Tim O’Neill & the Biblical History Skeptics on Mythicism (by Dr. Richard Carrier)

In April of this year the Biblical History Skeptics talked shop for three hours with Tim O’Neill (this Tim O’Neill) and I was invited to talk shop about that with Godless Engineer last month. The latter video has now gone live and you can watch it here. Following is a companion article reiterating and expanding on what we discuss in that video. So if you prefer starting with video discussions, you can go watch that, and come back here for the footnotes.

Introduction & Summary

Here I address the roughly half of that BHS video that criticized challenges to the historicity of Jesus, on which I completed a fan-funded postdoc research project and published the first peer reviewed book in nearly a hundred years (On the Historicity of Jesus), including an associated peer reviewed book on method (Proving History) and a collection of related peer reviewed journal articles (Hitler Homer Bible Christ). Godless Engineer and I will do a future video on the other half of theirs, which addressed questions in the history of science, the subject of my Columbia University dissertation—which I later adapted into two books (The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire and it’s more focused prequel Science Education in the Early Roman Empire).

In general, though, throughout this three hour video I found Tim O’Neill not to be the raging, lying, ad-hominem-spewing crank he usually is. Instead he is polite and reasonable throughout, and merely wrong a lot, in a totally ordinary way. Half the things he and his hosts, Chris H. and Bryan G., say are still incorrect (and I include them all together as O’Neill only rarely corrects their mistakes). But only from incompetence and amateurism, rather than dishonesty.

This interview also convinces me O’Neill is not a fake atheist or a crypto-Catholic as we have sometimes suspected. He’s definitely an atheist and a skeptic, and ultimately a sincere guy who just happens to be highly triggered by bullshit, and thus sees bullshit even where it isn’t. And I now think that’s what trips him up; that and his arrogance and bad temper, which when triggered can cause him to slip into lies and ad hominem—none of which you see in this video, because he’s among friends and thus never confronted with any of his mistakes. But mostly it appears O’Neill’s heart is in the right place: when he sees modern myths presented as facts by his fellow atheists, he rightly wants to call them out—but then too quickly buys into exactly the contrary myths. Which is very ironic, considering he actually points out the common folly of others doing that in this video. Yet he does that himself more than once in this very same video.

The first half hour of which is introductory and useful to get a sense of who O’Neill sees himself as and what he is doing. During which he admits he’s “not a scholar” but “an interested amateur” (Bryan and Chris do likewise in their YouTube channel’s About page). He makes several reasonable points about Catholic apologism and why atheists need to be criticized when they also get history wrong. I agree and have often taken on, for example, bad Jesus mythicism myself, as well as the same inaccurate claims this gang tackles in the history of science (though my conclusions differ).

Here I’ll list the mistakes they make in their video, that Godless Engineer and I discuss in our video, on the subject of mythicism—and also some of the things they get right. But you’ll notice a common theme: their reading of sources is often lazy and thus inaccurate (they clearly don’t read anything carefully, yet time and again arrogantly mock others for reading those same sources correctly, an embarrassing combination) and rather than settling on reality, which usually lies in a nuanced middle, time and again O’Neill leaps all the way from one incorrect position to exactly the opposite incorrect position. For example, as I’ll discuss in a future article, it is true Christians did not burn the library of Alexandria (and I’ve always said so); but neither did any of the other people he claims did, after making a total hash of his source materials. The same thing happens with his treatment of Jesus mythicism.

Preliminaries

Any of you who have ever read his articles and tweets on Jesus mythicism may be shocked to hear Tim O’Neill explicitly says in this video that he “would never say mythicism is out of the question,” that “it’s absolutely possible,” that he agrees it’s “not a ridiculous idea,” and that he merely thinks it’s not “the best idea.” This is a stark example of how he comes across as reasonable in this video in direct contrast to the irrational vitriol you find him spewing everywhere else.

Any of you who know how to read a price point on Amazon may also be shocked to hear my book on the historicity of Jesus can only be procured for the outrageously high price of “eighty dollars.” They go on about this for a couple of minutes. Which is weird. Because it’s totally false. And it’s hard to fathom how they made this mistake. But it is presciently illustrative of their sloppy incompetence throughout this video, exemplifying their inability to even take the time to correctly read a price list on Amazon or anywhere else Historicity of Jesus is sold.

For those anchored to reality, you’ll find my book On the Historicity of Jesus (hereafter OHJ) has always been available for $35 or less in paperback, $26 or less on kindle, and $15 or less for the format Bryan even said he preferred: audible. The latter even read by me—which was quite a feat, representing over thirty hours in a professional recording studio, which my audio publisher, Pitchstone, fully funded, and for which I wasn’t paid (I only get a royalty per unit sale). I even wrote a letter to my publisher making a social justice argument that my book be simultaneously released in the more affordable paperback edition, contrary to the usual practice of academic publishers.

I point this out because this seemingly trivial error is actually a paradigmatic example of how these guys get everything else wrong. They get basic obvious facts wrong (like, what my book costs) and then also get totally wrong the phenomenon they actually mean to criticize (the overpricing of academic monographs). They thus end up mocking the wrong target, and thus end up looking ignorant rather than savvy. When just working a little harder, just a little, they’d have avoided both mistakes.

real example of what they meant to criticize is how Brill only released Raphael Lataster’s new peer reviewed book on historicity in hardback at the far more inaccessible price of $210; which is not at all unusual for academic monographs today. The scholars writing books for academic presses rarely have any say or control over that, so it’s ignorant of these guys to criticize the scholars for that; it’s an abuse committed by publishers, publishers our present system essentially forces scholars to publish with to get peer reviewed. I have often publicly condemned this trend—by correctly targeting the actual perps: academic publishers.

All of this is a reminder of a lesson all three need to learn: before resorting to criticism (much less ridicule), make sure you actually know what you are talking about.

Agreements

But first, where we agree. They say many things I’ve even said myself. For example, I wrote a whole article making their same point that using Jesus mythicism to combat Christianity is not a valid strategy: see Fincke Is Right: Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be a Strategy. That Jesus didn’t exist is far less certain a conclusion than that he didn’t rise from the dead. So you should be arguing the latter, being on much stronger ground there, with less to defend to reach the conclusion. That’s why in every debate I’ve done on the resurrection of Jesus, I’ve always stipulated Jesus existed as a working assumption. Likewise any other claim in Christian theology or doctrine: you can far more easily and far more effectively take these down without arguing Jesus didn’t exist.

I also agree with O’Neill’s psychological analysis of most (particularly amateur) mythicists: their justified sense of betrayal and anger after realizing the religion they’d been sold is a lie makes them more prone to believe mythicism, to add “the lie of historicity” to their list of grievances. After all, they rightly don’t trust anything or anyone anymore in connection with Christianity. But then O’Neill falls into the fallacy fallacy: just because someone reaches a conclusion fallaciously does not mean the conclusion is false. There are atheists who are atheists for fallacious reasons; that doesn’t mean there is no valid case for atheism. Ditto mythicism. As I discovered to my own surprise, having for years been hostile to mythicists myself—until I did a thorough fact-check and found that even after getting rid of all the bad and misinformed arguments for mythicism (and there are a great many of those!), what remains is still a reasonably strong case. I didn’t expect that.

And O’Neill and I agree on many of those bad or misinformed arguments. When all three go into attacking Atwill, they are singing my own tune. I likewise don’t buy the more exotic arguments of Robert Price, such as that all the letters of Paul are second century forgeries (that’s fairly unlikely). When shortly after the start of the second hour O’Neill goes into “false parallels” drawn by amateurs and cranks between Jesus and other gods, I agree with all his examples; and with how he explains Jesus’s virgin birth legend as an amalgam of pagan and Jewish ideas. There are valid parallels to be found, more than O’Neill seems to recognize, but not as many nor of the same kind nor of the same purpose or significance as many amateur mythicists have claimed. (See my more recent articles on Dying and Rising Gods and Virgin Births.)

When O’Neill says debates aren’t a great way to advance discussion, I have often made exactly the same point. O’Neill and I agree on how Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire and subsequently the Western world (e.g. see Chapter 18 in my book Not the Impossible Faith). O’Neill concurs with me that we should not be reading the Gospels as literal, documentary accounts, but as symbolic myths, whose details are selected to sell ideas, not history. (We only disagree on just how much actual history we can be confident they used to do that with.) And I agree with his skepticism of the claim that Nazareth didn’t exist when Jesus would supposedly have been born there. Its existence isn’t even relevant (see OHJ, index, “Nazareth”). But there isn’t any good evidence it wasn’t there either.

But then they get lots wrong…

Seeds of David

O’Neill and gang like to make fun of the idea that the earliest Christians may have thought Jesus’s mortal body was literally manufactured directly from David’s sperm (as prophecy had to be taken to say to evade being falsified by history) simply because they think it’s weird. But in so doing they only illustrate how out of touch they are with what was considered weird in antiquity. The cosmic sperm hypothesis is actually ordinary in the context of the kinds of beliefs people then held. They also thus demonstrate their lazy incompetence in reading even the scholarship they intend to critique by never noticing what I’ve repeatedly said on the point: that mythicism does not require the cosmic sperm hypothesis. So they don’t listen to why it’s plausible; and they don’t listen to why it’s not even a necessary hypothesis. (See The Cosmic Seed of David and, for related treatment, Yes, Galatians 4 Is Allegory.)

As I note in OHJ, Irenaeus documented many far weirder beliefs about Jesus’s cosmic birth, and Jewish lore already had precedents for it. But I should have also mentioned as precedent the Babylonian Talmud, Niddah folio 16, where we are told an angel takes up every “drop” of semen to heaven “and places it in the presence of the Holy One” and asks, “Sovereign of the universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?”

If Jews could so readily come up with this bizarre idea, then the idea that God could store one of those drops from David that the angel would thus have delivered for inspection—all to effect His secret plan to defeat Satan and fulfill an otherwise failed prophecy—cannot even be called strange. It’s no weirder than the “fact” that Paul relates without blush that God “stores” our future resurrection bodies for us up in heaven (in 2 Corinthians 5) or that God manufactured Eve’s body from Adam’s rib. Likewise, Zoroastrianism, which originated the entire idea of an eschatological messiah subsequently taken up by Judaism, embraced essentially very same belief: that the messiah would be born from the sperm of the ancient Zoroaster stored for thousands of years in a sacred lake.

But Paul could just as easily have meant Jesus came from the seed of David in whatever nonliteral, allegorical way he believed Gentiles came from the seed of Abraham. And either way, even the Gospels make clear that Jesus did not come from the “Seed of David” the usual way—they explicitly make clear Joseph never imparts that seed to Mary, yet both Matthew and Luke make explicitly clear their genealogy through David is only of Joseph (not Mary, contrary to Christian apologists who hope you don’t know how to read). They thus both depict God manufacturing Jesus’s body in Mary’s womb. What seed then did he use? And how did it derive from the belly of David? Whatever answer you give for them, would then apply to Paul. Either way, you don’t get “Jesus was a descendant of David.” And thus you can’t get to historicity this way.

You can’t legitimately mock an idea if you ignore every fact that renders it plausible. And yet this is how they operate throughout the video: leaving out everyhing that makes an argument plausible or sound, and then make fun of it for lacking anything making it plausible or sound. You just aren’t going to learn the truth through this method. You’re better off ignoring their ignorant pronouncements and just reading OHJ or whatever is my most recent article on the point. Judge for yourself—with all the facts.

Mettinger on Marduk

A good illustration of all these same mistakes, born again of lazy reading, is how they completely bungle what I and Tryggve Mettinger said about the status of Marduk as a dying-and-rising God. It starts with a false assertion about the content of my book. First they correctly state that I survey the mytheme of “dying and rising gods” in “Element 31” on page 168 of OHJ and there say I will reference it again later; then they incorrectly state that despite saying that, I never do—claiming I then make no use of it. That’s false. I reference it quite prominently and significantly on pages 212 and 611 of OHJ. Did I say lazy? A simple search of the very affordable kindle edition could have corrected them and prevented their embarrassing mistake. For example.

They then falsely claim that Mettinger denied Marduk was a dying and rising god. That’s false. To the contrary, he argues in various of his writings that Marduk is often coterminous with Ba’al (or Baal), and then goes on to demonstrate Baal was indeed a dying and rising god, contrary to mistaken interpretations by earlier twentieth-century scholars. Which leads us to two really funny things about their video rant over this: (1) they cite the page number in my book where I discuss this, but somehow completely failed to notice what I plainly write there, “Marduk (also known as Bel or Baal, which basically meant ‘the Lord’)”; and (2) they later go on to admit that the evidence for Baal being a dying and rising god is actually pretty good (Mettinger, they say, is “more correct than Mark S. Smith” on this, timestamp 2:16).

So in their lazy ignorance, they simultaneously make fun of me for defending a thesis that they later admit is sound! Not only do they actually agree with what I say about Marduk, aka Baal, but they agree Mettinger refuted Smith’s previous misinterpretation of the Baal myth and thus updated and corrected previous scholarship on this point, exactly as I say in OHJ. Wow. Own goal, guys.

This typifies their criticism of my book: they don’t even read it, screw everything up about it, get key facts wrong, and make fun of me for being the incompetent one, when I’m the only one who handled this material competently. For example, they try to claim I cited scholars arguing for this conclusion about Baal who actually argues against it, depicting this as some sort of mistake. It’s not. Because it’s not what I did. Because they don’t read. I only cite Mark Smith (and Frymer-Kensky) to indicate the now-obsolete works Mettinger refuted, which nevertheless still contain the very evidence that proves Mettinger’s point. My footnote on this, the very footnote this gang is going on about, literally begins: “Previous attempts to deny that these were dying-and-rising gods have been thoroughly refuted by Tryggve Mettinger,” followed by my citation of Mettinger. I then list the previous scholarship he refuted. Why are they complaining about this? Because they didn’t read the note and thus get completely wrong what it said and who it is citing for what.

They also don’t discuss the evidence, by the way. For any dying and rising god claim. They just arbitrarily side with outdated scholars, the very ones they later admit are obsolete and incorrect, rather than with the most recent and up-to-date scholarship. Which is the exact opposite of how one usually should employ scholarship. If you wish to insist that the latest scholarship has not superseded the old, you need to explain why. You need to actually mention and address the evidence. Really. That’s Competence 101.

Eliade on Zalmoxis

They do this again with my treatment of Zalmoxis. They ignore all the actual evidence. Then claim I didn’t read one of my cited sources, Mircea Eliade, on the status of Zalmoxis as a dying and rising God. But in so doing they only demonstrate it’s the other way around: they didn’t read Eliade carefully, but so lazily as to incompetently misread what he said.

Here is what Eliade says about Zalmoxis in the work I cite: “the ‘revelation’ that he [Zalmoxis] brings to the Getae is communicated through a well-known mythic-ritual scenario of “death” (occultation) and “return to earth” (epiphany),” and features in Zalmoxis’s case “the return of Zalmoxis in the flesh.” Eliade then compares this story with that of Aristeas, another person who died, visited the afterlife, and came back to life to tell of it. Eliade says “Zalmoxis’ disappearance, his ‘death’, is equivalent to a descensus ad inferos as a means of initiation,” which he accomplished so that “by imitating the divine model, the neophyte undergoes a ritual ‘death’ precisely in order to obtain the non-death, the ‘immortality’ which the sources emphasize.”

Note the key word here: equivalent to. Eliade does not say this was a katabasis (what the words descensus ad inferos means: a descent to the underworld without dying, the most famous exemplar being Odysseus). Eliade says the death and resurrection of Zalmoxis performed the same function as a katabasis. And Eliade goes on to show the pattern extends across many examples of resurrections and descent stories. He is explaining that the commonality extends to both. He is not saying they are therefore literally identical. Death and resurrection is one way to accomplish a visit to the dead. Nowhere does Eliade say that Zalmoxis “really” just descended to the underworld alive. He instead simply accepts what we’re told: that the Getae believed Zalmoxis had died and risen from the dead.

Not only is this surely what they believed because that’s what Herodotus reports they believed, but also because the only version of the story in which Zalmoxis doesn’t die is the one Greeks made up to mock the Getae as dupes for believing Zalmozis died—and to mock the Getae, they borrow a story from their own legends about Pythagoras. And in that version, their polemical mockery of Getan belief, Zalmoxis does not descend to hades at all: there is no katabasis. In fact we have no account of Zalmoxis that involves a katabasis. None. Not from the Greeks. Not from the Getae. To the contrary, the only way the Greeks could accuse Zalmoxis of faking his death by hiding in a cave is if the Getae’s actual belief was that he died. Exactly as Herodotus said it was. And Eliade says nothing to the contrary. (See my whole section on Zalmoxis in Chapter 3 of Not the Impossible Faith, where I show Christian apologists making the exact same mistakes as these atheists just did.)

Rather than reading the actual sources carefully, and actually reading Eliade’s statements carefully and in the context of his whole thesis, they instead try to “reinterpret” Eliade’s use of scare quotes around “death” to somehow try and deduce that he was claiming Zalmoxis wasn’t believed to have died. But that is clearly not what Eliade anywhere says. Those scare quotes are used solely to carry Eliade’s point that his thesis was of a universal trope that includes both actual deaths and descents alive. He is not questioning that the Getae believed in the death of Zalmoxis. He is highlighting its ritual universal meaning in the context of different ways of visiting the land of the dead. Indeed he links them all by connecting this trope to a universal shamanic system of beliefs in which the soul leaves the body to visit the land of the dead, which as Eliade himself says, is pretty much what it means to actually die.

As Eliade says: “Zalmoxis was compared to Cronus or to certain specialists in ecstasy (ecstasy being considered a temporary death, for the soul was believed to leave the body).” This is what Eliade is saying the Getae taught about Zalmoxis: he died; then rose back to life; then taught his followers how this could obtain immortality for themselves. That’s what a dying and rising savior god is. By definition. A story everyone knew who learned Greek to the level exhibited by Paul and the authors of the Gospels, because Herodotus was a standard school text at that level.

At 2:15 O’Neill tries to criticize comparing Jesus to Osiris by relating all the differences in their stories, such as how they died and how they rose, but those differences are irrelevant. They both die and rise from the dead. And thereby become personal saviors that people baptize themselves into to receive eternal life, or take communion to the same end, or both. There is no possible way to claim this is just a meaningless coincidence. Particularly as this trope extends across numerous other ethnic mystery cults, including that of Zalmoxis.

Risen Savior Cults

At timestamp 2:17 they falsely claim there is no evidence of beliefs in dying and rising gods still extant in the Roman Empire. Thus demonstrating they didn’t read OHJ, where I extensively show this is false with regard to Romulus and Adonis and Asclepius and Hercules and Osiris and Dionysius, for all of whom I cite Imperial sources (including sometimes even pre-Christian sources). Cicero. Plutarch. Lucian. Origen. And more. All make very clear these were still going beliefs, and widely known.

Moreover, we actually don’t know the Zalmoxis cult that Herodotus recorded wasn’t also still going, or that the Baal or Hercules-Melqart or Inanna-Adonis cults that were still practiced in Syria and Tyre, for example, didn’t still include the death-and-resurrection element that had always been central to them before. So in another sign of their incompetence, they conflate our having no sources on what these cults were teaching with evidence they weren’t teaching certain things. That’s not valid reasoning. The latter cults were still salvation cults and still practiced and popular. So might also have been Zalmoxis cult. We cannot say what they weren’t teaching; and it’s not plausible that they’d have abandoned this popular element of it. So their reasoning isn’t even sound in these cases; while their premise is completely false in the others, for which we do have sources testifying to their resurrection aspects still going strong in the Roman Empire.

Consider the case of Baal, that god this gang even admitted might indeed have been a dying and rising God as Mettinger correctingly demonstrated. Baal had been adapted into the central figure in the Roman-era mystery cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, about which we have no texts—so we cannot say what they “weren’t” teaching about Baal. Whereas being a salvation cult built on a legendary dying and rising god, it seems strange to suggest they would have jettisoned the idea. In Not the Impossible Faith (which I cite in OHJ) I show how the theme of resurrection was actually rising so much in popularity in the early Roman Empire that it was even being made fun of, such as in plays where pet dogs rise from the dead, or Petronius’s Satyricon where the hero goes on a sacred quest for the resurrection of his penis. If something is so ubiquitous people are even making fun of it, you can’t be arguing it wasn’t culturally influential.

To be fair, it’s Chris and Bryan who screw this one up the most. O’Neill sort of corrects them at one moment, by admitting the dying-and-rising-god trope did exist and did influence Christianity somehow, but he doesn’t explain further, merely saying there is a difference between “influence and derivation,” although it’s not clear what he thinks that difference is, and he never says. But like he himself said for the virgin birth mytheme, where the Christian idea was a syncretism of pagan and Jewish beliefs about miraculous births of heroes, O’Neill should realize it’s the same for the resurrection of Jesus: as the particularization of a mytheme, it is produced by a syncretism of pagan and Jewish beliefs about resurrection and its relationship to salvation. Indeed, so popular was this juxtaposition all around them, it’s more amazing it took so long for the Jews to come up with one of their own.

Getting Syncretism Wrong

Around this point they totally botch the idea of syncretism. They falsely claim that when syncretism occurs (when a dominating and a local religious tradition are combined to form a new religion) there are always “leftovers,” random flotsam and jetsam retained for no particular reason. No. That does not happen. And that they think it does shows they have not studied this phenomenon at all.

Syncretism always transforms what it borrows, and creates an amalgam, in which only what is wanted is kept. The example they give to the contrary only illustrates their ignorance; for it’s of a completely different phenomenon: the beast Leviathan being in the Bible is not a product of syncretism. It’s a fossil. Yahweh isn’t a syncretism with Baal. Yahweh is an evolution of Baal. Baal simply means Lord. It was a generic name for God among all the Canaanite tribes. Yahweh is simply the local name of the local Baal of one of the tribes of the Canaanites. The Jews were not syncretizing some other native religion of their own with Canaanite religion. The Jews actually were Canaanites. They then wrote stories claiming to be from somewhere else to justify their genocide of neighboring Canaanite tribes. Yahweh keeps many of the features of Baal and his lore because Yahweh was Baal. He was not “merged” with Baal. So this gang doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the evolution of a local religion, and actual syncretism between a local and another, usually dominating society’s religion.

For a correct example of syncretism, you should look at how Judaism was transformed by exposure to Zoroastrianism: before it had no end-times apocalypticism, no Satan as the enemy of God, no resurrection (at all much less at the end of days), and no flaming hell where sinners are tormented after death, nor even much of any idea of the dead living in heaven. The original Jewish belief was of the dead remaining forever asleep, their souls only capable of awakening by witches; and only the rarest of heroes got to live in heaven, and not by dying, but by being taken up while still alive (like Elijah and Enoch and in some legends Moses). But after becoming subject to the Persians, Judaism adopted all those things from Persian Zoroastrianism, after modifying them to suit Jewish ideas and sensibilities and contexts. There are no “leftovers.” There is only what they borrowed, and how they changed it by merging it with their local ideas.

In a similar misunderstanding, O’Neill says (around timestamp 2:19) that the Gospels share no narrative elements with other dying-and-rising tales. That’s been thoroughly refuted under peer review by Richard Miller, and others. See OHJ, “Element 47,” for example (in Chapter 5). The most similar storyline is of Romulus, for whom there were still publicly enacted passion plays, which Mark 15-16 tracks aspects of in outline. Mark simply combines this with emulations of the legend of Jesus ben Ananias and scriptural and Judaic material. But you can’t say the similarities with Romulus and other pagan translation stories are just a coincidence. Again, they borrow what they like, change and add what they want, and leave out what they don’t. Thus explaining why there are no dildos and dismemberments and other borrowed ideas from Osiris myth, for example: those narrative details were the least palatable to Christians when Mark wrote. They had no use for them.

But that of course all relates to Mark’s construction of a myth. And this is where they also get confused quite a lot, mistaking the original sect’s beliefs with what legends got spun out for it a lifetime later in the Gospels. These narrative details in Mark did not likely exist in Christianity before his creative application. Christianity began, as we can plainly see in Paul, with a much more esoteric and mystical dying and rising savior myth. It had more in common with the cosmic myths of Osiris, which were advocated by a priesthood whom Plutarch tells us also derided the vulgar myths about dildos and dismemberments as convenient falsehoods.

Understanding what the Gospel authors are doing with analogous myths in the constructing of their own requires reading what I actually say about this in OHJ (particularly Chapter 10). These guys didn’t. Because they are too lazy to develop anything like a competent critique. Likewise understanding how the general tropes of mystery religion surrounding Judaism at the time influenced their construction of a mystery religion of their own—a process not the same as what’s going on in the Gospels—requires actually reading what I separately say about that (particularly in Chapter 4). Again, these guys just didn’t. So they have no relevant critique to offer.

Euhemerization

They not only get Syncretism wrong, they get Euhemerization wrong. You can see my two articles on that, for a complete discussion. But here, for example, they get wrong the story arc for the myths of Baal. They incorrectly start with the earthly myths of Baal as a historical king, when in fact Baal was originally a sky god—a celestial—not someone who did things on earth. The latter was a later invention, placing the originally celestial Baal into human history as a historical agent and weaving stories about him with mytho-symbolic content—the usual first stage of euhemerization.

Baal did also get euhemerized further—and today we would instead say rationalized—into a regular king about whom, it was then claimed, those legends then arose. If that had actually happened it would be called deification, not euhemerization; it’s only euhemerization when that isn’t what actually happened. Euhemerization is the opposite of deification, by representing a historicized mythical God as a king deified, when in truth no such person ever existed to be deified. He began a sky god. Placing him on earth came later. That’s ancient euhemerism.

Mythicists point out it appears that Jesus followed the same arc: he starts out as a celestial revelatory being in Paul, gets euhemerized into a mytho-symbolic historical actor in the Gospels (just as happened to Baal; and likewise Osiris, etc.), and then later gets rationalized into a regular guy about whom those legends arose. That’s what we’ve been doing to Jesus ourselves since the 19th century. But there is no actual evidence that “rationalized Jesus” ever existed, any more than “rationalized Baal” or “rationalized Osiris.” Our earliest evidence places these figures in outer space, celestials, known only by revelation. Likewise our earliest evidence placing Jesus on earth does so in exactly the same way Baal originally was: as a mytho-symbolic supernatural hero who ascends to celestial glory.

And here it becomes clear these guys rely too much on an argument from ignorance that is a particular folly when you aren’t studied enough in the context to have a reliable intuition in the matter.

O’Neill asks, for example, why Jesus is characterized as an apocalyptic prophet if he has been euhemerized. The answer is the same as for everyone else euhemerized: Osiris gets euhemerized as a Pharaoh; Romulus as a Roman aristocrat; Hercules as an itinerant warrior. Mythologers choose the model that most resonates with their religion and message. Christianity was from the beginning an apocalyptic cult preaching that Jesus had revealed to them from on high that the end was nigh and that his resurrection was the “firstfruits” of the general resurrection at the end of days.

So obviously when they euhemerize Jesus, that’s going to be the model they would use: not a warrior (that was exactly the opposite message the Christians wanted to send), not as an aristocrat much less a ruler from the privileged class (that was also exactly the opposite message the Christians wanted to send), but as a Prophet of Old, on the model of Moses and Elijah, whom the Gospels directly model Jesus after. And the closest analog in their own day were the apocalyptic prophets. And so that is what Jesus became. When they wanted to modernize their scriptural heroes, that was the analog that made the most sense, that would carry the most resonance with their intended audience and their messaging.

Similarly, O’Neill also asks why Jesus is in Galilee. He evidently doesn’t know scripture required him to be. Or that such a location was remarkably convenient for Mark’s messaging. As I show in my article on Mark’s Use of Paul’s Epistles, the very passage of Isaiah, Isaiah 9, that predicts the messiah will come out of Galilee calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles,” perfectly suiting Mark’s repeated messaging that the Gentiles will be saved along with the Jews (see Chapter 10.4 in OHJ). Thus Galilee allows Mark to have Jesus interact as often with Gentiles as with Jews and still be solidly in the Holy Land and in agreement with scripture. It also gives him a body of water in the middle of it all to emulate the miracles of Moses in.

Notably, Paul never shows any knowledge that Jesus ever had any connection with Galilee. That idea first appears with Mark. And the other Gospel authors entirely get it from him. There is no other source for it. So it’s actually one of the least credible facts claimed about Jesus.

Is Anything in the Gospels True?

O’Neill gets a little muddled on the point but if you follow him all the way through he does outline correct options for explaining the content of the Gospels, rightly criticizing the black and white fallacy of saying there are only two possibilities: it’s all fictional or it’s all true (I don’t actually know any atheist who says that, but still, if any do, they’re wrong). It could instead be that some of it is true. There is also, however, a fourth possibility O’Neill completely neglects: that we don’t know. 

It might be all false. That’s different from saying it is all false. Its being all false is compatible with all the evidence we have, far more than O’Neill seems to realize (he shows no sign of having read Chapter 10 of OHJ or Chapter 5 of Proving History). And we all agree it’s unlikely to be “all true,” as that requires latching onto a barrel full of absurd improbabilities, as O’Neill himself points out. So the question is: Can we know if anything in the Gospels is true? That the answer is “no” is not the same thing as saying “we can be certain it’s all false.” And I think O’Neill is confusing the two; yet we are saying the former, not the latter. Most of us are simply saying “we can’t discern whether anything in the Gospels is true, therefore we can’t use them as evidence for the historicity of Jesus, even if anything in them happens to be true.”

O’Neill does sing many a standard tune, such as that there are a number of things in the Gospels that evince historicity, because each such supposed thing “only really makes sense if it did happen.” He immediately uses the example of the baptism of Jesus by John—and gets everything wrong about how Mark constructed that story. Which is ironic because O’Neill just correctly discerned how the Barabbas narrative is obvious rhetoric. He doesn’t seem to know why the John the Baptist story is, too. And this is the thing: for every example one might cite, when you correctly examine what’s actually in these stories and how they are placed, they all fall apart as obvious rhetoric and theological devices. There is nothing left over. And that’s why we can’t use the Gospels as evidence of anything.

In my book Proving History I have a whole section on this (index, “John the Baptist”). And for that I found and cite numerous peer reviewed treatments of the John the Baptist scene that plainly point out that Mark has obviously invented it to suit his purposes—contrary to those who don’t notice this and thus mistakenly think it goes against Mark’s interests. It doesn’t. It’s an etiological myth, a category of myths that explain the origins and meaning of rituals—in this case baptism, in which Mark has the famous John “the Baptist” declare Jesus his superior and successor. Which is not a statement against interest; it’s exactly what Mark would want to invent.

Mark then uses John as a deus ex machina by which Jesus can go through a baptism and thereby represent for Mark’s readers what a baptism is—which is an adoption by God to become a Son of God (making this Mark’s birth narrative for Jesus), and an anointing of the messiah, and at the same time a symbolic death and resurrection. Which is why Mark has Jesus begin his story with a symbolic death and resurrection, and end his story with an actual death and resurrection, so readers would get the point what a baptism is: what Jesus went through, so shall you. There are many elements borrowed and reversed between the two stories as I show in OHJ. There is nothing here Mark wouldn’t readily invent. So we can’t know that any of it is true.

Even that this event takes place in the Jordan: Josephus makes no mention of John ever baptizing in the Jordan. No other source does. It appears to be a Markan invention. Mark is reversing the “Moses in the wilderness” narrative, where the Jews went through temptations in the desert and failed, then crossed the Jordan into the holy land. In both cases by “Jesus” miraculously parting the Jordan: Joshua, remember, is the same name. Mark has Jesus “part the Jordan” symbolically through baptism. He even retains the literal reference to a “parting” with the parting of “the heavens” that Mark adds to the story. The Jesus story then reverses the Joshua story: Jesus leaves the Holy Land to reenter the desert and be tempted and this time succeed, thus reversing and thereby undoing the failure of the Israelites of old. As several peer reviewed scholars have noted, the specific temptations are even paralleled; and like the Israelites, Jesus is miraculously fed in the desert. This is as obviously myth as the Barabbas narrative. 

O’Neill correctly explains why later Gospels wanted to change Mark’s story; but none of those reasons make Mark’s story any more likely to be historical. Later authors are simply trying to explain or improve on Mark, or rewriting Mark to match newly evolved beliefs. That only tells us that Mark’s version was getting play, so they needed to address it, to “fix” it. As they do with everything else in Mark. That does not mean any such story ever preceded Mark. And we have no evidence at all that it did. And what we have no evidence of, we ought not assert as known.

Similarly, around timestamp 2:35 O’Neill claims we have a more human Jesus in Mark and a more divine Jesus in John and that this is the opposite of what we should expect on mythicism. But that’s incorrect. Jesus in Mark never behaves like a human: even when he isn’t doing works of wonder, he is acting very strangely compared to any real person; moreover, he is a supernatural being from the very start, parting the very heavens, defeating the Devil, and he continues as such in every subsequent chapter. If you count up incredible events, and divide by number of words, there actually is no greater miraculism in any other Gospel. The rate of the amazing per thousand words is the same, or as near enough as makes no statistically significant difference. 

What does change is that Mark never says he is writing true stories, and he even implies in Mark 4:9-13 that he is not. Matthew then sort of implies he is writing up a record of events, but only very weakly, by adding references to the events he relates fulfilling prophecy. Then Luke is the first author to actually claim to be writing history, and to structure his narrative to resemble a history. But he’s still cagey as to whether he means that literally or not. John is then the first author to ever say that his stories are literally true and that he is telling those stories so you’ll believe that they actually happened.

Contrary to O’Neill, this sequence among the Gospels is the exact opposite of what we’d expect on historicity. We should expect to start with more mundane recollections and memoirs, more historical accounts, and move over time to increasingly mythical, legendary, and allegorical accounts. Instead the first ever account to place Jesus in earth history is completely mytho-allegorical all the way through. And never says it’s otherwise. That’s weird. And that’s why we doubt any of it’s true.

The Nazareth Question

The same goes for the idea of Jesus hailing from Nazareth. That actually isn’t evidence it’s true. Because that was predicted in scripture every bit as much as an origin at Bethlehem was. The first author to try and make both prophecies fit together is the very author who tells us both origins came from scripture: Matthew. The passage he refers to is either now lost or has become altered, as we know happened a lot (see “Element 9” in Ch. 4 of OHJ). So it is not the case that the only place the idea could come from is Jesus really hailing from there.

It also wasn’t originally “Jesus of Nazareth.” The actual word was Nazorian in Greek, which doesn’t mean a person from Nazareth. The Christians themselves were called the Nazorians, as Luke reveals in Acts, yet they didn’t come from Nazareth either. It clearly meant something else. The original meaning is now lost, though various scholars have proposed different possibilities (I discuss all this in Proving History, and a little more in OHJ; see in each, index, “Nazareth”). Mark appears to have simply picked the closest sounding town to that epithet in Galilee, and thus chose that town to base Jesus in. We have, again, no evidence anyone ever associated Jesus with Nazareth before Mark did. And what we have no evidence of, we ought not assert as known.

Notice I actually agree with O’Neill that we can’t say Mark’s single verse mentioning Nazareth is an interpolation. Unless we have independent evidence making that likely, its probability remains the base rate of interpolation, which is at best 1 in 200 and at worst 1 in 1000. So any theory that requires that verse to be an interpolation is not likely to be a probable theory. We simply don’t need this conjecture. Matthew already tells us it was derived from scripture, and he couldn’t get away with saying that if it wasn’t true; likewise the label attributed to Jesus already clearly doesn’t match the town, thus linking it to that town was evidently an afterthought.

The same goes for the theory that Nazareth “didn’t exist.” Here they all rightly criticize that idea’s most fanatical proponent, that piano teacher, Rene Salm. I share the same opinion they do. His crank theory that Nazareth didn’t exist in the early first century is simply not tenable on present evidence. We might not be able to establish with certainty Nazareth did exist then, but we have enough evidence to grant that odds. So no argument that requires Nazareth not to exist can carry much probability either.

However, to be fair, they were not being wholly judicious in their reasoning here. One of them says he contacted the excavators of a farm house near modern-day Nazareth, but it does not seem to occur to him (or any of the others) that that is not evidence Nazareth existed. Farm houses were everywhere. They don’t have signs on them that say “this house is within the town limits of Nazareth.” They have no labels on them at all. And that farm house wasn’t even in what we now call Nazareth. 

So they’re being a little gullible here. And I say that, let me remind you, as someone who doesn’t buy the argument that Nazareth didn’t exist. But we have to be fair to the evidence: we don’t really have all that good archaeology for Nazareth; we can’t even establish that the town currently called Nazareth, is the one anciently called so. But there are reasons why this is that don’t permit the likes of Salm to jump to the conclusion that there was no Nazareth at all. 

Frankly, one of the best evidences for Nazareth is the inscription listing where Jewish priests were taken in after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., because among the towns listed is indeed Nazareth. There is no way a town could be developed enough to take in priests in the year 70 that hadn’t been around for at least a century. Salm has had this pointed out to him, and he promptly invented conspiracy theories about that inscription being forged. You just can’t win with nutters like that. So I’m totally on the same page with O’Neill there. The error is to conflate the likes of him, with me.

Conclusion

In the end, it’s clear Tim, Chris, and Bryan have some lessons to learn. They need to actually read the things they intend to critique, they need to actually read their own sources more carefully, and they need to get more informed about what they are speaking on. And above all, they need to learn how to be their own best critics, so as to catch and thus avoid the kinds of errors and fallacies they keep relying on. These are lessons nearly every critic needs to learn.

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