to be of no help to Hinman’s case, and fails to provide a strong reply to the above criticisms of NT scholars.
If Hinman wants to continue to advocate this principle, he needs to clarify it in terms of the quantification of the portion of people who are being characterized and he needs to clarify it in terms of the scope of issues to which it applies, and he needs to clarify it in terms of the degree of bias that is being alleged (because there is a big difference between a strong bias and a very tiny bit of bias). Principle (P4) cannot be rationally evaluated unless and until it is re-stated in a much clearer and more specific form.
As with (P4), the final principle is in need of clarification:
P5. The historicity of a single persona cannot be examined apart from the framework.
What matters in this context is whether this principle applies to (or is correct in terms of) the issue of the historicity of Jesus, so we can focus on this instantiation of (P5): ”
IP5. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be examined apart from the framework.
The term “the framework” is unclear and vague. However, based on Hinman’s discussion of this principle, this phrase appears to refer to the view or theory that Jesus existed, that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person. Given this understanding of “the framework”, the principle is still ambiguous. Here are two different possible interpretations:
IP5a. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be examined apart from assuming that Jesus of Nazareth was a flesh-and-blood historical person.
IP5b. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be examined apart from examining the issue of whether Jesus of Nazareth was a flesh-and-blood historical person.
Principle (IP5a) clearly involves circular reasoning. If one simply assumes that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person, then one begs the question of the historicity of Jesus. So, we must reject (IP5a) because it is an unreasonable and illogical principle.
Principle (IP5b), on the other hand, is completely and undeniably true. But it is true because it is a trivial and uninformative tautology. The question of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth just is the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was a flesh-and-blood historical person. So, this principle is of no significant help or use (other than to clarify the question at issue for those who are ignorant or confused).
There is one other interpretation, which seems both plausible and significant:
IP5c. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be examined apart from treating this question as a question about which framework or theory among available alternatives best accounts for all of the available evidence (e.g. the theory that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person vs. the theory that Jesus was just a myth).
Because this interpretation is both plausible and significant, the Principle of Charity indicates that this is the best interpretation, at least of the possible interpretations considered so far.
I have no objection to (IP5c). However, it is obvious to any intelligent and informed Jesus skeptic that (IP5c) is true, and intelligent and informed Jesus skeptics usually think and argue in keeping with (IP5c). G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, Robert Price, and Richard Carrier all accept this principle and they all think and argue in keeping with this principle, at least most of the time. So, emphasis on this principle appears to me to be bordering on a STRAW MAN fallacy.
Jesus skeptics do NOT argue that because this or that Gospel story is historically problematic, therefore Jesus is just a myth. The case against the historicity of Jesus is much broader than that and deals with a wide range of evidence both from the NT and from external (non-biblical) historical sources. Emphasis of this principle is a way of suggesting that Jesus skeptics and Jesus mythicists are idiots who don’t think and argue in keeping with this principle, but that suggestion is false and slanderous. There are some stupid and unreasonable Jesus skeptics, but the major published Jesus skeptics accept (IP5c) and generally conform their thinking to this principle.
QUESTION 1: What is Hinman’s Central Claim about Josephus?
There are two famous passages in a book by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that appear to refer to Jesus. Joe Hinman wants to focus on the “brother passage”, the passage in Antiquities that mentions a person named “James” and refers to him as “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ”. (Antiquities 20,200).
After a brief introductory paragraph, Hinman quotes the “brother passage”
But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned. (emphasis is from Hinman’s web article)
After quoting the “brother passage” Hinman quotes a comment from the Josephus scholar Louis Feldman about the passage:
That indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage–the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged–about James, who is termed…the brother of “the aforementioned Christ”… (from the Introduction in Feldman, Louis H. & Hata, Gohey “Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity”, page 56)
From this quoting of Feldman, I infer that the key claim in Hinman’s argument from Josephus is this:
(1) The passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been altered by a copyist or editor).
This is Hinman’s central claim about Josephus. He chose to focus on this passage about Jesus rather than the more interesting Testimonium Flavianum (hereafter: TF) passage , because the “brother passage does not have the kind of doubt, or attack, or charges of forgery” that is associated with the TF passage. There is less controversy about the authenticity of the “brother passage”, so Hinman bases his argument from Josephus on the authenticity of this passage.
QUESTION 2: What is the Logic of Hinman’s Argument from Josephus?
As with Hinman’s argument from Polycarp, my initial objection is that his argument is incomplete. Hinman fails to explain how it is that his key premise (1) supports a conclusion about the existence of Jesus. However, it seems to me that the missing premises and reasoning are more obvious and less obviously mistaken than in the case of his argument from Polycarp. I think the following unstated intermediate conclusion is very likely to be a part of Hinman’s argument/reasoning:
(2) There existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
From this intermediate conclusion, a further conclusion logically follows:
(3) Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Although it would beg the question to simply assert the truth of premise (2), Hinman is not guitly of that fallacy here, because premise (1) appears to provide evidence in support of premise (2), and asserting the truth of (1) does NOT beg the question at issue.
However, it is important to note that although (2) entails (3), (1) does NOT entail (2), which is why this argument does not beg the question at issue. Premise (1) only provides evidence for premise (2); it does not provide a deductive proof of (2). So, it would be clearer and more accurate to modify and re-state premise (2) and the conclusion (3) in terms of probability:
(1) The passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been significantly altered by a copyist or editor).
(2A) It is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
(3A) It is probable that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Even with the addition of the intermediate conclusion (2A), this argument is still incomplete. But the missing premise is a “warrant” premise (call it the “Josephus Warrant” or JW) that asserts that the truth of (1) proves or supports the truth of (2A):
(JW) IF the passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been significantly altered by a copyist or editor), THEN it is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
It is the combination of premise (1) and (JW) that provides support for (2A). Hinman did not argue for premise (JW), but if I am correct that his reasoning involves the intermediate conclusion (2A), then he needs for (JW) to be true or correct in order for his argument to be successful.
Perhaps Hinman believes that (JW) is obviously true and thus it is not in need of supporting evidence or reasoning. Since (JW) is not obviously false and not obviously problematic, I’m comfortable with attributing this argument to Hinman even though he did not clearly and explicitly state this argument in his post on Josephus. I believe that this is a reasonable “educated guess” at the argument Hinman had in mind concerning the external evidence of Josephus.
It is also the case that Hinman provides very little evidence in support of his primary factual premise (1). The link to more in-depth discussion of the Josephus evidence points to an article that makes no attempt to support premise (1):
It is not the purpose of this article to address the arguments of the few commentators-mostly Jesus Mythologists-who doubt the authenticity of the second reference [to Jesus]. (from the first sentence of the section called “The Testimonium Flavianum” in the web article “Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?” by Christopher Price)
QUESTION 3: Is the “brother passage” in Antiquities Authentic?
A. Christian Copyists Altered their Own Sacred Scriptures
We know that Christian copyists made many alterations to the Greek text of the New Testament documents, both intentionally and unintentionally, even though those documents were considered to be sacred scripture by many Christians. Bart Ehrman provides several examples of alterations by Christian copyists to NT texts in his book Misquoting Jesus, and he makes the following relevant comment in the concluding chapter:
…whatever else we may say about the Christian scribes–whether of the early centuries or of the Middle Ages–we have to admit that in addition to copying scripture, they were changing scripture. Sometimes they didn’t mean to–they were simply tired, or inattentive, or, on occasion, inept. At other times, though, they did mean to make changes, as when they wanted the text to emphasize precisely what they themselves believed, for example about the nature of Christ, or about the role of women in the church, or about the wicked character of their Jewish opponents.
This conviction that scribes had changed scripture became an increasing certitude for me as I studied the text more and more. (Misquoting Jesus, p.210)
For examples supporting this view, see Chapter 2 (“The Copyists of Early Christian Writings”) and Chapter 6 (“Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text”) of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman.
Surely, if Christian editors and copyists altered the texts of their own sacred scriptures, they would be likely to alter the texts of a Jewish historian as well.
B. Christians Clearly Altered (or Created) the Only Other Passage about Jesus in Antiquities
Robert Van Voorst describes the views of modern scholars about the TF passage:
While a few scholars still reject it fully and even fewer accept it fully, most now prefer two middle positions. The first middle position reconstructs an authentic Josephan passage neutral towards Jesus, and the second reconstructs an authentic passage negative toward Jesus. (JONT, p.93)
The viewpoints in order of descending acceptance by modern scholars:
- Middle Positions (most scholars believe that Christians made a few alterations to the TF passage).
- Full Rejection (a few scholars believe that Christians created the whole passage, or that it is simply not possible to determine what parts of the passage were originally written by Josephus).
- Full Acceptance (a very few scholars believe the entire passage is authentic, that all of the passage was written by Josephus).
All but a very few scholars have concluded that the TF passage was either partially or completely the creation of Christians. There are only two passages that refer to Jesus in Antiquities, the other passage being the “brother passage”. So, it is reasonable to conclude that Christians altered (or created) the TF passage, the only other passage about Jesus besides the “brother passage”. This background information suggests that it is likely that Christian copyists also altered the “brother passage”.
C. The Oldest Greek Manuscripts of Antiquities are from Long After Christians Altered the Text
According to John Meier, “we have only three Greek manuscripts of Book 18 [which contains the Testimonium Flavianum passage] of The Antiquities, the earliest of which dates from the 11th century.” (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.62). But Eusebius quoted from the altered version of the TF early in the fourth century, so the Christian alterations were made in the second or third centuries:
The first witness to this passage as it stands now is from Eusebius in about 323 (Ecclesiastical History 1.11). (JONT, p.92)
This means that textual criticism is of no help in determining the authenticity of the TF:
Because the few manuscipts of Josephus come from the eleventh century, long after Christian interpolations would have been made, textual criticism cannot help to solve this issue. ..We are left to examine the context, style, and content of this passage to judge its authenticity. (JONT, p.88-89).
Examiniation of context, style, and content of the “brother passage”, however, cannot provide sufficient reason to be fully confident that no alterations were made to this passage by Christian copyists. So, if small changes by copyists could make a big difference to the significance of this passage as evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, then premise (1) of Hinman’s argument would be cast into serious doubt.
D. Small Changes to the “brother passage” by Christian Copyists Would Make a Big Difference
If the entire “brother passage” was invented by a Christian copyist, then obviously the passage would be a complete fake and provide no evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth whatsoever.
However, if the passage was NOT completely fake, but has been modified slightly by the addition of a phrase or two, then the evidence provided by the passage could be seriously diminished or even eliminated.
- If the phrase “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” was added by a Christian copyist, then the passage provides no significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, even if the rest of the passage was authentic.
- If the original passage mentioned “the brother of the so-called Christ” and a Christian copyist added the name “Jesus” to that phrase, then the passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “James” was a very common Jewish name, and because there have been many Jews who claimed to be the Messiah or who were believed by others to be the Messiah.
- If the original passage included the phrase “the brother of Jesus” but said nothing about Jesus being “the so-called Christ”, then this passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “James” and “Jesus” were both common Jewish names at that time.
- If the original passage included the phrase “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” but a Christian copyist added the phrase “whose name was James” to this passage, then the passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “Jesus” was a common Jewish name, and because there have been many Jews who claimed to be the Messiah or who were believed by others to be the Messiah.
The “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth only if the phrase “the brother of Jesus” AND the phrase “the so-called Christ” AND the phrase “whose name was James” are all authentic, only if ALL THREE of these phrases were in the original text of Antiquities written by Josephus.
E. The Difficulty of Determining the Authenticity & Significance of the “brother passage” given the Above Facts
Given that Christian copyists altered the texts of their own sacred scriptures, and given that Christian copyists have clearly altered (or possibly created) the TF passage in Antiquities, it is probable that Christian copyists also altered (or possibly created) the only other passage in Antiquities that refers to Jesus: the “brother passage”.
Furthermore, the most crucial evidence for determining whether any alterations were made to the “brother passage” is unavailable: the only Greek manuscript copies that we have were made many centuries after the TF passage was altered by Christian copyists (and presumably many centuries after the “brother passage” was altered, if it had been altered). Finally, since the evidence provided by the “brother passage” would be seriously diminished if just one of the three key phrases had been added by a Christian copyist, this passage can be viewed as providing significant evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth ONLY IF we can be very confident that NONE of the three key phrases was added by a Christian coyist.
Given that the general background evidence indicates that it is probable that a Christian copyist altered the “brother passage”, and given that the crucially important evidence needed to determine whether this passage is completely authentic is unavailable (no early Greek manuscript copies of The Antiquities are available), and given that the addition of a single word (“Jesus”) or one phrase (“the brother of Jesus” or “the so-called Christ” or “whose name is James”) by a Christian copyist would seriously diminish the strength of the evidence that this passage provides for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, I see no rational way to be very confident that the “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Considerations about context, style, and content of the “brother passage” will simply not be able to provide a rational basis for being very confident that NONE of the three key phrases was added by a Christian copyist.
F. IF the TF Passage Is Completely Inauthentic, THEN the “brother passage” is Probably NOT Completely Authentic
The majority view among modern scholars who study Josephus is that the TF passage is partially authentic, but not completely authentic. The majority view is that Christian copyists made a few significant additions or changes to that passage. Given this view, I have argued that it is probable that the “brother passage” was also altered by Christian copyists. So, that is one way in which a judgment about the authenticity of the TF passage impacts our judgement about the authenticity of the “brother passage”.
But there are other possibilities concerning the TF passage. Some scholars argue that the TF passage is completely inauthentic, that all or nearly all of the passage was created by Christian editors or copyists. If these scholars are correct, then that would make it very probable that the “brother passage” was not completely authentic. As Hinman points out, the authenticity of the “brother passage” is evidence for the authenticity of the TF passage:
Josephus refers to James by referencing Jesus as though he’s mentioned Jesus or the reader should know who he is. Jewish scholar Paul Winters states: “if…Josephus referred to James as being ‘the brother of Jesus who is called Christ,’ without much ado, we have to assume that in an earlier passage he had already told his readers about Jesus himself.”
In other words, if Josephus refers to “Jesus” in the “brother passage” without providing an explanation of who this “Jesus” person was, then this implies (or makes it very probable) that Josephus had referred to “Jesus” in the earlier TF passage. But in that case, if the TF passage was completely inauthentic, as some scholar argue, then this would be significant evidence that the “brother passage” was NOT completely authentic. This would be evidence that the reference to “Jesus” in the “brother passage” was added AFTER the creation and insertion of the TF passage, so that the writer composing the “brother passage” could refer back to the TF passage. But if the writer composing the “brother passage” is referring back to a completely inauthentic TF passage, that means that the writer of the “brother passage” was not Josephus, but was instead, a copyist (whether Christian or non-Christian) who was preserving a text that had previously been altered by a Christian copyist to include the TF passage. The complete inauthenticity of the TF passage would thus imply (or make very probable) that the “brother passage” is not completely authentic.
G. If the Reference to “Christ” was Inserted into TF, then the “brother passage” is probably NOT Completely Authentic.
A similar issue arises even if we assume that the TF passage was partially authentic. One of the two “Middle Positions” taken by modern scholars who study Josephus is that the original TF passage was neutral and Christian copyists simply inserted a few phrases. The leading Jesus scholar John Meier argues for a neutral re-construction of the TF passage, in which the sentence “He was the Christ.” is removed (along with some other phrases and sentences) on the assumption that this sentence was added by a Christian copyist.
But if this neutral reconstruction of the TF passage is correct, then the part of the “brother passage” that refers to Jesus as “the so-called Christ” is suspect, because the previous mention of Jesus in the TF did not use the term “Christ” to describe or identify the “Jesus” in that passage. Since “Jesus” was a common Jewish name in that time, the absence of the term “Christ” in the TF passage would make it unclear that the “Jesus” in the “brother passage” was the same person as the “Jesus” in the TF passage. Thus, it seems unlikely that Josephus would write about “Jesus the so-called Christ” and expect his non-Christian Gentile readers to know that he was referring back to the same “Jesus” that he had mentioned in the TF passage.
There is a good chance that the neutral view of the TF passage is correct. But if that view is correct, then the TF passage did not refer to Jesus as “the Christ” nor as “the so-called Christ”. But in that case, it seems likely that the phrase “Jesus the so-called Christ” in the “brother passage” was not written by Josephus, but was added later by a Christian copyist AFTER the TF passage was altered to refer to Jesus as “the Christ” (or after it was altered to refer to Jesus as “the so-called Christ”).
Once again, a judgment about the authenticity of the TF passage has implications for judging the authenticity of the “brother passage”. Even if we assume that the TF passage was partially authentic, there is a good chance that the original TF passage did not refer to Jesus as “the Christ” and this would in turn cast significant doubt on the hypothesis that the “brother passage” was completely authentic.
H. If the Reference to “Jesus” was Inserted into TF, then the “brother passage” is probably NOT Completely Authentic.
Given that the vast majority of modern scholars who study Josephus have concluded either that the TF passage is partially inauthentic or that it is completely inauthentic, that either some parts of the TF passage were created by a Christian copyist or that the entire passage was created by a Christian copyist, there is a good chance that the name “Jesus” was inserted into the TF passage by a Christian copyist. But if that was the case, then that would cast doubt on they hypothesis that the “brother passage” reference to “Jesus” was authentic.
In the “brother passage” Josephus refers to James as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”, but provides no other expalnation to his non-Christian gentile readers about this “Jesus” person. This makes no sense unless Josephus had previousl mentioned “Jesus” and previously provided more information about this “Jesus”. If the original TF passage did not explicitly refer to “Jesus”, then it is highly unlikely that Josephus would assume that his non-Christian gentile readers would understand the “Jesus” mentioned in the “brother passage” to be the same person that he had previously mentioned in the TF passage. Therefore, if the original TF passage did not explicitly refer to “Jesus”, then this would cast serious doubt on the hypothesis that the “brother passage” was completely authentic, and it would specifically cast doubt on the view that the original “brother passage” contained an explicit reference to “Jesus”.
QUESTION 4: Is the Information in the “brother passage” INDEPENDENT of the NT writings?
A. Authenticity is NOT Enough
There is a serious problem with the logic of Hinman’s argument, or at least with the argument that I attributed to Hinman (in response to Question 2 above). Although establishing the authenticity of the “brother passage” is necessary in order to support his conclusion, it is NOT sufficient. There are other important questions that must be considered.
One important question is about the source of the information that Jospehus presents in the “brother passage”. If this information came either directly or indirectly from the Gospels or from other New Testament writings (e.g. the letters of Paul), then the “brother passage” does not provide evidence for the existence of Jesus that is INDEPENDENT from the New Testament. If the “brother passage” does not provide evidence that is independent from the NT, then it does not count as external evidence for the existence of Jesus, but is merely an echo of the evidence from the NT.
B. Antiquities was Written AFTER the Gospels and the Letter of Paul to the Galatians
Josephus wrote The Antiquities in either 93 or 94 CE. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians about 50 to 55 CE. The gospel of Mark was probably written about 70 CE, and the gospel of Matthew was probably written about 85 CE. Thus Josephus wrote the “brother passage” about 40 years after Paul wrote to the Galations, about 25 years after the gospel of Mark was written, and about a decade after the gospel of Matthew was written. Each of these NT documents states or implies that Jesus of Nazareth had a brother named James, and that some Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah or “the Christ”:
but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:19, New Revised Standard Version)
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3, New Revised Standard Version)
Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? (Matthew 13:55, New Revised Standard Version)
Josephus could have learned the idea that there was a man named Jesus who was the brother of a man named James, and who was believed by some Jews to be the Messiah or “the Christ” from reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of Matthew. He could have learned this “information” years before composing the “brother passage”. If Josephus learned this “information” from reading one of these Christian writings, then the information would have come directly from the NT and thus the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Any Christian who read (or heard someone else read) the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of Matthew would have reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the brother of a man named James and that some Jews believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or “the Christ”, based on these authoratative writings that many Christians viewed as inspired scripture. Josephus could have learned these ideas from one or more Christian believers who had read one or more of these two gospels or Paul’s letter to the Galations. If Josephus learned this “information” from such Christian believers, then these ideas in the “brother passage” would have come indirectly from the writings of the NT and the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Furthermore, a non-Christian friend or acquaintance of Josephus could have learned these ideas from either reading one of the canonical gospels or from reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or from conversations with Christian believers who had read Mark or Matthew or the letter to the Galatians. If this non-Christian person then passed this “information” on to Josephus, then the ideas in the “brother passage” would have come indirectly from the writings of the NT and thus the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
C. The Information in the “brother passage” could have Come from More than One Source
Just as it is important to recognize that the TF passage could be partially authentic and partially inauthentic, so it is also important to recognize that the “brother passage” could be partially independent of the NT and partially dependent on the NT. The death of James the brother of Jesus is not described in the NT, so clearly the basic story in the “brother passage” did not come from the NT. However, it is possible that the idea that James was “the brother of Jesus” and that Jesus was “called the Christ” could have come from the NT, could be dependent on someone having read one or more writings from the NT.
Josephus could have had a story about a man “whose name was James” from a non-Christian source who obtained this information independent of the NT. But if Josephus wanted more information about this person named “James”, he could have obtained this additional information from a Christian source (who had read or heard Mark, Matthew, or Galatians), or from a non-Christian acquaintance who obtained information from reading Mark, Matthew, or Galatians or from conversations with a Christian (who had read or heard Mark, Matthew, or Galatians). In this case, even if the entire phrase “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ” was written by Josephus, this part of the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence of the existence of Jesus, even though the passage as a whole does provide some historical information that is independent of the NT.
D. There is a Significant Chance that the “brother passage” is Partially DEPENDENT on the New Testament
Because there is a significant chance that both references to “Jesus” in Antiquities are either directly or indirectly dependent on the writings of the NT, the NT scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that these references to Jesus fail to provide significant evidence for the existence of Jesus:
My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared-down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter for the question I am pursuing here. Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this. And here is why. Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium. That would show that by 93 CE–some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death–a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him. And where would Josephus have derived this information? He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation. There is nothing to suggest that Josephus had actually read the Gospels (he almost certainly had not) or that he did any kind of primary research into the life of Jesus by examining Roman records of some kind (there weren’t any). But as we will see later, we already know for lots of other reasons and on lots of other grounds that there were stories about Jesus floating around in Palestine by the end of the first century and much earlier. So even if the Testimonium, in the pared-down form, was written by Josephus, it does not give us much more evidence than we already have on the question of whether there really was a man Jesus. (Did Jesus Exist, p.65)
Ehrman believes that the references to “Jesus” by Josephus fail to provide significant evidence for the existence of Jesus even though it is Ehrman’s purpose in the book quoted above to refute Jesus Mythicists and to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person. Ehrman does not reject these passages from Josephus in order to support the belief that Jesus is a myth; he rejects them because there is a good chance that the information about Jesus in those passages is DEPENDENT on one or more of the writings of the NT.
Robert Van Voorst is an NT scholar who has also carefully studied the external evidence for Jesus, including the two passages by Josephus that refer to Jesus. Van Voorst is much more positive about this evidence that Ehrman is, but Van Voorst is honest enough to admit that his positive evaluation of the external evidence from Josephus rests on a somewhat shaky assumption, the assumption that the information Josephus had about Jesus was obtained INDEPENDENTLY of the writings of the NT:
These items rule out Josephus’s obtaining this wording [in the TF passage], and probably the information behind it, from the New Testament or other early Christian writings known to us. (JONT, p.102-103, emphasis added)
The evidence only “probably” rules out the hypothesis that Josephus obtained the information about Jesus in these passages from the New Testament or other early Christian writings. Van Voorst does not assert that the evidence “certainly” rules this out, nor that it “almost certainly” rules this out, nor that it “very probably” rules this out. Thus, Van Voorst tacitly admits that there is a significant chance that Josephus obtained his information about Jesus from the New Testament.
Further comments by Van Voorst reinforce his admission of the shakiness of the assumption that the TF passage and the “brother passage” contain independent historical information about Jesus:
Did this information [about Jesus] come indirectly from Christians or others to Josephus? We can be less sure about this [i.e. we can be less sure about ruling this out than ruling out that Josephus obtained the information about Jesus by reading some of the NT writings himself], althought the totality of the evidence points away from it. (JONT, p.103, emphasis added)
A more plausible hypothesis is that Josephus gained his knowledge of Christianity when he lived in Palestine. He supplemented it in Rome, as the words “to this day” may imply, where there was a significant Christian presence. Whether Josephus aquired his data by direct encounter with Christians, indirect information from others about their movement, or some combination of both, we cannot tell. John Meier is correct to conclude that none of these potential sources is verifiable, yet the evidence points to the last option as the more commendable. (JONT, p.102, emphasis added).
If “we cannot tell” whether Josephus aquired his data by “direct encounter with Christians” or not, then this implies that there is a significant chance that Josephus aquired some of his data by “direct encounter with Christians”, some of whom were very likely to have read or heard either the gospel of Mark, the gospel of Matthew, or the letter to the Galatians.
If “the more commendable” view is that Josephus obtained his data from “some combination of both,” meaning that Josephus obtained part of his data “by direct encounter with Christians” as well as obtaining some of his data “from others [non-Christians] about their movement”, then it is PROBABLE that Josephus obtained at least some of his “information” about Jesus by “direct encounter with Christians”, and thus it is reasonable to conclude that there is a significant chance that ALL of the information about Jesus in the TF passage and the “brother passage” was obtained by “direct encounter with Christians” in which case these passages do NOT provide any INDEPENDENT historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.
QUESTION 5: Is the Information in the “brother passage” probably true?
If I understand Hinman’s argument correctly, he is trying to provide evidence for an intermediate conclusion about a man named “James”:
(2A) It is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
The fact that Josephus asserted that there was such a man, does not prove that there was such a man. One can also challenge the assumption that the fact that Josephus asserted that there was such a man is sufficient evidence to show that it is PROBABLE that such a man existed. Thus, the considerations of authenticity and independence are not sufficient by themselves to show that the “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus.
The following diagram presents a somewhat overly simple analysis of how to approach the evaluation of the “brother passage”, but it illustrates that authenticity and independence are important considerations but are not sufficient for a careful and complete evaluation (click on the image below to get a clearer view of the chart):
(This chart is a bit overly simple, because it probably makes sense to ask whether the passage is partially authentic, especially in relation to the three key phrases, and whether the passage is partially independent, and to do so would require a more complex analysis and diagram. )
Even if we assume that 80% of the historical claims that Josephus makes in Antiquities are true claims, this does NOT allow us to confidently conclude of any particular claim made by Josephus in Antiquities that the claim is PROBABLY true. The problem is that the general reliability of Josephus as an historian and a maker of historical claims can be over-ridden by specific information relevant to a particular claim made by Josephus in Antiquities. So, at best, we can only conclude that a given claim by Josephus in Antiquities is probably true OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL. But then we need to think about in the case of the three key phrases/claims, whether other things are in fact equal.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible that the information that a man named “James” was “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” was included in the original passage written by Josephus, that this information was obtained completely independently of the NT, and yet that the information is simply mistaken. Perhaps James was called “the Lord’s brother” by fellow Christian believers (as in Galations 1:19) and this expression was not intended literally, and it simply meant that James was a devout follower of a divine being named “Jesus”. A non-Christian who heard others refer to James this way might well have mistakenly taken this expression to mean that James was the literal brother of a flesh-and-blood person named “Jesus”, and then passed this on to Josephus as a fact about James. In that case, the “brother passage” would be completely authentic, and it would be completely independent of the NT, and yet it would assert a false claim about this person named “James”, since it wrongly implies that James was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, when he was not.
Clearly, the combination of authenticity and independence is not sufficient by itself to establish that it is PROBABLE that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Further argumentation is needed to show that Josephus was a reliable historian and that there are no good reasons to doubt the reliability or truth of the three specific phrases/claims that we are concerned with in the “brother passage”: that the man in question was the literal brother of Jesus, that his brother Jesus was the so-called Christ, and that the man in question was named James.
Given that Christian copyists clearly altered their own sacred scriptures in the same time frame that they were copying the works of Josephus, and given that Christian copyists clearly altered the TF passage, the only other passage in Antiquities that refers to Jesus, it is reasonable to infer that Christian copyists probably also altered the “brother passage”, other things being equal. Given that the oldest Greek manuscripts that we have of Antiquities were made many centuries after Christian copyists altered the TF passage, and presumably many centuries after Christian copyists altered the “brother passage”, if they did alter that passage too, we don’t have any good way to verify that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and given that if one or two key words or phrases in that passage were added by Christian copyists, that would seriously diminish or even eliminate the force of this evidence for the existence of Jesus, I don’t see any way that one can have sufficient reason to be confident that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and given that there is a good chance that some of the information in the “brother passage” came either directly or indirectly from the NT, I don’t see how one can be confident that the “brother passage” is completely independent of the writings of the NT. Finally, even assuming that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and completely independent of the NT, it is not entirely clear that we ought to conclude that premise (2A) is true. Further argument is required before that conclusion is rationally justified.
Joe Hinman’s first argument for the existence of Jesus is based on references to Jesus in the Talmud:
We know Jesus was in the Talmud and that is a fact admitted by Rabbis. Some references use his name (Yeshua) some use code words such as “such a one” or “Panthera”. The reason codes are used, is that the commentators censored the works and removed overt reverences [sic] to Jesus (although they missed some) to prevent Christians from inflicting persecution. We have many of the out takes in various libraries such as Cambridge.
According to Hinman, it is not merely the fact that there are several references to Jesus in the Talmud that confirms the existence of Jesus but also the way that those passages speak about Jesus:
The point is he is always taken as a historical figure.
Since there are allegedly multiple (more than one) references in the Talmud that “use his name” and there are allegedly multiple references in the Talmud that “use code words” to refer to Jesus, and since there are allegedly “many” references to Jesus that can be shown to have been censored, and also some (a few?) additional references that were NOT censored, Hinman is implying that there are several references to Jesus in the Talmud, at that ALL of these several references speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood “historical figure”.
Here is how I would summarize Joe Hinman’s first argument:
1. There are MANY references to Jesus in the Talmud that were censored but that were preserved in some texts.
2. There are A FEW references to Jesus in the Talmud that were not censored.
3. ALL of the references to Jesus in the Talmud speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.
4. IF (1), (2), and (3) are true, THEN the external evidence from the Talmud is sufficient to make it reasonable to believe that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure.
5. The external evidence from the Talmud is sufficient to make it reasonable to believe that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure.
In order to show that premise (1) is true, I would expect Hinman to produce at least five or six quotations from the Talmud that have references to Jesus that can be shown to have been censored. In order to show that premise (2) is true, I would expect Hinman to produce at least three or four quotations from the Talmud that have references to Jesus that were not censored.
If there were only about a dozen references to Jesus in the Talmud, then in order to show that premise (3) is true, I would expect Hinman to show that in each one of those references, Jesus was spoken of in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure. If, however, there were dozens of references to Jesus in the Talmud, I would not expect Hinman to walk through each and every such reference, but I would expect that he would discuss a significant sample of those references (perhaps a dozen passages) that included a number of passages from various areas of the Talmud, and that included both censored passages and non-censored passages.
Looking over the evidence that Hinman presents about the alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud, it seems to me that his evidence is too skimpy to adequately support his factual premises (1), (2), and (3). I also think that premise (4) is false or dubious, at least as it stands. The principle stated in premise (4) will, I believe, need to be modified to be made plausible, and if it is modified to make it plausible, there may be some additional claims or premises required to make this argument work. I suspect that repairing premise (4) will reveal a gap in Hinman’s first argument, and that he will have more work to do to fill in that gap. We shall see.
Before we start to examine specific passages from the Talmud, let’s review some background information about the Talmud from the N.T. scholar Bart Ehrman:
The Talmud is a collection of disparate materials from early Judaism: legal disputes, anecdotes, folklore, customs, and sayings. Most of the material relates directly to teachings of and stories about the early rabbis, that is, Jewish teachers. The collection was put together long after the days of Jesus.
The core of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teachings about the Jewish law, based on oral traditions that had long been in circulation, and written in the early third century, some two hundred years after Jesus would have died. Most of the Talmud, however, consists of a series of commentaries by later rabbis on the Mishnah, called Gemara. there are two different sets of these commenaries, one produced in the fourth century by Jewish scholars who lived in Palestine, the other produced in the fifth century by scholars of Babylon. (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 66-67)
So there are two main categories of writtings in the Jewish Talmud:
- the Mishnah (written in the early third century)
- the Gemara (commentaries by later rabbis on the Mishna)
The Gemara contains two different sets of commentaries:
- one produced in the fourth century by Jewish scholars who lived in Palestine
- another produced in the fifth century by scholars of Babylon
In order to provide sufficient evidence to support the factual premises of his argument, Hinman needs to provide about a dozen quotations from the Talmud that refer to Jesus, at least five or six passages that can be shown to have been censored, and at least three or four passages that were not censored, and a total of about twelve passages (if there are that many) that are ALL shown to speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person.
Ideally, all of the quoted passages would be from the Mishna, which is the oldest part of the Talmud that was written down early in the early third century. But if there are not that many references to Jesus from the Mishna, then as many as possible should be from the Mishna, and the remainder of the quoted passages would be from the commentaries on the Mishna that make up the Gemara.
So how many passages does Joe Hinman quote from the Talmud? How many of those passages are from the Mishna? There are zero quotes from the Talmud on Hinman’s initial (overview) web page. If you click the link for his details about references to Jesus in the Talmud, you will go to a lengthy blog post that contains numerous quotations, but only a few quotations in that post are from the Talmud. More specifically, only FOUR passages are quoted from the Talmud by Hinman. Hinman fails to provide the dozen or more quotations that are needed to do an adequate job of supporting the factual premises of his argument.
Furthermore, TWO of the quotations from the Talmud consist of a single brief sentence that is (apparently) found in two different sections of the Bablylonian Talmud. Hinman provides a block quote from Encyclopaedia Hebraica that contains the one-sentence quotation from the Talmud. Here is the relevant portion of that block quote:
From the stories about Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, it is evident that he was regarded as a rabbinical student who strayed into evil ways: “May we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself like Jesus the Nazarene” (Ber. 17b; Sanh. 103a; cf. Dik. Sof. ad loc.).
I’m generously counting this as TWO quotations, since it appears to be a sentence found in TWO different parts of the Babylonian Talmud.
Since the Bablyonian Talmud was produced in the 5th century, these two passages were produced hundreds of years after the death of Jesus. So, there is an OBVIOUS issue of historical relevance here, and an OBVIOUS issue of independence. First, how do we know that these passages reflect the views of rabbis from the first or second century (as opposed to the third, fourth, or fifth century), in order for the passage to be of historical relevance?
Second, even if it could be shown somehow that these two passages accurately reflect the views of rabbis back in the 2nd century or even near the end of the first century, since the Gospel of Mark was written around 70 CE, how can we know that this view of those rabbis was not indirectly based on Christian beliefs and traditions that were in turn based on the Gospel of Mark (or one of the other 1st century writings contained in the NT)?
There is no argument provided by Hinman on these obvious issues, so these two passages cannot be taken seriously as historically relevant and independent information that supports the claim that there was a flesh-and-blood historical Jesus.
Thus, if we set aside this initial dubious set of two meager one-sentence passages from the Babylonian Talmud, we are left with ONLY TWO substantial quotations from the Talmud in Hinman’s lengthy blog post. This is an insubstantial effort in relation to the dozen or more quotations that are needed to provide adequate evidence in support of Hinman’s factual premises. Hinman has clearly failed to adequately support the three factual premises of his argument.
Before I proceed to examine the two substantial quotations from the Talmud that Hinman provides, let’s consider the views of some well-informed N.T. scholars about references to Jesus in the Talmud.
First, here is what Bart Ehrman has to say about the external evidence from the Talmud:
In order to complete my tally of early references to Jesus, I need to say a few words about the Jewish Talmud. This is not because it is relevant but because when talking about historical references to Jesus, many people assume it is relevant. (Did Jesus Exist? p.66)
For a long time scholars treated the Talmud as if it presented historically accurate information about Jewish life, law and custom from a much earlier period, all the way back to the first century. Few critical scholars take that view today. In both its iterations, it is a product of its own time, even though it is based on earlier oral reports.
Jesus is never mentioned in the oldest part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, but appears only in the later commentaries of the Gemara. … (Did Jesus Exist?, p.67)
These Talmudic references to Jesus were written hundreds of years after he would have lived and so are of very little use for us in our quest. By the time they were set down, Christianity was a major force in the Roman Empire, and every single Christian telling stories about Jesus naturally assumed that he had really existed as a historical person. If we want evidence to support the claim that he did in fact once exist, we therefore have to turn to other sources. (Did Jesus Exist?, p.68)
Ehrman firmly believes that Jesus did exist as a flesh-and-blood historical person, and he argues strenously for this conclusion in his book Did Jesus Exist?. So, Ehrman is not rejecting the Talmudic evidence on the basis of prejudice against the conclusion that Jesus existed. He is rejecting this evidence because he believes it is too late and of dubious independence.
Another N.T. scholar who has studied this issue closely is Robert Van Voorst, who wrote a widely-used book on the external historical evidence about Jesus. Van Voorst also has significant doubts concerning the evidence about Jesus from the Talmud:
All this raises the issue of how the rabbis gained this information about Jesus. Did they have independent chains of tradition on Jesus, passed from rabbinic master to rabbinic disciples, reaching back into the first century? The evidence points to a negative answer. While we cannot be sure, given the paucity and difficulty of the evidence, the third-century rabbis seem to have had no traditions about Jesus that originated in the first century. Besides the rabbis typical disinterest in history and confused knowledge of the first century, what the rabbis say about Jesus appears to be the product of at least the second century. (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.120)
All the general information that the rabbis have on Jesus could have been derived from Christian preaching. …
The more specific information given by the rabbis that diverges from the New Testament shows no sign of being from the first century. They proceed instead from creative imagination, which ran free in rabbinic storytelling. (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.121)
Perhaps the most telling indication that the rabbis had no independent, early traditions about Jesus is their failure to place him in the right century. A chain of tradition from the first century would have set this error straight. The better explanation of all the rabbinic information on Jesus is that it originated in the second and third centuries. (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.121-122)
Like Ehrman, Van Voorst firmly believes that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure, and he argues against the mythicist position (see Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.6-16), so Van Voorst does not reject the evidence about Jesus from the Talmud out of prejudice against the historicity of Jesus. He has serious doubts about the Talmudic evidence because in his scholarly judgement this evidence is too late and of dubious independence to be of historical significance.
Finally, John Meier, one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st century, has carefully reviewed the various alleged Talmudic references to Jesus and found them to be of dubious historical significance:
In my opinion, apart from the texts of Josephus we have already seen, this vast literature [i.e. ancient Jewish literature from around the time when Jesus allegedly existed] contains no independent reference to or information about Jesus of Nazareth. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.93)
…scholars of rabbinic literature do not agree among themselves on whether even a single text from the Mishna, Tosefta, or Talmud really refers to Jesus of Nazareth. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95)
In my opinion, Maier’s arguments are especially convincing for the Mishna and other early rabbinic material: no text cited from that period really refers to Jesus. … Jesus of Nazareth is simply absent from the Mishna and other early rabbinic traditions. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95)
The Talmud does not record even one talmudic teacher who lived at the time of Jesus or in the first half century of the Christian era as mentioning Jesus by name. As for the rabbis of the 2nd century A.D., they were reacting to the Christ proclaimed by Christianity, not the historical Jesus. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95-96)
I tend to the view of Morris Goldstein, who finds no certain reference to Jesus in this passage [a passage from the Mishna cited by Joseph Klausner], and indeed in the Mishna and the tannaitic midrashim in general. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)
…in the earliest rabbinic sources, there is no clear or even probable reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, I favor the view that, when we do finally find such references in later rabbinic literature, they are most probably reactions to Christian claims, oral or written. Hence, apart from Josephus, Jewish literature of the early Christian period offers no independent source for inquiry into the historical Jesus. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.98)
So, one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st century is on my side concerning this issue about alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud. Joe Hinman has a serious uphill battle to fight here.
This post is now complete (as of Sunday, June 25, 2016, at 6:22 pm, pacific time).
Instead of providing a dozen substantial quotations from the Talmud that refer to Jesus, Hinman only provides four quotations from the Talmud. How many of the four quotations are from the Mishna, the oldest part of the Talmud? ZERO. All four of the quotations provided by Hinman are from the Bablylonian Talmud, which was produced in the 5th century.
In his case for the existence of Jesus, N.T. scholar Bart Ehrman limited his review of non-Christian references to Jesus to sources that were written close to the time of Jesus:
I will restrict myself to sources that were produced within about a hundred years of when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died since writings after that time almost certainly cannot be considered independent and reliable witnesses to his life but were undboutedly based simply on what the authors had heard about Jesus, probably from his followers. (Did Jesus Exist? p.50, emphasis added)
All of the quotations that Hinman provided were written down not 100 years after the time of Jesus, not 200 years after the time of Jesus, not 300 years after the time of Jesus, but about 400 years after when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died. This is called “scaping the bottom of the barrell”. It is reasonable to approach such “evidence” with a high degree of skepticism, as the leading Jesus scholar John Meier urges:
Our earliest collection of rabbinic material, the Mishna, comes from the end of the 2d or the beginning of the 3d century A.D.; all other collections are still later. It would never occur to most Christian commentators to claim that early 3d-century Fathers of the Church had direct historically reliable knowledge of Jesus that was independent of the NT. Likewise, one must be wary a priori of claims that a 2d- or early 3d-century Jewish document contains such independent traditions. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.94-95)
If we ought to be skeptical about references to Jesus from the Mishna because it was written down 150 to 200 years after the time of Jesus, then we clearly ought to be skeptical about references to Jesus from the Bablyonian Talmud, which was produced about 400 years after the time of Jesus.
Two of the four quotations provided by Hinman are just a single sentence (the same sentence in two different passages) from the Bablylonian Talmud, and Hinman provides no reasons to believe that those two passages derive from an independent oral tradition that stretches back into the 1st Century. So, I will ignore those two brief quotes.
Hinman does provide two more substantial quotes, both also from the Babylonian Talmud, and he gives some reasons for viewing these quotes as deriving from ancient oral rabbinic tradition. Before we take a look at those specific passages, there are some further general considerations that support a skeptical view of references to Jesus in the Talmud. Here are several such considerations from Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament; hereafter: JONT):
- “history is not a main concern anywhere in the rabbinic literature.” (JONT, p.104)
- “the Talmud rarely mentions historical events from the Second Temple period, at the end of which Jesus appeared. ” (JONT, p.104)
- “those few events mentioned are more often than not garbled and unreliable.” (JONT, p.105)
- “we have no rabbinic writings from the first or even the second century C.E.” (JONT, p.105)
- In the rabbinic writings there is only “scant mention of Jesus by name.” (JONT, p.106)
- Censorship of Jewish writings beginning in the Middle Ages led to “text-critical problems” concerning apparent references to Jesus or Christianity (JONT, p. 106)
- There has been “continued scholarly disagreement…on the proper use of rabbinic materials to understand the New Testament.” (JONT, p.106)
- “Scholarly conclusions have varied widely on whether Tannaitic layers of rabbinic literature have any genuine reference to Jesus. (JONT, p.108)
- “modern scholars are correct to discount most ‘code’ references to Jesus, especially ‘a certain one’, Balaam, Ben Stada.” (JONT, p.114)
- “creative imagination…ran free in rabbinic storytelling.” (JONT, p.121)
- “Perhaps the most telling indication that the rabbis had no independent, early traditions about Jesus is their failure to place him in the right century.” (JONT, p.121-122)
I will repeat the basic conclusions arrived at by Van Voorst:
All the general information that the rabbis have on Jesus could have been derived from Christian preaching. (JONT, p.121)
The more specific information given by the rabbis that diverges from the New Testament shows no sign of being from the first century. (JONT, p.121)
There are more general reasons for skepticism, but I will just throw in one more key point: “Jesus” was a common name for Jewish males in the Second Temple period, so a reference to “Jesus” might well be reference to a person other than the “Jesus” of the canonical Gospels.
First let’s consider the passage that is allegedly about the trial and crucifixion of Jesus:
It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days [proclaiming], “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover. (b. Sanhedrin 43a) (JONT, p.114)
The canonical gospels indicate that the Jewish trial of Jesus was rushed and unfair, and that the Jewish council sought false witnesses to make sure there was evidence to justify his condemnation. This passage asserts the very opposite: that there was a lengthy effort to find witnesses who would support and defend Jesus. As Van Voorst suggests, this “is a strong indication that we have here an apologetic response to Christian statements about an unjust trial.” (JONT, p.118)
This passage does not fit with “the facts” Christians believe about the trial and death of Jesus. There was no lengthy Jewish inquiry into Jesus innocence or guilt. Jesus was not charged with practicing magic. Jesus was not stoned to death. “Hanging” is thought to be a reference to crucifixion, but the passage does not say Jesus was crucified. In fact, the passage indicates that Jesus was executed by his fellow Jews, but Christians believe that the Romans executed Jesus.
What matches up with the “Jesus” of the Gospels is (1) the name “Jesus”, (2) the execution of this person, (3) the timing of execution close to Passover. The charges are plausible ones that Jews would apply to the “Jesus” of the Gospels, but they don’t match up to the Gospel accounts.
Many Jewish men were named “Jesus” at that time. Many Jewish men were executed in the century before, during, and after the time when the Jesus of the Gospels is thought to have lived. According to Van Voorst the conclusion that this passage refers to the Jesus of the Gospels is “almost universally agreed.” (JONT, p. 118). It might be correct to conclude that it is PROBABLE that this passage refers to the “Jesus” of the Gospels, but given the several disagreements between this account and the Gospels, and given the fact that the name “Jesus” was a common name, and given the fact that executions were common, even execution by crucifixion, I don’t see how one could conclude that it is HIGHLY PROBABLE that this passage refers to the “Jesus” of the Gospels. There is at least a significant chance that this passage refers to a “Jesus” other than the “Jesus” of the Gospels.
The primary problem with this passage, however, is that (assuming it is about the “Jesus” of the Gospels) it clearly appears to be an apologetic response to Christian accusations that Jesus was given a rushed and unfair trial by Jewish leaders. If that is so, then it is very likely that this accusation was based upon one or more of the accounts of the trials of Jesus from one or more of the canonical Gospels. In that case, this passage from the Babylonian Talmud would be indirectly based on one or more of the canonical Gospels. So, given that this passage is about the “Jesus” of the Gospels, it is very probable that this passage was indirectly based upon the canonical Gospels.
Bart Ehrman, Robert Van Voorst, and John Meier do not believe this passage represents an early and independent tradition about Jesus. We can add to these N.T. scholars, the agreement of the great N.T. scholar Raymond Brown:
According to Brown, it is clear enough that the passage does not give reliable early information about Jesus, but it does indicate that some Jews in the early third century saw their ancestors as responsible for the death of Jesus. (JONT, p.106)
Like Ehrman, Van Voorst, Meier, and Brown, I think it is improbable that the Babylonian Talmud passage about the trial and “hanging” of Jesus is both early and independent.
Hinman has provided some reasons in support of this passage from the Babylonian Talmud, and I will now review those reasons.
…it is likely that these formulae are accurate [in indicating an early rabbinic tradition] because this helps to explain why the rabbis regarded this Jesus tradition as if it had comparable authority to Mishna.
I don’t see the force of this consideration. Hinman needs to say a bit more to explain this point.
…an indirect attestation [by Justin Martyr about a Jewish claim that Jesus practiced magic and led Jews astray from their religion] brings the most likely date [of the origin of this tradition] before 150…
The fact that there was an early (i.e. before 150 CE) Jewish claim about Jesus practicing magic and leading Jews astray does not show that a Jewish tradition involving such a claim was also early. In fact, this does not even make it PROBABLE that such a tradition was also early (i.e. before 150 CE). It merely shows it to be POSSIBLE that the tradition involving this claim was early.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we KNEW this tradition to have originated before 150 CE. That still does not put the tradition in the clear. The Gospel of Mark was written about 70 CE, which is 80 years before 150 CE. Even if this tradition originated in 100 CE, that would have been three decades after the Gospel of Mark was written.
Kirby: “Since the New Testament gives no account at all of a charge of sorcery at the trial of Jesus…it is difficult to see this account as deriving from the Gospel story.”
Obviously, the charges were not derived DIRECTLY from “the Gospel story”, but it seems fairly clear that the charges were based INDIRECTLY on “the Gospel story.” The Gospels include many stories about Jesus performing miracles. An OBVIOUS Jewish response to such stories would be to characterize Jesus as practicing magic or sorcery.
The Gospels also include many stories about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher who attracted devoted Jewish followers and sometimes even large crowds of interested Jewish listeners. An OBVIOUS Jewish response to such stories would be to characterize Jesus as a deceptive heretic who promoted religious beliefs and practices that were contrary to the Jewish religion.
Although it is clear that the charge of sorcery and the charge of leading the people of Israel astray did not come directly from the Gospels, it appears very likely that these charges were an apologetic response of Jewish rabbis to Christian preaching about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher, and about Jesus’ crucifixion, and about a Jewish trial of Jesus, and such preaching was in turn probably based upon one or more of the canonical Gospels.
Instone-Brewer argues: “The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. …First, a rabbinic author or their Pharisee predecessors would want the order of the charges to mirror Torah and rabbinic halakha.”
This seems like a fairly weak point. I see this as relevant, but not as a strong or compelling consideration.
Instone-Brewer argues: “The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. …Second, rabbinic traditions and the Pharisaic schools tried to dissuade people from working on Passover Eve, so they would not have invented a tradition which said that they decided to try Jesus on this date.”
The basic point here is reasonable. I agree that the rabbis and Pharisees probably “would not have invented a tradition” placing the execution of Jesus (by Jews) on Passover Eve. However, if this tradition was, as it appears to many NT scholars to have been, an apologetic response to Christian preaching about the trials and crucifixion of Jesus, then it is PARTIALLY an invention of rabbis or Pharisees that is constrained by the content of the preaching of Christians about this subject.
So, the Jewish trial and Jesus’ crucifixion occurring near Passover, even on Passover Eve, may have been part of Christian preaching (derived from one or more of the canonical Gospels), while the charges involved in the Jewish trial are an apologetic response to Christian preaching about Jesus performing miracles and about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher with devoted Jewish followers and crowds of interested Jewish listeners.
Because the Jewish leaders of the first century were in a position to know the circumstances of such an execution, which would have been remembered for taking place on an unusual date, it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.
The Jewish leaders were “in a position to know the circumstances” of a Jewish trial of Jesus ONLY IF there was in fact a Jewish trial of Jesus. But many leading NT scholars believe there was no Jewish trial of Jesus, so there is a significant probability that the Jewish leaders of the first century were NOT “in a position to know the circumstances” of a Jewish trial of Jesus.
The week of Passover brought large crowds of Jews to Jerusalem every year, and this made the Roman prefect nervous about Jewish troublemakers and about the potential for a Jewish rebellion. I doubt that crucifixions were uncommon during the week of Passover.
Perhaps “it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.” that does NOT mean that this is PROBABLE. What is plausible is not necessarily what is probable. Based on the considerations for and against this hypothesis, I believe it is much more PROBABLE that this tradition was partially invented by rabbis in response to Christian preaching about Jesus, which was in turn based upon the information about Jesus from one or more of the canonical Gospels.
Another substantial quote from the Babylonian Talmud that was provided by Hinman is from the tractate Aboda Zara (16b – 17a). In that passage Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is portrayed as telling the story of hearing a saying of “Jesus the Nazarene” from a disciple of Jesus:
I was once walking in the upper-market of Sepphoris when I came across one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah by name, who said to me: It is written in your Torah…. Said he to me: Thus was I taught by Jesus the Nazarene, For the hire of a harlot hath he gathered them and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return. They came from a place of filth, let them go to a place of filth. … (quoted by Hinman on his web page about Jesus in the Talmud)
Assuming that this is a correct quotation of a good translation of the Talmud, then it does seem likely that this passage is talking about the “Jesus” of the Gospels. The passage talks about “Jesus the Nazarene” who is a teaches wise sayings to his disciples. Nazareth was a small town, so there were probably not many people named “Jesus” from that town in the first century, and add to that the characteristic of being a person who teaches wise sayings to his disciples, and that makes it probable, even very probable, that this passage is about the “Jesus” of the canonical Gospels.
But the Babylonian Talmud was produced in the 5th century, so we still have issues about the reliability and independence of this tradition.
John Meier says about this passage:
I am skeptical about a tradition in which Eliezer ben Hyrcanus hears about Jesus’ teaching that the wages of a prostitute should be used to buy the high priest a latrine… (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)
Joseph Klausner argued for the reliability of this passage, but Meier is not impressed by his argument:
To establish the reliability of this passage, Klausner must engage in a contorted argument that includes an appeal to Hegesippus’ account of the martyrdom of James–something that would not inspire confidence in many scholars today. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)
Meier also notes that another leading N.T. scholar, Joachim Jeremias, is also skeptical about this reference to Jesus:
Joachim Jeremias weights the pros and cons of the argument about authenticity and decides in the negative–rightly, in my view. The saying is a polemical invention meant to make Jesus look ridiculous. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)
Rabbi Eliezer was the brother-in-law the Patriarch Gamaliel II, and became a member of the Sanhedrin while Gamaliel II was the leader of the Sanhedrin. The above story supposedly relates to when Rabbi Eliezer was kicked out of the Sanhedrin for being a heretic. Gamaliel II became the leader of the Sanhedrin about ten years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, so he became leader of the Sanhedrin about 80 CE. Rabbi Eliezer joined the Sanhedrin sometime after 80 CE, and was removed from the Sanhedrin sometime after that. So, the above remarks, if made by Rabbi Eliezer after he was removed from the Sanhedrin, were probably made around 85 CE, at the earliest. If these remarks were made no earlier than 85 CE, then Rabbi Eliezer might have met the “disciple” of Jesus about 80 CE. If so, then this “disciple” of Jesus is unlikely to have actually learned anything directly from Jesus.
So, what we can reasonably conclude from this passage, even assuming it to accurately report the words of Rabbi Eliezer near the end of the first century (or beginning of the second century), is that a learned Jewish Rabbi believed near the end of the first century that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure. But by 85 CE, the Gospel of Mark had been available for more than a decade, so Christians would already believe and preach that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood Jewish teacher who taught wise sayings to his Jewish disciples and followers. Thus, Eliezer’s belief that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood Jewish teacher who taught wise sayings to Jewish disciples and followers may have been based on more than just this one incident where he met a man who called himself a “disciple” who had learned a saying from Jesus.
So, some leading NT scholars who have reviewed the relevant evidence, have concluded that this passage is NOT early and reliable. Furthermore, even if the passage accurately describes the words of Rabbi Eliezer on the occasion of his being condemned as a heretic, it would still be doubtful that he spoke to a person who was directly taught by the “Jesus” of the Gospels.
Hinman quotes Origin’s quoting from the book True Doctrine, an attack on Christianity by Celsus. Here is the key part of the quote:
Let us imagine what a Jew…might say to Jesus: “Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumourss [sic] about the true and insavoury [sic] circumstances of your origins?…Is it not the case that when her [your mother’s] deceit was uncovered, to wit, that she was pregnant by a roman soldier called Panthera she was driven away by her husband…
Hinman comments that some of “the material of the Talmud” about Jesus “was around in at least the second century”, and that since Jewish sources would not have been readily available to Celsus, “it seems reasonable to assume that this information had been floating around for some time…”. Hinman concludes that this material “at least went back to the early second, late first century.”
Celsus composed the book True Doctrine about 175 CE. According to Celsus, he obtained his understanding of Jewish objections to Christianity from a contemporary Jewish person. If Celsus was being TRUTHFUL, then all this passage shows is that there was a Jewish polemic response to the story of the virgin birth in the canonical Gospels (Matthew and Luke) that was in use about a century AFTER the composition of the canonical Gospels. On this scenario, there is no implication that the sources of the Talmud about Jesus go back to the “early second, late first century”, unless we count the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as being among those sources!
On the other hand, if Celsus was being UNTRUTHFUL about how he obtained his understanding of Jewish objections to Christianity, then he might well have invented this objection on his own, based on his knowledge of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
He had read widely in Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and had a passing knowledge of other Christian books… (JONT, p.67)
Celsius might have just used an imaginary Jewish contemporary as cover for his own derogatory comments about Jesus.
According to Hinman,
Celsus was obviously reading the Talmudic sources…
It is not obvious to me that Celsus obtained this particular view of Jesus from “the Talmudic sources”, even if the Talmud contains a similar view about Jesus being the illegitimate son of a roman soldier called Panthera.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Celsus obtained this Jewish view from “the Talmudic sources”. True Doctrine was written about 175 CE. So, if Celsus found this view in “the Talmudic sources” in 170 CE, that would be adequate to explain his writing about them in 175 CE. If “the Talmudic sources” had this view of Jesus’ birth in 170 CE, that is completely to be expected even if Jesus never existed, for the canonical Gospels were composed about a century BEFORE 170 CE, allowing several decades for Christians to preach about the virgin birth and for Jewish rabbis to develop this Jewish polemic in response to that preaching.
Even if “the Talmudic sources” about Jesus being an illegitimate child had been in existence for 50 years before Celsus learned about this Jewish viewpoint, that would still place the origin of the tradition in 120 CE, which is three to four decades AFTER the composition of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In that scenario, it would be very probable that this Jewish tradition about Jesus has no historical basis, but is merely an apologetic response of Jewish leaders to Christian preaching and storytelling, which was in turn based upon “information” from the canonical Gospels.
Joe Hinman has requested that I debate him about the existence of Jesus, and I have agreed to do so.
We will not, however, attempt to answer the BIG question: Did Jesus exist? But we will be arguing about a significant issue closely related to that question:
Does the external evidence warrant the belief that Jesus existed?
The phrase “external evidence” means evidence other than evidence from the Bible. So, we are excluding the internal evidence from the four canonical Gospels, from Acts, from the letters of Paul, and from the other writings in the New Testament. Thus, this is only “half” of a debate, since we are only going to be discussing “half” of the evidence.
Joe Hinman will argue for the claim that the external evidence warrants the belief that Jesus existed.
I will raise objections and point out weaknesses in Hinman’s evidence and arguments for that claim, in an effort to show that the external evidence presented by Hinman does NOT warrant the belief that Jesus existed. I will NOT be arguing that “Jesus is just a myth”. So, if Hinman “loses” the debate, that does not mean that I will have shown that Jesus is a myth. In fact, if Hinman “loses” the debate, that does not mean that there is no good evidence for the existence of Jesus, because even if there is no solid external evidence for Jesus, there could still be solid internal evidence (i.e from the Bible) for Jesus.
Similarly, if I “lose” the debate, that does not mean that Hinman will have proved that Jesus existed. Hinman has quite reasonably set out to achieve the more modest goal of showing that the external evidence is sufficient to warrant the belief that Jesus existed.
I take it that by “warrant” Hinman means something less than possessing the sort of justification that is required for KNOWLEDGE (something less than what Plantinga means by “warrant”). I take it that Hinman is simply trying to show that the external evidence is sufficient to make belief in the existence of Jesus reasonable. In terms of probability, I think that means showing that the existence of Jesus is somewhat probable, at least more probable than not. Knowledge of the existence of Jesus would require more than this; it would require showing that it is (at least) highly probable that Jesus existed. Hinman is not trying to show that we can KNOW that Jesus existed based on just external evidence; he will try to show that the external evidence is sufficient to make it somewhat probable, at least more probable than not, that Jesus existed.
If Hinman is successful, and “wins” this debate, that would not be a great blow to me, because I’m currently inclined to believe that is it more probable than not that Jesus existed. Hinman is making a fairly weak claim here, making a claim that is much more reasonable than the extremely strong claims made by Paul Maier (see my post criticizing Maier’s apologetic essay on the existence of Jesus).
However, I am unimpressed by the external evidence for Jesus, so I think I have a decent chance of “winning” this debate, or at least of making it difficult for Hinman to make his case. In the debate with Hinman, I plan to take the role of a defense attorney who argues that the prosecution has failed to meet its burden of proof. My focus will be on pointing out problems and weaknesses in Joe Hinman’s case.
But I will now make a very brief positive argument for my position, in order to indicate that there is some reasonable hope that I could “win” this debate, in spite of the fact that Joe Hinman only needs to establish a fairly weak claim in order for me to “lose”.
One of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st Century is on my side, at least to a large degree. The conservative Jesus scholar N.T. Wright makes the following comments about John Meier’s multi-volume work A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus:
Massive study with roots in modern…methods of criticism, and results that are substantially conservative. Will be widely used and discussed for years to come. (The Original Jesus, p.155)
The leading N.T. scholar Pheme Perkins praised the first volume of Meier’s books on the historical Jesus:
This book is a wonderful example of judicious historical scholarship. It should be required reading for all historians, pastors and theology students. (from the back cover of A Marginal Jew, Volume 1)
Paul Achtemeier, a widely respected N.T. scholar and the general editor of the Harper Bible Dictionary, also gave a very positive evaluation of Meier’s work on the historical Jesus:
By his painstaking research, his balanced presentation, and his sane conclusions, Meier has set a new standard against which all future studies of this kind will have to be measured. (from the back cover of A Marginal Jew, Volume 1)
John Meier devotes four chapters of Volume 1 of A Marginal Jew (chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5) to a careful, scholarly review of the various historical sources that are thought to be relevant to the investigation of the historical Jesus (pages 41-166). Here is one of his most important general conclusions based on this careful review of potential historical sources about Jesus:
For all practical purposes, then, our early, independent sources for the historical Jesus boil down to the Four Gospels, a few scattered data elsewhere in the NT, and Josephus. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, p. 140)
Out of all of the various external sources that Meier carefully reviewed, he believes that there is only ONE EXTERNAL SOURCE that is early and independent: the Jewish historian Josephus.
If Meier is correct that all of the other external sources are late or dependent (either directly or indirectly) upon Christian writings, or problematic in some other way, then the only potentially significant external evidence for Jesus are the two famous passages in the writings of Josephus that mention Jesus. If this evidence from Josephus turns out to be weak or dubious, then it appears to Meier and to me that the external evidence for Jesus is NOT sufficient to make the existence of Jesus more probable than not.
Although Meier is impressed by the external evidence from Josephus, other NT scholars are not so impressed. A respected NT scholar named Robert Van Voorst wrote a widely-used book about the external evidence for Jesus. In that book, he arrives at a conclusion that is similar to that of John Meier, but less confident about the Josephus evidence:
In sum, Josephus has given us in two passages something unique among all ancient non-Christian witnesses to Jesus: a carefully neutral, highly accurate, and perhaps independent witness to Jesus… (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.103-104)
Note that Robert Van Voorst does NOT claim that the Josephus references to Jesus are certainly an independent witness to Jesus, nor does he conclude that these references are almost certainly an independent witness to Jesus, nor does he assert that they are very probably an independent witness to Jesus, nor does he say that they are probably an independent witness to Jesus.
Robert Van Voorst is no mythicist. He clearly supports the view that Jesus existed. But after a careful review of non-Christian external evidence for Jesus, he concludes that the two passages from Josephus are the very best evidence for Jesus in that category, and yet he can only bring himself to claim that these passages are “perhaps independent witness to Jesus”. I am not impressed by this rather weak conclusion.
Bart Ehrman is a bona fide NT scholar who has written extensively about the historical Jesus, early Christianity, and the Gospels. Ehrman wrote a book devoted to the question “Did Jesus Exist?” and one of his conclusions was that the famous references to Jesus by Josephus are of little or no historical significance:
…even though the mythicists and their opponents like to fight long and hard over the Testimonium of Josephus, in fact it is only marginally relevant to the question of whether Jesus existed. (Did Jesus Exist? p.66)
Ehrman views the Josephus references to Jesus as being “only marginally relevant” because he doubts that these passages in Josephus are independent from Christian stories and writings about Jesus:
Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this. And here is why. Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium. That would show that by 93 CE–some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death–a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him. And where would Josephus have derived this information? He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation. There is nothing to suggest that Josephus had actually read the Gospels (he almost certainly had not) or that he did any kind of primary research into the life of Jesus by examining Roman records (there weren’t any). But as we will see later, we already know for lots of other reasons and on lots of other grounds that there were stories about Jesus floating around in Palestine by the end of the first century and much earlier. (Did Jesus Exist? p.65)
Ehrman has left the Christian faith and no longer believes that Jesus was God incarnate, but he is not a mythicist. Ehrman strongly supports and defends the view that Jesus really existed. So, Ehrman’s low opinion of the Josephus evidence is not motivated by a desire to cast doubt on the existence of Jesus. A more positive view of the Josephus passages would have helped Ehrman make his case for the existence of Jesus.
So at least two respected N.T. scholars doubt that the references to Jesus by Josephus represent independent information about Jesus.
According to one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st Century, the only external evidence for Jesus that is potentially significant is the evidence from the Jewish historian Josephus. But according to at least two respected NT scholars, who have studied this issue, the two references to Jesus by Josephus are of very doubtful independence from Christian stories and writings, including (indirectly) the canonical Gospels. Doubts about the independence of the Josephus passages render this evidence weak and insignificant, not to mention issues with the text of the Josephus passages.
If we combine the doubts about the text of the Josephus passages (it is very clear that at least one of the passages was tampered with by Christian copyists) with the (more significant) doubts about the independence of these passages, the result is that the Josephus references to Jesus provide evidence that is too weak to justify the claim that “Jesus exists” is more probable than not.
Assuming that the Jospehus references to Jesus are the very best external evidence for Jesus, and that other external sources for the existence of Jesus are either too late or are dependent on Christian stories or writings, or are problematic for other reasons, we can reasonably conclude that the external evidence for Jesus is NOT sufficient to warrant belief in the existence of Jesus, that it is NOT sufficient to make the claim that “Jesus exists” more probable than not.
Because my main objection to a key argument in Chapter 3 of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is a strong and decisive objection (i.e. Ehrman provided ZERO historical facts to support the main historical premise of a key argument), I have felt some concern that my identification or interpretation of the ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels) might have been incorrect or inaccurate. In my view, Ehrman is an intelligent and knowlegable N.T. scholar, so it seems unlikely that he would do such a lousy job of supporting the main historical premise of a key argument.
Because of this concern, I have gone back through Chapter 3, as well as some key parts of Chapters 2, 4, and 5, to double-check myself. As a result of a brief review of these chapters, I have one correction to make to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint, and I also have located key passages that support my identification of, and understanding of, the ABSIG argument in Chapter 3.
First, I will reinforce my identification and interpretation of the ABSIG argument, then I will make a correction to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint about the existence of Jesus.
CONFIRMATION of my Identification & Understanding of the ABSIG Argument
The most important passage supporting my identification and understanding of the ABSIG argument is found in Ehrman’s discussion about oral traditions behind the written sources allegedly used by the authors of the seven “independent” Gospels:
Where did all these sources [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] come from? They could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
In this passage Ehrman argues against the skeptical view that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers on the grounds that the earliest written sources about Jesus “agree on too many of the fundamentals”, which is a reference to a phrase from a sentence earlier in the same paragraph: “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”. Thus, one reason why Ehrman rejects the skeptical position that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers is that the written sources behind the seven “independent” Gospels “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”.
The roots of this line of reasoning go back to Ehrman’s discussion in Chapter 2 of DJE about the nature of historical reasoning about evidence for an historical event or historical person:
Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points if not in all the details. …if you have multiple sources from near the time that tell many stories about…[a particular historical figure]…that corroborate one another’s stories–then you have good historical evidence. (DJE, p.41, emphasis added)
Clearly, this principle is intended to be applied in the case of Jesus and the Gospels, and clearly the historical reasoning on page 86 of DJE is intended to be an application of this principle to the evidence from the seven “independent” Gospels (and the written sources allegedly used by the authors of those Gospels).
Note that Ehrman refers to “various sources” that “tell many stories” and that “corroborate one another’s stories”. This suggests that Ehrman will go on to discuss various Gospel sources that “tell many stories” about Jesus (especially since the next Chapter is titled: “The Gospels as Historical Sources”), and that “corroborate one another’s stories” about Jesus. The phrase “many stories” ties into a phrase later used in Chapter 3: “many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death”, and the word “stories” clearly applies to the various stories about Jesus found in the seven “independent” Gospels (and their various alleged written sources).
That this is an important part of Ehrman’s historical reasoning in Chapter 3 of DJE is also shown by the emphasis placed on this point by means of repetition of the point by Ehrman in Chapter 3:
All of these written sources I have mentioned are earlier than the surviving Gospels; they all corroborate many of the key things said of Jesus in the Gospels; and most important they are all independent of one another. (DJE, p.82, emphasis added)
Yet many of them [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”], independent though they be, agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death… (DJE, p86, emphasis added)
They [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
…these independent witnesses [i.e. “a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven…”] corroborate many of the same basic sets of data [about Jesus]… (DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
The historical principle given in Chapter 2 speaks of the requirement that “multiple sources” that are “from near the time” of the person or event in question and that “tell many stories” should “corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points…” in order to provide “good historical evidence” for the alleged person or event.
The ABSIG argument asserts there are seven “independent” Gospels that are based on several “independent” written sources, and that these alleged written sources “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death…”. Clearly, there is an argument in Chapter 3 that is based on alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels, and which makes use of the principles of historical reasoning given in Chapter 2, concerning corroboration of “multiple sources” about “many stories” or “many basic aspects” of the life of Jesus. So, I feel confident that I have presented an accurate interpretation of a key argument by Ehrman in Chapter 3 of DJE.
CORRECTION to my Characterization of Ehrman’s Viewpoint
In the second post in my series on “Did Jesus Exist?”, I raised an objection to Ehrman’s general approach to this question:
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist.
While I still believe that Ehrman was unclear about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?” and I still believe that he failed to adequately clarify the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”, and that he failed to provide a clear definition of the word “Jesus”, I failed to note a few passages where Ehrman appears to indicate at least a partial list of basic attributes of Jesus which clarify the meaning of the word “Jesus” and the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”.
There is at least one passage in Chapter 3 that hints at some basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”:
…they [i.e. “the Gospels”] provide powerful evidence indeed that there was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. We will see in the chapters that follow that this is not the only kind of evidence we have for the existence of Jesus. (DJE, p.70, emphasis added)
In this paragraph Ehrman appears to view evidence related to the specific attributes of (a) living “in Roman Palestine” and of (b) being “crucified under Pontius Pilate” as relevant evidence for answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”. This suggests that these two attributes are basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”, at least for the purpose of answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”. (Since there were numerous people living “in Roman Palestine” who were “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, these two basic attributes are obviously insufficient to formulate a definition of “Jesus”.)
This hint in Chapter 3 is reinforced in the conclusion of Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus at the end of Chapter 5:
WHAT CAN WE SAY in conclusion about the evidence that supports the view that there really was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era, crucified under Pontius Pilate sometime around the year 30? (DJE, p. 171, emphasis added)
In the above passage, Ehrman appears to view various attributes of Jesus or aspects of Jesus’s life as being directly relevant to the question of the existence of Jesus. This assumption is even more clear when Ehrman recaps the conclusion of his positive case at the beginning of Chapter 6:
Up to this stage in our quest to see if the historical Jesus actually existed, I have been mounting the positive argument, showing why the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus really did live as a Jewish teacher in Palestine and was crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. It will be equally important for us to learn what the historical Jesus said and did, since the mere fact of Jesus’s existence does not get us very far. (DJE, p.177, emphasis added)
Here it is clear that Ehrman is separating out two different sets of attributes of Jesus or aspects of the life of Jesus. First there are the basic aspects that are tied to the question “Did Jesus exist?”: (a) a Jewish teacher, (b) living in Palestine, (c) who was crucified, (d) who was executed at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Second, there are other non-basic aspects about “what the historical Jesus said and did”.
Clearly, Ehrman has some ideas about which alleged attributes of Jesus ought to be considered basic or essential, and which alleged attributes are non-basic or non-essential. Although there is some consistency in Ehrman’s various short lists of basic attributes, the lists do vary from one passage to another in his book DJE. Furthermore, there is no discussion or justification of any of Ehrman’s lists of basic attributes.
Although I admit that the logic of Ehrman’s viewpoint on the existence of Jesus is not as grossly flawed as I had indicated in the objection that I raised in the second post of this series, I still believe that Ehrman’s failure to make a serious effort to clarify the question “Did Jesus exist?” and to define the word “Jesus” is a major flaw with his positive case for the existence of Jesus.
A Brief Review of My Previous Objections
One key argument for the existence of Jesus presented by Bart Ehrman in Chapter 3 of Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is based on an historical claim about alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels:
(ABSIG) There are seven Gospels which were written within “a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death” (DJE, p.78) that are “either completely or partially independent” from each other (DJE, p.78) and yet they “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” (DJE, p.86).
One problem with the argument is that a strong version of the argument requires forty to fifty pieces of historical evidence (i.e. forty to fifty specific passages quoted from the seven “independent” Gospels), but Ehrman provides ZERO pieces of historical data in support of the historical premise of this argument: (ABSIG).
Another problem with Chapter 3 in general, and the ABSIG argument in particular, is that Ehrman is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”. Specifically, Ehrman never attempts to clarify or define the meaning of the word “Jesus”, nor does he provide a clear explanation or definition of what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life or death of Jesus. Before Ehrman can prove that “Jesus exists”, he needs to identify what the “basic” or essential aspects/attributes of Jesus are, so that he can then (potentially) prove that someone who had those attributes actually existed. Since Ehrman did not clarify or define the meaning of the word “Jesus”, he was in no position to present ANY arguments for the existence of “Jesus”.
A third problem with the ABSIG argument is that Ehrman does a poor job explaining and clarifying the crucial concept of “independence”. First of all, his use of the phrase “independent Gospels” is misleading and confusing, because, for example, the Gospel of Matthew is one of these “independent” Gospels, but a large portion of Matthew was based on the Gospel of Mark. The author of Matthew used Mark as a source of information about Jesus, as Ehrman himself points out. Because the evidence needed to support (ABSIG) is specific passages from the seven Gospels, the real issue concerns the independence of the PASSAGES presented to support the claim that there is an agreement between some of these Gospels on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus. So the “independence” of the Gospels (as books) becomes irrelevant.
Furthermore, the concept of “independence” is not as clear and simple as it first appears, and upon closer examination it has numerous implications, especially when we are talking about the claim that several passages (concerning a basic aspect of the life of Jesus) are independent of each other. If we have six such passages, for example, then there are 30 different potential dependencies between these passages which must be eliminated in order to show that the passages are independent of each other. This means there is a significant burden of proof on anyone who attempts to provide historical evidence in support of (ABSIG). Since Ehrman offered ZERO pieces of historical evidence in support of (ABSIG) he never had the opportunity to take on this burden of proof, and thus made no efforts along these lines.
Today I will discuss another problem (or potential problem) that faces anyone who attempts to provide actual historical evidence in support of (ABSIG).
Independence of the Basic Aspects/Attributes of Jesus
Ehrman never provided actual historical evidence in support of (ABSIG) so he had no opportunity to work at meeting the burden of proof to show that the relevant PASSAGES from the seven “independent” Gospels were PASSAGES that were independent from each other (as well as from other possible sources). Similarly, Ehrman never provided a list of “basic aspects” of the life of Jesus; he never defined the essential attributes of “Jesus”, and so he had no opportunity to work at meeting the burden of proof to show that those attributes were reasonable and significant attributes to use for the purpose of investigating the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One likely problem or objection that Ehrman would face (from me at least) if he ever gets around to defining the essential attributes of “Jesus”, is that his list of essential attributes will probably contain attributes that are NOT independent of each other.
The independence that I have in mind is different from the concept of the independence of sources or passages. Lists of important or essential attributes of Jesus typically involve attributes that are not “independent” given that we understand “independent” in the sense that is used in relation to probability calculations. It is crucial, for the purposes of supporting (ABSIG) that either the basic attributes of Jesus are independent from each other, or (failing that) that we determine the degree of dependence between each of the various basic attributes.
There is no discussion of this issue by Ehrman simply because he never gets down to the business of actually providing historical evidence in support of (ABSIG), so the issue of the independence of “basic aspects” of the life of Jesus, or of essential attributes of “Jesus”, does not come into view. But if someday Ehrman (or a Christian apologist) attempts to provide actual historical evidence for (ABSIG), then they are likely to run into this problem.
In his book, The Real Jesus, Luke Johnson’s argument for the basic historicity of the Gospels runs into a problem because Johnson fails to notice the degree to which some of his basic attributes of Jesus have dependencies on each other. I have commented on this in my series of posts responding to criticisms from William Lane Craig.
This concern about the independence of basic or essential attributes of Jesus grew out of objections to apologetic arguments concerning alleged fulfilled messianic prophecies. Consider the following objection raised by Tim Callahan in Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (hereafter: BP) against Josh McDowell’s presentation of allegedly fulfilled prophecies about Jesus:
McDowell has fudged his figures a bit by taking one incident and breaking it into two to get an extra prophecy or using one prophecy as the source of two separate fulfillments. … Numbers 8 and 9 on his list are that Jesus was a descendant of Jesse, fulfilling Is. 11:1 and that he was of the house of David, fulfilling Jer. 22:5. Since David was the son of Jesse, if Jesus were a descendant of David he would also be a descendant of Jesse. Thus, this should be one prophecy, not two. (BP, p.113)
One can broaden Callahan’s objection by use of the concept of “independence” from the context of probability calculations. Because being a descendant of David implies being a descendant of Jesse, these two (alleged) attributes of Jesus are NOT independent from each other. If Jesus is the descendant of David, that impacts the probability that Jesus is the descendant of Jesse; it raises the probability of the latter attribute to: 1.0 (certainty). So, if possession of attribute A by Jesus impacts the probability that Jesus possesses attribute B, then attributes A and B are NOT independent attributes.
Furthermore, if possession of attribute A by Jesus makes it certain or likely that Jesus also posses attribute B, then we need to be cautious about overestimating the significance of the fact that Jesus possesses BOTH attribute A and attribute B.
Jesus was generally believed by early Christians to be “the messiah”. The messiah was expected to be a Jewish male, from the tribe of Judah, a descendant of King David, who would be born in Bethlehem, who would be righteous and a devout worshipper of Jehovah, and a wise man who was obedient to and close to Jehovah. Because of these expectations, a list of basic attributes like the following is highly problematic:
- A jewish male
- who was the messiah (or claimed to be the messiah)
- who was from the tribe of Judah
- who was a descendant of King David
- who was born in Bethlehem
- who was righteous
- who was a devout worshipper of Jehovah
- who was a wise man (or was believed to be wise by many)
All of these attributes (and more) are implied or at least made probable by the second attribute: “who was the messiah (or claimed to be the messiah)”.
More precisely, anyone who sincerely believed that Jesus was the messiah would be likely to also believe that Jesus possessed the other attributes in this list. So, if the author of a Gospel believed that Jesus was the messiah, then we would reasonably expect that author to also believe that Jesus possessed all of these other attributes as well (even if they had no evidence, no facts, and no sources of information indicating that Jesus possessed those other attributes).
So, if and when Ehrman (or some enterprizing Christian apologist) makes a serious attempt to provide actual historical evidence supporting (ABSIG), then I, for one, will take a very close look at the list of basic or essential attributes used to define the word “Jesus” and to clarify the claim “Jesus exists”, and one of the things I will be looking for is whether those attributes are in fact independent of each other.
If I find there are dependencies between the attributes, then I will be checking to see whether Ehrman (or the apologist) has identified those dependencies and whether the degree of dependence has been properly assessed and taken into account in evaluating the significance of the conjunction of those various attributes in the descriptions of Jesus found in the seven Gospels.
The Independence of Passages vs. Books
Among the seven “independent” Gospels to which Ehrman’s ABSIG (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) refer are the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark.
A “basic aspect” of the life or death of Jesus is the claim that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. There is agreement between Matthew and Mark on this “basic aspect”:
And they [the soldiers] crucified him [Jesus], and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. – Mark 15:24 (NRSV)
And when they [the soldiers of the governor] had crucified him [Jesus], they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; – Matthew 27:35 (NRSV)
According to Ehrman these are “independent” Gospels, so here we have an agreement between two “independent” Gospels on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus. Can we put this into the matrix diagram as an instance of agreement between at least these two Gospels? No. That would be a mistake.
The problem is that the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus. This passage in Chapter 27 of Matthew, as Ehrman would no doubt agree, was based on the passage about the crucifixion of Jesus in Chapter 15 of Mark. So, this passage in Matthew is DEPENDENT on the passage from Mark. Because of this dependency, the passage in Matthew does NOT provide any confirmation or corroboration of the passage in Mark. The author of Matthew got this information from reading the Gospel of Mark.
So when Ehrman claims that the Gospel of Matthew is an “independent” Gospel from the Gospel of Mark, this is misleading and confusing. Hundreds of verses in Matthew are based on verses from Mark. So, it is clear that much of the Gospel of Matthew IS dependent upon the Gospel of Mark. Ehrman is just pointing out that there are some verses and passages in Matthew that are NOT based on Mark, and which thus probably do not have a dependency on Mark. One CANNOT simply compare passages in Matthew and Mark and upon finding an agreement on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus, declare that Matthew has corroborated that basic aspect found in the Gospel of Mark.
What this means is that as a general rule, when one finds an agreement between two (or more) of the seven so-called “independent” Gospels, one must then ask a crucial question:
Are these PASSAGES independent of each other?
Because Ehrman uses the term “independent Gospels” in a way that allows for the Gospel of Matthew to be considered an “independent Gospel” in relation to the Gospel of Mark, such supposed independence is irrelevant when we examine individual passages from various Gospels.
But when we look for agreements between various Gospels concerning basic aspects of the life or death of Jesus, we are examining individual passages, not entire works or books. Therefore, any claim to the effect that one passage from one Gospel confirms or corroborates a passage from some other Gospel concerning a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus, we need a JUSTIFICATION of the claim that the two PASSAGES in question are independent passages. The fact that the two passages are from so-called “independent” Gospels is irrelevant and does not answer the crucial question at issue.
Because Ehrman never bothered to offer one single passage from any of the so-called “independent” seven gospels, there was never an opportunity for him to JUSIFY the claim that one passage from one of the seven Gospels was independent from another analogous passage (about the same basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus) in another of the seven Gospels. But if Ehraman had produced forty or fifty passages, some from each of the seven Gospels, in order to make a strong case for his key premise (ABSIG), then he would have had to JUSTIFY many different claims about the independence of these passages from their analogues in the other Gospels.
We will soon see that this would be a rather daunting task, one that might well require multiple chapters of a book to accomplish.
The Logic of Independence
The concept of “independence” is more complex than it initially appears to be. So, let’s start with as simple an example as possible, and then work our way towards examples of greater complexity.
Ehrman puts very little effort into discussing the concept of “independence”, but the little that he does say about it has some very significant implications. It is worth taking a bit of time to think about the meaning of the word “independence” and what it implies.
Suppose that there are only two books in existence, and that these are the ONLY two books ever written (so far in human history): Book-A and Book-B.
One logical possibility is that the author of Book-B used Book-A as a source. In this case Book-B would be dependent on Book-A. The contents of Book-A are thus, in effect, a cause of the contents of Book-B, at least of part of the content of Book-B, so let’s represent this situation with an arrow going from A to B:
A–>B (B is dependent upon A)
Another logical possibility is that the author of Book-A used Book-B as a source. In this case Book-A would be dependent on Book-B. The contents of Book-B are thus, in effect, a cause of the contents of Book-A, at least of part of the content of Book-A, so let’s represent this situation with an arrow going from B to A:
A<–B (A is dependent upon B)
Another logical possibility, which is probably very rare in reality, is that it is BOTH the case that Book-A is dependent on Book-B AND Book-B is dependent on Book-A:
A<–>B (A is dependent on B AND B is dependent on A)
How could this be possible? Wouldn’t this involve circular causation? Actually this is possible if, for example, both books were being written in the same time period (say the same four-month period), and when the author of Book-A had completed the first half of Book-A (say at the end of the first two months), the author of Book-B obtained a copy of that half of Book-A and used it as a source for the second half of Book-B, and if when the author of Book-B completed the first half of Book-B (say at the end of the first two months), the author of Book-A obtained a copy of that half of Book-B and used it as a source for the second half of Book-A. In this way, it is possible for Book-A to have a dependency on Book-B while Book-B also has a dependency on Book-A.
If we limit ourselves to evaluating the indpendence of PASSAGES rather than BOOKS, then this third logical possibility becomes even more unlikely and remote, because it is very unlikely that two authors would be writing analogous passages in the same short time frame and also read each others partial drafts of the passage prior to completing the writting of their own passage (this might, however, happen with cheating on Essay exams at colleges!).
If we can establish that Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A, does that mean that Book-B is independent from Book-A? I’m not sure. It depends on how we understand the meaning of “Book-B is NOTdependent on Book-A” and it depends on whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation.
If “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” just means that the author of Book-B did not use Book-A as a source, then it does not follow from this claim that Book-B is independent from Book-A.
Suppose that the author of Book-B had read Book-C and used that book as a source. Suppose further that the author of Book-C had used Book-A as a source. In this way even though the author of Book-B did not use Book-A as a source (and perhaps never even set eyes on a copy of Book-A), the information that came from Book-C might have been obtained (by the author of Book-C) from Book-A.
This is a circumstance in which it might well make sense to say that “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” (meaning that the author of Book-B did not read Book-A or copy from Book-A) and yet it could also be the case that “Book-B is NOT independent from Book-A” (meaning that some of the information in Book-B can be traced back to Book-A, via Book-C).
Of course, I specified earlier that Book-A and Book-B were the only two books in existence, so on that assumption there could be no Book-C to complicate matters.
However, even if there were NO OTHER BOOKS besides Book-A and Book-B, a similar complication could arise because information can be transferred verbally (e.g. by oral tradition). So, even in my super-simple imaginary world where there are only two books in existence, things can get complicated and confusing because there could be an oral tradition that transfers information from Book-A to the author of Book-B without the author ever laying eyes on a copy of Book-A. (The complexity is just getting started.)
Another problem is whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation. Equality is a symmetical relation. If X = Y, then it follows that Y = X. So, asserting that X = Y implies that Y = X. If “independence” is a symmetrical relation, then asserting that “Book-B is independent from Book-A” implies not only that “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” but also that “Book-A is NOT dependent on Book-B”.
It is not necessary to resolve this question right now about whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation, because even if we decide that “independence” is not symmetical, we still need to determine whether there are any significant dependencies in ANY direction between various passages of the seven Gospels if and when somebody gets around to actually providing specific passages from these Gospels in order to support the key historical claim (ABSIG).
The complexity involved with establishing “independence” of sources grows rapidly as we increast the number of books or the number of passages in question.
Suppose that somebody produces four different passages from four of the seven “independent” Gospels, and suppose these four passages agree on a specific basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus. What are the various possible dependencies that need to be eliminated?
Let’s refer to the four passages as A, B, C, and D. In order to justify the claim that these four passages were independent of each other the following dependency claims would need to be shown to be false (or very improbable):
In short, one would need to argue against all twelve of these possible “dependence” relationships.
But we know that other books and other passages exist besides just these four passages, so even if one shows that none of these twelve depdency relationship exist, there are other possible dependencies that could still undermine the claim that these four passages are independent of each other.
For example, there might be another passage E from one of the remaining three Gospels, and these four passages that agree with each other might all be dependent upon passage E. In that case, there would be only ONE actual source of this information, and there would be NO CORROBORATION between the four passages that were put forward as evidence for (ABSIG).
If there are basic aspects of the life of Jesus that are allegedly agreed upon by five or six or seven different passages from different Gospels, then the possibilities for dependency relations are multiplied further. For five passages, there are 20 different possible dependencies (5 x 4 = 20) that must be ruled out. For six passages, there are 30 different possible dependencies (6 x 5 = 30) that must be ruled out. For seven passages, there are 42 different possible dependencies (7 x 6) that must be ruled out. This does not include the task of ruling out dependency relations with other passages outside of the passages that are presented as evidence.
I hope that this brief discussion of the concept and logic of “independence” shows that the claim that several passages from several Gospels are “independent” from each other is a claim that carries many significant implications, and thus involves a serious burden of proof that may require numerous arguments and justifications to support, none of which you will find in Chapter 3 of DJE, because Ehrman does not even begin the task of providing historical evidence.
Because Ehrman never put forward ANY passages from ANY of the seven “independent” Gospels as evidence in support of (ABSIG), he never had the opportunity to start building the necessary complex justifications required to show that such passages were in fact “independent” from each other.
Existence vs. Basic Aspects/Attributes
“Did Jesus exist?” – What does this question mean?
Clarity is a gateway standard of critical thinking. If you are UNCLEAR about the meaning of a question, then your thinking about that question will also be unclear, and your thinking will probably not be very useful or productive or logical so long as you remain UNCLEAR about the question at issue.
On the one hand, it is certain that there was no Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Jesus”. That is because “Jesus” is a name in the English language, and the English language did not exist in the first century. Question settled! That was easy.
On the other hand, if the question is asking whether there was a Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic), that question can also be answered with certainty. Yes, there was such a man. In fact, there were thousands of Jewish men who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic). Aramaic was the language of Palestinian Jews in the first century, and “Yeshua” was a very common name at that time. Question settled. No need for further discussion.
Obviously, I have not really settled the question “Did Jesus exist?” here. Clearly, the question is NOT merely asking whether there was a Jewish man by the name of “Yeshua” who lived in Palestine in the first century. But if that is not what the question is asking, then what IS the question asking? It turns out that it is not so easy to say what this question is asking. So philosophy (or at least logic and critical thinking) has an important role to play, as it usually does, right from the start. We need to clarify the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One important failure of Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is that Ehrman never asks this basic question of clarification:
What does the question “Did Jesus exist?” mean?
The clarity and quality of Ehrman’s thinking about the question “Did Jesus exist?” suffers because of this fundamental mistake. Furthermore, because of his basic unclarity about the question at issue, Ehrman appears to make the same sort of blunder that was made by Thomas Aquinas when Aquinas discussed the question “Does God exist?”.
In Summa Theologica Aquinas attempts to first prove the existence of “God” and then he goes on to try to prove that God has various divine attributes. Ehrman similarly thinks that the question of the existence of Jesus can be settled prior to showing that various basic aspects of the life of Jesus (as portrayed in the canonical gospels) are factual. Here are some comments by Ehrman where he seems to treat these as two separate issues:
The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. (DJE, p.4, emphasis added)
…a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him. (DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
[My goal is] to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him. (DJE, p.37, emphasis added)
These [surviving Gospels] all attest to the existence of Jesus. Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data–for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. (DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not Jewish? I don’t think so. Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not crucified by the Romans? Probably not. These “basic aspects” or attributes of Jesus seem to be more than just trivial claims about Jesus. They seem to be a part of the meaning of the word “Jesus”, part of how we determine whether or not a particular person was in fact “Jesus”.
Aquinas and Ehrman both failed to recognize the need to DEFINE the thing that you want to talk about BEFORE attempting to prove that it exists. This is a basic mistake in logic.
Knut Tranoy raises a serious objection against the way Aquinas approaches the question “Does God exist?”:
To prove or to produce evidence that a certain being, x, exists, is, one might say, to prove that a certain set of compossible properties is actualized. That is, we cannot prove or know that x exists without at the same time knowing something about the nature or essence of x.
To prove the existence of God is, then, to show that the properties ascribed to the Christian God in the Bible are actualized in one and only one being.
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
Tranoy sums up the logical principle this way:
Before we can try to prove anything at all we must, of course, have some idea of the nature or properties of the being whose existence we want to prove.
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
In order to prove the existence of God, one must START with a definition of God, and this is commonly done by means of a list of key (or basic) divine attributes. For example, here is a list of basic divine attributes that I use to clarify the meaning of the word “God”:
- an eternally bodiless person
- an eternally omnipotent person
- an eternally omniscient person
- an eternally perfectly morally good person
- a person who is the creator of the universe
Ehrman never explains what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life of Jesus, but I suspect that the word “basic” here is leaning in the direction of “essential”. In other words, some aspects of the life of Jesus are very important and central from the point of view of Christian faith, and other aspects of the life of Jesus are less important and less central from the point of view of Christian faith. That Jesus was crucified by the Romans is a very important and cenral aspect of the life of Jesus from the point of view of the Christian faith. That means that the “basic aspect” of Jesus being crucified by the Romans is a good candidate for being an essential attribute of Jesus. In other words, this is an aspect or attribute that we could reasonably include in a DEFINITION of the meaning of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”
But lots of Jewish men were crucified by the Romans in first century Palestine, so these basic attributes would not be sufficient by themselves to define the word “Jesus”, since the point is not to locate a whole GROUP of Jewish men, but to identify exaclty ONE particular Jewish man. So, what we need, and what Ehrman failed to provide, is a clear definition of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and that definition, in order to be plausible and useful, will need to specify several basic aspects or attributes, just like my definition of “God” specifies several basic attributes of God, in order to clarify the question “Does God exist?”.
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the qeustion “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist.
I have some other serious objections to raise against Ehrman’s ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) for the existence of Jesus, but they will have to wait for another day.